By Autumn Jones
This spring, Eve Tushnet wrote an article about the conversion therapy in Catholic spaces. The article, included in the June 2021 issue of America Magazine, cited anecdotal evidence from interviews Tushnet conducted during her research. CNA responded to the article with a different perspective on welcoming LGBT members of the Church, supported by our own research and interviews.
Over the last several weeks, Tushnet and our staff engaged in a charitable discourse about our respective points of view. We invited Tushnet to share her thoughts in an interview with CNA:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your approach to ministry. How did you acquire your position with America? What prompted you to write your book?
I was born in 1978 and raised in Washington, D.C., more or less secular or Reform Jewish. When I was 12 or 13, I began to realize that the way other girls were talking about boys was the way I felt about a girl in my English class. Because I was raised in a very progressive environment and my parents had gay friends, realizing that I was gay wasn’t traumatic. In fact, it was something of a relief to realize that others had had these experiences too, and that there was a community to which I could belong. In college, friends began to share their Catholic faith with me in terms I could understand. I fell in love with the Church, and, in 1998, was baptized and confirmed. I’m a recovering alcoholic, which I talk about in Gay and Catholic and which has shaped my spirituality. I live in Washington, D.C., and work as a writer and speaker.
I wrote Gay and Catholic because even the best books for gay Christians already out there were either mostly memoir or theological argument in favor of the Christian sexual ethic. I wanted to write a book which would include some memoir (in order to build trust, so people knew where I was coming from), but which focused on the paths of love which are open to gay people in the Church—especially those paths which might be overlooked.
I wrote Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love (forthcoming in November from Ave Maria Press) for gay Christians who found that their relationship with God had been damaged by painful experiences or misguided teaching they’d received in their churches. It’s especially written for people who have feared that their sexual orientation cuts them off from God. I hope to show that the complex experience of being gay can actually help you grow closer to the Lord. It’s an attempt to help people restore their trust in God and their confidence in His love and mercy, re-grounding their obedience in trust that He delights in them.
You can think of Gay and Catholic as a book about “horizontal love,” the ways we love other people around us, and Tenderness as a book about “vertical love,” the love between the soul and God.
What is your understanding of the genesis of same-sex attraction? (e.g. is it from God, from nature, from trauma, etc.). How does your answer square with the multiplicity of answers that can be given to this question? Can trauma or abuse be related to same-sex attraction? What research supports your conclusions?
The catechism says, “[Homosexuality’s] psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” This seems wise! My best understanding of the scientific evidence is that sexuality—as we might expect—involves a complex mix of influences, including genetic and other biological factors, but not limited to those influences. Nor should we expect that every person’s experience of sexuality will have the same mix of influences. Sexuality is complicated and often mysterious, and every person’s story will differ.
I don’t have an opinion on why people are gay. To me the important things are, “How can I serve God and other people within this experience?”, and, “How can I be grateful for my experience as a gay woman—as St. Paul says, ‘in all things giv[ing] thanks’?”
Trauma affects our sexuality in a wide range of ways. As we seek to heal trauma, we may find that our sexuality shifts and changes—though not always in the way we might expect. I’ve known many people who were terrified of being gay, believed they could not possibly be gay, and, on the basis of that traumatized fear, entered heterosexual relationships, including marriages. As they began to heal those wounds of fear, shame, and mistrust of God, they began to accept themselves as gay. For me personally, when I was still drinking I’d sometimes have intense, very immature crushes on men. As I grew in sobriety and began to live more grounded in truth, those crushes disappeared (so far). I became a lot less bisexual… and also discovered a lot more peace and joy in celibacy.
People’s sexuality can shift unpredictably (in either direction!) over their life course. But the narrative that homosexuality must be caused by abuse, and can therefore be “fixed” by healing the wounds of trauma, has itself caused immense harm to people who had this narrative imposed on them when it didn’t fit their story. Families have been damaged as therapists pressured children to blame their parents for “making them gay.” Therapists have focused not on healing wounds and traumas, but on increasing patients’ heterosexuality, with any healing of actual trauma treated as a means rather than an end. If both therapists and patients can instead focus on healing from trauma, without expecting or pressuring patients into orientation change, people will be much better-equipped to respond humbly and gratefully to whatever happens with their sexual orientation.
How does your understanding inform the way you think same-sex attraction should be approached by the Church?
I suppose my main principles here are, “Treat people as individuals rather than categories,” “Acknowledge where Christians have done harm, make amends, and work to restore people’s trust in God’s love,” and, “Help people discover the ways God is calling them to give and receive love, rather than focusing solely on the things they shouldn’t do.”
So often I’ve received spiritual guidance which assumed that, because I’m gay, my most serious problem was lust, and what I needed more than anything was advice on chastity. Gay people have a really wide range of both virtues and besetting sins! You can’t give people good guidance if you assume you know what they need just because they self-identify as “gay.”
Specifically, I’ve found that for many gay Christians, the biggest temptation they face is not lust but despair. So many people who grew up gay in our churches spent their formative years terrified and hiding, fearing that their attractions meant they could never love God, that they disappointed Him, and that there was no future for them in the Church, or only a future of isolation and repression. In 2016, Pope Francis said that the Church should apologize to gay people who have been harmed by Catholics. I wrote about a couple forms our amends could take, renewing the Church as well as healing some of the wounds Catholics have caused.
I’m trying to open a door of hope in that grim place of despair so many gay Christians have experienced. And one of the most important ways to do that is by exploring the ways real, actual gay believers have given their lives to Christ, loving and serving, in ways both ancient and new.
Do you think that same-sex attraction is a blessing in the strict sense?
I’m not sure I know what “the strict sense” is! I know I have received so many blessings through being gay. Because I’m gay, I’ve gotten to know so many other gay Christians and learn from their faith. I’ve gotten to know so many other gay people and learn from their courage and kindness. I’ve gotten to belong to gay communities. I’ve gotten to experience the Church from the margins, which brings a lot of challenges, but also some insights.
I don’t think I would have explored the Catholic history of friendship, the depth and beauty friendship can hold for us and the ways friendship can bring us closer to God, if I hadn’t been gay. I don’t think I would be as alive to the beauty of women if I weren’t gay, and any time we can notice and give thanks for the beauty God has created, we are blessed.
Presumably there would have been other blessings if I were straight! But these are a small selection of the blessings I’ve experienced because of being gay.
How do you reconcile your perspective with Sacred Scripture?
As best I can tell, my perspective is grounded in Scripture: in God’s creation of each one of us, in His sustaining each of us solely by His cherishing love (cf. Wisdom 11:24 – 6), and in His gift to us of both moral law and examples of love.
My best understanding of both Scripture and Church teaching is that same-sex sexual activity is forbidden, while same-sex love is holy. Our Church offers guidance for gay people’s longing to give and receive love. We have models of love shared in one’s family of origin—but also deep comfort for those whose family of origin rejected them. We have models of love shared in community, like the love Jesus shared with the disciples, or the love shared in monastic communities and lay intentional communities.
And we have models of devoted, lifelong love between two people of the same sex, which made them kin to one another: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and John “the Beloved Disciple.” These loves are chaste; they’re also emotionally rich and filled with spiritual wisdom. The covenant of David and Jonathan helps us learn about Jesus’ Kingship—and also His willingness to sacrifice for us, as Jonathan, though the son of the king, risked his life so that David would be king. The promises of Ruth to Naomi, which unite Ruth with the Hebrew people, foreshadow the “grafting in” of the Gentiles, just as Ruth, though a Moabite, becomes one of the foremothers of Jesus. And the morning prayers for St. John’s feast include the line, “To the virgin John, Christ, dying on the Cross, entrusted His Virgin Mother.” We model our own friendship with Jesus on John’s intimate friendship with Him; like John, we are the children of Mary, Mother of the Church.
These are models of same-sex love which hold immense appeal for people of all sexual orientations. Often when I speak, straight people will come up to me afterward and say that they, too, long for deep, committed same-sex friendships. They, too, love people of the same sex and wish to share their lives with them—as kin, with the obligations of kinship as well as the joys. Gay people are rediscovering these Scriptural and historical models with a special urgency, because we had never been told that there were Christian models for the same-sex love we longed for. We can offer these models to the entire Church.
Gay people have so often been told that the only way our loves can become “ordered” is for them to become heterosexual. And when this consistently doesn’t happen for so many of us, we begin to despair. Scripture, and the Catholic history of vowed and committed same-sex friendship, offer models of “ordered” love of someone of the same sex. Not every gay person is called to these paths (just as not every straight person is called to marriage), but, in my experience, knowing that there is ordered same-sex love can change people’s relationship to Scripture and Church teaching. Many gay people feel as though the Church is on one side, and the love they know they long for is on the other. If they know the Church can recognize genuine love between two people of the same sex, it is easier to trust that the Church might also have some guidance in how to live that love more deeply.
You say you live and believe in complete accord with the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction. What does that mean in your perspective?
I think I’ve really stated it above—I believe that same-sex love can be beautiful and holy; that sex is not the right expression of this love (since sex is reserved for the union of a man and a woman in marriage), but it can be expressed in many good ways; and that gay people need, as the catechism says, “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” which too many of us have not received from our fellow Catholics.
Do you believe that the Church needs to change her teaching on same-sex attraction? Do you think that the Church can change her teaching on same-sex attraction?
I assume there can be “development of doctrine,” likely in the realm of encouraging and guiding people in chaste same-sex love. That would be a development, an addition, not a reversal. The pattern of Catholic witness and Scripture are pretty unambiguous, from what I can tell, on the morality of same-sex sexual activity. The Church is our Mother and Teacher, and it’s not my place to say what She “needs to” teach, but I can say that I don’t see any path for the development of doctrine that would lift the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity.
In your article, you implied (or stated) that conversion therapy is harmful. What is your definition of “conversion therapy”? Do all types of therapy that address underlying questions of sexual identity constitute conversion therapy? Do you believe that therapy of any kind addressing underlying questions of sexual inclination and identity can be beneficial? Is therapy the gravest danger that persons with same-sex attraction face or are there other dangers that are paramount?
To start with the last question, the biggest dangers I’ve known gay people to face are suicidality, violence, and despair. It is difficult to entirely disentangle the various dangers people face: When others reject you, or act as though you can’t be acceptable to God unless you become straight, that’s awful in itself and can also lead you to thoughts of suicide. When churches teach that being gay is a choice, that’s harmful in itself and also may lead parents to throw their gay children out of the house for “disobedience,” contributing to the horrific number of homeless LGBT teenagers.
I think the definition of “conversion therapy” that makes the most sense is that it’s therapy where one of the primary purposes is to reduce homosexuality and increase heterosexuality: a therapy in which “success” can be measured by degree of heterosexuality.
I didn’t use this as part of the definition for my article, but I think it’s important: I asked all of my interviewees whether their therapist had explored what a good life would look like for them even if their orientation didn’t change. With one exception, all of them said, “No.”
I don’t have an opinion or expertise on other aspects of therapy relating to sexuality.
When it comes to “celebrity priests” such as Father James Martin, what are your thoughts about using a platform such as America to influence the faithful? Does America profess to be in accord with the Church?
I think Father Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, is primarily directed toward straight people in the Church and gay people who are not now practicing Catholics. So I’m not the target audience. I have friends who are gay and practicing Catholics who found the book inspiring and helpful, and several of the prayer exercises in the second half are really good—I quote one of them in Tenderness. I wrote a bit [in the Washington Post] about what the book leaves out, but that isn’t a judgment on the book as a whole.
The position you strike in your article seems to agree with those who hope to ban any type of therapy that helps persons understand their homosexual inclination or that attributes any environmental influence such as trauma or abuse. With the exception of minors, the people who attend such therapy, including all those you interviewed, chose to participate in therapy themselves. Many others outside of the nine interviewed have had positive experiences with therapy. What was the premise of your article? Was the idea assigned to you or of your own pitch? What prepared you to speak on this topic?
I prepared to write the article through research (some links are included in the piece) and interviews. I also drew on the experiences of the many people I’ve interviewed for other projects, and people I got to know informally through gay Christian communities.
I think the article makes two contributions to the growing body of writing about conversion therapy. First, it quotes people who continue to live out the Catholic sexual ethic, even after rejecting the premises of conversion therapy. Most articles on the subject make it sound like everyone who leaves conversion therapy behind also leaves behind Catholic teaching. I knew that wasn’t true, and I’ve been very grateful for the chance to share the voices of people who have accepted themselves as gay and are seeking to live in harmony with the Church.
The second thing I was able to do, because of the thoughtfulness of my interviewees, is explore the reasons people do choose conversion therapy. Some of my interviewees were pressured or even tricked into it, but others sought it out. They were able to explain, better than I could, the way conversion-therapy narratives resonated with their experiences (and how they later reinterpreted those experiences), and the way conversion therapy seemed to offer their only chance at an obedient Catholic life.
If someone’s experience of orientation-change therapy has been very different from that of my interviewees, good! You are lucky! I’m not trying to convince you that I know your experience better than you do. I would simply hope that we can agree that many people will not experience orientation change, and, therefore, making it a primary goal of therapy is a bad idea. It’s better to focus on healing wounds, restoring trust in God, and growing in our ability to give and receive love, without expecting or pressuring people into orientation change. That approach will do good no matter how people’s experience of their sexuality shifts over time.
Can you list your specific criticisms of the work of Dr. Nicolosi and Fr. Harvey?
I don’t know that I have much to add to what is in the article.
Would you please share Your opinion on Courage—Do you think it is or it is not a valid alternative for Catholics with SSA?
My strongest opinion about Courage is that it shouldn’t be the only option. I know people who have found help there; I also know people for whom the Courage model wasn’t helpful. In general Catholics are pretty good at diversity in spirituality. We know that some people resonate with Carmelite spirituality, or Jesuit, or Byzantine, or Dominican. We need the same acceptance that people have diverse needs and spiritualities in ministries for gay and same-sex attracted Catholics.
What similarities and differences do you find in issues such as understanding SSA, compassion, outreach and doctrine?
You mean, with Courage? I don’t know that I have strong opinions here, especially since I’ve never been a Courage member and the people I know who have been members had quite varying experiences.
Do you have a group that works with same-sex attracted persons that you admire?
There are a few groups I’ve recommended to people, though none of them will be right for every single person, of course. Revoice is an ecumenical Christian conference; Eden Invitation is a Catholic group; and I’m involved with the gay and lesbian ministry at my church, which does a pretty good job at trying to grow in faithfulness, while welcoming people no matter what they believe.
How widespread do you believe homophobia to be? Have you had personal experiences with it? How would you define homophobia? What types of acts would constitute homophobic acts? In your opinion, is having a discussion on the morality of same-sex attraction homophobic?
I’d say if our actions lack the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” called for in the catechism, that’s homophobia. At its most virulent, of course, it’s expressed in violence against gay people or people perceived to be gay. I’ve been spared that violence but many of my friends have been physically attacked for being gay. I have friends who lost jobs or ministry positions because they came out, or were outed by others—these are people who accepted their church’s teaching on sexual ethics, and sought to live by it, but simply being gay made them “unfit to serve.” I have friends who grew up hearing anti-gay slurs from their parents, or whose parents and priests described gay people as enemies of the Church. (I’m not sure I have friends who didn’t hear anti-gay slurs from their peers, growing up.)
The homophobia I’ve experienced in Catholic settings has mostly manifested as suspicion and unwillingness to listen: assumptions about my family background (for example, speculating on how my parents must have caused my lesbianism), sex life, or spiritual life; repeated interrogations about whether I “really” believe what I say I believe; and suspicion of anything I do to love either another woman, or gay communities.
As far as “discussion on the morality of same-sex attraction,” I think straight people wildly underestimate how much of this stuff we’ve all already heard. Some people are down for discussing intensely personal experiences with strangers. (I’m doing it now!) But if I’m in the confessional, I do not need a lecture on Church teaching, which I already accept, or “identifying as gay,” which is not a sin. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone post a deeply personal, heartfelt discussion of the spiritual struggles they’ve experienced seeking to be faithful to Christ while growing in self-acceptance and unlearning self-hatred… only to have somebody pop up in the comments to inform them that being gay is a sin. The people who brought me into the Church shared their own faith with me, answered my questions, and did not lecture me about what Jesus thinks of my sexual orientation. That approach helped me trust not only these specific Catholics, but the Church as a teacher. In general, if you’re discussing the Catholic sexual ethic with a gay person (or anybody, probably), it’s good to ask yourself what you have done to make yourself trustworthy in this person’s eyes.
Our obedience to Catholic morality is grounded in our trust that this is the Way Jesus teaches, and that He is Love incarnate. Why would we even care what the Church teaches if we didn’t trust that She can help us love? Restoring this trust, which has so often been damaged by Catholics’ misguided actions, is the first step in any attempt to provide moral guidance.