The daughter of two atheist academics who came out as gay in middle school, Eve Tushnet was in many respects an unlikely convert to Catholicism. But convert she did, and she tells her story in her new book, Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (Ave Maria Press).
In her book, Tushnet recounts how during her first week at Yale University, she decided to spend some time “gawking at zoo animals”—i.e., members of a conservative debate society. She reports how she “ended up in a long argument with one of the zoo animals, a Catholic divinity school student.” Through her contact with the debate society and its Catholic members, she came to encounter the Church. Like Pope Francis, those Catholic debaters journeyed to the edges, dialoguing with a young, precocious, and outspoken woman who “headed into [the] debate in hot pink fishnets, a tiger-print skirt held together with safety pins and lies, and a Boy Scout T-shirt, clutching a book by Sister Souljah.”
Today, Eve Tushnet travels to the edges herself. She blogs at Patheos, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Weekly Standard, Commonweal, and First Things, among other places. Last month she was featured on the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Post. In that article, reporter Michelle Boorstein describes Tushnet as “a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate.”
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Tushnet about her new book.
John Paul Shimek: Let’s talk for a moment about the design of the book. A lot of Christian books about homosexuality use cover art that sends a depressing message. The colors are dark. If people are depicted, their faces aren’t shown. Melinda Selmys’ book Sexual Authenticity (Our Sunday Visitor, 2009) broke precedent in that it featured a woman’s face.
Your book is different. Its cover design features a bright white background and rainbow colors. What kind of a message do you hope the cover sends to would-be readers?
Eve Tushnet: I played no role in picking the title or the cover, but I think they work well. I like the bright colors, as you note, and the general air of unapologetic openness. I love that Melinda’s book has a face on the cover, since so many Christian books about homosexuality have these really shame-tinged covers: the man looking down with his face in shadow, the guy only visible from neck to waist, the bandaged broken heart. I really wanted the book to feel matter-of-fact, personal, and hopeful.
Shimek: After the cover, one of the things I noticed immediately about the book was that it carries endorsements from people like Elizabeth Scalia, Robert George, and Brandon Vogt. Maybe a decade ago, the only people talking about homosexuality were those close to the issue: gay people themselves and their pastoral ministers, for example.
Do you have a sense that more people are talking about this issue now? Shouldn’t all Catholics be involved in this discussion even if they aren’t directly impacted by it?
Tushnet: I do think it’s good that straight Catholics are challenging themselves to understand experiences and pastoral needs which may be quite different from their own. We have a lot to learn from one another; I’ve learned so much about my own vocations by watching my straight, married friends.
What’s most exciting to me, though, is that gay Christians ourselves are being more vocal. We’re coming out both about our orientation and our celibacy, and that movement is reshaping how churches address gay people. That was all but unimaginable when I became Catholic and it’s so heartening and fascinating.
Shimek: So often we hear talk about “the Church’s teaching about homosexuality.” Some are quick to respond with a question: What teaching? Do three paragraphs in the Catechism and a moral prohibition against homo-genital activity constitute a teaching? Does the Church have a lot more thinking to do on this issue? Could the Church’s teaching on homosexuality develop to accept permanent, stable, but non-sexual relationships between two homosexuals?
Tushnet: Well, the Church doesn’t actually prohibit love or commitment or promises or care between two members of the same sex. She prohibits sex between them. My book explores some of the ways the Church has honored devoted, same-sex love in the past, like vows of friendship which united households. I do think the Church should rediscover friendship as a form of kinship; that would include straight people too, obviously! There are also people exploring the possibilities of celibate partnerships, which borrow from monastic models, creating a kind of “monastery of two,” or from siblinghood, creating a household of “sisters in Christ.”
Whether any of these arrangements are a good idea for a particular gay person who loves a particular other gay person is a matter for their respective spiritual directors. And like I said, these are models which are available to straight people as well; some of them, such as devoted or vowed friendship, are open to married people who wish to bring an unmarried friend into their family or unite their household with another couple’s household.
Shimek: Many indicators seem to suggest that the Church has lost the debate over same-sex marriage. What did we do wrong? How can we reframe the discussion?
Tushnet: I stayed away from the question of gay marriage in the book on purpose. The one thing I’ll say about it is that we’ve persistently narrowed down the kinds of relationships we consider “family,” worthy of commitment and social honor. Nowadays the only way you can make a publicly-honored commitment to another adult is to marry that person. Part of the reason the gay-marriage debate is so heated is that gay people don’t perceive any other way that they can promise to love and care for another person—and giving and receiving devoted love is a basic human longing.
So one way Catholics can “turn down the heat,” perhaps, is by honoring other forms of love and care. If people treated friendship as (in some cases) a form of kinship, deserving of the same social honor as marriage—and, let’s be blunt here, the same practical support, such as health benefits and compassionate leave policies for caregivers—how would our society change? How would our own lives look different if we took friendship more seriously as a form of sacrificial love, an image of God’s love for us?
Shimek: I’m reminded of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s discussion of “Fraternity, Economic Development, and Civil Society” in his parting encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate. Perhaps, gay and lesbian Catholics can help us restore the importance of friendship, fraternity, and commitment outside of marriage as foundational principles for a free and just society. Maybe this is a special gift they bring to the Church at this point in time.
Sometimes it is said that the Church’s moral prohibition against homo-genital activity is an “unfunded mandate”; homosexuals are told what not to do, but not what to do. The Magisterium seems to be silent on questions about the role and vocation of the homosexual in the Church. Those in the pews sometimes affix a social stigma to being gay, even if one is celibate and upholds Church teaching. Is there a better way of approaching this issue and those directly affected by it? How do we move toward a brighter day, so to speak?
Tushnet: Oh yeah, thank you, this is close to the heart of what my book is about. First of all, we absolutely can do better to welcome gay people in the Church. I have some suggestions in my book’s final appendix for those who are looking for specific ideas. More generally, the message gay people overwhelmingly hear from the Catholic Church is, “You can’t get married and you can’t have sex.” What they should be hearing—what we should be saying—instead is, “You are created by God in love, and called to love and serve others. You’re called both to give and receive love to God and to those around you. You’re called to increase the beauty and tenderness in the world. Here are some of the many ways you can lead a fruitful, beautiful life: mystical prayer, artistry, service to those in need, service to your family of origin or creation of a ‘family of choice,’ and devoted friendship—but that’s only a glimpse of the wide array of vocations you might have. We promise to walk with you and support you in your vocations, as you support us in ours.”
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