By Kerri Lenartowick
More than 10 years ago, Joseph Prever found himself scouring the internet for anything that might help him: he was gay, Catholic, and confused. Resources were scarce for a man struggling with homosexuality and trying to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching.
In the intervening years, Catholics experiencing same-sex attraction have become a more vocal presence in the Church.
Google the words “gay Catholic” and one of the top sites to appear will be Prever’s own blog, a blog with the tagline: “Catholic, Gay, and Feeling Fine.” There, the 30-something writer considers his own experiences as a man struggling with same-sex attraction and trying to live out the virtue of chastity.
What follows is an edited version of a conversation about everything from homosexuality and Batman to poetry and football.
Can you introduce yourself and your blog?
I’m Joe Prever. I used to blog under the pseudonym Steve Gershom. I’ve been doing that for a few years now. The blog is about what it’s like to be a gay Catholic – a gay Catholic who is of course, celibate – and I say ‘of course’ because that seems to me like the only option if you’re going to be both gay and Catholic. On the blog I try to stay away from abstract discourse about spirituality and sexuality in general and more towards lived experience: that’s what I see as my niche.
Why did you start writing a blog?
I honestly don’t remember the thought process that led me to it, but I do remember wishing at one point that there was somebody blogging like that, and in fact these days there are just a whole lot of people in my situation who are blogging, and that’s really great. It seems liked it’s very much exploded in the last few years. My friends and I joke that there’s a gay Catholic renaissance on, or actually a gay Christian renaissance on, and we’re proud to be at the forefront of it – or at least we tell ourselves that we’re at the forefront.
Did those other people read your blog before they started theirs?
Some of them did, yes. In fact, a couple of them have said to me that I was someone who helped to inspire them to start, so I’m very proud of that.
This was a few years ago. Even at that time there were a fair amount of resources, in the sense that there were people who were writing about it, and you could find various testimonials online if you googled hard enough, but there were very few people who, on a day to day basis were like, ‘here’s what this is like, here’s how you deal with that,’ etc.
And so you decided you were going to be that resource?
Yes. Because at that time, I was sort of starting to feel for the first time that things were very much manageable, and I think back to this very specific moment in college when I was 18 or 19, and googling this kind of stuff, just to see if there was anybody out there who I could relate to and who would have some wisdom to share about it, and I did in fact find some stuff. It was remembering the feeling of how good it was to find that made me want to pass that along.
You blogged pseudonymously for years and then you ‘came out,’ so to speak, in the summer of 2014. Why did you decide to do that?
It was one of those decisions where by the time you make it, you realize that you’ve already made it, if you see what I mean. It was hard in the sense that I’d actually always said that people shouldn’t be public about being gay, because it was not anybody’s business and I felt that it would lend legitimacy to this idea that being gay is a sort of a single way to identify yourself: I actually still sort of hold that position – kind of. (Laughs).
It’s hard to describe: I don’t think that being gay is as essential of a way to identify yourself as say, being male is, or being Catholic, or being human. I guess my position right now is that if the cultural atmosphere were different from what it is, then I don’t know whether I would have gone public.
The real reason I did is because of the blog, and talking about these things in general, and the cultural conversation in general that’s happening right now – all of these things have become such a big part of my life… it wasn’t really a question of honesty. It’s just that when something is so much a part of your life, people ask you, ‘oh, so what’ve you got going on?’ or ‘what are you doing these days?’ and I felt really lame saying, ‘oh, you know, programming computers. Watching movies. Hanging out. Stuff.’
So honestly, it was largely a vanity thing. It’s like the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne is doing this, ‘I’m a rich celebrity playboy’ thing, and he’s bathing in fountains and buying hotels and so forth, and Katie Holmes’ (character) is upset with him for being such a wastrel. (Laughs) And I felt like I wanted to be publicly Batman: strictly for vanity-related reasons. I wanted everyone to know how awesome I am.
I’m trying not to laugh…
Well, it’s perfectly true. And I suppose there are other reasons, like I want to be a public witness and things like that, but I suspect that it’s mostly vanity.
What response did you get when you ‘came out’? When people began to associate you with this gay guy who writes a blog?
On the day that I made public the post where I came out, I received just piles and piles of comments and emails and text messages. Most were from people I didn’t know, except for the text messages, obviously, but a very large portion of them were from people who had known me for a long time and who just wanted to say how pleased they were that I had done this and how proud they were of me to have taken this stance, and how courageous they thought I was and how honored they were to be my friend, and all of this stuff. In other words, I can’t think of a single friend, family member, or acquaintance who did not greet this revelation with support.
I think I would have had a very, very different response were I not celibate. When I get negative feedback, which I occasionally do from people who disagree with what the Church teaches, they say that I am being made a poster boy and that I’m being used – which is to say, conservative Christians are super happy to have somebody to point to whom they can say, ‘well look, here’s one person who agrees with us.’
Do you think being accused of being a ‘poster boy’ means that people are people angered by your celibacy?
That’s an interesting question. I think some people are angered on my behalf for what they perceive to be a sort of ‘Stockholm syndrome,’ and I’ve actually heard that phrase thrown around more than once. People see me defending the Church’s teachings on marriage, and on sexuality, and what they see is somebody who’s been taught to suppress his own nature for so long that he’s actually come to believe the things he’s been told about himself – that’s what they see.
What’s really there?
I can’t sum myself up, but the point is that if any of the people who accuse me of being the poster boy or of having ‘Stockholm syndrome’ or anything like that were actually to read the things I’ve said, they would see that, number one, I don’t sort of unquestioningly accept whatever I’m told about sexuality, but I always bring it back to my own experience. And number two, I very much admit the difficulties inherent in the life I live and I don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And I don’t think I would do either of those things if I had ‘Stockholm syndrome.’
Your blog header is, ‘Catholic, Gay, and Feeling Fine,’ and you’ve been using the word ‘gay’ throughout our conversation so far. Do you have any thoughts on that word, as opposed to ‘same-sex attraction’ or other terms?
Absolutely. That is another hard question, and it’s a question about which my position has been continually shifting, so I don’t feel as though I’ve found solid ground yet.
I’ve always used the word. It used to be that I would use the word in writing, but sort of in my interior monologue and in private conversation I would say ‘same-sex attracted.’ I used to joke that the only reason I used the word ‘gay’ was so that I would tend to show up more on Google, which is only partially a joke, because you know if you’re going to use the tools of technology to evangelize, then you have to be savvy about what Google is going to find and what it isn’t.
But I guess the shift mainly happened as I began to approach being more public about it, because as I became more public I also came into contact more openly with people who identified as gay or who struggled with same-sex attraction, or whatever. And what I found was that a lot of them had a lot of resentment towards people who insisted on not using the word gay.
Why did they have resentment?
For a few reasons. It’s a really complicated topic, and I’m not sure how to distill what is offensive about it. One, is that it’s offensive to be told what you ought to be allowed to call yourself. And in fact, I rarely feel strongly about whether I should use the word gay or not, but the one time I do feel strongly about it is when somebody starts upbraiding me for it. Because it feels incredibly intrusive.
This is a topic that gets very political very fast. It’s the sort of thing where people feel, and I think rightly, that they have been constrained to keep silent for most of their lives – and a lot of people have, whether it’s constrained by actual explicit homophobia among the people that they love and/or are related to, or whether it’s just sort of a general culture understanding that you don’t talk about this sort of thing. So you have a set of people who have felt this way for most of their lives, and then you have people saying ‘oh, well it’s sort of cool now if you talk about that, but just be sure you talk about it in this or that way.’ This is frustrating and comes across as very patronizing because these are people who don’t have any insight into the experience of what it is to be gay telling you what it is or is not ok to talk about, and what it is and is not ok to call yourself.
Would you also apply that criticism to the Church who never uses the word ‘gay’ in her documents?
I understand why She (the Church) doesn’t. I don’t know if that will continue to be the case. I don’t have any bitterness towards the Church as a whole in that way.
This is reason that I haven’t yet come to a solid opinion on this question – because the problem is that secular people and Christian people mean two different things by the word ‘gay.’
Could you explain that a little more?
It’s really hard to distill. But you know what’s at the heart of it?
When I told my roommate I was gay, the first thing that he said to me was, ‘do you mean same-sex attracted?’ And that was actually the precisely wrong thing to say, and I don’t hold it against him. (Laughs) But the heart of it is that I was telling him this incredibly personal thing, and he was instructing me in the right way to feel about it, immediately, from the get-go.
Now I think that one reason Christians tend to dislike the word ‘gay’ is because if somebody says that they are gay, then they are usually implying that it is an unchangeable aspect of their personality. Whereas the sort of default position among a lot of Christians is that homosexuality is changeable. The unspoken implication is that if you identify yourself as ‘gay,’ then you’re probably not trying hard enough to be straight. And I believe that this why it is so offensive to be told that they shouldn’t use the word gay.
It might be true that some people can change to some extent, but it’s extremely offensive to assume that the only reason somebody hasn’t changed is because they haven’t tried. And even though very few people would have the chutzpah to make that explicit, I do believe that that’s the belief that’s behind it.
What do you think we should be doing as a Church, as a Christian community, to be helping people who struggle with homosexuality?
That’s a really good question! I’ll start first by saying that I’m extremely grateful for the organization People Can Change, which is an organization founded precisely on the idea that radical change with respect to homosexuality is possible. I’m grateful for them not because they ‘made me straight’ or something, but because they gave me a space in which to work out some of my issues, many of which turned out not to be related precisely to homosexuality in particular, but were just sort of emotional issues that needed dealing with.
I think a lot of gay men and women do have emotional issues that aren’t going to be dealt with if they’re told that everything is already ok. But on the other hand, this is dangerous because you have a lot of Christian people already assuming from the get-go that if somebody is homosexual, then they must have various and many emotional issues that need working on, and that’s not necessarily the case. (Laughs) So you see why this is difficult!
If the understanding in the Christian world is that homosexuality is a “disorder,” and homosexual activity is a sin, then logically it would seem like as Christians, we would want to help our fellow Christians who are “dis-ordered” to be “ordered.” Do you think there’s a problem with that logic?
I think there’s a problem with that phraseology. There’s a subtle but importance difference in saying that somebody has a disordered inclination and saying that somebody is disordered.
The Church has to be clear with respect to ‘what is the nature of homosexuality itself,’ but can’t make a pronouncement on whether it is a mental disorder, for example. Many people assume that when the Church says ‘homosexuality consists of a disordered inclination,’ they take that word ‘disorder’ and assume that She means ‘mental disorder.’ But I think the Catechism has purposely phrased it in such a way that you can’t actually conclude that if you’re reading carefully. But it takes careful reading.
The Church never changes her underlying principles, but when something new happens, it’s always a question of, ‘well, what do the underlying principles dictate in this particular situation?’ And a lot of the times it turns out that it doesn’t dictate what we thought it did but it takes a while to figure that out.
What do you think the underlying principles are that are dictating what the Church is saying about homosexuality?
That men are men, and women are women, and the two are not the same.
Do you want to expound on that at all?
Well, what I think is that one, at the bottom of it, men and women are different. Number two, that eros is different from friendship, and number three, that physical acts have spiritual meanings.
I think those things are the fundamental axioms that we have to work with here. And I think those things are precisely the things that are being argued about. I don’t think the Church is arguing about them, and I don’t think She should, because as far as I’m concerned, those things are absolutely essential to what the Church believes about people. But those things are very much being debated in the broader culture.
I’ll tell you how I see myself and what I do, which is not only with respect to homosexuality but with how I try to live the Catholic faith in general. I try to live my life by those principles that make sense to me as a human being, and are consonant with what I know about human nature and with what the world at large has discovered about human nature. However, I also believe that if anything is true, it is Christian: that every truth is a Christian truth, and that there can be no truth about human nature which is not consonant with what the Church teaches about human nature.