The clergy sex abuse and cover-up stories have created a linguistic challenge for faithful Catholics. Over 80 percent of these clergy abuse cases involve predatory sexual activity between adult men and younger men in less powerful positions. Some Catholic commentators refer to these cases as “gay” to distinguish them from “pedophilia.” Their intention is sound: the “pedophilia” label has frequently been a way to deflect attention away from abusive homosexual conduct. I, however, maintain that we should avoid the word “gay,” and even the word “homosexual.” Former Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bombshell revelations about sexual abuse and the network of cover-ups raises the stakes. We really must get the terminology right.
Daniel Mattson wrote an important book, “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay.” He outlines the philosophical, theological, and pastoral problems with the “gay” label. I add to Mattson’ arguments an additional consideration. “Gay” is a losing term for us.
At this moment in history, the word “gay” is loaded with positive associations. The word “gay” means young, fashionable, intelligent, and witty. “Gay” might also mean a weak, victimized, innocent waif, so psychologically vulnerable he might commit suicide. This perception is so prevalent that health care professionals are not supposed to even mention the health risks of “gay sex.”
Speaking of “gay sex,” what exactly do gay men do together? The images we have been presented suggest that all they do is hold hands, cuddle, and kiss. We never imagine “gay sex” to include rectal bleeding or intense pain or rectal incontinence or adult diapers.
In this respect, the “gay” image resembles the other sanitized images created around the Sexual Revolution. No-fault divorce involves two sensible mature people mutually deciding to “move on.” Children of divorce always “get over it.” No woman ever regrets her abortion. And so on.
All these claims are false.
When today’s mainstream journalists hear the word “gay,” they might picture a confused but basically innocent teenager. They might picture this teenager being bullied by classmates or scolded by adults. These benign associations with the word “gay” have been carefully crafted over decades. In fact, this is one place where the word “gay” properly applies. We can accurately describe the people who created these images, as the Gay Marketing Men.
I believe this explains the reluctance of many in the media to address the clergy sex abuse story as forcefully as a story about men preying on women victims. The terms “predator” or “domination” or “exploitation” do not register in connection with “gay.” In the average journalist’s minds, these words are associated with “toxic masculinity” or “conservative Christian.”
Catholic friends, we are not going to be able to dislodge these slanted images, no matter how loudly we yell about it. The protective moat around “gay” is too wide and deep. The Gay Marketing Men have spent millions of dollars and countless hours fashioning this picture and securing it firmly in the public mind.
Some Catholic commentators use the word “homosexual” in an effort to sidestep the term “gay.” I don’t think this strategy avoids the problem. Historically, the term “homosexual” was invented in the nineteenth century to “medicalize” what had previously been considered a moral or behavioral issue. Medicalizing behavior doesn’t help our cause. Besides, the word “homosexual” without qualifiers doesn’t buy us much help from the general public. It just makes us look out of date, like people who still use the word “Negro.”
Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? Certainly not. I propose a different approach that gives us a better chance of success.
Instead of the word “gay,” use the most descriptively accurate phrase possible in the context of what you are trying to say. Instead of “gay sex scandal,” try this: “male on male sexual predation.” Sometimes, the most appropriate strategy is to use a long, clunky, but highly descriptive phrase like, “a powerful man with deep-seated attractions to males used his position of power to exploit younger men under his authority.” No one could conceivably confuse this word-picture with the teenaged boy who may have feelings he doesn’t understand.
In some cases, “pederasty” could be a good term to use. The Gay Marketing Men have not sanitized this term, and “pederasty” is distinct from pedophilia. (A “pederast” is a man who wants and has sex with adolescent boys. I had to look it up.)
The term “same-sex attraction” proposed by members of Courage, is a particular instance of the general policy I am suggesting. Dan Mattson and David Prosen and others argue that the gay identity is an inaccurate, self-limiting description. These men reject the term “gay” to eliminate a ton of philosophical and theological baggage.
The current torrent of embarrassing sex scandals is actually providential for the long-run health of the Body of Christ. We have the chance to offer authentic Catholic witness of authentic Catholic teaching to a desperate world. To succeed, though, we must be careful with our language. We can’t say or imply, “All gay men are predators,” because it isn’t true. At the same time, we cannot let anyone else say or imply, “All gay men are innocent lambs,” because that is not true either. And we will need at least some help from journalists who don’t necessarily share all of our views.
We can restate Archbishop Viganò’s explosive revelations without ever using the words “gay” or even “homosexual.”
“Men who do not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church, nevertheless swore allegiance to the Church, and accepted positions of power, authority, wealth, and influence. They used those positions to indulge themselves sexually, to favor their friends, and to advance their careers. Among their preferred forms of sexual indulgence were the abuse of little boys, the seduction of teenaged-boys and the harassment of young adult male subordinates.”
No one will ever mistake this description for an appealing kid on a TV sitcom. No one would dream of saying these perpetrators were “born that way.”
When we use the word “gay,” we are doing battle on the field chosen by our opponents. By contrast, when we use other terms, we give our listeners a chance to think about what we are saying, without all the noise associated with the terms “gay” or “homosexual.”
“Gay” is a political word, a marketing word, a propaganda word. We don’t need to use it. So let’s quit using it.
(Photo credit: Vatican Media)