Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism

An Article by Melinda Selmys, author of the book Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism.

Twelve years ago, I converted to Catholicism and began a long dialogue with my own sexuality. At the time, I was involved in a lesbian relationship that had been going on for a little over six years. I had, in the course of researching the Catholic position  with  a  view  to  refuting  it,  encountered  the  Church’s  teachings  on homosexual relationships before, so when I decided to embrace the Church as my mother, I knew that meant giving up my lesbian partner. I called her that night and explained my decision.

At the time, I thought that I was signing up for a life of celibacy. I was okay with that:  before I became a Catholic I was a hard rationalist, and it wasn’t a long stretch to port my idealistic devotion to rational self-possession into an iron-clad commitment to  Catholic sexual teaching. I would simply apply my will to the problem, subsume my passions to the rule of Reason, and everything would be fine. Right?

Of course, life doesn’t work that way. The body is a sly customer, and when it found that I had completely dammed up the river of my sexuality in so far as lesbianism and masturbation were concerned, it went looking for another outlet. Within less than a year I had fallen in love with a man, and was merrily engaged in excusing myself from the Church’s teachings on pre-marital sex. I’m happy to say that particular chapter in the catalog of my personal sins was fairly brief.  An unplanned pregnancy brought it to an end, and in spite of all of the traditional caveats about sex before marriage  leading inexorably to divorce, I’ve been happily married ever since. After ten years of marriage, I’m more in love with my spouse than when I started, we have six kids, and we live in a little piece of paradise in Eastern Ontario.

Sounds nice, almost fairy-tale like. It’s the story that so many same-sex attracted Catholics wish they could have, the “saved-by-the-grace-of-God” miracle that Catholic families of LGBTQ folks like to hear, because it gives them hope for their own loved ones. Take one sprinkle of Holy Water, pray a couple of Rosaries, make a few trips to the confessional, and presto chango, gay becomes straight.

So let’s come back to the land of reality and look at some of the “bad news.” I’m not attracted to men. Apart from my husband and Clint Eastwood, I still find the male sex pretty unattractive. I have not achieved complete freedom from the fell demon of homosexuality – in the past week alone, I’ve had three homoerotic dreams. I’m not comfortable with my sexuality; my femininity and I are only barely on speaking terms most of the time. I’m far from prepared to hold myself up as an ex-gay poster child.

Does that mean  that I’m  suppressing my true  and fundamental self,  or  that  I’ve entered into  a  neurotic relationship with my sexuality that is slowly gnawing away at the foundations of my identity? No. It means that I’ve made a decision: I will possess my sexuality; I will not be possessed by it. I happen to be working on the project of self-possession within the context of a heterosexual marriage. One of my best friends is working on it in a religious community. Others are doing it in the single life. We’re all engaged in the same basic quest to become the owners of a truly integrated self, centered in Christ.

It helps, I think, to keep in mind that we’re not alone. I’m hardly unique in being occasionally troubled by desires or dreams that I don’t want. Few people believe that a woman is denying her authentic identity when she puts aside her attractions to other men in order to remain faithful to her husband.  Few believe that a man who is striving to break his  pornography addiction is stifling his integral sexual identity. The vast majority of people, regardless of “sexual orientation,” are going to face a few stumbling blocks on the road to chastity. God doesn’t generally go around handing out angelic girdles to all comers – sed contra.  To the best of my knowledge St. Thomas Aquinas is the only man to have scored one yet.

Still, the issue seems to be more complicated for someone with same-sex attractions. I guess there might be people out there for whom it really is just a biological thing, folks whose sexual orientation can be reduced to the way that their hardware reacts to sexual stimuli. If such people exist, my suspicion is that they are men. In my experience, however,  sexuality involves the whole person, and attraction, particularly for women, is a response of that whole person to the totality of another.

This means that a gay/lesbian identity is not just a matter of sexual desires. There are a whole range of issues including gender-identity, aesthetics, interpersonal psychodynamics, ideology, spirituality, etc. that impact, and are impacted by, our  sexual relationships and attractions. Some of these things may be an essential part of personality, and genuine harm can be done by trying to change them. Others may be more malleable, and in some cases changing them is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming compulsive homosexual desire.

It’s my suspicion that in a lot of cases, people who struggle for years with SSA are struggling because there are other factors driving their attractions, and these factors are not being addressed. For some people, it seems, the issues are rooted in psychological wounds received in their family of origin, and for those people reparative therapy seems to do a lot of good. Resolve the psychological substrata of sexual orientation, and the attractions sort themselves out of their own accord.

That wasn’t my experience, though, and talking to other Catholics who are in the same boat, I don’t think it’s a universal panacea. My best theory at the moment for what’s behind my own attractions is that they arise out of a complex web of factors, including my neurology, sexual opportunities, the gender-expectations of my society, feminism, and a life-long  attraction to highly masculine philosophies like those of Kant and Epictetus. It so happened that my conversion to Catholicism occurred through the instrumentality of the Virgin Mary, and that my relationship with her helped to smooth  over my hostilities with traditional notions of femininity at least enough for me to lower the emotional walls and  have  a meaningful relationship with a man. That’s what worked for me, but I suspect that it would be totally unhelpful for the average gay man, and probably not of much use to most lipstick lesbians.

There are several conclusions that I would like to draw:

1.   Sexual identity is not just about sexual desire. A lot of the time people embrace a gay or lesbian identity because of  real, genuinely foundational elements of personality that seem “queer” to other people. The LGBTQ  community  becomes a safety zone, and a gay identity becomes a security blanket, that protects the elements  of personality that are under attack from mainstream culture. Anyone who is leaving a gay identity behind  needs to find other ways of protecting those elements of personality, otherwise we just end up retreating back into the village when we come under fire.

2.   There is no universal solution. I’ve encountered a number of ex-ex-gays who sincerely believe that it is impossible  to  abandon  a  gay  lifestyle  because  they  were  offered  a  one-size-fits-all  “cure”  for homosexuality, and it didn’t work. I understand their frustration. I think that we need to realistically acknowledge that what we’re trying to do is very difficult, that the solutions are not obvious, and that we need to search for new, personalized approaches when our efforts aren’t bearing any fruit.

3.   There is no universal solution, because there is no universal cause. Honest self-examination and self- knowledge are essential if we’re going to make any headway in achieving chastity, in or out of marriage. Keep  in  mind  that  although  there  is  no  strict  biological  causation  for  homosexuality,  there  are neurological and physiological factors that may contribute: these must be taken as givens. There’s no point in driving yourself crazy trying to change the things that will not change.

4.   Desires are just desires. Many people drive themselves nuts trying to eradicate all homoerotic thoughts, images and impulses from their psyche, presumably in the belief that any trace of homosexuality is an impediment to  their spiritual development, or to finding and keeping a heterosexual spouse. If total, instinctual interior chastity were a precondition for sanctity (or marriage, or anything), heaven would be  peopled  by  Christ,  Thomas  Aquinas  and  the  Virgin  Mary.  Most  of  the  angst  associated  with unwanted same-sex  desires  can  be  eradicated by  acknowledging them,  accepting them,  and then teaching yourself not to take them seriously.

Most of these are things that I’ve wrestled with, in one way or another, for the better part of twelve years now. I suspect that if you ask me again, five years from now, I’ll give you a different way of accounting for myself. It’s a dialogue that’s  on-going. That can be frustrating, and there are times when I want easy solutions and pat answers, when I’m sick to death of trying to figure out how to rearrange things inside of my head so that they behave the way I want them to. There are times when I’m inclined to throw in with St. Augustine and declare all sexuality a product of the fall. Most of the time, though, I can see this for what it is, a call to explore that inner Kingdom, where there are dragons, and precipices, and the  beast stirring in the depths, but also God and all of His angels, and the Tree of Life and Suffering and Salvation.

25 Responses to Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism

  • RR says:

    Interesting.

    Is there a meaningful distinction between “gay identity” and “queer personality”? Should there be? A gay identity seems no more contrary to Church teaching than a female identity. If that’s the case, it would make sense to encourage a gay identity within the Church rather than making Catholics choose between the two.

  • c matt says:

    Honest self-examination and self- knowledge are essential if we’re going to make any headway in achieving chastity, in or out of marriage

    Amen to that. She seems to be doing a marvelous job at it, and it is wonderful that she is willing to share so much. Her advice is not only helpful for the LBGTQ community, but for “straights” as well. We all face temptations, and self-mastery is difficult for the best of us (just ask St. Paul). It is particularly difficult in a society that constantly encourages us to give in to our passions rather than rule them.

  • P.S. Parker says:

    This is one of the most honest, intelligent pieces on the subject I have ever read. This will better help me relate to some of my friends who are gay and lesbian and has enlightened my understanding and insight. Thank you for writing this and for your transparency.
    God bless!

  • RR says:

    Paul, kind of the opposite. From their website: “By developing an interior life of chastity, which is the universal call to all Christians, one can move beyond the confines of the homosexual identity to a more complete one in Christ.”

    What’s wrong with a homosexual identity? I remember reading something critical of the organization you linked to. I can’t remember where I read it. I think it was a blog by a chaste gay orthodox Catholic. The criticism was related to the issue I pointed out. Instead of creating a welcoming environment for the “gay and Catholic,” they seem to be saying “don’t be gay, be Catholic.”

  • RR,

    I wouldn’t consider “gay” identity to be equivalent to “male” identity or “female” identity as you suggested. Rather, “gay” identity would be more like “alcoholic” identity or “addict” identity.

    “Male” and “female” identities are normal. A “gay” identity, while real, is no more normal than an “alcoholic” identity or an “addict” identity. The Church needs a creation of a “gay” identity no more than it needs a creation of an “alcoholic” or “addict” identity. But the sympathizers of the gay community and the gay community itself insist on normalizing a “gay” identity as something natural like a “male” or “female” identity, and that simply isn’t the case. Being gay, like being alcoholic may have a genetic pre-disposition factor to it, but it still isn’t natural. It’s abberant (did I spell that correctly?)

    Now that doesn’t mean that we persecute and harrass gay people any more than we persecute and harrass alcoholic people. We all have our own special demons to taunt us. But let’s not normalize the abnormal; let’s not legitimatize the illegimate.

  • I thought again about RR’s idea of a separate identity for gays in the Church. Galatians 3:27-28 bears upon this:

    27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

  • Richardson says:

    As Paul W Primavera says, or alludes to, our primary personality should be that of Christ. In that context, we do not develop an alcoholic personality, nor a wrathful personality, nor a lecherous personality, nor a “much afraid” personality. Those are disorders, and we don’t embrace them as fundamental to our nature or our being. Someone who is prone to these things is called to work on letting Christ heal them. That does not happen by socializing oneself into them. An alcoholic who is letting Christ heal him acknowledges that he is an alcoholic, but I don’t think that is the same as saying he has an alcoholic personality.

    As the Canadian bishops said in their guideline to ministry with young people with same-sex attractions, Catholic theology does not use the word ‘gay’. Any adjective on the word ‘personality’ is too limiting – the important factor is the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and beloved of Him.

  • Foxfier says:

    Good on her.

    The description of attraction that she mentions jives with my personal experience– attraction to someone’s appearance often boils down to reading character traits into their appearance. (For example, I can’t remember a time I thought that Tom Cruise was attractive, but I also can’t remember a time I didn’t know he was a jerk.)
    Possibly an aspect of SSA is the way that all sexual attraction gets flanderized? I’m quite straight (TYVM) but I’m far from attracted to men in general, and I can see how admiration based attraction or friendship-attraction could very easily be interpreted as sexual, with the right base assumptions. It would just be another influence, but if the deck is stacked enough….

    (Side note: quickly scanning things can be bad for your mental health. I saw this was a post by Tito in my reader, scanned quick and saw the phrase “I was in a lesbian relationship;” serious confusion.)

  • RR says:

    Paul, the Galatians passage isn’t entirely relevant since there’s no problem with a female identity or American identity within the Church.

    I’ve thought about the “homosexuality as a disease” perspective and I’m not sure it matters. There are no sober alcoholics who feel that they need to be recognized as a distinct group. If they exist in some bizzaro world, then I don’t see any problem with it. It seems like some are confusing the fact that separate identities don’t exist in other analogous situations with the idea that they shouldn’t exist.

  • Nancy D. says:

    We are called to respect the inherent dignity of all persons as we live in relationship as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, not to view one another as objects of sexual desire, but as persons who have been created equal in dignity while being complementary as male and female, made in the Image of God to live in a communion of authentic Love.

  • RR said,

    “There are no sober alcoholics who feel that they need to be recognized as a distinct group.”

    So why do gays (or at least some gays and their straight liberal supporters) feel they rate special recognition? There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, straight or gay – to paraphase a verse of Scripture.

    I think that some people want gays to have special recognition because that would serve to legitimatize the deviancy of their sexual actions. People need to stop being gay just as people need to stop being drunken addicts. Having a homo-erotic impulse is no different than having a compulsion to drink.

    We’re powerless and our lives are unmanageable (1st step)
    Only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity (2nd Step)
    We have to make a decision to turn our will and lives over to His care (3rd Step).

    And that’s exactly how this whole thing ought to be treated (not forgetting of course steps 4 through 12). One can recover – as this post on which we are commenting so elegantly demonstrates.

    But one other thing is important: we are NEVER recover-ED. Alcoholics who say that usually go out drinking again – it’s called arrogance and pride, the first to come in a slip (Sobriety Loses Its Priority). Rather, we are recover-ING (steps 10, 11 and 12). Whether it’s sobriety from a drinking complusion or sobriety from homo-erotic impulses, it’s still a DAILY reprieve contingent on one’s spiritual well-being. Giving special recognition to a gay identity or an alcoholic identity only serves to inflame the ego which inevitably leads to a slip (whether from homo-eroticism or drinking).

    But some people – even straights out of some perverse sense of tolerance – WANT homosexual filth to be declared as normal and would rather gays go to hell than gays find happiness in Jesus Christ. Sad.

  • RR says:

    Paul, sure we’re all God’s children but there are Jews and Greeks, slave and free, straight and gay.

    “So why do gays (or at least some gays and their straight liberal supporters) feel they rate special recognition?”

    Read the blog post!

    “Sexual identity is not just about sexual desire. A lot of the time people embrace a gay or lesbian identity because of real, genuinely foundational elements of personality that seem “queer” to other people. The LGBTQ community becomes a safety zone, and a gay identity becomes a security blanket, that protects the elements of personality that are under attack from mainstream culture. Anyone who is leaving a gay identity behind needs to find other ways of protecting those elements of personality, otherwise we just end up retreating back into the village when we come under fire.”

    “I think that some people want gays to have special recognition because that would serve to legitimatize the deviancy of their sexual actions.”

    It’s worth repeating:

    “Sexual identity is not just about sexual desire. A lot of the time people embrace a gay or lesbian identity because of real, genuinely foundational elements of personality that seem “queer” to other people. The LGBTQ community becomes a safety zone, and a gay identity becomes a security blanket, that protects the elements of personality that are under attack from mainstream culture. Anyone who is leaving a gay identity behind needs to find other ways of protecting those elements of personality, otherwise we just end up retreating back into the village when we come under fire.”

  • pat says:

    Foxfier, I made the same mistake about Tito. I thought maybe Tito was a woman until it registered. Anyway, Jesus and St. Paul are abundantly clear that the single life is a calling. Categories such as straight and queer are not biblical ones. These emerge from a culture of sexual politics. Sexuality is here seen to be defining in a way that Scripture never suggested.

  • Kelly says:

    I’m glad my kids were all napping when I had time to read this entire article, because it reduced me to tears. The author and I share a common experience of homosexual behavior. When I was a young woman, who had survived some childhood trauma within the family, I had an incredible amount of difficulty forming stable relationships with men. A well-meaning counselor (because counseling can solve any problem, right?) suggested that my difficulties were caused by suppressed homosexuality. I was twenty, it was 1991, and this seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Seven years later, I began to realize that her advice had been incredibly destructive. With the prayers, love, and support of my closest friends and a priest who is the finest example of his vocation I have ever known, I ended the relationship. It took me five years and exacted a physical, emotional, and financial toll that I’d rather not describe in detail.

    The difference between Mrs. Selmys’s story and my own is that I was never “gay.” I’m not terribly attracted to men aside from my husband (and father of our four children) and Jim Cantore (okay, you can laugh), but I think that’s more a function of love than anything else. I can see a good-looking man and think that he’s good-looking, and the same with a lovely woman, but there’s no sexual component to it.

    I am terribly, terribly grateful to Mrs. Selmys for sharing her tale and her experience. I know several other people who share the experience of living in a homosexual relationship and then choosing to live a chaste life, and the temporal conseuences have been terrible for most, if not all, of us. That said, the freedom I (and my friends) have found in following His will is a greater joy than any roll in the hay could ever provide.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Freddy says:

    Thank you so much for this. I struggle with SSA every single day and have been experimenting with other men recently. It’s been very emotionally draining and it just sucks the life out of my faith. This article was very encouraging for me as I struggle daily to be a half-way decent Catholic.

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