What it Now Means to Support Gay Marriage (in the Popular Imagination)

Last week I encountered this charming commercial for the same-sex marriage campaign in Ireland that went somewhat viral (I found it through slate.com):

The video features family members accepting the invitation from their LGBT family members to go vote in support of the gay marriage initiative on the ballot this May. At the end, the voiceover explains, “On May 22, we can change forever what it means to grow up LGBT in Ireland. Ask your family to come on this journey with us.” A soft folksy song in the background chants “If you love me, why’d you leave me,” softly implying that staying at home or not supporting the referendum means turning your back on your LGBT family member. The ad seems pretty successful; it has only slightly fewer views than Hillary Clinton’s official campaign announcement video, and it has a later post date. It is interesting that the chosen angle is not one about rights, about “equality” or “fairness,” or even railing against “bigotry.” It points to a deeper need: one for people to feel supported and loved by their family members. My reading of this commercial is that mainstream western discourse now equates supporting gay marriage as the antidote to the things that have traditionally made growing up LGBT absolutely miserable and dangerous–high rates of substance abuse and suicide, rejection, subjection to thoroughly discredited ex-gay therapy, and being kicked out by (often religious) parents. I would like to posit that we are at this point of only one widely conceivable option for supporting our LGBT friends and family (voting for gay marriage) largely because of an absolute failure of Christian discourse in the western media to offer love and a positive outlook on growing up for an LGBT person (granted, I know little about Ireland, but will assume for argument’s sake that it is generally similar to the US in this regard). The Church did not, and still needs to, offer a compelling alternative to what is now the obvious, easy, feel-good option for telling our queer youth that we love them, can offer a valued place for them in society, and desire their well being above all else.

The Church can (and in many ways and places has and does!) offer LGBT people this love, a valuable place in society, and promotion of their holistic well being. But for my adolescence (the last 15 years), the bishops and mainstream Christianity as a whole shouted a firm stance in the culture wars far and wide, ignoring the suffering and drowning out the popular perception (if not the actual existence as well!) of any opportunity for the aforementioned affirmations within their ranks.

Could your parish make this loving of a commercial about how it has not and will not leave behind its LGBT youth, and how it understands and affirms their dignity, truly desires to open a place for them, and that they should never be on their journey alone? If not, I posit that traditional churches are failing in both the culture war, and the mission entrusted to them by Christ to preach his Gospel. I hope that our abject defeat in the former might make us self-critical enough to see our failings and endeavor to improve in terms of the more important one.

San Sebastiano, Roberto Ferri. Italy.

San Sebastiano, Roberto Ferri. Italy. 2005-2009.


The Danger of Extremes – Part II

This is part II of a series which is introduced in the previous post.

By my 20th birthday, I was a confident and happy young man who had spend the last 6 years as a proud Catholic who was actively discerning a vocation to the priesthood. This identity survived a lot during that time, including the private recognition that I was gay. Over the next year I pursued a desire to be more open about my sexual orientation with both myself and close friends–an impulse which I think was healthy and necessary. However, I got swept up in the media maelstrom surrounding gay marriage and lost my sense of vocation and my faith as a result.

When I first came out to close friends, most of whom shared my Catholic faith, they were extremely supportive and understanding. However, I did not let these interactions determine my perception of what being gay should mean for me as a Christian. Instead, because I acknowledged that I was a gay person, and because I was (and still am) a news junkie, I paid a great deal of attention to what was said about gay people in the media. I could easily read a dozen stories about LBGT issues each day as the culture wars over gay marriage raged. As a gay person in the process of figuring out what my sexual orientation should mean for my life, I started to take what I read personally. When I read something positive about gay people and their relationships, I felt affirmed. When I read something negative about gay people or their relationships, I felt insulted and indignant. And over that year there were many opportunities for indignation in relation to the Catholic Church, and none in which I felt affirmed.

I paid close attention as a cast of Hollywood all-stars reenacted the blockbuster Proposal 8 trial and lampooned the defenders of California’s gay marriage repeal and their comically irrational and ignorant arguments. My Church had proclaimed itself an ally to that side of the debate. Other groups on the larger “side” of the culture war included the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags”) fame, and the hateful lies that gays were child molesters, bad parents, and wanted to “turn” kids gay.
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Managing Media Messages, on the Left and Right

In my last post, I called out one mainstream media story for misleading its average readers in stating that the Synod on the Family was debating the truth of Church doctrines about sexuality and marriage. Such stories were not hard to find–but my own perusal of internet news met with mostly nuanced portrayals that reflected the reality that no Church leaders are debating these teachings, or even desire to do so–especially and including the Pope. Since the Synod, there appears to be a collective freak-out from conservatives who think that a confused or false message came out of the Synod (or at least the controversy it generated–thanks to it’s Francis-driven and unprecedented transparency). The media have seized even the most mild of generous posturing toward “people in irregular unions” and celebrated it. The reaction from conservatives seems to indicate their belief that this will confuse people into thinking the Church teaches that divorce, and remarriage, or same-sex marriage are fine–or worse yet–open space in which leaders actually question the doctrines. Throwing sand at the doctrine is problematic because that would defy Truth and (probably) enable sin. Thus one reaction logically follows that is that open-hearted sentiments about irregular unions should either (1) Not be uttered, or (2) only exist alongside such strong reminders about Church teaching about doctrine that even the media can’t ignore them, or (3) only be uttered behind closed doors. I disagree with those conclusions, for reasons Michael Sean Winters stated elegantly for the NCR.

But now I want to point out that unhelpful narratives about the Synod and its participants can happen to the other side too. As evidence for this, I share a tortured article from the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the headline: “Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family – says ‘confusion is of the devil.'” The article does not cite enough source material to convince me this the headline is justified–in fact it leaves me with great doubt this is what deserves to be emphasized. And writing that an Archbishop “blasts” the synod (and later that “+Tobin Slams Synod Too“) adds to the same narrative brewing on the “left” in the mainstream media: nice progressive Pope Francis wants to change Church teaching and people who uphold Church doctrine are therefore upset. But here’s what the article actually shares:

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How will we teach? A thought on gradualism, the Synod, and “pastoral challenges”

I had no idea how to address the moderate craziness ensuing at the Vatican right now, and even wilder craziness the media has spun out (although, to be fair, there is a good deal of level-headed and accurate reporting to be found in mainstream outlets like TIME). Then I read this amazing article by Mark Shea at Patheos which you should stop and read right now. I’m such a fan that all three four hyperlinks go to the same place. Among many thoughtful points, he incisively highlights how the most extreme members on both sides are operating as atheists. (Perhaps more on that later.)

I want to respond to one thing:

1. (in a list of one) The scope of what is at stake here

First of all, the document causing the kerfuffle is a “relatio post disceptationem” which is a totally non-binding collection of some thoughts so far that have been aired (and were not even voted on or meant to reflect a majority–just commonly mentioned ideas as recorded by a few of the participants), in the first smaller segment of a Synod (which is a meeting of Church leaders lower than a Council with no ability to change doctrine, that I know of…), which will take two years, which was called by the Pope to discuss the topic of his choosing: “Pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

This topic alone indicates that the participants of the synod are NOT doing what the BBC reports in a byline: “Senior clerics taking part in a review of Catholic teachings on the family.” For me this conjures the laughable notion of bishops studying for a theology midterm by re-reading their professor’s PowerPoint slides one more time. But for the public, this misleading sentence indicates that the teachings about the family are “under review”–that people are deciding if they are good or bad. This is not the kind of thing that happens at a Synod anyway, and it also defies the purpose of the meeting as outlined by the Pope… to discuss “pastoral challenges.” Perhaps this term lacks obvious meaning–which is just one more example of the big problem at stake: The language (and related mindsets) of our Church leadership is lost on the public. That’s why this synod was a great idea.

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What to Watch? Reflections on “Transparent” – Part II

My largest fear in coming out came from a sensation that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t “get it.” I struggle to pin down what it means to “get it,” and I apologize. However, it has to do with the hope that when I come out to people that they simultaneously understand something of what I’ve experienced as a queer person, but also continue to see me as a whole person without applying stereotypes. I suspect one (and perhaps the only) way to reach that balance is to be willing to hear multiple, nuanced stories of queer people that are unfolding in the world around us, and here the media can help and hurt.

Today there are many more LGB characters on screen, from Glee to Modern Family (although this does not mean they have totally escaped from unhelpful stereotypes). More importantly, there are more out LGB people who can serve as real life role models who also break through stereotypes and provide a reference point for people who don’t imagine themselves as clearly in their parents, pastors, relatives, etc. I think that both of these realities can help LGBT people feel less isolated and imagine more possible (happy!) futures than without such representations. It also has allowed the people around us have gotten used to the idea of gay people existing in normal parts of society. When I tell someone I am gay, there are now enough examples of what that could mean floating around that it does not put me in the kind of box that I imagine it would have 10, 5, or even 2 years ago.

Mainstream media has offered fewer role models and representations of transgender people than other members of the LGBT community. Even as a fellow “LGBT” person, I definitely struggle to understand the experiences of trans* people. I’ve read the Wikipedia page and taken gender studies classes, but that doesn’t mean I’m adequately prepared to empathize with the unique constellation of struggles many members of that group face. This is where I see a great value in Transparent and shows like it. Maura and her family raise a tremendous number of issues worth considering:

-the the fear of coming out is far greater with those with whom we are closest, and the hardest part can be starting the conversation (Maura’s kids think she has cancer when they are invited over for dinner out of the blue)

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What to watch? Reflections on “Transparent” – Part I

My mother had a wise parenting philosophy regarding what my siblings and I saw on TV and in movies, and even books. I cannot remember her ever censoring a program, book, or movie outright. But that does not mean she turned a blind eye to the media we were consuming. Instead she drove conversation. “Why do you want to watch that?” she would ask. Or, “Do the people in this TV show act very mature?” My mom quickly pulled up the (awesome!) USCCB review for a garbage movie some of my brother’s friends wanted to see with some girls from their class, and then bluntly asked him, “That movie is about a group of boys who are trying to convince a girl to have sex with one of them… is that a movie you want to go see with that group?” He decided to pass. When my sister got into “Glee” as an entire episode dedicated to high schoolers loosing their virginity came along, my mom watched too and they talked about the choices the characters were making.

Mom’s critical engagement with media has stuck with me, and came racing back as I binge watched “Transparent” this weekend. The Amazon original TV series follows Maura (formerly Mort)– a transgender father of three adult children who each face their own sexually charged crises, occasioning ample nudity, sex scenes, and drug use. No way would my high-school self have been willing to watch (and therefore discuss) all that under my mother’s parameters. Is there something to be gained from exposing ourselves (as adults) to this sort of television? My mom would say that it depends why we are watching and whether we are having a conversation about both the good and bad that we find.

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