Friday, November 25, 2011

Shame and Guilt and Guilt and Shame and Guilt

I am officially calmer now than I was yesterday, so I'm going to try to write something more coherent about homophobia, what it is, and what it does.

In conservative Catholic circles, the general going theory is that “homophobia” is a fictitious psychological disorder made up by people in the LGBTQ contingent in order to shame Catholics into silence. (Oddly enough, this is exactly that the same way that LGBTQ people feel about “homosexuality” being defined as a psychological disorder...) In so far as the term refers to an alleged mental illness, this is fair enough. There are cases of real homophobia, mostly, as far as I can make out, in men who were sexually assaulted as young boys or in men with strong and severely repressed same-sex attractions. This is the disorder that leads to fag-beating and other forms of violence against homosexual persons, and admittedly it's not widespread within the Catholic world. However, the term is also used in a more colloquial way. Just as people will casually refer to particular behaviours as “obsessive compulsive” even when they occur in folks who don't fit the DSM-IV's definition of OCD, people will refer to other behaviours as “homophobic” even if they are not on the level of an actual, literal phobia.

Homophobia, as it is used colloquially, refers to an unreasonable fear of homosexual persons. This can be a fear that one will become “infected” with homosexuality, that one's children will be seduced, that gays are going to destroy civilization by having anal sex, that all gay men are sexual predators, that being around gay people will inevitably scandalize one's children, etc. Basically, when straight people are more apprehensive about being in the presence of homosexuals than they would be about being in the presence of other groups of sinners who are committing comparably severe sins, this is homophobia. It is often ideological, cultural or spiritual much more than it is psychological. To put it into Catholic language, it is the sin committed by people who are tempted to neglect the paragraph in the Catechism about avoiding unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, and it is a sin against charity.

Homophobic Christians avoid contact with homosexual persons. They resist forming close friendships with gays and lesbians and may counsel others that it is “sinful,” “scandalous” or “imprudent” to associate with “obstinate” homosexual sinners. They often justify this with the belief that somehow by ostracizing, shunning or otherwise refusing to associate with gays and lesbians they are sending a clear message about the evils of homosexuality: they are showing LGBTQ people that their sins are objectively damaging to society. In doing so they believe that they are witnessing to the truth in a charitable way. They tend to be afraid that if they take part in social situations where gay or lesbian couples are behaving in a normal way, they are helping to “normalize” same-sex relationships, and that they are thus guilty of scandal.

These beliefs are dangerously untrue. I know a lot of LGBTQ people, many of them people within the Church. I've read numerous conversion stories by LGBTQ folks who converted to Christianity. In absolutely not a single one of these stories was the shame or guilt associated with being shunned and cold-shouldered by Christians a source of edification, or a spur to repentance. On the contrary, one of the primary reasons which LGBTQ people give for leaving or despising Christian communities is that they were constantly subjected to homophobic behaviours and attitudes on the part of well-meaning Christians. Contrary to the claims made by people who are ideologically committed to homophobia, these behaviours and attitudes are not generally directed at homosexual acts, but at homosexual persons themselves. The claim that by being together with a partner a homosexual person is “flaunting” their sin justifies a series of behaviours which, if we directed them towards any other people, would clearly just be rude.

More to the point, a lot of LGBTQ people have been deeply affected by homophobic reactions on the part of Christians. Often these behaviours do actually have the intended effect: that is, they cause feelings of shame and guilt in their targets. The problem is that homosexuality is deeply connected with experiences of ostracism and loneliness, particularly on the part of same-sex peers. When a person feels ashamed, guilty and isolated because of their homosexual inclinations, this produces feelings of profound self-hatred and despair. It makes people feel “dirty.” They come to believe that God hates them, and they often end up acting out homosexually, either in order to assuage their loneliness, or to take solace in sensual pleasure, or because they despair of salvation, or out of a self-destructive impulse. In other words, what homophobic reactions actually do is not call the sinner to repentance, but put the sinner in a situation where they are compulsively driven back to their sin in order to gain some sort of relief.

The same can be said for sexual sinners of all kinds which is, I believe, the reason why Christ was so gentle with those who sinned according to the flesh. He told them about salvation, forgave their sins, delivered them from persecution, and bestowed on them the dignity and self-respect necessary to go and sin no more. The fire-and-brimstone diatribes he saved for the wealthy, the complacent and the self-righteous.


  1. Melinda,

    I read the flow of conversation in the forums and I wanted to comment myself but I was unable to because the moderators shut the discussion down with expedient gusto (frustrating).

    What I wanted to simply add is that homosexual attractions feel natural to us who have them, in that we didn't choose them and most of us have had them starting very young. What I think most people do not grasp is that the Church's teaching to us (I'm not bashing the Church here) is akin to telling a heterosexual person: "I know you have heterosexual feelings, but they are disordered and your going to have to learn to be single and not have sexual relations with anyone for the rest of your life." A daunting proposition to say the least. I think if more people understood it in this way and walked in our shoes there would be a little more empathy about the unique struggles we face and the great sacrifices the Church is asking us to make. To come at it continuously with "but its wrong, its wrong, its wrong" is simply not seeing the whole picture that for us it is very difficult to put aside these feelings and potential relationships, not impossible and with grace it all things are possible, but it is DIFFICULT.

    Moreover, I think you are right that the church and its members need to get it out of their heads that homosexuality (in its form today) is especially or uniquely sinful or vile. In a way, all of our human inclinations are somewhat disordered if we are to believe the christian revelation about the fall: we all have inclinations to pride, egotism, lust, etc. It seems a little bit irrational to continuously rake homosexuality with this label exclusively ad naseum. In addendum, I agree that it is also perhaps homophobia to relate to a gay person or couple in this manner. Most people I know do not get up in arms about inviting a heterosexual "cohabitating" couple to the Thanksgiving dinner or worried that the said "cohabitors" are going to be a source of lifetime corruption to children. Putting aside the issue of whether cohabitation is right or wrong, people simply don't "wig out" at this so why is it suddenly a hugely magnified issue with a homosexual person/couple because at the heart of it we are just following the inclinations we know and feel we have. This is not MORE evil than cohabitation, I think its pretty much the same offense.

    What I think we want and need from the church and its members is simply more of an understanding. In the forums one person suggested that homosexuals should have never "come out". I find this completely loathesome because the fact is that there are people out there who HAVE this experience, who develop these feelings (at no fault or choice of theirs) and they need the church to at least acknowledge and understand that this happens and that they still have a home and a Mother who understands their unique struggles and does not immediately condemn them and offers them a reasonable and compassionate path throughout life. At the core, all people sincerely need to be understood and loved. To shut the issue up or pretend this does not happen or insist it is too vile to speak about just creates more useless shame and guilt which is helping no one, not dealing with the issue and not reflective of how homosexuality truly develops: be it nature/nurture it is deep rooted and I feel begins at a young age where no culpability can be given. The Church should never be afraid to confront the Truth, or try to shove it away because it is uncomfortable.

    These are just my thoughts.


  2. Interesting comments above. "that this happens and that they still have a home and a Mother who understands their unique struggles and does not immediately condemn them and offers them a reasonable and compassionate path throughout life." I think the Church offers this to all sinners but many times we don't like the path offered sins we have to give up the sin. The poster is right that we are all disordered as a result of the Fall so we all struggle with sins of various kinds and severity. It is difficult for ALL of us. I don't think any of us have a monopoly on carrying crosses. Some are more obvious than others but we all have them. I think in the eyes of many non ssa persons, homosexuals are asking for the Church to change the "rules" for them and they are most certainly asking society to change the rules for them. This is no longer about being around homosexuals, having them as friends. This is about being forced to approve the active homosexual lifestyle. And as far as not having homosexual friends, if I meet someone and have common interests then we might become friends. I don't think I am going to have much in common with an active homosexual who rejects my Church, my Faith, and my values. That is pretty much rejecting everything about me. I don't have prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves or adulterers as friends either (at least not that I know of). And yes, at this stage of my life (and my children's), I seek out friends that share our values and surround us with good examples of virtue and holiness. It is not homophobic to do so it is good sense. Believe me, that even with that effort my kids have met diverse groups of people and are not sheltered.

  3. Anonymous brings up a point that I'd like to address: the idea that a faithful Catholic would not have much in common with an active homosexual who rejects the Church, Faith, values, etc. I don't know, maybe some Catholics don't have anything in their lives or their personalities besides their faith, and don't know how to relate to anyone who is not a card-carrying Christian, but I think that's very rare. Also, there may be some LGBTQ people whose entire personality really is wrapped up in gaydom, but that's also very rare. Most people have a broad range of interests, and I think St. Paul very astutely makes the point that if Christians refuse association with people who don't already buy into the Christian faith, then the Christian faith will become fearfully insular. (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-10)

  4. " maybe some Catholics don't have anything in their lives or their personalities besides their faith" What else of value is there? Yes my life revolves around my faith and my path to holiness. I think this is true for many, it depends on where you are on your journey and what God's plan is for you. My interests involve my family and my parish so it is not likely that I am going to meet many active homosexuals. I don't check anyone's credentials when I meet them to see if they are a card carrying Christian, I am open to getting to know people. I let God lead me where he wants me to go. HE will bring people into my life that he wants me to know. That doesn't make me homophobic. That is just the way it is. I don't believe that everyone is meant to evangelize the gay community. I think that takes a special gift(s) and calling. I feel that my calling at this time is the faith formation of my family and supporting my parish family. Within my own extended family we have a wide range of beliefs so rest assured I have all the diversity I can handle evangelizing my own family. Just because I don't have gay friends doesn't make me homophobic. In order for me to have gay friends, I would have to make a specific effort to meet gay people, it just isn't going to happen. I think that would be weird. And there is a pride that needs to be guarded against when we think about evangelizing. I think you are rather harsh in your assessment of Catholics.

  5. Anon,

    If a Catholic has no gay friends because they have no contact with gay people, that does not make them homophobic, just as a person who has no Belgian friends because they don't know any Belgians is not a Belgiophobe. The issue is when Catholics go out of their way to avoid meeting gay folks because they've prejudged the situation and decided in advance that they would have nothing in common with these people. It doesn't take a special charism to minister to LGBTQ people, because they're just people. The guy who evangelized me had exactly one conversation with me about homosexuality prior to my conversion. I said “I'm a lesbian.” He said, “So's my mom. But I disapprove.” End of conversation. Apart from that we talked about Socrates, Shakespeare, Zen Buddhism, art, wine, pipe-smoking, beauty and religion, the nature of truth, Greek mythology, the meaning of the Book of Revelations, and the topography of our local conservation area. We shared stories about our respective lives. We drank brandy together and went on nature walks. No special charism required, just ordinary friendliness and an open-hearted willingness to seek and dwell on common ground.

  6. There are many gay people who believe that the Catholic Church hates gay people. Of course we don't, but it is easy to misunderstand or to misrepresent the teaching that same sex attraction is inherently disordered. When Catholics are homophobic in their behavior, it only lends credibility to the false propaganda that the Church hates gas. Folks, we aren't Fred Phelps. We've got to make it clear that we aren't. The first message gay people should get from the Church is the same message everybody else gets: God loves you unconditionally. The second message is the same as for everybody else: we want you to be part of our Church to receive the grace the Lord Jesus won for us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.

    We hardly need to tell them that homosexual behavior is wrong. "Everybody" knows the Church teaches that. What we need to do is let the Holy Spirit touch them with the conviction that the teaching is true. We don't need to shove it in their face all the time.


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