“What the world needs most is a voice that courageously speaks the truth, not when the world is right, but a voice that speaks the truth when the world is wrong.” – Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
In 1999, I left homosexuality for the last time. I had sort of tried to do that before, when I coupled up with another gay man and we attempted to set up house on the outskirts of the Castro District in San Francisco. For awhile we were content to stay home and entertain a few select friends, other similarly like-minded men. Occasionally, we would venture out to one of the local bars or dance-clubs, albeit sticking close to one another. However, we purposefully distanced ourselves from the former haunts of our more heady youthful days – namely the bathhouses. All went well. Until everything went wrong.
But before that, when I first wandered into the all-male environs of San Francisco, the ever-present stench of death was overpowered by the constantly wafting smell of sweat and semen. These were the entirely male essences of sport and vitality that, as a boy, I always felt separated from. In this male elixir, I thought I found the truth. The miraculous cure to all that ailed me. The lonely boy would no longer feel isolated; the kid everyone bullied would think he mattered; the teenager no one wanted to be around could finally find friendship. Only, those same bodily fluids quickly dried up or carried death.
Beginning in the 1990s, gay male monogamy was seen as the answer to the AIDS crisis. This idea was most thoroughly articulated by Gabriel Rotello in his 1997 book “Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men.” But like vanguard gay journalist Randy Shilts, the author of “And the Band Played On,” had done before him, Rotello was unapologetic about the excesses of gay male culture which had almost driven it to the point of extinction. In his 1987 docudrama about the initial days of the AIDS epidemic, Shilts recounted the sometimes prodigious exploits of two early protagonists:
A passionate devotee of sexual liberation, Gary believed that promiscuity was a means to exorcise the guilt and self-alienation ingrained in all gay men by a heterosexual society clinging to the obsolete values of monogamy…Over lunch, the pair planned a weekend trip to the gay resort area on the Russian River, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Joe wasn’t surprised when Gary later canceled, complaining of a yeast infection in his mouth. Gary always seemed to be getting sick.
Years later, what Rotello advocated was a massive acceptance of gay male monogamy:
Simply put, without partner change no STD can spread. Partner A may infect partner B, but things will end there. In a thoroughly monogamous population there would be no STDs at all, no matter how infectious certain microbes might theoretically be. Conversely, the higher the level of partner change, the more likely that even microbes that are relatively hard to transmit will have an opportunity to spread.
Yet, even to my generation who came-out in the midst of AIDS, this peculiar swerve towards a highly conservative view of sexuality looked alien to those that had grown accustomed to constantly accessible routes of open and unencumbered physical expression. But Shilts seemed to have unconsciously pointed out a major fault in the “gay” experiment – the lack of a stabilizing sexual complementarity due to the absence of women:
…by definition, you had a gay male subculture in which there was nothing to moderate the utterly male values that were being adulated more religiously than any macho heterosexual could imagine…Promiscuity was rampant because in an all-male subculture there was nobody to say ‘no’ – no moderating role like that a woman plays in the heterosexual milieu. Some heterosexual males privately confided that they were enthralled with the idea of the immediate, available, even anonymous, sex a bathhouse offered, if they could only find women who would agree. Gay men, of course, agreed, quite frequently.
Traumatized by the deaths of so many friends and lovers, the euphoria of coming-out and discovering my sexuality, in hindsight, I reassessed as rather immature and reckless. Only, the longer I stayed away from it, from the sexual freedom, which the character of Gary from “And the Band Played On” surmised as the rite by which the gay demons of a disaffected adolescence are finally exorcised, I felt as if I were being repeatedly repossessed. There was a nagging something that always seemed to be missing. In an attempt to fill that void – I invited others into my body. But no sort of harmony was achieved by these unions, only a simulacrum of the convergence achieved between husband and wife. It was the same kind of reversion practiced within the Black Mass. This was the Truth turned on its head; or more precisely a lie disguised at the Truth.
After more than twelve years as a gay man, there were no more lies to hear. Every fork in the yell-brick-road finished at a dead-end; somewhere over the rainbow, I never made it to Oz. So I turned for home. My parents had never bought into my daydreams. They greeted me like the returning prodigal. Their house was a quiet and safe refuge from the insanity I just barely escaped – and a surprising repository of the Truth.
In those first days after fleeing my former life, I was desperate. Over the previous decade, I explored every opportunity in my restless attempt to find fulfillment: pornography, bisexuality, homosexuality, the New Age, and the occult. The one option I never tried was Jesus Christ. Now, He had returned to my consciousness. However, there were few substantial memories: a faded paper holy card of the Nativity, an old statue of St. Joseph that always sat on my father’s dresser, an inexpensive alabaster reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta. There was caring and compassion in those images of divine intimacy: the Christ-child in His Mother’s arms; the face of the sleeping baby Jesus pressed to the chest of his foster-father; the sorrow of Mary over the dead body of her Son. This was the Truth.
In my parent’s bookshelf, I was inexplicably attracted to two books: The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Bible. I read several passages over and over again: the short paragraphs in the Catechism relating to homosexuality and the episode with Jesus talking to the woman caught in adultery. The message of both were succinct and decisive: that my life had been taken over by chaos, and that forgiveness was possible. Some have criticized the Catechism and the words used to described homosexuality as unduly harsh; I thought they were incredibly charitable. But even in their apparent bluntness, the Truth is often a smelling salt that shocks the senses and revives the comatose dreamer.
First, I wanted forgiveness. I asked God to pardon my many sins. But something remained incomplete. A couple of days later, I was standing in a short line to receive the Sacrament of Penance. I hadn’t been in a long while. I explained something of my previous life to the priest. And, although his voice was calm and soothing, I knew what he told me was not the Truth. While my theological knowledge was hitherto confined to a few pages of Scripture and searching the index of the Catechism, experience had taught me that nothing but death awaited me if I ever returned to homosexuality. The advice from the priest? God understood that I was born gay, but that He required from me what He expected from every other individual: fidelity and monogamy in sexual relationships. I talked to another priest – a similar suggestion. And, another. These men were incredibly affable, endlessly charming, and always well-groomed. But I had been burned before and my inheritance robbed; I was done with the slick snake-oil salesman from “Oklahoma” telling me to deep inhale his magic potion.
I almost gave up. Then, one day, on what appeared to be the outskirts of Catholicism – I met a faithful priest. He wasn’t a good talker, a bit cantankerous, maybe overly direct, and physically unimposing, his parish wasn’t big or beautiful, and it was semi-hidden when compared to the strategically located churches in the heart of the gay-ghettos that I just walked out of. He was smart, but simple. I called him, and explained a little bit of my situation, considering what I went through with the other priests – I thought I should make an appointment to see him. He said no – he gave me the day and time he heard Confessions; line up like the rest of them, he instructed. When I got there, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed; a few people kneeled in the pews – and no one was in line.
He listened, said nothing – your sins are forgiven, start going to Mass, read good books, and look into Courage. He told me what priest to call and what it was all about. I sat in the church for awhile. Finished in the confessional, the priest walked back into the sacristy, got vested, concluded Benediction, and left. At that moment, I was hopeful. I had somewhere to go.
I called the priest from Courage and he told me where to attend my first meeting – the Cathedral in San Francisco. Intentionally ultra-modern and ugly, I had never stepped inside the Cathedral, but loathed the building whenever I drove by it on Geary Boulevard – usually speedily heading to the Legion of Honor Museum from Berkeley. It was a blight on the cityscape, an offense to artistic sensibilities that the age-old masterpieces at the Museum could only wash from my stinging eyes.
When I pulled into the Cathedral entrance, I noticed the subterranean downstairs. There were various halls and large rooms where meetings and choir practices were taking place. The space had all the architecture of a bomb shelter. But I thought to myself – at least its spacious and brightly lit. I asked around and no one ever heard of Courage, let alone about a meeting in the Cathedral. I walked around the outside perimeter, heading down hill towards a semi-abandoned overflow section of the parking lot, when I spotted a lone guy sitting in his car. In gay male culture, semi-abandoned parking lots were favored cruising locations for quick anonymous front-seat sex. Not here, I prayed. However, my gay-dar went off and I took the chance – tapped on the man’s window and asked: Are you here for the Courage meeting. Yes, he said. Where is it? Right over there, he pointed. It was a sub-basement of the Cathedral’s basement.
For a few minutes, waiting for the priest to arrive, my newfound comrade in exile and I talked outside the meeting-room door. The priest showed up, an older man, a bit tired looking, searching in his pockets for the keys. He opened the door, flipped on the light switch, and I followed him inside. The windowless walls of the tiny room were piled high with stacked chairs. There was nowhere to sit, so me and the other guy found a large folding table and set it up. We placed a few chairs around the table as some more men began to arrive.
The meeting was formal, the stories I heard a thousand times before, and had lived them, but it was refreshing to hear from others who actually felt sorry for what they had done. Like me, they had largely grown weary of the constant hook-ups, the flipping of partners, the courses of antibiotics, and the relationships that never lasted, or when they did, ultimately left everyone disappointed. As for me, I wanted to go to Confession.
At one juncture in the meeting, Father said he would hear our Confessions – outside in his car. Okay – this is weird. But there was nowhere in that little room for privacy, so it made sense. Father sat in the driver’s seat, and I was on the passenger side. This was a case of immediate PTSD. The last time I sat in a parked car at night with an older man – he reached over and grabbed me; afterwards, the man rummaged through his messy glove compartment to give me a tip in loose change.
Father and I talked for awhile; it was part Confession, part spiritual direction. His words weren’t fancy or perhaps profound, but like the priest who earlier heard my Confession, what he said was the Truth. Once tawdry and traumatic memories were transmuted. My quest for the Truth ended where it started. I walked back into that little room that I thought so shabby and unpleasant. It looked somehow different now.
When I returned, I always knew the Truth would be waiting for me. That subbasement of the Cathedral was still made of the same substance – but it was beautiful. The several gay-inclusive parishes were pleasant-looking and well-funded; with one being a near architectural masterpiece. The priests always smiled, but you couldn’t remember anything they said – you heard the same things from your gay friends. The Gay Men’s Chorus occasionally sang at Mass. And, afterwards there were social gatherings with gourmet coffee and chocolate-filled croissants. Every so often on a Sunday afternoon there were outdoor barbeques in the parish courtyard. On “Pride” weekend, someone was always going to the Parade – there was never a reason to be alone.
At the Cathedral, there were no snacks after the meeting. In the winter, the place was chilly. No hot cups of coffee unless you brought one in a plastic thermos. But no one wore rainbow lapel pins or held hands. We were wounded, but no longer willing to sell our souls for a transitory sensation of belonging and peace. Usually, after a hard day’s work and the frequently emotional sharing of struggles, everyone simply disappeared into the darkness. But we left content, and with hope. In a sense, I am reminded of how English author Evelyn Waugh described his conversion from the splendor found in the hollow high Anglican Churches to Catholicism, with its “modern buildings of…deplorable design” that nevertheless contained the all-important Body of Christ.* The Courage meetings aren’t held at the Cathedral anymore, but I often think back to that little room. It was more glorious than any work of art – more stunning than even the Sistine Chapel, because I heard the Truth – and it was beautiful.
*“But those who do not know my country should understand that the aesthetic appeal of the Church of England is unique and peculiar to those islands. Elsewhere a first interest in the Catholic Church is often kindled in the convert’s imagination by the splendors of her worship in contrast with the bleakness and meanness of the Protestant sects. In England the pull is all the other way. The medieval cathedrals and churches, the rich ceremonies that surround the monarchy, the historic titles of Canterbury and York, the social organization of the country parishes, the traditional culture of Oxford and Cambridge, the liturgy composed in the heyday of English prose style—all these are the property of the Church of England, while Catholics meet in modern buildings, often of deplorable design, and are usually served by simple Irish missionaries.”