This article is about to be submitted to my publisher for the October issue of “Reality Magazine”.
I was once part of a cadre of friends who met in middle school and who, for a decade, were virtually inseparable: we shopped, dined, critiqued, sang, worshiped, cried and laughed our way through puberty and into the illusory twenties, when we were certain about everything. We selected our high school classes together, chose the same college, sang in the same choirs, acted in the same productions and eventually we would be godparents for each others’ children. Since there were two of us “Mikes” in the group, we had to use our last initials: Mike H. and Mike B.
It was the 1970s, mirrored disco balls loomed large in our social lives and Mike B. was gay. He wore baby blue leisure suits, accompanied his mum to the beauty parlor every Thursday after school and spoke with a stereotypical lisp that, coupled with his exaggerated swishy walk, trumpeted his sexuality. On the dance floor he was a blur of upper body moves and size 13 metallic silver platform shoes. Ever the disco-diva, he refused to leave the dance floor (despite our pleas) until last call. He was over the top. He was our friend. We knew he was gay, but he did not. Growing up in the Roman church, he was very religious. Unfortunately, he had also internalized the ossified biases of Catholicism’s past, resulting in a profound self-hatred. He was consumed with hiding from himself, fearful that the God he loved would refuse to love him in return if He ever found out.
Some thirty years have passed since those days, and for most of that time I have been involved in pastoral ministry. I have met and interacted with many gay and lesbian people, many of whom suffer from the same levels of fear and self-loathing as Mike B. The power of bad theology and institutional politics continues to damage young souls, keeping them bound in chains of shame and guilt, limiting their potential as persons, interfering with the divine plan that waits to manifest itself in their lives. Gay and lesbian persons can also be seen as modern martyrs, however, because religion singles them out as a group especially worthy of rejection. As they try to hide their truth from others, from God, from themselves, they take upon themselves a degree of personal suffering almost unknown in post-modernity. Some continue going to church, sometimes with a “beard” to accompany them, always skulking their way forward to receive communion, eyes downcast, terrified of being outed. Some seek refuge in the confessional, only to be given another dose of Dark Ages shame-and-blame theology. Some marry under false pretenses, hoping to make themselves worthy. All of them feel abandoned by their church where gay relationships are deemed more evil than indiscriminate, anonymous sex. This absurd view leads predictably to sexual excess and an increase in the transmission of HIV-AIDS. The Church’s theology of death bears the bitter fruit of an increased number of gay deaths—martyrs to its unenlightened teachings.
Ironically, the Church is unwittingly creating classic saints, following an ancient archetype going back centuries. Many gay martyrs have a high level of giftedness, whether it be music, art, literary skill, carpentry or cooking. Many actively participate in the Divine mandate of bringing creative light to a world in darkness, and if they know the pleasures of the flesh, they also know the pleasures of the mind, the satisfaction of genuine love for others, and the dark night of the soul, when even God seems absent. Sometimes they express this in spiritual terms ,e.g., “I yearn to express what God wants for me”, and sometimes in more generic psychological terms: “I want to be whole.” In every village and town, from antiquity to the present, there have been unique people, those who helped others, those who were community leaders in some important way, those who shared their skills and their abundance with their neighbors, those who told amazing stories. When these people died, they left an enormous void in the fabric of the village, and people would still feel their presence in the memories and recipes and masterpieces they’d left behind. They were still important. They would never really be gone. They became known as saints.
There was a time, perhaps, when gays felt obliged to jettison their faith and spirituality in favor of slavish attachment to eroticism or materialism. Religion has certainly shunned and excommunicated many a gay and lesbian person, so it seemed natural to turn the tables and reject all religion—except for the fact that people are inherently spiritual and have a profound thirst for spiritual healing that extends beyond the material world. As Robert Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto” says, “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” If there has been any degree of communal healing among gays in the past 30 years, it is the insistence by gay women and men that they have a right to spirituality no less than anyone else. They courageously move beyond the broken laws and retracted invitations of their respective traditions, instead, pointing out to those in authority the need to re-examine the tradition and their theologies of ignorance. More than ever, gays and lesbians seem to be learning to embrace every aspect of their lives, but this is a recent development and there are still far too many who suffer.
In February, 1985, long after each of us had moved on to separate lives, I read Mike B.’s obituary in the local paper. I hadn’t seen him in over 5 years, when he’d moved to Miami, following a successful show at an upscale gallery. I was shocked. I was able to track down the others, and all of them managed to come home for the funeral. We shared tears and beers at Molly McGuire’s, the one college haunt still in business. At the funeral home, Mike’s mother told us he had died of AIDS, that he had spent the last month of his life wasting away at the local hospital, wanting to contact us, but afraid to call. She had offered to contact us for him, but he had begged her not to, fearful that we might not understand. He died alone, evicted by his lover, fired by his boss at the gallery, fearful that his childhood friends would reject him. She told us she had always known he was gay, but that Mike didn’t come out to her until a couple days before his death. We held each other and cried, feeling like we had let him down, wondering what it was about each of us that had made him doubt our love and admiration for him.
Years have passed since Mike B.’s death, but the sadness has not. I see his face when I encounter a gay consumed with fear and self-loathing. I encounter him when I listen to a student explain how she feels unloved and unlovable. I hear his voice when a gay man tells me he’s felt the need to confess the “sin” of his homosexuality to a priest, only to be told for the billionth time that Jesus wants to cure him. I see his tears when a young woman confides her feelings of unworthiness because she loves another woman. So I redouble my efforts to bring the Good News of our God to people, trying to help them see and trust the Divine that lies within, encouraging them to be exactly who God created them to be. Self-loathing is a deforming disease, one that can be cured only by learning to love oneself. I do what I can. I pray. I reassure. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, when the night is peopled by the faces and stories of the lesbians and gays who still struggle within themselves, I remember that in my basement, safely wrapped up and tucked away, is a pair of size 13 metallic silver platform shoes: holy relics of an outrageous disco-diva martyr. “St. Mike, pray for us”, I say to myself, confident that my friend has found, at last, a disco with no last call.