If I'm honest, I hate it when I share something emotional with someone, and their immediate response is, “I know how you feel.” I get what they’re trying to say, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re reading this: I don’t know how you feel. I don’t have any clue about the vast majority of people who will read this. You might love your life. You might be a day away from ending your life. I can only know what I have been through and what I feel. If you’re struggling in your life right now, I can tell you that I have struggled in my own way. I can’t magically fix how you’re feeling, but I can share how I’ve struggled with joy.
My awareness of an attraction to males happened pretty much at the exact same time of my awareness of my attraction to females. When I was five years old I was already starting to become aware of the funny, embarrassed feelings I’d get when Kimberly, the pink Power Ranger was on screen. They were the same feelings I’d get when Jonathan Taylor Thomas was on screen. My attraction toward other boys was never an issue during my childhood. I didn't know it wasn't normal, because those topics were off limits in my mind. Not because of oppressive parenting (my parents were and are amazing), but because of someone else - a family friend who abused me throughout childhood. I had been trained by my abuser not to talk about anything that felt secretive. My innocent childhood crushes sadly were associated with the warped shame of sexuality I was being force fed.
This was also the time that I first met Jesus in a meaningful way. I was raised by loving, supportive, and faithful parents with a positive understanding of Christianity and Catholicism. I’m from a third-of-seven kids kind of Catholic family. I had a normal childlike understanding of God. God the Father was an invisible Santa Claus to whom I asked my wishes at night. Jesus was a superhero who saves everyone. The Holy Spirit was…a bird, I guess? This conception of God started to become inadequate right around late middle school. Jesus loves me. This I know for the Bible tells me so. But Jesus also let me get abused. Those two things became hard for me to reconcile.
I went to an all-boys Jesuit school for middle and high school, which as you can imagine is a barrel of fun for an adolescent struggling with his sexual identity. Here I started to realize something was “off.” I had never been able to create meaningful friendships with guys, something I always attributed to being abused by men. This made being a teenager constantly surrounded by guys a lonely experience (without even getting into the confusion and shame). In my class of about 200 students, only one of them was openly out of the closet. He got hell for it, but his bravery gave me hope and made me feel less alone. Thanks, man.
Once I got old enough to start asking big questions, I became consumed by them. What’s the meaning of life? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is love? Who is God? I started reading everything I could get my hands on. One of the Jesuit priests at my high school handed me “Love and Responsibility” by Karol Wojtyła. It changed everything; everything that I was taught about relationships, masculinity and femininity, God and love, and myself.
Not all of my questions were immediately answered, but I was convicted that Truth and Goodness and Beauty and Love were where all my questions pointed. I continued to struggle with my faith and my sexuality, but for the first time in my life I had an overwhelming sense of peace surrounding my search. So I decided to try out the whole Jesus thing full force. I was the youth group kid. And, like many basic youth group kids, I ended up going to a Catholic Disneyland for college. Life was good. I was at a great school, had great friends, and was getting an amazing education.I started dating an incredible, beautiful Catholic woman, and that kind of put my sexual identity search on hold.
During college I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type I. And boy did I earn that diagnosis. My life fell apart around me when my brain hit the self-destruct button. I spent the next four years in and out of hospitals. While it seemed like most of my friends were getting jobs, going on adventures, and getting married and having kids, I felt trapped in my illness. The isolation was the deep kind of loneliness - Dickinson/Sylvia Plath/Elliot Smith kind of loneliness. But in that loneliness my faith became something real for the first time. It was no longer an intellectual journey or a hypothetical philosophy. It was a relationship with a Person that I needed to survive. Jesus was pulling me out of a well slowly - so slowly that half the time I felt like I was stuck or moving backwards. But eventually, bit by bit, I got healthier. I landed a great job as a youth minister, graduated from a college closer to home, and got engaged to my best friend.
As soon as I got comfortable in my new life, I fell to the bottom of the well again. My engagement didn't work out. I did not handle the break up well. I lost my job, because I wasn’t coping. And my faith life dried up. I no longer felt His presence. I was even more isolated than before, and I was trapped in my despair. Every scar from my childhood and my struggle with my sexuality that screamed “you are unloveable” felt vindicated. Despite the brokenness of some of my childhood and my severe struggle with mental illness in my early twenties, this period of spiritual dryness was the hardest period of my life. I turned away from the Church and from God. I didn’t leave, but I didn't care anymore.
One Sunday morning I was decidedly not going to Mass. I was walking down Saratoga Street in Baltimore after a night of bad decisions trying to remember how to get to the light rail station. After stumbling for a bit I ended up walking into a Catholic church. Not to go to Mass, but because it was METAL looking church. It was old school, like out of an old, Frank Miller Daredevil comic. Gorgeous stained glass windows, hundreds of statues, thousands of candles. But even while I was surrounded by all this beauty, I was fixated on the crucifix. It was grotesque. The body was twisted and contorted. Blood dripped from the crown of thorns to the bones being separated by the nail in his feet. But it wasn’t the violence I was fixated on. It was his eyes. They were fierce, nothing like Obi- Wan Jesus. Then people started coming in for Mass, and I felt awkward leaving while everyone was coming in. So I stayed. I held eye contact with the crucifix for pretty much the whole Mass. When the priest held up the host during the consecration I heard a voice, silent but strong, say “I know how you feel.” It was the first time in my life that I heard those words and knew they were true.
Being queer is hard. If you don’t have a safe, healthy environment to express yourself and be heard, it is one of the loneliest experiences a person can go through. I’ve read every book by Catholics about LGBTQ issues. I’ve met and became friends with good people who could relate in some way to my experience which has led me to experience communion in a powerful way. The more I search the more it becomes evident that the Church, in that she holds to fullness of Truth, harmonizes the conflict in my sexual identity and what it means to be fully human.
It’s hard being a Catholic queer person. But that’s sort of the point of being Catholic. Everyone of us is called to the fullness of our sexual identity. And that’s hard. Name someone you know who has zero sexual baggage to either work through or live with. I hope there are people out there who have never been exposed to harmful pornography, who have never been sexually assaulted or harassed, who have had no adult with a toxic attitudes - towards masculinity or femininity, homosexuality, or sex in general - influence their own worldview. I just haven’t met anyone like that. But this is why the Church speaks about chastity. Chastity isn’t repression or abstinence. Both in the words of the Church and in my experience chastity “means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC 2337-2339).
We may not always know how it feels, but we don’t need to be alone. People with homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or queer desires are just like everybody else. Broken and striving and called to live fully alive. No more and no less.
"Eliot" is a pseudonym. The author has chosen to remain anonymous for personal and professional reasons.