For years I have made some version of the same joke: What do you call a man that campaigns relentlessly against gay rights or chastises the immorality of gay people in sermons?
People immediately get the joke. The list of famously homophobic politicians and ministers that turned out to be gay is as voluminous as it is comical. Ted Haggard had secret liaisons with a “masseuse!” Have you heard his sermons? George Rekers was caught with a boyish prostitute! He’s a proponent of ex-gay therapy. Stereotypes can be so funny when they’re true—but still sting with realization.
Andrew Sullivan’s recent column in New York Magazine— “The Corruption of the Vatican’s Gay Elite Has Been Exposed”—which heavily quotes the recent research of Frédéric Martel, takes the anti-gay-while-secretly-gay trope to an absurd but sadly true level. Martel’s exhaustive research reaffirms that the richest, most influential and reliably homophobic institution in the world—the Catholic Church—is really super gay.
It’s hard to read Sullivan’s column without laughing. One gets the sense that he’s both shocked but unsurprised. It’s horrifying… but it makes perfect sense. Cardinals, bishops and their subordinates interact in a confusing cloud of gay prostitution, lover swapping, and utter contempt for gay people. Men resplendent with wealth and power tend to have unchaste sex lives and homophobes tend to be quite gay underneath.
Sullivan notes, “Many of the Vatican gays — especially the most homophobic — treat their vows of celibacy with an insouciant contempt.” They campaign for state-sanctioned discrimination while schnogging their seminary students.
This contrast between doctrine and lifestyle, proscription and predation can seem humorous to an outsider but present a life or death struggle for a young man growing up in the Church. I was never Catholic, but I was raised quite religious. Like many Catholic penitents, I was taught that homosexuality was a profound and intrinsic disorder requiring strident spiritual and psychological intervention. I was told any act of worship or service in the name of God was hypocrisy if I harbored homosexuality in my heart. The relevant, decontextualized selections of scripture were always used to sell the message that I was bad because I was insufficiently masculine. These messages were woven deep into my personal reality and my growing understanding of the world around me.
The message that sticks with me the most involves the purported harm gay men pose to society and themselves. Nothing wrecks religion, culture, or social stability like a gay man. A major component of my path to self acceptance required carefully dismantling those assumptions. That a gay man can be happy, healthy, and contribute positively to society should not have been so hard to grasp. But it was because I, like so many, were ingrained with the opposite conclusion.
The revelations of gay hedonism from Frédéric Martel combined with the latest revelation that the Vatican maintains secret rules for priests that father children despite vows of celibacy reinforces the long assumption that the rules of piety apply to the sheep, not the shepherds. It brings new light to the clergy sex abuse scandal in which thousands upon thousands of children had their lives ruined by men in venerable robes. These men kept their jobs because the institution cared more about unfavorable reporting than keeping children safe.
Over and over again, facts reiterate that the real harm derives from repression. It’s the shaming and restriction of sex that results in harmful expressions of sexuality. It’s the hiding, lying, denying that’s all too familiar to every gay adult who grew up devoutly religious. It’s the shaming of sex that requires secrecy and suppression. And yet, the Catholic Church, like many churches, like the church I grew up in, continues to produce a theology of condemnation and exclusion. The ones making us feel the least whole are, in fact, the most unholy. It’s healthy for the individual and society to realize that.
In California, progress has been made in banning “ex-gay conversion therapy.” AB 2943 was introduced in the California Assembly last year, but it was pulled by its gay author, Assemblymember Evan Low, in hopes of gaining more religious support. When it passes, it will not only ban the vicious chicanery of “ex-gay therapy” but also the profitable literature used in such programs. The supporting materials characterize homosexuality as a disease in need of a cure. These materials are medically unsound and condemned by every reputable scientific and professional association. But, the proposed legislation banning on their usage in therapy was predictably decried by the professionally homophobic as a ban on religious belief and doctrine. Bans on such literature are an attack on religious freedom, they claim. Only if one cannot distinguish between faith and political persecution. Politically imbued snakeoil is about as “Christian” as a bishop’s orgy.
It is in fights like these that the hypocrisy at the highest levels of Catholicism becomes rhetorically illustrative. Being gay is not something in need of a cure and those that push that idea are, well, likely quite gay. Sexual repression causes more personal and societal harm than anyone’s orientation. External oppression reveals internal suppression.
Add the swinging hypocrisy at the Vatican to the long list of moral and sexual failings of the Church. From its inception, the celibacy vow was motivated by the pursuit of wealth and power. Doctrine has been selectively fitted to demonize the enemy de jour ever since. Except now, we know more about the scam. A religious kid who questions his sexuality has information to help him untangle the net of shame.
The joke above works because its too often true. Homophobia masks homosexuality. Efforts to treat or cure gayness fix nothing but hide too much. There’s something rotten in the doctrine of homophobia. Hopefully, in the next assembly, Californians will vote to stop feeding it to our kids.