What the church is doing to welcome Latino L.G.B.T. Catholics

A young woman waited at the back of the parish hall after a Spanish-language presentation at St. Clare’s Church in Santa Clarita, Calif. Javier and Martha Plascencia had just finished their talk about the need for families to be welcoming toward gay and lesbian Catholics.

The woman paced a little and seemed reluctant to come forward, Mr. Plascencia recalls. The couple were packing up their materials when she finally approached them.

“I wish you would have come here two weeks ago,” she said. “Maybe then my friend wouldn’t have killed herself.”

Yunuen Trujillo is a law school graduate and a religious formation leader with the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Catholic Ministry With Lesbian and Gay Persons. (J.D. Long-García)

That woman’s friend is one reason Catholic groups in cities like Los Angeles, San Antonio and New York are trying to overcome stigmas surrounding homosexuality within the Latin American community. While the acceptance of L.G.B.T. individuals among both Latinos and the general U.S. population has grown significantly over the last 10 years, according to the Pew Research Center, other studies suggest that young Latinos face additional stressors coming from both ethnic and sexual identities. For example, Latinos may be especially uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming estranged from their families as a result of coming out. There also may be differences among families from different Latin American countries and cultures. Catholic ministries across the country are trying to help Latino L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families understand each other by working at this intersection of faith, culture and sexuality.

“In general, the trend in the Latino community is to be silent [about L.G.B.T. issues],” says Gil Martinez, C.S.P., pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Los Angeles. “[But] I always talk about it with people and in homilies. I think the most important thing is that it should not be a secret."

 “I always talk about it with people and in homilies. I think the most important thing is that it should not be a secret.”

Father Martinez, a Paulist priest, has also gone to gay bars to offer spiritual accompaniment and even heard confessions there. “You want to be where people are,” he said. “You want to walk with them.”

He has been involved in L.G.B.T. outreach in a number of cities, including Boston, Memphis and New York. He described Latino L.G.B.T. Catholics as having a deep connection to the church, at least in terms of devotions. Their faith, family and culture are intertwined, he says.

Latinos in the United States—most of whom were born here—made up nearly 18 percent of the country’s population in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Though growth has slowed in recent years, Latinos continue to be the largest ethnic minority in the United States, and about half of the community is Catholic. Among Latino Catholics, 70 percent supported nondiscrimination protections for L.G.B.T. people, and 65 percent favored the legalization of same-sex marriage, according to a 2018 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. But there remained a generation gap, with 77 percent of Latino Catholics between 18 and 29 supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage but only 42 percent of those over 65.

The Plascencias were instrumental in establishing the Always Our Children outreach program in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, an initiative that took its name from the U.S. bishops’ 1997 letter to “parents of homosexual children.”

“There’s still a desperate need for this ministry,” Ms. Plascencia says. The couple, now retired, share their experiences with me in their living room in La Quinta, Calif., not far from Palm Springs.

In 2011, the couple started traveling to a few parishes a month to give talks in both English and Spanish. When Mr. Plascencia got home after work, his wife would hop in the car with the dinner she had prepared. They would eat together on the way through the congested freeways and not get home until about midnight.

“We were able to bring a message of love and acceptance to people with different sexual orientations—and to their parents,” Mr. Plascencia says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this ministry has saved lives. By going around like itinerant messengers, this ministry has brought people together.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this ministry has saved lives.”

Their son, Xavier, came out to them 15 years ago, when he was 29. Mr. and Ms. Plascencia say they were very accepting.

“I told him, ‘You are my flesh and blood and I carried you. How could I not accept you?’” Ms. Plascencia recalls, with tears. Both parents regret that their son did not come out earlier. Before telling his parents, Xavi had met a man who helped him accept who he was. The two are now married.

“When we met Ted, we thought he was a wonderful young man,” Mr. Plascencia says. “You immediately feel he’s a good Christian in every aspect.”

This welcoming environment is far from a universal experience for Latinos and Latinas who come out to their families.

Mr. and Ms. Plascencia also used to host support groups in their living room, finding that many people felt more comfortable there than in church. Mr. Plascencia explained that people are often afraid or ashamed to be seen going into a room at church designated for a meeting for L.G.B.T. Catholics. But all sorts of people would come to their home—nuns, priests and parents as well as gay and lesbian Catholics. For a while, they were apparently the only Spanish-language L.G.B.T. support group in the archdiocese.

On one occasion, Ms. Plascencia says, a woman who had been attending the group for months finally brought her husband. They had learned that their son was gay; and while the mother was more accepting, the father was very angry.

Martha and Javier Plascencia helped establish support groups for parents of L.G.B.T. individuals in their living room in the Los Angeles area. (J.D. Long-García)

“He kept hitting himself,” Ms. Plascencia says, demonstrating that the man was punching his knee. “He kept saying he preferred his son would be dead than to be gay.”

One woman, whose daughter is lesbian, cried at every meeting. Another woman brought her Bible with her and would flip through it to particular verses. “But the Bible says that my son is going to go to hell,” she would say.

“Most of what you hear from the pulpit is rejection,” Mr. Plascencia says. “Some Catholics use the Bible as a penal code rather than as a book of love.”

The Plascencias may have been trailblazers when it comes to lay-led L.G.B.T ministry to the Latino community, but today they are not alone.

“Our social reality has changed, and it requires the church to respond in a way that is responsible and welcoming of the individual,” says Eddie De León, a Claretian priest who is chair of the department of spirituality and pastoral ministry at Chicago Theological Union.

Father De León says that many church leaders may not have a lot of experience with L.G.B.T. Catholics. Unfortunately, he says, they sometimes preach without hearing from people in this community.

Families also struggle with this lack of familiarity.

“What I find is there is often confusion, hurt, lack of understanding,” Father De León says. “All of us are children of God, and this is a sanctity of life issue. The bottom line is to offer hospitality and invite them in. And once they arrive, you listen.”

A Starting Point for Conversation

It is 2019, and Carlos Alarcón, an Oblate priest, is speaking about L.G.B.T. ministry in Spanish during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, an annual convention that draws tens of thousands of Catholics. Yunuen Trujillo, a recent law school graduate and a religious formation leader with the L.A. Archdiocese’s Catholic Ministry With Lesbian and Gay Persons, teams up with Father Alarcón for the presentation.

Catechists, parents and youth ministers pack the room for an often contentious dialogue, especially during the question-and-answer period. Father Alarcón reads from different parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“This is what you have heard,” Father Alarcón says, referring to a couple of paragraphs from the catechism, including No. 2357, which describes homosexual acts as “contrary to the natural law.” These acts are not open to “the gift of life” and are not to be approved, according to the catechism.

“This is what you have not heard,” he says, reading part of the paragraph that follows in the catechism: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

Father Alarcón has used these verses as a starting point for conversations with parents and groups for decades. Some parents come to hear an argument they can use to tell their children they are wrong, but when he reads the parts that deal with acceptance, they often get upset. “No, that’s not true,” they tell him. “They don’t want to hear that. But it’s the doctrine of the church, too.”

The priest has a long history with L.G.B.T. Catholics. After he entered the seminary, his brother came out to him. Later, his sister came out.

“I’ve been really privileged because people approach me,” he said. “What can I say as a priest representing the church? What can I say to these people so they can find a loving God, a merciful God, a forgiving God? I pray a lot so that God gives me the right words.”

Over the years, Father Alarcón has established support groups at parishes and spoken about accepting L.G.B.T. Catholics during homilies. He invites parishioners to reach out to him if they want to talk more about it.

A man in his 70s once reached out to him to talk. “He told me his beautiful story about discovering he was gay when he was 13,” Father Alarcón tells me in the rectory of St. Ferdinand Church in San Fernando, Calif. “He didn’t know what to do about it because all his life he’s been gay [and had never told anyone]. He felt so bad. All those years, he never dared to talk about it because he was so scared.”

Parents struggle both with their own preconceptions and with a fear that the community will reject them and their children.

Ms. Trujillo was asked by a participant if she was gay during the question period at the end of the session. She answered, unapologetically, that she identified as a member of the L.G.B.T. community. The audience cheered.

“How can we make sure we still walk together? When a person wants to know Jesus, how can we make sure we’re not presenting obstacles?” Ms. Trujillo tells me at a Denny’s in Baldwin Park. Latinos turn to the church in times of crisis, she says.

“We’re immigrants. The only thing that is the same in our life is the church,” says Ms. Trujillo, who came to the United States when she was 16.

When young people discover they are gay or lesbian, many struggle with what their family is going to say. Their parents, in turn, worry about the reaction from their own parents and siblings. “Se me cayó el bebé,” some will say, meaning, “I dropped the baby.” Parents struggle both with their own preconceptions and with a fear that the community will reject them and their children.

L.G.B.T. ministries try to offer a welcoming environment to individuals who have felt rejected by the church during vulnerable times in their lives.

While parish ministries focus on spiritual growth, Ms. Trujillo says L.G.B.T. ministries too often are forced into “doing damage control.” That includes trying to offer a welcoming environment to individuals who have felt rejected by the church during vulnerable times in their lives.

“[L.G.B.T. Catholics] could leave the church, and in some ways that would be easier to do. But this is where they found Jesus,” Ms. Trujillo says. “I’ve seen the good that ministry can do, and I have seen the bad. But there is much more good that the Catholic Church can do.”

The Rev. Michael Gutiérrez, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Baldwin Park, Calif., has faced challenges to L.G.B.T. ministries that he believes stem from certain cultural views. (J.D. Long-García)

Some parishes that are more open to L.G.B.T. communities have faced resistance from parishioners. The Rev. Michael Gutiérrez, the pastor of St. John the Baptist in Baldwin Park, Calif., has supported a ministry program for the L.G.B.T. community since it began at his parish in 2016. Yet, he said, young people and youth ministry leaders have struggled to talk about L.G.B.T. issues. His parish, which has large Latino and Filipino communities, has faced challenges he believes stem from certain traditional cultural views. It has lost families who did not like the outreach to the L.G.B.T. community.

“It is the reality of our families. We can’t ignore it,” Father Gutiérrez says, acknowledging that certain families in his community tend to “brush it under the rug” when it comes to the topic.

“As pastors, we’re obliged to speak up. We have to speak up when people are feeling left out.”

The Church ‘Wasn’t There for Me’

Cynthia Cortez was serving on the parish council when she told Father Gutiérrez about her sexual orientation, with the intention of starting a group at the parish. He was supportive, and Ms. Trujillo helped lead some of the initial sessions on church teaching.

“I always felt like I had the courage and skills and was strong enough to start it, but I didn’t know how,” Ms. Cortez says. “I felt like I needed to start a group so that people had a place to go.”

At first, the group was about church teaching, but it eventually became more of what Ms. Cortez describes as a “listening ministry.”

“A lot of people who were coming were stepping into a church for the first time in years,” she says. “They just wanted to hear, ‘God loves you.’ That’s what attracted them. Not the L.G.B.T. ministry. But to hear that they are loved.”

“They just wanted to hear, ‘God loves you.’ That’s what attracted them.”

Some who came were angry at the church, Ms. Cortez says, but the group learned to manage those conversations without getting defensive. Non-Catholics came, including atheists, but the group was never large. On average around 10 people, mostly Latina women, came to meetings during the first couple of years.

Some parents, she says, believed they had to choose God or their gay child, and she did not feel supported by other parishioners. She struggled to keep her faith. At the end of 2017, she had planned a trip to the Vatican and thought, once she made it there, everything would be O.K.

“I wanted that visit to make me feel like I wanted to stay in the church. But it didn’t. I was just accepted in this little small space,” Ms. Cortez says. “The Catholic Church wasn’t there for me. I created a space for myself. They didn’t. I didn’t think it was fair for me to keep carrying the burden of creating a space for me.”

She eventually left the Catholic Church. Ms. Cortez says she wanted to feel free but felt the only way she could do that was to leave the church. She had remained celibate and followed the church rules, but while she was supported by her pastor, she felt she was not accepted by other parishioners.

“You still need your parishioners to be supportive,” she says. “That doesn’t mean waving a rainbow flag. It means being seen as a person. We were still outcasts.”

Chastity and Courage

A number of different kinds of ministries throughout the country reach out to L.G.B.T. Catholics. New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA and Fortunate Families, for example, promote the acceptance of L.G.B.T. individuals in the church and society. In certain dioceses, members of the L.G.B.T. community can find listings of parishes that are more L.G.B.T.-friendly.

Then there is Courage, a group that has done outreach for nearly 40 years. In general, Courage, an approved apostolate of the Catholic Church, does not use the term “L.G.B.T.” to describe this community. Instead, it refers to those “experiencing same-sex attraction.”

Unlike the other groups I spoke with, Courage puts a heavy emphasis on chastity. The first of its five “goals for courage”—which are read at the beginning of every meeting—is “to live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.” The fourth goal also refers to chastity: “To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships.”

The first of five “goals for courage”—which are read at the beginning of every meeting—is “to live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”

“Every baptized person—priests, single, married, consecrated—is called to live the virtue of chastity,” Rossana Goñí Cuba, the Spanish-language coordinator at Courage’s international office, wrote in an email to America. “However, at Courage we emphasize chastity in our spiritual accompaniment since it is the virtue that, among others, will help our members to understand the meaning of their sexuality and its beauty as a whole.”

Currently, there are just two Spanish-language Courage chapters (out of 112 chapters nationwide) in the United States, Ms. Goñí says. Courage also has a program for parents, called EnCourage. But again, in the United States, there are only two Spanish-language EnCourage groups, and Ms. Goñí says most bilingual Latinos attend the English-language groups.

Some pastors who lead churches with Spanish-speaking communities are overwhelmed, Ms. Goñí says, speculating as to why there may be so few chapters. “Also, they might be a little afraid to minister to people who experience [same-sex attraction], possibly due to the still prevailing ‘macho’ culture,” she says. But even when groups are not available, she says, one-on-one accompaniment can help individuals recognize they are children of God.

“If people feel sexual attractions to the same sex, it doesn’t mean at all that the person is bad, but that his or her attractions are not according to God’s plan for human sexuality, since a same-sex sexual relationship is not open to the gift of life nor to the complementarity between the sexes,” Ms. Goñí says. “We are not defined by our sexual attractions. We are much more than that!”

“We have to tell them they are loved, but we also have to tell them the truth about the church teaching.”

Like some parents, Eva Cordova struggled with her son’s sexuality. She spoke to me in Spanish on her drive from work, but had to cut the call short when she arrived at home. She did not want to upset her son.

“I first tried to convince my son that it was not true,” Ms. Cordova says of learning that her son identifies as gay. “That was a two-year long conversation. I was so upset that I had not seen it.”

Her son did not play with other boys and he did not play sports, she says. They registered him in soccer for years, but he never liked it. When she spoke to a priest about it, he told her to throw him out of the house if he refused to change. She did not do that but kept trying to find ways to “heal” him.

“There are many parents who don’t look for help, and that lets the enemy enter,” she says, referring to the devil and his attempts to sow hatred within families.

The Rev. Richard Samour, a Courage chaplain in San Antonio, Tex., helped her through it. The priest is involved with three different groups, including a men’s Spanish-language group, and accompanies a transgender person. “We have to tell them they are loved,” he says, “but we also have to tell them the truth about the church teaching.”

He also leads Ms. Cordova’s group through online video conferencing. Her relationship with her son is not what it used to be, Ms. Cordova says, but they have come to respect each other’s beliefs.

One man said Courage helped him recover a different kind of masculinity that includes living chastely.

“He has a friend and we know each other,” she says, referring to her son’s boyfriend. “He comes to family parties…. I don’t want anyone to treat my son badly, so I will not treat that boy badly.”

I also interviewed a young man who is a member of a Courage chapter in California but chose not to reveal his real name. He said Courage helped him recover a different kind of masculinity that includes living chastely, not the “hyper-masculinity” depicted by Hollywood and Spanish-language telenovelas.

“My same-sex attraction is a reminder that I need God in every moment of my life,” he told me. “I consider myself a Latino man with unwanted same-sex attraction. My identity is as a beloved child of God. Sometimes I’ve had a hard time with that.”

‘Good, Queer Catholics’

The intersection of faith, family and culture is central to Ismael Ruiz’s work with L.G.B.T. Catholics in San Francisco, including a young adult group in the Castro, long known as a gay neighborhood. A number of Latino participants say they moved to the area to be away from families that rejected them. Mr. Ruiz, who teaches religious studies at Sacred Heart High School in the city, says a number of his students from Latino and Filipino backgrounds struggle with the issue.

The Latino men he works with retain a devotional spirituality, he says. They pray the rosary, take part in processions, venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe and attend many Spanish-language celebrations with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

“They retain their identity as Latinos and as Catholics, but their relationships with their families are often broken because their families don’t feel [that their two identities] fit together,” Mr. Ruiz says. Latinos tend to stay close to their families, he says, so losing contact is hard.

Javier Plascencia describes the symbolic meaning of the colors in the ”pride“ rainbow as part of his outreach to L.G.B.T. Latino Catholics. (J.D. Long-García)

“We need to understand that there are a lot of church teachings, social justice, love of neighbor. [Catholics] have a tool called conscience that helps them to decide what to do,” Mr. Ruiz says. “There are honest Catholics, Hispanic or not, who are trying to be good, queer Catholics.”

Most L.G.B.T. Catholics do not agree with the church teaching on homosexuality and live outside of it, he says. “We need to stop looking at them as people who need to be ministered to and see them as God’s gift and see how they can be a part of our communities,” Mr. Ruiz says.

In Los Angeles, Patricia Quirarte offers a similar perspective. She was one of 12 children growing up in Mexico, and her grandfather fought as a Cristero when the church was persecuted by the Mexican government in the 1920s. Her family used to call her la monja, “the nun,” as a child because she was so devout.

"We have to be open to the mystery that God is.”

She maintained her faith after moving to the United States and has been involved in the Movimiento Familiar Católico with her husband; they have both served as catechists.

After her daughter married, her son Miguel Ángel told her that he was bisexual. He was in high school.

“I don’t know what I am,” she recalls him telling her.

Ms. Quirarte set him up with a therapist through Catholic Charities so he could work it out. After six sessions, Miguel Ángel was ready to talk to his mom again. He was crying. Through the therapy sessions, he came to understand he was gay.

“I don’t want to embarass you guys,” he told his mom.

“First you have to accept yourself,” his mother told him.

“I can do one of those brainwash things,” he said to his mom, referring to the controversial “conversion therapy,” which claims it can change a person’s sexual orientation. Its use on minors is banned in many states.

“No, no, no,” Ms. Quirarte told her son.

“I am a man that is attracted to other men,” he told her before addressing some cultural stereotypes. “But I’m not going to put makeup on or put on dresses. And I’m not going to talk funny.”

She learned about the Catholic Ministry for Gay and Lesbian Persons, part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, at the L.A. Religious Congress. They assured Ms. Quirarte of her son’s standing in the church.

“I’ve learned that when we try to act like we have God figured out, we learn we really don’t,” Damarís Molina, who is involved with the Catholic Ministry for Gay and Lesbian Persons, told me. “We have to be honest with ourselves. Why would God put a person who identifies as L.G.B.T. in my path? We have to be open to the mystery that God is.”

Meeting with the group led to a change in Ms. Quirarte. “I’m going to start thinking that it isn’t so bad that my son is gay and that God loves him,” she remembers telling herself after meeting with the ministry. “That’s something I had never heard before.”

She began secretly attending an L.G.B.T. support group at Javier and Martha Plascencia’s house. “My husband loves my son, but he found it hard to accept him,” Ms. Quirarte says, adding that her husband had an anxiety attack after learning about his son. “He was praying that God would heal my son so that he would be attracted to women.”

After several months, she invited her son to accompany her to the meeting. When he realized what the meeting was about and how he was accepted there, he was overjoyed. “I’ll be happy when my father comes here,” she recalls him saying.

But still, Ms. Quirarte notes, a number of the parents who attended had kicked their kids out of the house. Some children had died by suicide. There is still a lot of prejudice in the community.

“There is such a great need,” Ms. Quirarte says. “There is so much ignorance. I would include myself in that. I did not know before. But the church accepts them as children of God. We need education, top to bottom, so that we become a church that is more open.”

Illustration by Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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