Sometimes, the way that people talk about religion makes us feel like we have no right to it if we’re gay. That feeling hurts.. and the wounds go deep.
We had only a couple hours in Milwaukee and we were pretty tired after our 24-hours with the GSA conference in Madison. But what a treat it was to meet up with Nate and Joey, two brilliant guys who had a perspective on sexuality and religion we’d always understood but never heard articulated so well.
Thanks Nate and Joey for a riveting talk. This is important stuff. This is the basis for so many of our internal struggles as gay people. Understanding why and how we’ve been distanced from our spiritual history is the key to achieving a bright and healthy future. Even if you’re not necessarily a “religious person” you can benefit from reading this interview. You might be surprised to find how much of it hits home.
Enjoy, and email us with questions and feedback.
Interview with Nate and Joey
YGA: So, Nate, you’re Catholic.
NATE: Yep. I just came from mass at Marquette University.
YGA: Marquette is a Catholic school. You’re a student there. What’s it like?
NATE: It’s quite ahead of the curve, actually. We have a GSA on campus, sexual orientation is part of the non-discrimination policy, and we have yearly school-sponsored events for National Coming Out Week such as dances and guest speakers.
YGA: That’s amazing. What’s it like for you being both Catholic and gay?
NATE: It was a big issue for me when I first started dealing with coming out. As late as three years ago, I was a very conservative devout catholic. I went through a period in high school where I came to a deep affirmation of my catholic faith. Then, by senior year, I started realizing that girls held no interest for me, and I struggled for a couple years, asking God for answers. It’s not that I wanted God to make me straight or anything, I wanted Him to show me what He wanted.
YGA: And what did He show you?
NATE: Well, it was very difficult to figure out. One of the hardest things for me was reconciling this concept of a God who loves every single person regardless because He made them – so much that He’d die on a cross for you – with this concept that God doesn’t love gay people and wants them to go to hell. The latter concept didn’t make sense to me. I’m simply AM gay, just the same as I simply AM male and simply HAVE hair. In order to reconcile the two perspectives, I did a lot of reading, some very ultra-conservative, some very progressive, some middle-of-the-road. I didn’t want to only read things that supported the idea of where I wanted to go. Eventually, I came to an understanding that you can be gay and catholic because a lot of the doctrines don’t necessarily force gay people into a chaste life or force them into living without an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex.
YGA: How did you come to that understanding?
NATE: I came to the conclusion that you have to take what the Church is teaching and re-apply it to your life, recognizing that the Church seems to act as though everyone is heterosexual. You can live a moral life, you can have intimate relationships, you can be gay, and you can be catholic.
YGA: It seems like a big part of this reconciliation has to do with the choice aspect, defeating or understanding where the idea comes from that makes people say, “why would you choose this, it’s not an appropriate choice?” It seems the belief that gayness is inherent and not a choice is one that really allows this stream into a positive happy gay life. Would you agree?
NATE: Definitely. I say the Church isn’t trying to hurt people. I don’t believe God tries to hurt people. I think its just a misunderstanding. When you look at homosexuality, it didn’t even occur as a word until the late 1800’s. The Church wants people to live a moral life, to do the right thing, to not live simply for themselves. You have to realize where the Church is coming from and then apply it yourself. You can’t dismiss any aspect of the Church’s teaching out of hand. If you do that, you’re dismissing everything. You can’t say they’re just “old men.” Those men are coming from a time-honored tradition which is the oldest tradition in European thought, and I know of nobody who can match wits with Plato and Thomas Aquinas. You HAVE to take everything, see what it’s actually saying, break through the rhetoric, and then apply it to your life.
YGA: That makes tons of sense. I want to know how you apply that to someone who uses an interpretation of religious doctrine to supports extremist views. That’s a topic now with Islamic fundamentalists and terrorism. Do you find yourself coming to odds with, or confronting, people who don’t understand the value of the meaning of the writing versus their interpretation of what’s written?
NATE: I find myself at odds, yes. Anglican priest Spoong Shelby has written several books about how Christianity has been hijacked by fundamentalists who want to act as though we have not changed since the 1st Century after Christ, which can’t work. You can’t even apply physics the same way. The big challenge for people of any denomination is to look at the Meaning and discern for themselves what is God trying to say. When you look at a story where God throws fireballs on Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, is God saying He’s actually going to send angels to all the cities in the world and if you’re not hospitable to them He’s going to burn down your city with fireballs? No. What He’s really doing is giving us a lesson on hospitality. Christ said the sin of Sodom was pride and arrogance, refusing to let in the stranger. This ties in even to this day. The United States has to take into account immigrants of Muslim origin, far-East origin, even athiests. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah teaches us to open up our hearts and homes to men and women of different faith backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds instead of simply thinking “oh, they’re Muslims, so were the terrorists, we can’t let them into the country.”
JOEY (NATE’s boyfriend): It’s been interesting for me to come to understand these things through Nate. When I was growing up, my mother believed in God and we’d go through little spurts of going to church, but it was never that much a part of my life. When I met Nate, it confused me because I didn’t understand how someone could be so religious and also be gay. For a while Nate would go to Mass and I’d go to Starbucks and we’d meet up afterwards. The first time he asked me to go with him I kinda didn’t want to. But now that I understand everything better I can see how it works. It’s just the same with the Muslim religion and the terrorists. Jerry Falwell is the American Taliban. So is Pat Robertson, and Fred Phelps. And it’s kind of scary. It’s scary because those are the people who get the press. Trent Lott can say gay people are evil and it’s really scary because the Bible doesn’t say that but people believe him. It’s the big reason why gay culture has so many problems. We hate ourselves. When somebody condemns things it sells papers. Sensationalized hatred creates internalized homophobia because it’s what people see the most. It’s what kids grow up to believe.
NATE: The thing that pisses me off the most is that the Christian, spiritual, religious heritage of a lot of gays and lesbians — and a lot of other minority groups — has been hijacked and stolen from them by people like Trent Lott and Ralph Reed. When those people claim to have a monopoly on The Truth, it steals that heritage from us. Just because somebody is born athiest, agnostic, Muslim, or gay, doesn’t mean you can’t have a relationship with God, karma, Allah, the Spirit, whatever. It doesn’t mean you can’t have that kind of relationship in your life. When you get these people who say that you have to have OUR god otherwise we’re going to kill you, and OUR god says you’re wrong, that leaves this kind of atmosphere where Matthew Shepards happen, or where the suicide rate is highest amongst gay youth.
YGA: It makes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere in the Church, that you’re unwanted.
NATE: That’s right. You don’t believe you even have the right to normal religious or spiritual outlets, to ministers who can help you. For me, it took weeks to build up the kind of emotional and spiritual backbone to tell my confessor I was gay because I was convinced he’d kick me out and I’d never see him again. His very role as a confessor had been hijaked from me! In fear, I said to him “Father I’m gay.” He looked at me for 10 seconds and then said “so what, you’re still you!” But how many ministers don’t do that? How many gays and lesbians can’t go to their priests or rabbis or counselors because these fundamentalist sects have stolen that from them. Spirituality is part of every culture. How many people are alienated from that fundamental part of the human psyche?
NATE: Everyone, at some point in their life, searches for something beyond themselves. Everybody has some point in their life where they wonder if there’s something more than us. And when a group of people like the Radical Right or the Taliban take control and pull the mainstream away from individuals for whatever reason, those individuals are left without any ability to look beyond themselves. They get stuck in this cycle of trying to fill that void. They turn to sex, or success to fill that void. I’m not saying sex or money is bad. I have sex and I want money. But it’s when those things become a replacement system for your self-worth that it’s unhealthy.
YGA: It’s more than just religion isn’t it? It’s more like a total systematic banishment from the very things that make us human.
NATE: Yes, that’s right. What the fundamentalists have done has resulted in a complete disconnect from our spiritual selves. When you look at great works of art like Shakespeare or Michelangelo, those things are imbued with a sense of the divine. All these works are imbued with a sense of spirituality and because fundamentalist extremists deny us the ability to find it, we disconnect from all those aspects of Western Civilization. Take the Madonna. When you say that to a lot of gay people the first thing they think of is the singer. A lot of Catholics would know you were talking about Mary. When you look at most images of the mother figure, they are based on the concept of Mary. Gay people can’t look at the Mother as taking the role of God in their lives because when they think of God they immediately have a feeling of shame. They feel “God doesn’t like me, that sheltering womb is not mine.” You feel unprotected. You’re thrown out of it. You’re out of your family, your culture, and your society. You’re thrown out of all the very things that define you as a human being.
YGA: That’s amazing. But so true.
NATE: The fundamentalists say “we don’t want you to look at the divine because you are evil.” But the spiritual heritage is a heritage that every single human person has, and to be denied that heritage is a sin against human nature.
JOEY: I remember thinking I was never going to have a family, it wasn’t even possible for me to have a healthy relationship, so I might as well just have as much fun as I can before I die.
NATE: We’re told the intimacy we have is wrong, therefore we abandon the search for intimacy. They tell us if you fall in love with another gay boy you’re evil, so you internalize that and decide you can’t possibly fall in love. You think, “I’ll just have sex with this boy since that’s all I’m allowed to feel.” There’s a stunting of natural growth. People naturally seek out intimacy. No matter who you are, you want to have people to share your life with, whether they’re your best friend, or your lover. And as a gay person you’re denied that opportunity. You’re told you can’t have what everybody has.
YGA: What’s exciting is to see that this is changing. More and more gay-friendly churches are becoming vocal. More religious families are accepting their gay kids. We’ve met so many young gay people on this trip through the Midwest for whom religion is a major part of their lives. I think slowly that feeling of disconnectedness from spirituality is disappearing from gay people’s experiences, especially with the new generation. If this weekend at the GSA conference in Madison was any tesimony to the future, that condition isn’t going to persist. Just seeing all those kids crushed out on each other and being normal kids at age 14, that gave us hope.
NATE: GSA’s are a great thing. I remember a past summer conference of student leaders of Jesuit universities at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Everywhere I went I had people coming up to me asking how they could start a GSA on their campus because they’d heard I was involved with one at Marquette. Each one of those people probably went back to their campuses and started a GSA, and each will connect with five more people. It’s like a web! It will be a great day when, ten years from now, you have an entire generation of 14 and 15 year olds saying “we’re young, we’re gay, and we’re not going to let you oppress us or steal our heritage. We’re going to love who we want to love.”
YGA: We even have marketing on our side, now. It seems the only thing that’s not on our side is prevailing religious morals on a vocal level.
JOEY: But I think they’re a very silent majority.
NATE: It’s true. The media isn’t completely buying into stereotypes anymore. More gay characters show up on movies and television shows as regular people, just people who are gay. That’s a very subtle but BIG change.
JOEY: There are still so many ways we’re weak as a community, though. We have so many internal struggles that we have to get over, whether it’s a divide between lesbians and gay men, older and younger, flamy and straight-acting. Look at the log cabin Republicans. I don’t get them at all. They’re just like the Jewish Nazi. I can see being fiscally conservative, but to buy into the whole Republican thing!?! Unlike other oppressed groups, we’re not very organized. We don’t have that overarching net where we take care of each other at all costs.
YGA: I guess it can be hard to like someone else 100% for who they are if you don’t like yourself 100% for who you are.
NATE: Well also other minorities have access to shared culture. We really don’t. How far back does active, out, “gay” culture go? Stonewall was in the late 60’s…30 year ago. That’s not even drop in the bucket when you look at cultures that go back thousands of years.
YGA: Why do you think there’s such a rift between older and younger?
JOEY: I think, as youth, we’re cynical. We don’t trust the older generation because we think they just want fresh meat. And they don’t trust us because they think we just want a sugar daddy.
NATE: One of the biggest things that scares the older generation is being labeled a pedophile. The biggest thing the Religious Right says is “they’re after your children,” and that’s a big part of why people who are 40 and 50 are AFRAID of getting too close to the youth. They don’t want to be labeled as pedophiles, lose all their own gains in life, and have nobody want to touch them.
JOEY: I remember one strange time. I was on Gay.com. This guy was 50. We started chatting about whether it’s possible for gay people to have healthy relationships. He kept saying “you don’t understand, gay people can’t be like straight people. It’s not going to work, it just can’t.” I kept asking why and he was just very adamant that I was young, I was stupid, and in thirty years I was going to become him.
NATE: People are hesitant to get too attached. They don’t think they’re allowed to. They’ve lived their whole life believing that and it’s hard to change that belief.
YGA: What do you say to people who want to go to Church, who want to have religion in their lives, but feel unwelcome?
NATE: It’s so hard to try to find a place when the people who are controlling that place say you can’t have it. But remember, churches aren’t clubs where you have to meet certain requirements to join. If you believe in God, if you believe in Christ, that makes you a part of the Church. The Church is yours, just as much as it is Jerry Falwell’s or the Pope’s. I’m not a priest, I’m not a bishop, but it is still mine.
YGA: That’s a great point. What do you think needs to be done to make people realize they have the right to reclaim their spirituality?
NATE: We need to get the thinkers on our side. We need more priests and ministers to be willing to step forward and say “you know what, we believe you are right.” In the meantime, we all need to be willing to educate ourselves as much as we can. We need to think critically.
YGA: This has been an amazing conversation, guys. I think a lot of people will really be helped by hearing these things. Thank you. Any final words of advice?
NATE: Focus on God. Read. And don’t let them hijack your spirituality from you. They can’t hijack it without your consent.