What is it like to be a Catholic who experiences Same-Sex Attraction (SSA)? My interest in this hidden community within our church led me to embark on an artistic project in my final year of university. As part of the research process, I had the privilege of interviewing 15 female Catholics with SSA in Singapore. Some of them shared their struggles to reconcile their sexuality with their faith, while others did not perceive a conflict between the two. Few chose the path of chastity.
From our conversations, it occurred to me that well-intentioned though our actions may be, they can sometimes unwittingly push our fellow brothers and sisters away. Several women left the church because they felt ostracised by community members. Instead of compassion, they were greeted with “thou shalt not’s” or “the bible says this” or some other language that created hostility. Church members did not seem to understand that the condition of same-sex attraction is not a sin; what the church does not condone are homosexual acts.
How do we as a church create a welcoming, loving home for all? I have gathered some pastoral notes based on my conversations with these women, and have observed that everyone grapples with these issues differently. I hope that highlighting these stories, it will nurture sensitivity and engender a more concerted response of love. I hope it will also bring about a shift in our approach when journeying with those with SSA who strive for chastity.
The first thing to know is that if someone chooses to share with you his/her struggle with SSA, it is a big step for him/her. It takes boatloads of courage to open up. They are probably thinking, “If I share this with you, will you judge me? Will you treat me differently?” Thus, how you respond to them will impact how they perceive God and the church for a long time.
Hold Space for Vulnerability
Words matter. How we hold spaces for others through our words, matter, especially when they have taken massive courage to be vulnerable with us. The “Clueless Evaders” amongst us would smile and politely say, “Thank you for sharing. Who’s next?” Or if we are unsure how to handle their sharing, shrug it off dismissively, “Well, it’s just another struggle. Everyone feels the same way.” Even if said out of goodwill or a general helplessness in the moment, they may take it as a sign that it is not a safe space to be vulnerable, and will possibly shut themselves out of your community and the church for a while.
The bottom line is to honour the person who has shared his/her struggles. It is perfectly fine to thank him/her, but not to abruptly move on as if you are checking off a task list. What you could say instead is, “Thank you for sharing with me. I know how difficult it must have been to decide to share; it was very brave of you.” After acknowledging their courage, offer some words that assure the other that he/she is loved beyond this. While there is no one “right” thing to say, some words create distance, while others, a space of intimacy and authenticity.
Love Persons as Persons, not Projects
Loving somebody does not mean compulsively seeking to fix them. Enter the next group of community members: “The Fixer Uppers”. When someone shares with you their struggle with SSA, you try to offer a slew of advice. This may be necessary at some point, but a relationship built on love has first to be established. They need to know that they are loved unconditionally, that you are there foremost as a friend, not an advice dispenser. The “Fixer Upper” approach affirms the feeling that one is broken, worthless, a mistake. Avoid taking the moral high-ground, even if in earnest. You are a friend, not their messiah. Imposing truths before relationship only pushes them away. But when they are ready, make sure that you have been educated on our Catholic teachings.
Another common group is what I call the “Praying Mantis”, whose mantra is “Come, let’s pray.” What our friends with SSA need is not for someone to “pray their gay away”. One of our interviewees, Danielle*, shared, “I don’t need you to pray for me now. I just want you to listen. I don’t need you to think that my soul needs saving. I just want a friend.” It is wonderful to pray together, but again, is the person ready? What are their needs at this moment? “We want to be treated as people, not projects, and certainly not problems to be solved.” said Danielle.
Parents, Don’t Put Your Child Back Into the Closet
Parents, when your kids come out to you, do not tell them that it’s “just a phase”. Teenagers will feel hurt if you belittle their struggle, and may instead try to prove you wrong. Even if that is true later, it is not for you to judge now. And do not put your kid back into the closet by shutting him/her off or refusing to listen. One of our interviewees recounted her mother telling her, “How can you be like this if you’re going for Mass and serving in church?” One parent even went to the extreme of sprinkling holy water on her child so she will be “cured”. Guilt-tripping a child, threatening him/her, or dismissing him/her will do a lot of harm to the young person trying to understand his/her sexuality in relation to his/her faith. Some of our interviewees shared that they felt like they were a disappointment to their parents.
Loving someone means wanting the best for them. Instead of making them feel even worse or diminishing their self-worth, parents should direct them first to God. It is hardest for a person to come out to anyone, especially those who are closest to them – their family. Let them know that they are loved no matter what. Then, they will be more open to sharing with and listening to you.
Let Them Fall in Love with God
We still have a long way to go as a church in learning how to receive our brothers and sisters with SSA with love. We should be heartened to know that there are those who have decisively chosen to live out chastity in their lives. Most do so because someone in the church, either a cell group leader, a fellow community member, or a priest during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, has shown them the face of Christ. “[My leader] saw past my struggles and loved me as a child of God,” said Leah. “She embraced me in my humanity in a non-disparaging way. She led me to God.” Another interviewee, Hannah, also said, “[My community members] recognised my struggle, honoured it, and gave me space to fall in love with Jesus. It’s not theology but a deep encounter I had of God which made me realise that this higher love is worth sacrificing all else for.”
Chastity is for All
People who experience SSA are just like you and me. Their SSA, however, means that they also experience intense loneliness, fear of being judged and ostracised, and struggle to remain chaste. Chastity is for every single baptised Catholic whether we have SSA or OSA (opposite-sex attraction). We are all sinners called to a Greater Love. There is no need to dramatise or downplay anyone with SSA, but let us honour their dignities as children of God, persons worthy of love.
Mariel is a final year student in a local university. She interviewed 15 Catholic ladies with SSA for her final year project, and in this article shares some insights derived from her study.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality