The Hills Are Alive
A friend put me on to a new, one-hour documentary called Desire Of The Everlasting Hills, a portrait of three adult Catholics living with same-sex attraction, but in fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is an extraordinary piece of work tracking the journey of three extraordinary human beings. The trailer is here; but if you click on the first link in this paragraph, it will take you to a site where you can watch the movie. If you are a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction, or if you know someone who is, please watch this movie. If you think that chaste gay Christians are propagandized robots who need to get over themselves and affirm their sexuality, please watch this movie; you will be startled by the complexity of these three people, and the humanity of their journey.
Our Eve Tushnet — Catholic, lesbian, chaste — wrote about the film this past spring. Excerpt:
“Desire” lets three gay or same-sex attracted Catholics tell their stories. It’s not confrontational or argumentative; the overall tone is tender and reflective. I saw it twice, and it evoked both laughter and sniffles from the audience.
And the stories seem perfectly crafted to disrupt conventional ideas of “ex-gay” narratives. At first Paul seems like your central-casting disco kid, who fled a life of promiscuity. Rilene’s the lonely woman neglected by men, who is seduced at a low point in her life by a predatory lesbian. And Dan had a boyfriend, but began to find himself falling for a woman—his chance to have a “normal” life and a family. So far, so frustrating. But the movie is startlingly well-paced (its “plot twists” got gasps and exclamations) as we learn that these three lives are anything but pious paint-by-numbers cartoons.
There’s so much to say about this film! Director Eric Machiela’s use of nature imagery is perfectly-timed and poignant. (The saccharine piano music is the only major aesthetic flaw.) It opens a bit defensively, with the three subjects talking about how they just want to be known and not judged, but once we settle in to hearing their stories the movie finds its rhythm. I wanted to know so much more about all of them; I wanted to hang out with them. There are tart words from Mother Angelica, “the pirate nun,” and tender memories of the good old nights at Studio 54; there’s fondness for the Church and fury at God; financial upheaval, a miserable peace sign, self-sacrificial gay love, and a Good Friday buzzkill from John Paul II himself.
There are some fascinating theological contrasts: Paul’s most direct experiences of God come when he is being rescued or spared something he expected to be unbearably painful—the most intense example comes when he’s on the way to the doctor to learn his HIV status—whereas both Dan and especially Rilene see God’s hand most clearly in the losses and humiliations of life. (For readers of my AmCon piece: I was struck by how unembarrassed Dan and Rilene were by their own loneliness and suffering. It’s a part of life, to be approached with the same passion and good humor as other parts.) I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.
That’s what startled me about the film: how it doesn’t make plaster saints of these three, or make them fit into a neat, clean story line. All of them obey the teachings of the Church, and do so with a palpable sense of joy. It’s very clear that they struggle, but what is so interesting about this is the paradoxical sense that this yoke is easy, the burden light, compared to the lives they had before.
There is nothing in this film about praying away the gay, and nothing here to condemn gay people. In fact, as I said, this is a film document of extraordinary humanity: these three simply tell their stories, and let the viewer draw his own conclusions. Like I said, you can’t put these three into anybody’s ideological box. You can’t easily condemn their choices, because these people are not easy to write off. Nor can orthodox Christians easily affirm their choices, because there’s no way to watch this without feeling guilty, somewhat, over how hard we straights in the church make it for people like Paul, Dan, and Rilene to feel welcome among us, as brothers and sisters.
I’ve been trying to think about how to respond to Brandan McGinley’s piece about how we who believe in traditional marriage need to learn how to listen to the stories of gay people, and how to tell stories of our own. McGinley writes about Saeed Jones, a young gay man whose own story involves being gay-bashed to within an inch of his life. Jones ties that in to the meaning California’s Prop 8. Here’s McGinley:
It is cold, almost crude to boil down Jones’s story into nothing more than a piece of ordnance exploded in the culture war (even if this is how Jones has chosen to deploy this story). We must grapple with the fact that Saeed Jones almost died because someone hated him for his sexual attractions. We must grapple with the fact that our neighbors who identify with the LGBT community, in small towns, sprawling suburbs, and big cities, live with the very real fear of violence.
I have no idea what it feels like to walk down a dark street with the trepidation that the next passer-by might assault me because of whose hand I’m holding. I also have no idea what could possibly motivate such an assailant—what pathetic insecurities, what warped codes of ethics, what twisted malignancies of character. I do know that whatever the motivations would be, they are repellant to my Catholic faith, and to the faith traditions and moral codes of all “social conservatives” I’ve ever known.
But this is where the precisely-crafted juxtapositions in Jones’s account come in. He lays down reference points of time—the year Brendan Eich donated to Prop 8—and of place—where a religious freedom bill was recently defeated—that unmistakably put his narrative in the context of our cultural disputes over marriage. He places his explicit particular story into an implicit general story of our society, in which the historic definition of marriage, those who seek to maintain that definition, and even those who seek to carve out legal protections for religious believers are all implicated in his assault.
This is gallingly effective—especially because Jones is being sincere. I am quite sure that he believes that defining marriage between one man and one woman is part of a culture of marginalization of LGBT persons that tacitly permits if not encourages violence like that which he endured. And I am quite sure there is nothing I could ever say to disabuse him of this notion. This is not an argument that can be won, because it isn’t an argument at all; it’s a subjective personal narrative that points to implied moral and cultural truths. Once one accepts the validity of Jones’s story—and how could one not!—the new truths about marriage fall into place.
McGinley isn’t really complaining here. He was deeply affected by Jones’s story, as anyone with a conscience would be. McGinley’s point is that personal narratives have political (and cultural) consequences. It has been well known that one reason gay rights has triumphed so thoroughly is because so many straights listened to the stories of gay people they knew, and sympathized. Thus did “new truths about marriage fall into place.” And, as McGinley shows, these “new truths” portend a great deal of danger for religious liberty.
How to push back against the narrative in love, and therefore effectively (“push back” not to deny those stories, but to point out that theirs isn’t the only story)? Here’s McGinley:
Here’s an old aphorism about compelling narrative writing: show, don’t tell. We show that the proper definition of marriage is compatible with love of our LGBT neighbors not by writing or talking about such a possible world, but by creating that world in our families and communities. We can and must live as compelling witnesses to the truth of marriage while treating our LGBT friends and family not as representatives of a type but as full, flawed, beautiful human beings full of dignity. In so doing we both tell our story—a story of tradition, yes, but of tradition filtered through the timeless values of love and charity and peace—and begin the hard work of earning once again the trust of contemporary culture.
You really should read his entire thoughtful essay. Seems to me that Desire Of The Everlasting Hills is effectively the best answer to McGinley’s concerns that I’ve yet seen. The three Catholics it profiles are LGBT Christians who are not representatives of a type but are full, flawed, beautiful human beings full of dignity. And they embrace the tradition. Just as it is hard to turn away from stories like Saeed Jones’s with all your prejudices intact, it ought to be hard for all people — gay and straight — to turn away from the stories of Paul, Dan, and Rilene without being shaken up by their humanity.
I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. Whatever you think about gay rights, whatever you think about gay rights and the church, you need to take an hour to watch it online, and share it with your friends. It’s not preachy, it’s not propagandistic. It’s real.