coming out

First published in Between the Lines on November 16, 2006

A few weeks ago I was in Ripon, Wisconsin, for a same-sex marriage debate with Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, when the Ted Haggard story broke. Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the massive New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was being accused by former Denver prostitute Ted Jones of having regular drug-fueled gay trysts with Jones over a period of several years.

“So, do you think there’s anything to this?” I asked Stanton, who told me that Haggard was not only his pastor but also a friend.

“No way,” he replied. (At the time no tapes had yet been released, and Haggard was denying the story.) “It’s just incongruous. John, it would be like finding out that you secretly have a wife and family in the suburbs. No.”

(Betty, if you’re reading this, be sure to get Timmy a haircut before his little-league game this weekend, and give Mary Jane a kiss from Daddy.)

Kidding aside, my reaction to the story’s unfolding was marked more by sadness than schadenfreude. I could see the shock on my friend and opponent Glenn Stanton’s face the next day, as further revelations made it increasingly clear that Haggard was pretty much guilty as charged. I was sad for Haggard, sad for his family, and sad for all the people he had mislead.

But he deserved his downfall, didn’t he? Certainly. Here was a leader in a movement that actively fights gay rights. Haggard openly proclaimed that the Bible tells us everything we need to know about homosexuality — namely, that it’s just plain wrong. And as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he helped to spread this view far and wide–apparently carrying on an affair with a male prostitute all the while.

So I wasn’t surprised that many relished his fall from grace. A few days after returning from my trip I ran into a friend who, upon my mentioning Haggard’s name, gleefully started dancing and singing “Another one bites the dust…” Schadenfreude–taking pleasure at the misfortune of others–is a natural human tendency, especially when those others are royal hypocrites. And it’s not just schadenfreude, it’s relief: one less person will be out there spreading lies about gays (though others will doubtless take his place).

Haggard is Exhibit N in a recent line of examples of the dangers of the closet. Some of them are Republicans, some Democrats; some are religious leaders, some not. While their stories differ in detail, they all highlight a major pitfall of trying to fight one’s gayness, rather than embracing it openly.

I am of course not saying that when heterosexually married people act on homosexual desires, it automatically proves that they ought to have been doing so all along. Whether they ought to have been doing so depends, crucially, their own predominant sexual orientation, as well as on the moral status of homosexual conduct.

Nor am I saying, “If you don’t let us be gay, then we will become lying, cheating, predatory assholes.” I am saying that a world that doesn’t provide healthy avenues for gay people to pursue intimacy should not be terribly surprised when some turn to unhealthy ones. Barney Frank put it well in a Newsweek interview regarding the Mark Foley scandal: “Being in the closet doesn’t make you do dumb things, doesn’t justify you doing dumb things, it just makes them likelier.”

Of course, there are non-closeted people who (like Haggard and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey) commit adultery or (like Foley) chase after sixteen-year-old employees. But it doesn’t follow that the closet is not a contributing factor, any more than non-smokers with cancer disprove that smoking increases cancer risk. It’s common sense, really: double lives are a recipe for danger. There are other recipes, to be sure, but this one’s pretty reliable.

Partly this is because the closet demands, not just a lie, but an entire pattern of lies, which in turn make deception easier in other areas of life. Partly it’s because this pattern is emotionally and spiritually draining. And partly it’s because deception poisons relationships, cutting one off from the friends who could otherwise monitor one’s behavior, offering support, guidance, and an occasional good smack upside the head when needed.

Haggard’s much-needed smack did not come from his friends: it came from a public scandal. In response, he plans to begin a lengthy process of “spiritual restoration,” which begins with owning up to one’s sins. And that saddens me too–not because I’m against his (or anyone’s) acknowledging fault, but because there’s good reason to believe that Haggard and his advisers will miss the key ones. Homosexuality is not a sin. Making the world needlessly more difficult for gay and lesbian people surely is.

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First published in Between the Lines, October 5, 2006

It is early yet to talk about “the moral of the story” with respect to Mark Foley. Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, resigned last week after it was revealed that he had been sending sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to underage congressional pages. Here’s a sample (the spelling is left uncorrected):

Foley: what you wearing
Teen: normal clothes
Teen: tshirt and shorts
Foley: um so a big buldge….
Foley: love to slip them off of you
Teen: haha
Foley: and [grab] the one eyed snake….
Teen: not tonight…dont get to excited
Foley: well your hard
Teen: that is true
Foley: and a little horny
Teen: and also tru
Foley: get a ruler and measure it for me

The FBI is investigating, and criminal charges appear likely. Though initial reports involved relatively tame e-mails to a sixteen-year-old former page, the IM’s (such as the one cited above) appear to involve a different youth about whom little has been reported. The age-of-consent is 16 in D.C., but it’s 18 in Florida, unless the accused is under 24 (Foley is 52).

Foley was long rumored to be gay. Nonetheless, he was a popular Republican congressman who prior to the scandal was considered a shoo-in for re-election. He was also the co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, an outspoken foe of sexual predators on the Internet, and a vocal supporter of President Clinton’s impeachment.

Hypocrite? Almost certainly. Child molester? Probably not. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are not quite children (they’re not quite adults, either), and there is no evidence yet that Foley actually made or attempted to make physical contact with the objects of his Internet dalliance. Still, as the congressman surely knew, Florida law makes it a third-degree felony to transmit “material harmful to minors by electronic device” and defines such material to include descriptions of “nudity, sexual conduct, or sexual excitement.”

There’s also the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power. Even former pages have strong incentive to stay in the good graces of the congressmen who employed them. While the youth in the above exchange does not seem (judging from the text) to be terribly troubled by the banter, at least one other complained that Foley’s advances were “sick sick sick sick sick…”

Without a doubt, Foley did some stupid, inappropriate, and unethical things. Granted, sexual desire causes many of us to do stupid (though not necessarily inappropriate or unethical) things from time to time. Granted, the case would garner a somewhat (though not completely) different reaction if Foley were female–and particularly, if he were an attractive female. If Foley looked like Demi Moore, the pages would be telling one another “Dude, yeah!!!” instead of “sick sick sick sick sick.”

But the “gay angle” on this contains an important lesson, one that is unfortunately likely to be either distorted or missed entirely amidst the partisan political drama. It is that gay people, like everyone else, need healthy outlets for sexual expression. When those are blocked–because of political ambition or a repressive church or a right wing bent on ignoring basic science–cases like Foley’s (or former Spokane mayor Jim West’s or former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s) become more likely, as do far greater tragedies like the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal.

This is not to deny that Foley is responsible for his actions. There is no contradiction in holding a person fully responsible for wrongdoing and holding others responsible for enhancing the conditions that make such wrongdoing likely.

The right wing is doing just that by refusing to face some simple facts: There are gay people in the world. Gay people need love and affection like everyone else. When people repress that need in themselves or others, it tends to assert itself in unfortunate and sometimes tragic ways.

Like most people, I want to shake Mark Foley and yell: What the hell were you thinking? But I also want to add the following: It didn’t have to be this way. There are young men of legal age who are not your subordinates who would have been happy to remove their shorts for you. And there would have been nothing wrong with that person. An open, honest, consensual sex life is not only possible for gay men; it’s healthy. The alternatives can be disastrous.

Yes, it is early to talk about the moral of the story. But there are lessons to be learned, and we ignore them at our peril.

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First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.

I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”

While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.

But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”

“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…

“…and it made his mother very sad.”

Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”

Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.

Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.

Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.

More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.

At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”

I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.

There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.

A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)

Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.

“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”

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First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006

My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.

She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.

Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.

Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.

To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.

That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.

It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)

So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.

When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.

Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.

In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.

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First published in Between the Lines on December 22, 2005.

It was the kind of film that changes lives. And it changed mine—seeing a true gay love story, playing in major theaters, with a passionate performance by a talented young actor in a role quite different from anything he had tackled before.

I’m talking, of course, about Torch Song Trilogy, which remains my favorite gay film despite my having seen Brokeback Mountain this past weekend. Don’t get me wrong: Brokeback was a fine film, well deserving of the accolades piling up around it. You should see it; you should tell your friends to see it; you should hope that most of America sees it. It’s a great film in terms of both its artistic quality and its political value (although both can be overstated).

But I’ve grown tired of people talking about Brokeback as if it’s the first film ever to broach the subject of men loving men, or as if such love is a recent discovery. The 1988 film Torch Song Trilogy may be less palatable to the masses (the lead character, played by Harvey Fierstein, is a drag queen), but the love between Arnold (Fierstein) and Alan (Matthew Broderick) is palpable and moving. And unlike Brokeback, Torch Song’s lead character insists on being true to himself, despite the consequences. Rent it if you haven’t seen it.

The buzz surrounding Brokeback has reminded me frequently of Torch Song, not because Torch Song generated a similar buzz (it didn’t) but because it did for me what Brokeback is allegedly doing for audiences: send a powerful message that same-sex love is real and worthy of respect. The scenes in Torch Song where Arnold defends himself before his mother (Anne Bancroft) made my heart race.

I recall one of those scenes being replayed on a Donohue show (remember him?) in the late 80’s. The topic of the show was “coming out,” and the studio audience was largely negative. Then Donohue played the clip where Arnold forcefully tells his mother,

There’s one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing. I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. So I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. Anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.

The tone of the audience suddenly changed. It was difficult for them to remain hostile in the face of such sentiment. Art can move people: Torch Song did, and Brokeback will. Indeed, it already has. I was particularly struck by a review of the film by Harry Forbes in the Catholic News Service. While Forbes mentions the Catholic Church’s condemnation of homosexual sex, the mention seems ambivalent, and it is overshadowed by Forbes’s sympathetic reaction to the love story:

Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience.

While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.

This is coming from the director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—the same church that recently banned gays from the seminary. A review in the protestant Christianity Today was similarly sympathetic.

There’s no getting around it: romantic love is powerful, and beautiful, and some people experience it with persons of the same sex.

So can we expect a wave of pro-gay-marriage initiatives to sweep the country? Not a chance, for several reasons.

First, because the people who most need to watch this film won’t. The ranch hands in Wyoming that it portrays are far different from the NPR listeners who are likely to go see it.

Second, because people can read different messages into this film. Some will think that the Jack and Ennis’s love should be supported; others, that they should be pitied.

Third, and perhaps most important, because people are lazy, and they have short memories. I bet plenty of the people who voted for anti-gay initiatives in the last year saw Philadelphia in 1993 and wept when Antonio Banderas challenged the hospital officials who wanted him to leave Tom Hanks’s bedside: “Are you telling me I am not family?” Where are these audience members now?

The lesson is that we must keep telling our stories, not just in the occasional movie but in our day-to-day lives.

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First published September 29, 2005, in Between the Lines

Back in the 1980s, I aspired to the Roman Catholic priesthood. After investigating various orders, I eventually gravitated toward the Franciscans, not so much on theological grounds as for having clicked well with the vocation director, “Fr. Larry.” (Or maybe I thought that brown was the new black.)

Shortly after I became a candidate, Fr. Larry left the order. Only later I discovered that he was a gay man who decided to pursue a relationship. Soon after, I came to terms with my own gayness and subsequently left to pursue life “on the outside.” My fellow friars were supportive, even singing “Climb Every Mountain” as I marched out the friary door.

Okay, so I made that last part up. But it’s true that the priests and brothers helped me not only to confront my gayness but also to channel it in healthy directions. “Take your time,” they counseled me. “Explore your options.” It was, for this sheltered, sexually immature nineteen year-old, excellent advice. Some of these men were gay (though celibate) themselves, and their personal candor was invaluable to me.

Fast-forward to 2005. The Vatican has just announced that it will prohibit gay men—including celibates—from entering the priesthood. This is a profoundly stupid policy, both theologically and practically.

Theologically, the policy suggests that the temptation to homosexual conduct is somehow irredeemable. This suggestion conflicts with the Church’s own previous statements: in the 1986 letter to the bishops “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), criticized the “unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”

Even if you grant the Church’s false view that homosexual conduct is always wrong, you’d have to have a pretty poor opinion of God’s redemptive power to suggest that he cannot provide gay men called to the priesthood with sufficient grace to remain celibate.

Perhaps this criticism is unfair. It is not that God’s grace is insufficient, the Church might argue, but that for practical reasons we can’t risk taking any chances. But this practical rationale for the policy is even more stupid, since it duplicates the culture of secrecy and repression that was a major cause of the current sex-abuse scandal. With the new policy in place, the only gay men who enter the priesthood will be those in deep denial about their sexual orientation (or, perhaps just as bad, those willing to lie about it): not a good recipe for a healthier, more sexually responsible Church.

I say this as someone who’s “been there, done that.” When I began the order’s screening process at eighteen, I told the interviewing psychologist that I was “basically straight, though I had occasional gay feelings.” Amazingly, he didn’t press me on it. Amazingly, I really believed it, even though I didn’t have any “straight feelings,” occasional or otherwise. It was a brilliant example of how otherwise smart human beings can ignore clear facts, refusing to draw the most obvious inferences when the conclusions are rendered sufficiently frightening.

Fortunately, I entered an order that understood that (a) there are gay men in the world, (b) some of them become priests, often very good priests, and (c) this fact is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And so we read books with titles like “Being Sexual and Celibate” and “The Courage to Be Chaste,” and we talked openly about our own urges, challenges, and commitments. Thanks to that environment, I was eventually able to acknowledge my sexuality and to explore it in a healthy manner.

Suppose that a gay ban had been enforced. Notice that it would have not kept me out, since both the psychologist and I believed that I was “basically straight.” Notice, too, that I would have entered not only as a gay man but also as a deeply immature and repressed one. Again, not a recipe for a healthy Church.

I’d like to believe that things would have turned out okay, even under such circumstances, but it’s difficult to know. Sexuality has a way of asserting itself sooner or later. To close off healthy avenues for expressing it—even discussing it—invites disaster.

The recent Church scandal only underscores this point. Most of those implicated were ordained at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Thus, in blaming the scandal on tolerance of homosexuality, the Church is not only scapegoating innocent gay men: it is setting the stage again for systematic denial and abuse. It is sinning against its priests, its aspirants, and (most of all) its flock. If ever there were a time for believers to hope for God’s redemptive power, this is it.

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First published July 7, 2005, in Between the Lines.

Luther Vandross was the avatar of romance. Other people’s.

The famed R&B singer, who died last week at 54, zealously declined to discuss his personal life, telling reporters that it was “none of your damn business.” Indeed, when his biographer Craig Seymour tried repeatedly to broach the subject of his sexuality, the singer told him, “You’re trying to zero in on something that you are never ever gonna get….Look at you, just circling the airport. You ain’t never gonna land.”

Well, I’m just going to come out and say it. Vandross was gay.

Not that I’ve ever slept with him, or even know him personally. But his gayness was as much an open secret as Liberace’s or Peter Allen’s. And like those two similarly flamboyant and energetic performers, he was a master of hiding in plain sight, neither confirming nor denying what anyone with even moderately well-tuned gaydar knew anyway.

So Seymour’s biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross, dances around the question it can’t quite ignore. As reviewer J.S. Hall described the book:

Any motions of love and/or romance are followed by the observation that Vandross has never revealed any of his beloveds’ names or gender. And while they are not traits exclusive to gay men, Vandross’s near-total immersion into his work, his fluctuating weight, his penchant for perfectionism (and his bitchiness when things don’t live up to his expectations), his love of flashy stage clothes and the color pink, his flare for interior design and his ownership and display of a homoerotic David Hockney painting, all strongly suggest someone who’s focused far too much time, energy and effort into submerging an aspect of himself that he doesn’t wish to deal with.

Or at least, that he didn’t wish to deal with publicly and directly. Instead, Vandross dropped hints, as when he retained the masculine pronouns in his 1994 recording of Roberta Flack’s hit “Killing Me Softly”: “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he’d found my letters and read each one out loud.”

Such subtlety — some would say “evasiveness” — was consistent with Vandross’s general approach: “I’m more into poetry and metaphor, and I would much rather imply something rather than to blatantly state it,” he once told a reporter. “You blatantly state stuff sometimes when you can’t think of a poetic way to say it.”

True enough. But you also use poetry and metaphor sometimes when you’re afraid or embarrassed to state things plainly. One can now only wonder at the full explanation for Vandross’s legendary non-answers.

Perhaps one cannot blame the obituary-writers for being as elusive as Vandross on the subject of his sexuality. Most do not mention it at all, and the few that mention it do so only obliquely. The following, from the AP story, is typical: “The lifelong bachelor never had any children, but doted on his nieces and nephews. The entertainer said his busy lifestyle made marriage difficult; besides, it wasn’t what he wanted.”

Well, duh — unless “marriage” is read to include same-sex marriage. But most readers won’t make that connection, and Vandross would presumably be just fine with that.

Some readers will no doubt think I’m being inappropriate. Perhaps you agree with Vandross that it’s none of our damn business, and perhaps it isn’t. But you can’t fault me for pointing out that a celebrity who made a career out of singing about romance adopted a rigorous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his own. Even if his sexuality is none of our damn business, the irony of his public posture certainly is.

Or perhaps you’ll insist that coming out is a personal choice. Of course it is. But it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t encourage people to make that choice, or that if they don’t we must be complicit in whatever public posture they assume, including those that treat gayness as a dirty little secret.

And this, ultimately, is what bothers me about hide-in-plain-sight gays: their implication that same-sex love is something unmentionable. As the philosopher Richard Mohr puts it:

People need to let the gayness of individuals come up where it is relevant, rather than going along with the shaming social convention of the closet, the demand that every gay person is bound to keep every other gay person’s secret secret. For the closet is the site where anti-gay loathing and gay self-loathing mutually reinforce each other. Even people who are out of the closet demean themselves when they maintain other people’s closets. For the closet’s secret is a dirty little secret that degrades all people.

Luther Vandross was often rightly praised for the honesty of his music. If only he had taken that honesty one step further.

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First Published in “Between the Lines.” March 28, 2002

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO I was a candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood. One night during a candidate retreat I was alone in a monastery rec room with a youngish priest — let’s call him Fr. Jack — who was attempting to counsel me as I struggled with the difficult decision of whether to enter training that year. Fr. Jack, who seemed genuinely concerned about my emotional state, offered to give me a massage. The proposition was simultaneously strange and appealing, and I nervously accepted. He began with my back and proceeded slowly to cover virtually every inch of my body — except, notably, my genitals and buttocks. Fr. Jack then looked at me in an eager and suggestive manner and asked, “Is there any part of you that is still tense?” Quite uncomfortable at this point, I blurted, “Um, yes — my mind!” and then quickly gathered my shirt (which one of us had removed) and excused myself.

The current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church reminded me of this event. I do not mean to suggest that Fr. Jack was a pedophile. The massage, though sexual at some not-very-hidden level, was not tantamount to sex. More to the point, I was about eighteen years old at the time — not a child, and not incapable of granting or withholding consent. But the story involves a number of issues that have been raised, often confusedly, in discussions of the ongoing scandal: priestly sexuality; priestly homosexuality; authority, secrecy, and vulnerability.

The scandal by now is familiar to anyone paying attention. In brief, there has been a disproportionately high incidence of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests, and the Church hierarchy have been going to great lengths to cover it up. These things by themselves would be bad enough, but in fact it’s worse: Not only have the hierarchy covered up the scandal, but they have repeatedly reassigned known pedophiles to posts which put them in contact with children. These reassignments are perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of the scandal. The pedophilia can be explained (to an extent) as a psychological disorder combined with moral weakness. The cover-up can be explained as a misguided attempt at damage-control. (To say that these two things can be explained is not to say that they should be excused — both involve culpable behavior.) But the reassignments are sheer reckless stupidity. The current priest-shortage notwithstanding, there are plenty of posts within the church that do not involve youth ministry. (Next time you’re in Church, consider the ratio of blue hair to baseball caps and you’ll see what I mean.) If these known pedophiles were to be reassigned at all (and that’s a big “if”), why not restrict them to working with older parishioners?

The Vatican’s response to this and other difficult questions has been — you guessed it — to change the subject and scapegoat gays. In a recent interview Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls contended that most of the sexual abuse cases involved teenage boys, not children, and thus did not really constitute pedophilia. He then inferred that gays must be unfit for the priesthood: “People with [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained,” he concluded, suggesting that ordinations of gay men should perhaps be invalidated.

Navarro-Valls’ proposal, if implemented, would eliminate about half of the priests in the United States. (As a former candidate who spent a lot of time with priests and seminarians, I can confirm that this oft-repeated estimate is a reasonable one.) But does his argument for the proposal work? Even supposing (what seems likely from the reports) that the majority of the victims have been male, Navarro-Valls’ conclusion doesn’t follow. For the question to ask is not what percentage of sexual abusers are gays, but rather, what percentage of gays are sexual abusers. Consider an analogy: The vast majority of rapists are male. But it does not follow (and it is not true, pace Andrea Dworkin) that the vast majority of males are rapists. Thus, eliminating males from a given population would not be a fair or appropriate way of curtailing rape. Analogously, even if most sexual abusers within the priesthood were gay, it would not follow that most gays within the priesthood were sexual abusers. Eliminating gays from the priesthood would be horribly unjust to the vast majority of gay priests, who are innocent of sexual abuse and as horrified by it as the rest of us.

Thus, Navarro-Valls’ point about gays is a red herring. It is one thing to be attracted to persons of the same sex; it is quite another to be inclined to abuse persons of the same sex, be they children or otherwise. Conflating these distinctions not only slanders gays, it misdirects our attention away from the real problem, which is sexual abuse. Such scapegoating is a familiar tactic, sadly, and it is morally repugnant — far more so, I would contend, than the clumsy advances of Fr. Jack when I was eighteen.

Which brings me back to the age issue. Navarro-Valls is correct that in some of the cases, pedophilia is not the real problem. (It is difficult to know the percentages, since the Church has been stubbornly uncooperative in releasing data.) There’s a big difference — legally, psychologically, morally — between sex with an eight-year-old and sex with a seventeen-year-old. Cases of the latter type, which often involve seminarians and seminary candidates, may be an abuse of power and a violation of priestly vows, but they are not pedophilia.

Eliminating gays from the priesthood would, indeed, eliminate many of these latter cases. But it would also eliminate a good many decent priests, and needlessly so. For the real culprit here is not homosexuality, but rather the Church’s refusal to address the issue of sexuality directly and realistically. Human beings are sexual, and priests are no exception. Celibacy is demanding, and repression and denial are not helpful in mastering it. If the Church is serious about addressing sexual misconduct, it should focus on healthy ways for its priests to manage their sexuality, which does not disappear once they take vows.

Fr. Jack is a prime example, and my memory of him reminds me of the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” Had I decided during that retreat to enter religious life, I would have done so as an eighteen-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience to speak of. I would have been thrust into an all-male environment where I would be forbidden not only to have sex but also to masturbate. And sooner or later my sexuality would have asserted itself — doubtlessly in the awkward manner characteristic of the sexually immature. Perhaps I, too, would have eventually found myself attracted to a naive and fresh-faced seminary candidate, and perhaps I too would have behaved like a creep. (For the record, I decided to enter when I was nineteen and then withdrew almost immediately, correctly believing that I needed more “life experience.”) Navarro-Valls’ scapegoating of gays doesn’t solve such problems; it perpetuates them — while ignoring far more serious ones. It is time for the Church to worry less about protecting its image and more about protecting the people it serves.

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