‘God’s Commands’ are No Match for Being Queer in Public
As the meaning of Title VII comes under review, queer visibility is our greatest defense
I was called into the assistant principal’s office of the all-boys Catholic high school where I taught in my mid-20s for a scheduled meeting with two pompous officials from the diocese. They wanted to “discuss” a request for permission I made to host a guest speaker for a schoolwide assembly on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the time, around 10 years ago now, I was the moderator of a student-led human rights awareness group on campus and had made a connection with a local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. Through this contact I was given the opportunity to schedule a keynote address from a U.N. representative and member of the AFSC. The reason I was being called to account for my request to host this man was because the AFSC supports gay rights.
“And your point?” I asked one of the officials, both of them white, middle-aged men, seated in two chairs facing mine — all of us crowded before the assistant principal’s desk like adolescent adversaries in need of adult mediation, his secretary within earshot of the ongoing exchange.
“It could send the wrong message to one of the students if they were to find out who this speaker represents,” the younger of the two church bureaucrats said.
I glared at him.
“Are you straight?” I asked him, point blank.
“Excuse me?” he said, blindsided.
“What is your sexual orientation?” I asked again.
“I’m heterosexual,” he said. “What business is that of yours?”
“Then you have no idea what it’s like for a young man who may be grappling with his sexual identity,” I snapped. (I recognize now that my assumption is misguided as heterosexual men are not immune to the struggle of self-defining sexually. All the more reason this man should’ve, could’ve demonstrated some empathy.)
I argued the AFSC could provide a valuable resource for someone like that.
“Grappling with his sexual identity?” the official asked through a smirk, as if the notion of a teenager having identity issues was absurd.
“Yes,” I said. “Grappling with his sexual identity.”
It was decided then that the speaker was most certainly unwelcome.
I had a follow up conversation in private one evening in the campus ministry office with this official shortly after our heated exchange. It was a long talk about homosexuality. He argued in favor of biological complementarity between the sexes— the ages-old Catholic wisdom of Thomas Aquinas. According to this line of thinking, homosexuality is ultimately interpreted as a disease that must be cured, a disorder to reorder. I argued to the scientific irrelevancy of that argument, noting that homosexuality is natural among the animal kingdom, of which humans are a part, and thus worthy of inclusion in the net of natural law. Furthermore, from a Christian perspective, God’s love doesn’t discriminate.
A few days later I was called into the school president’s office, my punishment awaiting. I was no longer to teach religion at the school starting the next school year.
“That’s alright,” I said smugly. “I still have the English classes.”
I did not return to teach the following semester. That experience was the beginning of the end of my relationship with “Mother Church.” I cut the umbilical, separating myself from any institutional affiliation with Roman Catholicism (I was part of a religious order known as the De La Salle Christian Brothers) and taking up community with other spiritual seekers who lived their lives outside of the proverbial box. Disillusioned and effectively silenced I decided to enter a grad program for theology in northern California and equip myself with a theological apologetics of homosexual desire.
As the Supreme Court is set to debate the meaning of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — a review based on two lower federal court cases dealing with workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and one lower court case dealing with gender identity — and whether or not Title VII protections extend to queer people, I am reminded of the discrimination I experienced during a fragile time in my own coming out process. (I was in love with another man in an unrequited romance that left me shattered emotionally, concurrent with this professional upheaval.) As I was wrestling with my own identity at the level of the personal, so too was I wrestling with my place in the Catholic Church — hinged as it was at that time on my role as an educator and vowed member of a religious community.
No one in the administration supported me during the back-and-forth I had with the diocese in this battle that wasn’t ultimately about the intended guest speaker. Rather, it was an issue of power. The school president, when he called me into his dark mahogany office, issued the diocesan decree as if it was common sense — just another administrative task to be checked off his to-do list before the workday would end.
I lacked an advocate beyond my own voice.
I’ve vowed since then never to be silent about my sexuality with students. While I am not arbitrarily forthcoming with them about it, if they ask or if there is a context for that kind of disclosure during the course of one of our class conversations, I will not hesitate to say, “I am gay.”
It’s important that administrators be courageous in confronting those who make the decisions they so often uphold blindly. A critical mass of LGBTQ allies within an institutional setting such as a school can rally the cause not simply for gay rights but for the sake of what it means to be human — to be one who loves, to be one who works. Our students (read: children) need us. We need our students. We can only go so far as our institutional visibility — whether as a member of the LGBTQ community or as an LGBTQ ally — permits. It is a visibility our queer forbearers fought and literally died for. Our strength is in our numbers.
I wonder what would have happened, for instance, had the vice principal not sat in his desk chair spinelessly silent. Or if the president had refused the diocesan orders and said, “No, Rob will teach religion next year.” What would have happened had the school rallied to defy its commitments to the dogma lorded over us?
Instead, bigotry ruled the day and with it those arrogant enough to assume ownership of “God’s commands,” as did Michigan funeral home owner Thomas Rost when he fired transgender employee Aimee Stephens in 2007. Like many “Christians” who espouse homophobia as divine writ, Rost described himself as “devout.” I’d imagine the diocesan officials with whom I spoke had, may still have, a similar view of themselves.
I also wonder to what god this kind of devotion — what amounts to an ideology — professes its loyalty? What god image plays in the minds of people who weaponize their religious beliefs to uphold standards of sexual behavior and identity that smack of willful ignorance? What god image will be playing in the minds of the Supreme Court justices responsible for deciding the reach of Title VII?
More to the point, what is the image of human being at play here?
Regardless of what transpires as the conservative-leaning higher court decides who has the privilege of human rights and who does not, those of us who are queer or who identify as queer allies cannot stay silent.
Certainly there is cause here to raise the picket signs and march on Washington, particularly to hold the Senate accountable for approving pro-gay legislation in the form of the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes.” Essentially, it would extend Title VII protections to people whose bodies have been historically denied the full exercise of their capacities — the greatest of which is to love.
But further still, there is cause to be more of who we are in private in public. To hold the hands of our lovers as we walk down the street. To exchange a kiss with them in the town square. To speak up to the administrators who ignore us. To be vulnerable with the strangers in our midst. To hang out with our queer friends or stick up for them when we see them bullied. For the personal is political. And at a point when our judicial system is on the brink of collapse, we have little other refuge than each other’s witness and testimony.