Several years ago, while I sat at my desk one morning at Continuum, an AIDS agency in San Francisco where I served as executive director, the phone rang. The caller identified herself as a secretary to the First Lady and asked if I would come to the White House for a community leaders’ forum later that month. After my initial startled reaction, I said, “Why, of course!” As you might guess, I was honored, felt privileged, saw this as an obligation and was very excited.
Fast forward to several weeks ago. My friend Robert Hotz, S.J., the president of Creighton Prep, the Jesuit high school that I attended in Omaha, Neb., where my younger brother Greg teaches, called me one morning. Father Hotz asked if I would return to Prep and speak to the faculty about my experience of being a gay student and offer suggestions regarding what Prep might do to assist its gay students. Again I felt privileged; I was honored; I understood this as an obligation. But this time I was not excited. The hand that held the phone was trembling!
I hadn’t been back to Prep for 35 years. I had been in Prep’s gym for a Christmas midnight Mass and had visited the track to watch my brother John and my nephew Brian practice football, but I had never set foot in the school since graduation day in 1966. But several weeks later, there I was.
In thinking about what to say to the teachers, I realized that I wanted to say one perfect thing that would forever change the way all gay students are treated. But, of course, there is no one perfect thing to say, and I am one imperfect human being. So instead I decided to tell them who I am, a bit of my experience, some of what I have learned, and how I believe it is possible for them to serve all of their students better—particularly the gay students—at Prep.
After graduating from Prep in 1966, I spent four years at its mother institution, Creighton University. In 1970 I joined the Society of Jesus and spent the next 10 years in a variety of ministries, most satisfyingly as a scholastic at another Jesuit prep school.
It was also as a Jesuit that I befriended alcohol. I got sober in 1978, and for a multitude of reasons—but not because I did not greatly value Ignatius’ vision—I decided the following year to leave the Society. Subsequently I served as principal at a black elementary school and vice principal of a large, multicultural Catholic girls’ high school in San Francisco. For the past 17 years I have been a psychotherapist, working in private practice, in hospital-based substance abuse treatment centers and, particularly, in the AIDS epidemic. From 1993 to 1999, I led an agency that cares for dual-diagnosed individuals with disabling H.I.V. disease in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district.
Two years ago, in response to a call I first felt before entering high school in 1962, I left my formal work in the epidemic and focused on my interior journey. Last year I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, where, in a small cottage on an island off County Mayo, I spent 30 days in silence, praying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, saying again yes to the One whose call is irresistible. Nowadays I spend my time in a ministry of prayer and of presence with those discarded by the culture.
But back to Prep.
As I was preparing my remarks for that afternoon’s talk, I realized that I was not the 52-year-old man that I appeared to be. Instead, I was once again the sophomore of 1963, a 16-year-old gay boy, thrown back in time. I re-experienced my old life, with feelings and memories that echo within and haunt me still.
Though I have since “butched up” pretty well, I was a sissy, and Prep was no place for sissies. After a difficult freshman year, I begged my parents to transfer me to the local public high school. That request was, for my father, tantamount to heresy. Little did he know how ashamed and deeply isolated I felt inside as a student in this revered high school. I lived in constant fear that I would be exposed and dread that I would be discovered as a despised thing, whose name I did not know but whose negative effects I could see and feel all around me, mostly deep inside me.
All was not bad, of course. I had some wonderful teachers, Jesuits and laymen alike. (In my four years, there were no women on the faculty.) My senior English teacher, a coach, particularly impressed me: he taught us to write from our feelings, and he showed each of us respect and dignity. And at Prep, my faith deepened: I encountered Jesus in a profound way and was introduced to rudimentary Ignatian wisdom, that incomparable combination of spiritually and psychologically grounded understanding and intuition. I had lovely friendships. And I made my first forays into critical thinking.
But Prep was a difficult place for a gay boy. At the time, Prep strongly supported the values of the dominant culture, values anathema to the development of persons, values particularly suited to molding boys into narrow and constricted young men.
Let two incidents suffice as examples. At the Prep homecoming football game at City Stadium in my freshman year, I was sitting with a friend when two thugs from my homeroom approached. One said to the other, “This is the one,” and grabbed my collar and stood me up in the bleachers. The other sucker-punched me in the gut, threw me back into my seat and walked away, laughing scornfully. They imparted the knowledge that I dreaded: “We’re onto you.” For four years I lived with that fear every day, always believing that somehow I deserved what I got for being the one, the one they were onto.
Though they were thugs, they were also the kind of minor celebrity that high schools produce. Both were touted athletes (the sucker-puncher became All-State Football in his senior year). But they were thugs nonetheless, thugs whom the dominant culture unconsciously encouraged. And still does.
In sophomore year, like nearly all high school boys, I fell in love, though in a different way from my friends. I did not fall in love with a girl from one of the local Catholic girls’ schools. I fell in love instead with a boy who sat one row away from me. It felt overwhelming: I was alarmed, ashamed, guilty. There was no one with whom I could speak, no one with whom I could share these feelings, even to acknowledge that the feelings existed. I felt then the beginnings of what I would feel most profoundly for the next 15 years: I was alone. And I believed that I would always have to be alone: with no language, no community, no symbol nor myth, no conversation, no dialogue, no hope.
What I acquired at Prep were the messages proffered by the dominant culture. During puberty’s final onslaught I came to believe that I was evil. And more: that I was sick, sinful and unacceptable in the eyes of the world. All our culture’s words and notions and judgments came home to roost in me, a 16-year-old gay boy, whom the world, let alone his parents, could not know.
But finally, and primarily, I came to believe that I was unacceptable as a human being in the eyes of God.
The more I prayed to be changed, which was the concentrated content of my prayer (deeply aware that I had not chosen this but believing it was visited upon me because of my sinfulness), I regarded my not changing as God’s judgment on me. My prayer and my life must be insincere, somehow beyond the pale. I had no access to the simple grace that everyone else seemed to merit.
The one I called God, and my companion Jesus, previously the source of such great comfort in my life, were taken away—or they had left. They had abandoned me to despair because the person I had become could effect no change, could not desist from either my feelings or my desires, no matter how hard I fought them or prayed to be delivered from them. In the end, I was utterly alone.
This is the terror for gay boys and girls: that they are alone. We suffer without the comfort and love of a mother or a father, of friends or even the odd solace of the cosmos. No one with whom to share this terrible fate: we believe all the culture’s heinous images, holding our young selves responsible for this sick and perverted condition. There is no symbol to transform the experience, no story to provide context for it, no person to explain it or bear it away.
Sometimes I think: Who would wish this on an enemy?—let alone a child or a friend. But this is what happens to gay boys and girls in this culture.
On the inside, I experienced a circular existence of guilt, shame, expiation. On the outside I “straightened” up as best I could, and forced into being the image of the “good boy,” “one of you,” as much as possible, knowing all the while I was not nor ever would be.
Eventually, I discovered the immense relief alcohol brings, with which I was finally able to mask and relieve the constant pain. I drank for 12 years, culminating in a near-fatal auto accident in June of 1978. Even then I continued to drink.
But that same summer, on Labor Day, while riding my bike early in the morning on the shores of Lake Michigan, nursing a particularly brutal hangover, I heard the words: You never have to drink again.
I knew it was over.
A few weeks later, back in Berkeley studying theology as a Jesuit, I went to a rally to defeat Proposition 6 on the California ballot, not so unlike the recent initiatives against gay people disguised as being about something else (like the sacredness of marriage) that have been popping up everywhere. The initiative would have required firing any teacher in California discovered to be gay. That afternoon I went to San Francisco in my Roman collar, not wanting anyone to think I was a gay man, though I had in truth never been anything else. Harvey Milk, the soon-to-be assassinated gay supervisor, gave what was his standard speech. He proclaimed that we didn’t have to be afraid anymore, for we were together, alive and free. He asserted we were there for the little boy in Fresno and the little girl in Sacramento who tonight believed they were all alone.
I was deeply moved, really undone; Harvey Milk, in those few words, was telling my story. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I pulled the white tab out of my clerical collar and wept.
I went home on the subway that evening, entered my room in my Jesuit community, put a piece of paper in the Selectric and typed out the words: “I am a gay man.” I was 30 years old.
That day I vowed with the conviction only a reformed drunk can muster never to live in fear again and, at all costs, to be myself, no matter what or who would say no. For I knew the dominant culture says no every day. And everyday, I began to pray for the grace to say yes.
• • •
My story is a version of the “coming out” story of every gay boy or girl, and these stories will continue until the dominant culture, which suffers exquisitely from its own homophobia, withdraws its enormous and blinding sexual shadow.
Homophobia, the stepchild of misogyny, exists for a simple reason. Society projects the enormity of its unconscious sexual shadow—its desires and fears and taboos—onto gay persons. It stigmatizes, scapegoats, labels as degenerate, makes laws against, violates both the dignity and humanity of, and demands (as cultures do of their scapegoats) that gay people bear its oppressive burdens. If you wonder how this collective model works, look at the history of the Jews in the West since the time of Paul, or consider the way that patriarchy regards the humanity of women.
From seventh grade to the age of 30, nothing was worse than being gay. But, as Providence would have it, I now understand this biological, psychological and spiritual dimension of myself, my gayness, as the source of enormous grace and wisdom for me. I am deeply grateful, almost in inverse proportion to my previous regret, for being gay. I am grateful for the grace of my particular path and for the deep freedom that coming to terms with this gift has afforded me. And I have had returned to me my compelling and demanding companion, Jesus, who of course had never left me at all.
The overwhelming thrust of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministering in the margins to the unrecognized, is no longer just a model for me but has become an outward sign of grace, a sacrament. So my story comes in ways, though skewed, full circle. I am even today that 14-year-old boy who came to Prep in 1962 to become a man.
I concluded my remarks at Prep by offering some suggestions to the faculty, premised on the following truth: that all gay kids and most gay adults believe they are damaged goods and, as a corollary, that all gay kids and many gay adults feel (and are) isolated and alone.
The head of the school asked me to say what I had needed to hear at Prep in 1963 and what gay Prepsters need to hear today. I believe they need to hear three things. First: You are created exactly as God intended you to be. Second: You are not damaged goods, neither sick, nor evil. Third: You and the love you provide are essential, mysterious graces in God’s plan for the world.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I asked them to accept my gratitude and admiration for the courageous way in which they had received me so graciously that day, for inviting me to tell my story. They have perhaps unwittingly healed an old wound in me, and I am in their debt. I asked that God bless the work they are doing in making the school a sacred place for every student who enters those doors each day, boys they have been given the charge of helping to become men for others.