Section One: The Experience of a Gay and Lesbian People of God

The Voice of the Oppressed

Invoking God's name, Church officials have forbidden us to live as God made us. They have told us to feel shame and guilt for who we are and what we do as sexual beings. They have commanded us not to speak of the truth that we know. The validity of our experience is denied — the most subtle and damaging form of oppression.

Our experience of oppression began as children when we were denied models to which we could look as we struggled to grow and mature sexually. Some of us were betrayed and abused when we sought guidance. More often, we were simply told that what made us different was disgusting and forbidden. The only hope we were offered was that we would grow out of what we felt, or that marriage would cure us, or that God would heal us if we prayed with faith, or that God's grace would enable us to endure life without sex and without intimacy.

Fear and internalized homophobia had their effect. Some of us tried to change. We used counseling, spiritual direction, heterosexual dating, and even marriage. Some of us tried to deny or repress our feelings. We acted as though we were not sexual and put up barriers to intimacy and affection. Some of us tried to live a double life. Some of us reached the point where life was unbearable. We sought relief in compulsive sex, or alcohol and drugs, or suicide.

Some of us overcame fear and came out to friends and family or a more public world. We were able to step outside the facade that was built as a defense but had become a prison. We were able to be honest with those who mattered to us. That was a liberating experience, even though it sometimes meant the loss of family, friends, employment, and Church.

Under the weight of prohibition, rejection, derision, and hate, many of us have felt estranged from God, Church, society, friends, family - even from ourselves. Our Church told us to comply or leave. Society warned us to hide our love and not flaunt our sexuality. Friends were distant. Family members were unable to understand. The need to deny feeling and affection left some among us less than whole, lacking in self-esteem, unable to trust.

Despite clear signs of progress, we still experience direct oppression within the Church. Groups that call attention to such oppression or seek the development of church teachings on sexuality are forbidden the use of church property. Some bishops oppose legislation protecting our civil rights. Even those Church officials who empathize with our struggle hardly dare to risk public gestures of fellowship and support.

 

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The Strength of the Powerless

 

We are stronger, both as persons and as Christians, because we make hard moral decisions. That strength grows as we share the convictions and commitment that develop out of reflection on our experience as lesbian and gay People of God.

We have come to realize that being gay or lesbian is God's blessing and gift. All that God has created is good. All humans are created in God's own image and likeness. Since humans were not made to be alone (see Genesis 2:18), as we seek and express intimacy and love we show God's image in action. We strive to make that image clearer by together acting justly, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

In our struggle to recognize and affirm the rightness to exist as we were made, we discovered something that was distinctly ours: our ability to accept and to nurture the divine gift of selfhood. Self empowerment brings growth. We grow stronger in our commitment to live a Christian life. Our identification with Christ and with the Catholic tradition is the stronger because of the conscious decision and commitment to stay with our Church. We have the same faith, the same life of grace, and the same call to discipleship. The values we try to live by are values we have received through the Church. We are the persons and the believers that we are because we are the Church. Many of our brothers and sisters feel rejected by the Church and can no longer identify with the Church or with Christianity. We share their pain, anger, and disappointment. Still, we are convinced that God has been with us in our struggles and that it is God who strengthens us.

Not all who are leaders in the Church speak harshly. Some stand with us and proclaim the same good news that we learn from our experience. Today the Word of God speaks ever more clearly through preachers and prophets, theologians and teachers, proclaiming our dignity and rejecting the prejudice formerly sustained in the name of God. These disciples, like Jesus, suffer for speaking and living the truth. Their struggle for justice, like our own, gives birth to hope and new life.

 

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Sexual Disciples

 

Even though some Church officials have tried to exclude us, we exercise our responsibility to redeem the Church from its prejudices. As our models we have the gentile woman whose insistent faith led Jesus to look beyond the Chosen People (Matthew 15:21-28) and the Roman centurion whose quiet faith was recognized in the healing of his beloved boy (Matthew 8:5-13). The Gospel of Jesus, baptism, and the Eucharist are central influences in our lives. We align ourselves with the Catholic faith community and its broader teachings on justice, respect, compassion, and human dignity.

Dignity and communities like us are Church on a grass-roots level. These gatherings are the sacramental sign that we can be lesbian and gay and Catholic. Here we listen together to God's Word and make room for one another at Christ's Table. Here we minister to one another, proclaiming the good news: God's love for Jesus lives within us.

These communities also are places where we can support one another in the continuing struggle to integral our sexuality and our spirituality. We do so by asking ourselves difficult questions and sharing honest answers.

We see our sexuality and its expression as the holy gift of God. The overwhelming majority of us are able to say that we are both sexually active and comfortable in our relationship with Christ. Being sexually active enables us to be more at ease with ourselves, more fulfilled in our relationships, more productive in our work and service. The Spirit is evident in a warmer and more peaceful prayer-life.

We acknowledge as well that sexual abstinence freely and positively chosen is good. Many of us, for various reasons, have attempted a lifestyle of sexual abstinence. Some have chosen sexual abstinence as a lifelong way of being sexual in the world, either as part of a formal religious commitment or as a way to pursue nonsexual interests more freely. Others have chosen to be sexually abstinent temporarily in order to pursue certain goals or to reassess or reestablish priorities.

However, when sexual abstinence has been imposed by an outside force life circumstances, institutional mandate, social pressures — the effect on our lives has generally been unhealthy, destructive, and alienating. The energy expended in maintaining an abstinent lifestyle left us too drained personally to enter into relationships with others or to grow spiritually. Abstinence attempted out of fear — fear of intimacy, fear of disease, fear of divine retribution — diminished our humanness, made us preoccupied with sex, left us hungering for the intimate love of another human being.

Like our heterosexual sisters and brothers, we have had to transcend centuries of teachings that not only separated spirituality and sexuality but also considered sexual expression, if not less than human, then at least a concession to human weakness. We have learned that the living Christian tradition has more to offer than prohibition and condemnation, that through the values and ideals of our faith communities we can create a positive and human sexual ethic. We want our faith to enter more directly into our sexual decisions and activity as that there well be a closer integration of sexuality and spirituality.

 

How We Make Our Decisions

We ask ourselves not only how our spirituality and sexuality relate but also how we make ethical decisions regarding the physical expression of our sexuality. As we reflect together on our resources and criteria for making decisions, we discover that we frequently agree on the general criteria, the values we want to live by, even though we differ on the motivation for using them and the conclusions reached in applying them.

What resources have we been using to make decisions that will be responsible and Christian? Our primary resource, because of our isolation, has been our individual experience and reflection. Health concerns influence our sexual decisions because of possible consequences to ourselves and others. Reading and prayer, traditional resources for making decisions, are next in importance. Most of us regard other traditional resources - scripture study, advice from confessor or spiritual mentor, formal religious education - as less helpful. Most of us have not found official teaching on sexuality at all helpful in making decisions.

Although we agree that a sexual ethic centered solely on procreation in the context of heterosexual marriage is not relevant to our experience as gays and lesbians, the criteria we use for sexual decisions are not so easily identified. We say that we respond to Christ's call to be loving when our primary concern is for the quality of our relationships. The values on which we base our relationships come through clearly: mutual respect, caring, compassion, trust. understanding, and generosity. What emerges from our experience and reflection is an emphasis on persons and on actions that further personal and spiritual growth. We hear a call to an intimacy in relationships that links sexuality and spirituality. It is a call that Christians identify with Jesus, who challenged the disciples to love God totally and to love all others as themselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It is a call that Christians recognize as the ongoing presence of the Spirit.

Generally, we seek relationships that are whole and not just the expression of genital sexuality. Most of us almost instinctively reject sexual activity that is selfish or manipulative, that harms or exploits. Some prefer to reserve sexual lovemaking for one person in the context of a lifelong commitment, and many regard lifelong fidelity in a monogamous relationship as the ideal to strive for. Other couples have remained faithful to one another while allowing for some sexual expression outside their relationship, and some attempt completely open relationships. Others of us are sexually active as singles, either because we choose to be single, or because we have not yet found a companion. Some of us abstain from sexual activity for a variety of reasons.

What motivates our use of these criteria? Some base their decisions on values that they believe contribute to a good human life. Some base their decisions on what they see as God's will for them. Some base their decisions on how they identify as disciples of Jesus. Whatever the motivation and rationale, the actual criteria differ very little.

Most of us have said that we developed decision-making criteria ourselves, but, when we discuss them together, we find that our faith in Jesus Christ and our identification with the Christian community strongly influence our lifestyles as lesbians and gays. We recognize wrongdoing and sin in our sexual activity when we realize that we have violated our personal convictions or that our relationship with God has been harmed. Social convention and Church regulations have little impact. Our understanding of sexual ethics thus seems to be centered more on character and personal values than on rules.

Diversity of sexual and genital behavior is more visible and more openly discussed in the gay and lesbian community than it is among heterosexuals. We differ among ourselves in evaluating some of these practices. As we discuss them together, we are challenged to recognize the quality of each relationship and to find within it the presence of God. In doing so, we find that we can come to a greater understanding of sexual rituals that are not part of our own lovemaking. We see this as a valuable way of continuing to learn from one another and to care for one another.

As Catholic lesbians and gays we have struggled to affirm our place in the divine plan for salvation. We have emerged from our struggle strong in our faith, respectful of the human person, tolerant of diversity, supportive of the struggles of others, and strongly committed to seeking justice for ourselves and all our sisters and brothers.

Our struggles are not yet finished. We must continue to speak frankly of our experience as gay and lesbian Catholics in order to live and grow in Christ while helping others. We have often been too much in awe of the Church as institution to speak. We have listened to Church officials - sometimes abiding by their restrictions, sometimes rejecting them. Sometimes, like children seeking a parent's approval, we have asked our leaders to change their positions and accept us. Too rarely have we gone further.

Fear makes us hesitate: fear of publicity, fear that greater visibility will cost us what we have gained, fear of further reprisals form Church authorities, fear that what we say will divide us. But greater fears have been overcome, and we are the better for it. To remain faithful, we must go further.

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