What’s it like to be gay and Catholic? An interview with Eve Tushnet
Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington D.C., blogs at the Patheos Catholic portal. Born in 1978 and raised with some Jewish religious influence, she graduated from Yale University in 2000. In 1998 she surprised her family and friends by converting to Catholicism as a 20-year old Yale sophomore. Describing herself as an “openly lesbian and celibate Catholic,” Ms. Tushnet now writes frequently on religion and sexuality. Her first book, “Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith” (Ave Maria Press), will be published Oct. 20. It is available for pre-order from Amazon.
On July 1, I spoke with Ms. Tushnet by telephone about her new book. The following transcript of that interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You describe this book as a work of “vocational discernment for gay Christians.” Why did you write it?
Well, there really wasn’t anything quite like it out there. There are a few good books on personal experiences of being gay and Christian, written in a way that’s faithful to historical Christian teaching on sexuality, but there wasn’t anything that was focused on the different paths that one’s life could take. There are really good personal stories in a couple of books by Wesley Hill and Melinda Selmys, and I talk about them in my new book. What I wanted to do was show that there’s a huge diverse range of options for you. The first part of the book is a personal story, but then the rest of it goes through a lot of different paths: devoted friendship, service to your family of origin, service to people in need, service to your community — basically a lot of different ways you can have a life that is fruitful, loving, that is surrounded by people who love and care for you.
Who is your audience?
The primary target audience is actual gay Christians who are trying to figure out what their lives are going to look like, and then anyone who wants to make the churches more welcoming for gay and lesbian members.
Did you suggest ways for churches to be more welcoming?
I did and I listed some specific suggestions for pastors. More than that, my whole emphasis is on vocation and on embedding Christians in a community that understands a lot of people are not going to be “structured” by marriage or a religious vocation — people who nonetheless are right there in the pews, longing to serve and to have the sacrifices they are making in their lives acknowledged.
Traditionally, Catholicism talks about three vocations of married, single, and religious life. Have you personally discerned a lifelong commitment to any of these states? Or have you discerned a lifelong calling from God in some other sense?
The way I’m using the word vocation in the book is just to talk about the different ways we love. Marriage and religious commitment are obvious ones where you end up making lifelong commitments, but there are a lot of others. I think one of my primary vocations is friendship. Artistic creation can also be a vocation, a way in which you’re called to love and serve both God and the people around you. Not all of the things I talk about in the book are lifelong commitments. Some of them probably will be for some people. There are also some things that are more limited.
The title of your book mentions “finding community.” How have you experienced your vocation to friendship within the community of the Catholic Church?
For me personally, friendship is something that just sort of happens. You read a lot in the literature on friendship, especially on spiritual friendship or devoted friendship, about discernment and how to choose a friend, and I talk a little in the book about why that’s important and also why I have not ever done it myself. I’ve really practiced no discernment whatsoever in choosing my friendships and I’m not recommending that. I’m just saying it can actually work out O.K. even if you don’t do it by the book.
But in terms of finding community in the church, right now my primary community within the church is pretty much other gay Christians. One of the things that I find really heartening is just how many people there are who are coming out and accepting themselves, but also staying within the Catholic Church or other churches that hold to a traditional understanding of sexuality. That’s so different from when I became Catholic. Everything is so different and so much more open, in the sense of a camaraderie that was not there at all when I became Catholic, and it’s really great.
What makes you feel at home in the Catholic Church?
Home is a strange word. I definitely feel that it’s the place where I need to be because of the Eucharist. That’s what initially made me sure I would need to become Catholic: Its vividness, its visceral quality, the fact that God would do this really emphasizes the importance of our bodies and the importance of the physical world. And also it’s very lurid and scandalous to people today, just as it first scandalized people when Jesus told them what he was going to do. And I think there’s something in that kind of shocking, fleshly, and even materially violent aspect of the Eucharist that responds to the world as we find it, which is shocking, and violent, and lurid. I feel like any religion that made it easier to understand or abstract away from that violence would be hard to believe.
Moving onto another phrase in your title, what does “accepting sexuality” mean?
I think for most people it just means being honest about where you’re coming from, what you’re experiencing, where your sexual desires are being directed, and not feeling that this area of your life is somehow shut off from God or turned away from God in a way that the rest of your life isn’t. It means not separating out your sexuality and your sexual orientation by saying they need to be repressed or destroyed in some way.
For me personally, things are very different because of the background I was raised in. I didn’t have a particularly difficult experience of coming out to myself. Acceptance of my sexuality has never really been that much of an ongoing process. One thing I’m hoping is that my readers see that being gay doesn’t have to be this giant burst of angst or fear. I’m hoping other people who are raised within the churches have a much easier time accepting that, “yes, this is where I’m at, my life looks different from the lives of most people, but this is not something I really have to shake.”
Your background does suggest you had a different experience of accepting your sexuality than some of the people who marched in pride parades throughout the U.S. last weekend. What would you say to people who believe the Catholic Church is an unwelcoming place?
I mean, it often is unwelcoming, right? The first thing to say is that a lot of the criticism the Catholic Church receives for treatment of her gay members is true. Lots of people I know who were raised Catholic had a much harder time than I did accepting themselves and finding some degree of peace with who they are. When you run into people who have fallen away from the church very violently, often you find that it’s coming from real pain caused by sins committed against them by other people. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to cut down the miseries that gay people experience within the church.
But depending on where the person is coming from, we can talk about more positive stuff too. I think a lot of people have only heard some church leaders give a list of things you can’t do if you’re gay and offer some weak explanations of why you can’t do them. That leaves the question of “what can I do as a gay Christian” completely blank. Most of the book is focused on all of the ways the church is calling you to actually live a life full of joy and beauty, a life where your suffering and your loneliness are going to be acknowledged and respected in a church where people share those experiences with you.
Shared in the sense of suffering together?
Yeah, right, in the sense that you’re not going to have to do this completely alone with no sympathy and with no sense of solidarity.
In the circumstances of your own life, how has your sense of community in the Catholic Church helped you grow closer to God?
It would be hard to even number the ways. I only have a relationship with God because of the church and through the church. I don’t really know how it would look separated from that.
Did you feel any tension and conflict when you entered the Catholic Church?
Oh yeah, definitely. I came out in middle school. When I entered the church in college I was very frightened and anxious, I really had no idea what my future was going to look like. I was very worried that I was doing the wrong thing. And I just felt really alone. And although they were not the only issues by any means, issues of sexuality and orientation were a big part of that. I didn’t know any other gay people who were at all interested in following the Catholic Church’s teachings and I was sure there was some reason for that. You know, that no one else was doing that. If no one else is going into the giant dark cave that says “there are bears,” maybe there are reasons!
Then why did you go into the giant dark cave?
Oh, I felt like I had to. I really believed it was true. Right before I was baptized and confirmed during the Triduum of that Holy Week, my church did nightly lectures on St. Edith Stein followed by Eucharistic adoration. And I went to those. I actually don’t remember a single word of the stuff about Edith Stein. I think I literally didn’t remember it as it was happening, like it was not registering at all, because I was really stressed out. But the Eucharistic adoration was what made me go through with being baptized.
To recall another phrase from your title, have you found yourself “living your faith” differently over the past 16 years since you converted to Catholicism?
Yeah, I think a lot of the structure of the book is really shaped by those changes. Unsurprisingly, when I converted, I had a very strong mindset that I should just follow the rules and everything else would sort of work itself out, and I wasn’t particularly thinking about what I was actually being called to do. That’s one major change. I think, over time, you have to figure out which prayer practices really speak to you and that’s been true for me as an ongoing process of discerning what shapes my spirituality. And then a couple years ago, I quit drinking and started spiritual direction. So that was obviously a pretty major change in my spiritual life and one that I’m pretty happy about. I talk about it in the book.
How would you describe your faith right now?
Fraught. I mean, it’s really hard to talk about without sounding complacent. I feel like it’s very hard to know what your inner life looks like. I think I have a lot of trust in God, even with these areas where I really struggle to live up to what I believe he’s calling me to do. But I feel like I talk to God a lot. You always know there are places where you’re rationalizing or not being fully honest, to make yourself feel like everything you do is O.K. But I at least work to tell God: “You know, I think I’m over-rationalizing or not being fully honest with you about this area of my life. Do with that information what you will.”
When you talk to God, how do you pray? Do you look to any particular saints as models?
Well, I pray a rosary every day and it’s a prayer practice that’s really important to me. And the Anima Christi is probably my favorite single prayer, which I do not pray as much as I should. It really speaks to me. Especially when I’m most deranged, that’s a prayer I find myself resorting to. In terms of saints, my patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. People who have shaped my spiritual life also include Dorothy Day and Oscar Wilde — who did actually die a Catholic and who I personally think will be canonized one day.
Speaking of role models, what do you think of Pope Francis?
My opinion about all popes is that everyone should think less about the pope. The celebrity status of all recent popes is more of a problem than a good thing. That said, I like a lot of the things I know about Francis, but I also just don’t really follow papal news. If I see the pope doing things that lots of people hate, my answer is to say that it’s probably not that important in the long run.
And I suspect that Francis feels the same way.
Well, right. You know, I have a lot of warm fuzzy feelings toward the guy. But we should all think less about Pope Francis.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I think the biggest thing is really just that there is a future for individual gay people in the Catholic Church that doesn’t require repression, or self-hatred, or being totally alone. And then the secondary thing would be that the troubles you experience are going to depend somewhat on your cultural context, but they’re not going to be totally alien for Catholics and it is possible to build solidarity both with other gay Christians and with the straight people who are the majority. It is possible to have solidarity in our life paths without being condescending about our differences.
Any last thoughts?
As I said before, the first part of the book is my personal story. The second part is essentially a list of vocations, going through practical and spiritual aspects of living out those vocations. But that section ends with a relatively long chapter on problems that people often experience in these vocations. I really wanted to make sure to have that because I think most of the book is very positive. Because my personality tends to be sort of gloomy and cynical, my writing tends to be fuzzy and sunny. Most of the book is, “Look at all the great stuff you can do living your life as an unmarried, celibate, gay Christian. Look at how great things can be.” So I really wanted to make sure I had a section dedicated to exploring the times when it is really hard to be a gay Catholic in the early 21st century. It can be uniquely humiliating, or difficult, or lonely. I felt I had to include that experience.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.