Is There a Christian Way to Be Gay?
Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic is something like a how-to book in the vein of Augustine’s Confessions: part autobiography, part theology, part roadmap to a better way of being. Tushnet, a veteran essayist with bylines in First Things, The American Conservative, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, is a fascinating interlocutor with as much knowledge of the Christian theology of friendship as of punk anarchist collectives and all the classics of 1990s queer teen culture. A convert to Catholicism from a secular Jewish liberal upbringing, Tushnet is candid about her past without slipping into salaciousness. Her book documents her alcoholism, some elements of her romantic history, and the challenges of conversion and celibacy, but it isn’t a tell-all. Line by line, it reads like a long letter from a steady-minded mentor to a friend in need.
Tushnet sets out to “offer ways to create a celibate queer life that is better than the one I used to have,” which alerts readers at the outset that the book is something of a journey. But Tushnet’s autobiography takes up only the first few chapters and is revisited in asides from there on out; the journey, then, is more of an “adventure” in theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s sense—concerned with the daily heroism of Christian life—than a straightforward tale of personal triumph over adversity. As an interlocutor, Tushnet is entertaining and lucid, confident but comfortably self-effacing, with a fondness for her former self in all her awkward adolescent stages.
Her fondness for her former self is part of what makes Tushnet’s book so unexpectedly revolutionary. It would be one thing for a lesbian Catholic to write a remorseful tale of reform, but Tushnet isn’t particularly interested in apologizing to readers for what has come before. On the contrary, she is disenchanted with gay “origin stories” and their tendency to ascribe lesbian desire to childhood sexual abuse. She came out young and helped found a gay/straight alliance in high school, and she writes warmly of the belonging and fellowship she found in gay culture and gay relationships.
“One reason I continue to ‘identify as’ gay is that gay communities were places I learned to be less self-centered,” she explains, later commenting that “being in love with women has usually made me a better person.” The total effect is twofold: to carve out a space for same-sex-attracted Christians (not just the “formerly” or “ex-”) and also to establish a specifically lesbian Christian identity.
There have been very few widely published works on lesbian Christians. Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women offers a historiography of lesbianism in Christian thought that illuminates the ways in which same-sex attraction among women was received in early Christianity, but most similar accounts place gay men and lesbian women in the same category. Yet for a Christian intent on a solidly traditional reading of gender, this doesn’t make much sense: if men and women differ ontologically, then a woman’s desire for a woman is not like a woman’s desire for a man, nor is it like a man’s desire for a woman or a man’s desire for a man. It is, rather, a thing unto itself, marked by the uniqueness of femininity and feminine desire. If that is the case, then Tushnet’s account challenges those who would build a space for celibate lesbian Catholics to give special pastoral care to the distinctions between lesbians, gays, and those with less definite sexualities.
And Tushnet’s view of sexuality does seem to differ markedly from theories that have been proposed in the wake of a certain LGBT ascendancy in American politics. Michael W. Hannon’s March 2014 First Things essay “Against Heterosexuality” argued for the destruction of categories of “sexuality” in Christianity altogether, supposing them mostly modern, insubstantial, poorly predictive, and counter to good pastoral practice. Tushnet appears to be in the opposite corner: “I don’t particularly struggle with my orientation,” she notes in a section on the diverse modes of gay Christian life. Her take is much more in accord with other celibate queer Christian writers, like the incomparable Wesley Hill, whose 2010 book Washed and Waiting she recommends. Traditionalists who would prefer to dissolve the question of gay Christians in Church life by collapsing the problem of sexuality altogether, then, will find little comfort with Tushnet.
Tushnet’s reparative measure might also be more revolutionary than it initially seems. She argues, pace historian Alan Bray’s 2003 account of friendship in the Christian tradition, The Friend, that Christians should consider a return to a more medieval conception of friendship, one complete with vows and affirmation ceremonies for dedicated companions. Taken seriously, Tushnet imagines, institutionally affirmed friendship could answer the emotional needs of those who would otherwise be engaged in same-sex romantic relationships or desperately lonely. Her historical analysis tracks Bray’s work closely, and it includes moving excerpts from courtly accounts of friendly love and commitment, as well as some monastic and liturgical remarks upon close companions.
Yet Tushnet doesn’t leave her meditation of friendship on a rosily sentimental note. It’s all well and good, one imagines, to propose a more prominent position for friendship in modern Christian life—but what this would really look like is fraught and complicated, which Tushnet acknowledges. Could an avowed pair of same-sex friends with acknowledged homosexual feelings cohabitate without giving the appearance of scandal? Tushnet hesitates: “the danger,” she admits, “is real.” Could these tightly intimate friendships coalesce into sexually realized relationships? It could happen, but for Tushnet “the preventative measure of avoiding intimate same-sex friendship entirely is even worse.” This itself might strike some—including Exodus International’s Alan Chambers, cited by Tushnet—as a bridge too far.
And these are only the moral hazards. Tushnet recognizes that there are practical concerns as well. A Christian who is same-sex attracted might have a traditional, opposite-sex marriage as well. Won’t avowed friendships infringe upon one friend’s marital or familial obligations at times? Probably, Tushnet submits, advising empathy and noting that medieval ballads concerning committed friends often reported conflicts in that vein—many of which did not turn out in the favor of the wife and children. And what of institutions that typically make concessions for marital and familial duties, like family medical leave and hospital admittance privileges? Should those, too, extend to avowed friends? This is less clear, though Tushnet points out that the stewardship of friends is a common theme both in HIV/AIDS literature and literature on wounded veterans.
Lastly, and perhaps most troubling, is the question of whether or not opposite-sex friendships should be avowed, meaning that a husband could be committed to both a wife and some other woman in a slightly different sense. Tushnet is emphatic that this should not happen: “vowed friendship between people who could take marriage vows seems to me to carry stronger possibilities of sexualization than if the vows are only for pairs who could not marry in the Church.” But this reasoning can seem a bit thin: a married man can’t take marriage vows in the Church; he already has. Further, basing approval of avowed friendships on the likelihood that they will tend toward sexualization seems to reinforce the fears Tushnet seeks to allay.
Risks aside, the gravity of the situation itself does come out in favor of Tushnet’s response, especially in the absence of a better one. With the disbanding of formerly prominent “ex-gay” ministries like Exodus International and the banning of ex-gay ministries for teens in states like California and New Jersey, the strategy once glossed as “pray the gay away” appears to be on its way to the dustbin of history. Without an alternative approach like Tushnet’s, faithful Christians with same-sex feelings might be at a loss altogether, and so, too, would the rest of the Church, which cannot afford to abandon a single sheep. Tushnet’s solution of avowed friendship, even untested, can at least claim a rich traditional grounding and all of the well-established benefits of friendship itself.
Following her historical and theological meditation on friendship, Tushnet spends the remainder of her book feeling out real-life models of faithful gay Christianity. She takes a variety of approaches: the narrative of her own life and experience appears frequently, alongside a thorough interview of gay Christian Tim Otto, and a trio of appendices of resources and frequently asked questions. This is a mixture of textual genres that might jar some readers, but insofar as one could ever imagine a handbook for how to live as a gay Catholic, it’s difficult to suppose one much different from this. Life is multivalent, people are different, situations shift, and questions abound: Tushnet’s dexterity with examples and freedom with form allows her to cover a remarkable swathe of territory.
There are probably two camps that will find Tushnet’s book unpersuasive. On one hand, there are those staunchly committed to traditional teachings on sexuality, who will view the avowed friendships Tushnet promotes with a certain suspicion. Tushnet writes glowingly—and beautifully—of sublimation, the process by which one converts a certain impulse into another. Others might question its efficacy, along with its virtue: cultural documentation of “the friend zone” is enough to suggest that not all friendships born of desire are capable of remaining healthy. On the other hand, Christians with a more liberal take on sexual teaching might find Tushnet’s proposal of avowed friendship as pipe-dreamily sterile and repressive, especially since it offers no account of how sexual desire is to be properly sublimated, solved, or suspended.
Tushnet may find herself carving out a complex middle between two hostile camps, but she is cognizant of this and clearly up to the task: “I realize I’m the poster child for a poster nobody wants on their wall,” she remarks. But if it’s the only poster illustrating a workable solution, then it’s one we are all obligated to tack up.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week.