My siblings and I were proponents of gay rights long before it was cool. I remember fighting friends about it in junior high (I graduated 8th grade in 1995). My sister Caitlin did a presentation on gay rights at her Catholic elementary school—laying out the case for why all people should have equal civil and sacramental rights. I think we all knew something, subconsciously perhaps, that would soon come into the light fully.
I was working in campus ministry when equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian men and women became the law of the land in the United States. I remember the day well- -weeping at my desk when I read something my brother Mikey posted on Facebook, thanking Caity (our sister in heaven) for helping this day come to pass and how he knew she was smiling and celebrating. I was overjoyed—my beloved brother and so many of my LGBTQ friends would be able to marry who they love and have that love be recognized according to the fullness of the law. What a day! What a movement for our culture, our society, our time. For me, it was something to be deeply proud of, and something I had desired for as long as I could remember.
Later that day I was meeting with the Catholic priest I worked with. I also remember his bewilderment clearly. He said, honestly—I just don’t get it. They already have civil rights, the right to civil partnership– why do they need legal marriage as well? Why do they ‘need’ marriage? Out of fear for what he might think of my views, I didn’t respond out loud at the time, but my immediate internal reply was—well, father, it’s because they believe in God.
They believe in God. They want a life in relationship with God and God’s people.
While many LGBTQ people have been driven from their churches and houses of faith because of their sexual orientation and the inability of institutions to embody Jesus’ message of inclusion and love, they still believe deeply in God, and I would say embody a spirituality that is expressed not so much in sitting in pews but in action towards justice, and in the living of a full, integral, healthy life. They want marriage because their relationships are moving towards unity, towards shared life, towards a deeper and fuller expression of love, like any couple who wants to be married. They want that love and their commitment to one another witnessed and affirmed by their community of support. They believe in these things, these things I would name as sacramental, whether or not they are welcomed in or forbidden from official structures of sanctification.
I’ll never forget the day and moment my brother Mikey came out to me as a gay man. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. It wasn’t until years later that he would regularly use the phrase, “I’m gay.” At this moment in time, at the beginning of his coming out process, it was much more nuanced than that, much more complicated, a revealing intricately woven into the fabric of our relationship as brother and sister. We were on the phone. I was sitting in the parking lot of a Jason’s Deli in Dallas. Mikey was in Madison, Wisconsin, in college. Mikey and I were close—regularly talking on the phone, determined even at a distance to maintain a relationship once shared by hours hanging out and talking in each others’ rooms as kids. I remember him saying, “Er… there’s something I need to talk to you about.” Long pause. “I… I think… I think I’m going to start dating boys.” Another long pause. “Ok,” I said. “Ok.” Then, in characteristic Erin style, I said something to the effect of, “tell me more about that Mikey.” And he did, pouring out his heart to me, navigating the tumult of emotions he was feeling, explaining the truth of his experience to his big sister.
While I remember exactly where I was sitting (in my car), staring at the glowing deli sign, and the feeling of utter spaciousness, stillness and love for my brother, I don’t remember all the minute details of what we talked about. I’m sure I cried, held in the tension of relief and joy for him, to be able to step more fully into who he is, and also the fear of an unknown future that could be difficult, and still is, for so many in the LGBTQ community. I do remember loving him, assuring him, and encouraging him. I remember telling him I will support him no matter what. And I remember, clearly, a fear he shared with me, that continues to surface in me even over ten years later.
I remember him saying, “Er… what I’m really afraid of is that if I tell people this, they’ll stop seeing me for me. They’ll stop seeing ALL of me. They’ll just see this—my sexuality—and forget that I’m so much more than that, that I’m still the same person.”
It seems that now, more than ten years later, while so much has changed for the better, his fears were and continue to be well founded, in some circles. While he had the tremendous courage to come out fully as a young man, and is by no means the same person—happier and healthier than he ever was before—we still live in a world where 100% acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is still not the norm. Devastatingly to me, as a person of faith, the last stalwarts of resistance to inclusion and acceptance often come from within so-called religious structures.
LGBTQ people for so long have been not just rejected but scorned, ridiculed, misunderstood, treated with violence and even killed, for that one reason Mikey feared—the expression of one aspect of their being, their sexuality. The fullness of who they are has too often been ignored. Unimaginably, this has most often happened in the name of religion, in the name of purity, in the name of Jesus. Yet these brothers and sisters are part of the body of humanity, the body of Christ. They live deep and vital human lives with so much to offer the world and the Church. And let’s just think about it for a second. This a group of people who want to love. They want to love who they love because they love them. They are people as normal and healthy and beautiful as my beloved brother, who refuse to pretend to show up other than they are, as they were made to be in God. I am at a total, honest loss here: how is this, how has this ever been, a bad thing???
The truth is, when I sit with it, is that it isn’t bad. It never has been, in God. Nothing that roots into love and authentic being is ever bad to the God who IS LOVE and total integrity. Our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters have become a prophetic witness of love to the world. Despite rejection and driven by love and deep suffering through the years, they have risen into who they are, claimed their own beloved-ness, fought hard for equal rights in the world and taught us all that LOVE IS LOVE IS LOVE IS LOVE. They have turned their suffering into gift.
Yet what remains totally sad to me, as a minister and theologian, is that so many churches have not found a way to love in return. Our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters have become a prophetic witness to the world in large part not just without support from the Church, but by leaving the Church. They have claimed their place in the kin-dom of God, in Love, by moving away from the structure that claims to be Love’s communion. Their lives, their love, the font of redemption pouring out of their suffering, could be a life-giving flow of Love for the Church. But instead, the Church has rejected them, claimed to know their experience better than they do, refused to sanctify their marriages and love, and as a result, so many have done what any sane and loving person would do—they have become the cornerstone of truly life-giving communities and movements towards justice elsewhere.
The Second Vatican Council taught us that as the people of God, we are the Church. Let us all stop waiting for the clergy and the hierarchy, for the people who falsely claim power to get with it and start embodying the mission of the Gospel. Let us receive this prophetic witness of love, offered by our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, with open arms and true acceptance. Let us be proud of who we are, as a body in love with all its parts, moving towards wholeness. Let us love all our brothers and sisters, especially those most marginalized, as the LGBTQ+ community has been. Let us build a better world where all are truly accepted, for all that they are.
P.S.: I showed this post to my brother before publishing, and while I decided not to change the post itself, I wanted to share some of his thoughts. He wanted me to know that all those fears we (his family and those who love him) had of his life being difficult have simply not turned out to be true. He says he’s had not just a good life but a GREAT life, and not in spite of being gay but BECAUSE he is gay. He loves his life, and wants us all to start creating a new, positive narrative, one where people are celebrated as they are and no one has to be afraid for them. He even told me with conviction that the Church is good, at its heart its about loving people, it’s just been misinterpreted and taught wrongly. I tend to focus on what’s still not good enough, what needs to change and how we can be better. Mikey has a way of zeroing in on the positive. At the core his narrative, for all, is love and goodness. I feel amazed by this, and I thought you might too.