“The change in public attitudes had a profound and lasting impact on European institutions and culture as a result of the permanent and official expression it achieved in thirteenth-century laws, literature, and theology, all of which continued to influence Western thought and social patterns long after the disappearance of the particular circumstances which produced them.”
—John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
We’ve heard of righteous enterprises seeking to turn gay people straight through so-called conversion therapies that don’t work. Exodus Global Alliance, recently scandalized by its brutal Ugandan contacts, comes to mind, or methods to “turn gays straight” revealed so hilariously in the mockumentary Bruno.
However, the ministry known as Courage would appear to offer a more rational, humane approach. Tailored specifically to support persons with same-sex attraction, it is pontifically approved. As a Catholic organization, Courage supposedly loves the sinner, but not the sin.
Instead of “conversion therapy,” Courage’s first goal is to have participants live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality. “Chaste” is the preferred term over “abstinence.”
Support sessions, as Courage’s third goal states, “foster a spirit of fellowship in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences, and so ensure that none of us have to face the problem of sexuality alone.”
The Courage participants I was associated with referred to this so-called problem as a “disorder” and a “gender disorder,” even though the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. To further reinforce this misconception, Courage directly borrows from the “Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous” in “The Twelve Steps of Courage.”
The word “gay” automatically is deflected, because it’s considered “a sociopolitical term.” Hence, any deeper discussion of gay folk beyond their sexual urges is ruled out. That deep love between men occurs and can bring social stability is shut out.
One man at a Courage session I attended said, “Gay men are not able to love other gay men. It’s just about sex.”
That was the group’s standard view.
Toxic Myths and Messaging
Doug Jensen, a Twin Cities-based Clinical Social Worker, explains, “One of the core reasons why people stay closeted and internalize that same-sex attraction is negative comes from religious-based messages. Even political campaigns fall into this. It’s always based on religion, and that God thinks it’s wrong. There’s fear of repercussions—familially, socially, and occupationally. Messages are repeated and repeated and repeated from the day we are born that the only healthy role model is the healthy straight relationship. There are not nearly enough healthy role models for gay men, and I don’t think Will & Grace is a healthy role model. It’s very hard for anyone to challenge these pervasive and chronic messages, and there are layers and layers and layers in media, church, and family that transmit this.”
I Become “Courageous”
I was admitted into Courage, whose local chapter is known in Minnesota as Faith in Action (FIA), after contacting Kathy Laird, Director of the Office of Family, Laity, and Youth for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I was put in touch with Father Jim Livingston at his North Memorial Hospital Chaplain’s Office in the suburb of Robbinsdale northwest of Minneapolis, where he interviewed me for 45 minutes.
Livingston seems an odd choice to advance homosexual abstinence. Middle-aged but well-preserved, he’s handsome and athletically built, stands more than six feet tall, and wears glasses without looking nerdy. He has a knack of making you feel like you’re all that matters.
Using an alias, I feigned a blue-collar identity as a man whose breakup with his girlfriend had surfaced unexpected attractions to men, making me worry that these feelings would lead toward my ruin.
Livingston sympathized, stating that my situation was not uncommon—and on that count, he was right. He stressed that FIA is not a program to turn gay men straight, but a space where, as the Courage Apostolate asserts, I might “experience the freedom of interior chastity.”
A few weeks later, I went to St. Charles Borromeo Church in St. Anthony, a suburb northeast of Minneapolis. I was met by Father Paul A. Fontaine, who buzzed me in to a sequestered area for FIA’s weekly two-hour rap session. Herein, closeted men share their success, or lack thereof, in their struggle to abstain from not only homosexual contact, but also homoerotic feelings that may lead to masturbation, since the last week or their last attendance. FIA or Courage are not listed on St. Charles’s website.
A different priest facilitates each week. La Fontaine, Pastor of St. Charles, is a middle-aged man who seems a bit world-weary. Father Jim Liekhus, from St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in suburban Hopkins, looks to be around age 30, and has an intense edge. Livingston, charismatic and comfortably low-key, is the most effective facilitator, who can sting with Biblical admonition, and then turn appealingly soft-spoken.
Bourne Is Not Porn
Two generational polarities seemed to define the FIA group, though all ages consciously, deliberately were on guard against that which would tempt them to homoerotic lust. Imagine a coffee klatch of matrons fretting about unbidden erotic feelings.
One man, who shared that he had watched a DVD of Matthew Bourne’s choreography, called it “pornography.” Then again, much is deemed pornographic by the group. Having interviewed Bourne, I stifled a laugh. His crossgender Swan Lake, an unprecedented global hit, supremely blended athleticism with grace. His family appeal is solid, with a dance version of Edward Scissorhands and his Broadway triumph, Mary Poppins.
The group’s reflexive tendency is to label any image of an attractively contoured, athletic man ipso facto pornography.
One participant, quite fit, no longer goes to the gym because of other in-shape, naked, and tempting manly bodies to be seen there. He noted, “I have all my workout equipment at home now.” He had been attending FIA for years, yet it seemed that even though he had gotten everything else in his life in order—finances, good health, satisfying job, and social networks—he never could drive away his desires.
This man described it metaphorically: “I spend a lot of time shifting my focus onto green plants, rather than the elephant. The elephant is my disorder. Looking at the plants keeps my mind off the elephant.”
The fellow shared this struggle that just wouldn’t go away a few times, one of them being when Hope Lutheran Church Associate Pastor Tom Brock was a fellow participant. Brock himself made a point of saying that the man’s description of his struggle with abstinence dovetailed with what he, too, was going through.
Old Wives’ Tales of Aging
Closeted Gay Men
Another man, a fair bit older, brought up the “what if” trap. He wondered out loud, “What if I had let that guy buy me a drink?”—25 years ago. He thought he then might have turned to a life of sin. Regret masquerading as character?
This same person also carried a grandiose sense of guilt over a friend he had sex with decades ago who moved to San Francisco with his wife, contracted AIDS, and died. As if cautioning the others, he lamented, “If only I hadn’t had sex with him, maybe he’d still be alive today.”
Trans Does Not Equal Gay
That man also warned of someone who “spent a lot of money on porn and women’s clothes. It got to the point where he would have to travel all over just to hide it, so that nobody in town would know. It was destroying him financially.” The participant generalized that because the man crossdresses, he’s gay. But that’s not necessarily true. Straight men can and do crossdress, while countless gay and bisexual men have no interest at all in crossdressing.
The Illusion of Balance
On the other hand, talk about honorable aspects of gay politics was allowed, as long as it didn’t dominate discussion, and it did happen a few times.
A younger man who made the common group complaint of abject loneliness related that he had broken down, and gone to a barbecue hosted by gay friends. He thought they were courageous for facing discrimination, and being out in a homosexual-hostile world.
Two men expressed a fairly principled difference of opinion about the right of long-term gay partners and hospital-visitation rights in cases of serious and terminal illness. This issue recently took the form of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the Final Wishes Bill. One of the two is a senior citizen, and FIA is a social event he looks forward to weekly.
Heterosexual Primacy Versus Homosexual Demonization
However, these seemingly fair and balanced moments were ephemeral. Occasionally, childhood traumas surfaced.
One man observed with visceral anguish, “When my Dad found out, he said he hoped I wouldn’t molest kids.” That his father’s comment was brutal and unfair was acknowledged. But in FIA’s eyes, it’s to be expected and accepted as a cross to bear—because, after all, the son is “disordered.” No discussion took place about the father’s ignorance—where he might have gotten such destructive ideas, or where does one draw the line regarding the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
A very troubled man in his 20s—who had utter contempt for progay activism—literally seethed with anxiety about social pressures he felt were out there in the world that wanted him to go the way of homosexuality—hence, away from salvation. He had visited various priestly orders on a quest for his life’s purpose. Although he clearly and naturally presented as straight and masculine, he was hyperconscious that others “would know.” It gnawed at him.
The younger men in the group utterly were tyrannized that they don’t have nuclear families, and make less money than other siblings. They severely were hooked into obvious patterns of sibling rivalry—comparison and competitiveness—that any therapist immediately would have honed in on. But no need to reckon with that in FIA’s eyes. Just stay “chaste.”
It’s the Media’s Fault!
It’s the Culture!
Participants often groused about “the culture”—code for the endless train of signals in the media and outside world that make them think of hot men.
During the only time I heard the Catholic priest pedophile scandals mentioned, it was Catholicism that was being persecuted, not the kids. One middle-aged man insisted with great indignation that he was “sick of everyone trying to destroy my church!” The University of St. Catherine, St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis, and President Barack Obama, along with a man who had defected from the group and started a progay self-esteem website, were referred to with sarcastic derision.
Livingston told me at my interview that some men in the group ended up just “throwing away their computer” because of the cultural temptation it offered.
Participants felt computers were Satan’s playthings, because they led to Internet gay porn and man-to-man hookups. But even channel-surfing on television was treacherous, because one always would encounter images to trigger homoerotic desire. So, technology is Satan’s enabler. That the onus is on us to control technology, rather than letting it control us, is not considered.
Jensen’s view applies to the FIA group I attended, which definitely was layered in negative messaging about same sex attraction. In a metro area as multifaceted and multicultural as the Twin Cities, it seemed so odd that a group of men—mostly over 40, with college degrees—was so sheltered from information about the outside world.
These men were steeped in paranoid stereotypes of gayness reminiscent of the late 1940—a Mattachine Society in reverse. Instead of a secret inquiry into the roots of gay oppression because homosexuality was unmentionable, the Courage group was a secretly convened reinforcement of that oppression in our comparably far more liberal time.
Bisexuality never was spoken of. Crossdressing sweepingly and wrongly was assumed to be a homosexual behavior.
Everyone in the group but one could pass as Caucasian. The only man of color who occasionally showed up complained that at past meetings, he had not been understood fully.
But then, Courage pelvis-gazes in a time warp. It was formed in 1980 under the aegis of Terence Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop of New York, with Father John Harvey as Founding Director. That was soon after Anita Bryant’s antigay campaign galvanized social conservatives, setting the tone for an antigay backlash exacerbated shortly thereafter when the AIDS crisis hit.
All that was a generation ago. Waves of new information and analysis since have influenced both GLBT consciousness and the hetero mainstream.
Nowadays, reasonable conservatives respect lavender thinkers such as Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia, both Catholics, and Bruce Bawer, with Catholicism in his background. But they’re of no interest to Courage, which is oblivious to straight allies being commonplace now. Even revered conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times at Minneapolis’s Westminster Town Hall Forum called same-sex marriage a conservatizing force.
Courage has erased GLBT historical heroes. No mention of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, crucial in George Washington’s modernization of the Continental Army; Nobel Laureate Jane Addams of Hull House fame; pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, exiled from Nazi Germany; or Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, subversively anti-Communist museum founder.
Religion Versus Science
In the anti-Copernican spirit felt even today in the antiscience Culture Wars, Courage does not believe that homosexuality is biologically determined. It cleaves to a belief that sexual orientation is disordered, and can be changed. However, most of the men in my Courage group long had been flummoxed and tormented about why after all the years they’d been attending meetings, they had not changed, but still had to fight off desires for men, homoerotic fantasy, and masturbation spurred by such fantasy. The group has a stated fear of ministries that see gays as having special gifts from God. Courage members attend Mass often, typically at more conservative parishes.
Chaste friendships are extolled as necessary in celibate Christian life, propagating the archaic myth that gay men are unable to have platonic relationships with other gay men, or that they constantly must be submerging nymphomanical passions toward straight men.
Those who see sexual suppression as noble, or a necessary evil, may think Courage’s abstinence position sounds healthy or “mature”—after all, promiscuity indeed can lead to self-destruction if not seriously tempered.
But Courage is a Lewis Carroll world where preoccupation with sexual abstinence paradoxically becomes a kind of sexual fixation. And, of course, who gets to define promiscuity?
Laughable But Tragic
If you chuckled over some of my observations as an FIA participant, that’s healthy. Overreaction to sexual issues certainly can be humorous. But remember that this is an essentially tragic situation, so check your wrath and scorn.
These men, drenched in all their unexamined notions, are chained in palpable fear of loss of public face and eternal damnation should they ever acknowledge their natural impulses even in their most singular private moments—much less act upon them. After each session, participants can go to confession down the hall with the facilitating priest.
The priests deserve some pity. They don’t know themselves. They supposedly always have held to celibacy, so the expansive nature of sexual awakening healthily channeled is shut off to them—arrested development. To read a variety of sexual literature and sexology rather than the draconian treatises on sex’s supposedly sinful nature or “unnaturalness” would subvert the blind, unquestioning obedience that the authoritarian realm of the Catholic hierarchy commands. In essence, these priests and their adherents have been emasculated.
Hunger and sex are two basic human drives. When they are satiated to excess, serious problems indeed do arise. When hunger is not addressed, we starve. When sex is not addressed, we unconsciously short-circuit that energy toward inappropriate and/or self-destructive behaviors.
Courage does not speak for all Catholics. Religions, by and large, can be interpreted toxically or splendidly. A wonderful thing about Catholicism, as well as Lutheranism, is that within their ranks is a willingness to look at their own warts—something any number of other Christian denominations and other faiths do not do. Both denominations were thought by some to have dropped the ball in the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, it’s natural that in the following decades, so many Catholics and Lutherans have returned to Jesus’ beautiful, loving teachings, and championed human rights and the virtue of compassion.
While attending FIA, I made a point of watching two wondrous classic films that wrestle with Catholic theology. Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits wisely cautions that religious concepts misapplied can hardwire psychic damage in females. Franco Zeferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon rescues Catholicism, reminding us how utterly colossal was the love of St. Francis of Assisi for all of God’s creation.
As long as members of any religion keep mean-spiritedness at bay, and incorporate new information in a changing world, they can be much-needed forces for human betterment and stewardship of the earth. With that frame of mind, timeless values put forth by religion can be revivified instead of being stuck obstinately in the 13th Century.
Jensen remarks, “People need to stop blaming God, and own their own insecurities and fears.”
Melik Kaylan warns from a Muslim perspective: “Arabian fundamentalists concluded that if post-medieval progress in the world made their values unworkable, then it was the world’s fault, and the world should be stopped in its tracks.”
One can argue that the same applies to certain—though far from all—interpretations of Christianity. Let’s hope the generation of moderate and progressive Catholics—and lots of them are out there—will stop the new Flat Earthers in their tracks.
As for those struggling with coming to terms with sexual orientation at variance to strict heterosexuality, nonjudgemental, confidential therapists and counselors can provide individual help at whatever point of openness or closetedness one is at. It’s all about letting go of shame.