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Deb Word finds shelter for homeless gay and lesbian teens who have been shunned by their own parents. “We see kids who think they are unlovable because of their orientation,” Word said at a recent conference at New York’s Fordham University. “We help kids who have been suicidal over parental rejection,” she said. “We love them and we let them know that God loves them as well. These are God’s children, but somehow that message has been lost, and we need to find a way to shout that message louder than any other.”

Word is part of a grass-roots movement called Fortunate Families, which provides a support network primarily for Catholic parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children. She knows the struggles of these young people intimately, and she shared stories of raising her son, who is gay, with the conference attendees.

She drew a standing ovation.

Titled “Learning to Listen: Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” the conference held on Sept. 16, was the first of a four-part series called “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The series will also include conferences independently hosted by Fairfield University, Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary. Each conference seeks to depict more clearly the experience of people in the church who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Paul Lakeland, the Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., Professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said that while many people are aware of the church’s teaching on sexual ethics, the conferences would speak to issues that are not directly addressed by that teaching. Explaining the name of the series, he noted the often one-dimensional nature of views on sexual ethics. “Wherever you stand in the debate on sexual ethics, that’s a sort of monologue,” he said.

“But when we ask questions—What is the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics in the church? Or what about teen suicide?...we’re not in that one-dimensional thinking,” he said. “Rather we’re expanding people’s sense of what the life of gay and lesbian Catholics is like and the many ramifications in the church and what that means for everyone.”

During a panel discussion at the conference, Eve Tushnet, a freelance writer, shared her experience as a Catholic convert and the joys and challenges of her decision as a lesbian woman to lead a lay, celibate life. “It was through loving service and connection to women, among other things, that I was able to express my identity as a lesbian while being celibate,” Tushnet said. “I wish someone had told me how much I would have to fight for both parts of being gay and Catholic.”

Tushnet said many people suffer because of a general lack of respect for friendship outside marriage, but that she found comfort during her discernment by praying to both Oscar Wilde and St. Joan of Arc, among others. She said gay teens need to see more examples of “joyful, fruitful, celibate lives of service” in the church.

Other panelists shared stories of navigating the tensions between their faith lives and their sexuality and expressed the hope that as practicing members of the church, they could help to shape the conversation around such issues. “Was I at home in the Catholic Church?” Michael Sepidoza Campos said. “Eh, yes and no. Was I at home in the gay community? Eh, yes and no. But among these tensions were many experiences that were life-giving.”

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