Meet the gay celibate Catholic who’s shaking up the sexuality debates: Eve Tushnet talks about self-acceptance
c. 2015 Religion News Service
(RNS) A few decades ago, there were two options for people who wanted to follow Jesus but were attracted to the same gender: They could either throw off religion and embrace their sexuality, or they could remain in the faith and hide their sexual orientations. Today, there are other options. Some—like Matthew Vines and David Gushee—are attempting to make a biblical case for same-sex relationships. Others—such as Julie Rodgers and Wesley Hill—are leading a movement of celibate gay Christians.
Among the second group, Eve Tushnet has risen to prominence. She has a popular blog hosted by the Patheos Catholic Channel and has created a stir with her book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. We asked her why it is important to her to self-identify as a lesbian and whether she’s missing something about the uniqueness and importance of erotic intimacy.
RNS: You identify as a lesbian but some Christians say that defining yourself by your sexual orientation isn’t helpful. Why does this label matter to you?
ET: My deepest identity will always be “child of God.” But identifying as a lesbian is a succinct way to honor my experiences in gay communities. In these places, I learned a lot, confronted my own privileges, and met some amazing people. I don’t want to reject those people or experiences. I also always think of the teenager just starting to acknowledge his or her feelings. Almost everybody in that position is going to think in terms like, “Wait—when people say ‘gay’ I think they mean me….” I want those people to know that there’s a life and a future for you within Christianity.
RNS: Your book’s subtitle proclaims that you’ve “accepted” your sexuality. But you’ve decided to live a celibate life based on your faith. What do you say to people who might counter that this isn’t acceptance?
ET: Self-acceptance, to me, means being honest with God and (where possible) with those around you about who you are. It means honoring and serving God through your sexuality, rather than trying to repress it, deny that it exists, or “switch” to heterosexuality. Some people mostly serve God through sacrifice of their sexual desires, pouring those desires out like oil over the feet of the Crucified, uniting their sacrifice to Christ’s. Others mostly sublimate, “acting on” our sexual desires by translating them into other forms of devotion ranging from mystical relationship to God, to friendship with others, to artistic creation. I mostly sublimate, I think, but everybody has to sacrifice their sexual desires at some point—regardless of your orientation.
RNS: You mentioned “artistic creation.” Why is this relevant to the discussion?
ET: My own conversion was heavily influenced by the Catholic insistence that the physical world is created and sustained by God through love. Beauty—the beauty of an old peeling fencepost, or the beauty of a woman’s face in a darkened room—is an arrow pointing us toward God’s beauty. The highly sensory, fleshly nature of Catholicism speaks to the truth about our embodied nature. And my impression is that a surprising number of gay people have this same intense awareness of physicality and beauty. Some speculate that if you’re marginalized and stigmatized because of your physical attractions and your reaction to physical beauty, you’ll be unusually sensitive to that beauty. And so artistry is one way of expressing and honoring your responses to beauty instead of suppressing them.
RNS: You say that gay Christians can “love and be loved” while remaining celibate. But there is something special about sexually intimate love, no?
ET: Definitely. This is a question I’m still wrestling with, so let me try several different approaches:
- Not only is there something special about sexual intimacy; it’s also the only form of love between humans which is raised to the level of a sacrament.
- I’m not sure it makes sense to rank devoted, sacrificial love. There’s something special about sexual intimacy which creates a child, and yet I wouldn’t say that an infertile couple lacks intimacy. Maybe it’s more like degrees of infinity. If you’re devoted to someone, over years of care, forgiveness and repentance, honesty, sharing your life and your thoughts with her … that union of lives is about as special as love gets. It’s infinitely precious.
- This is the Christian tradition as well. Gregory of Nazianzus describes his friendship with Basil of Caesarea as “two bodies with a single spirit.” David and Jonathan are icons of love which seeks the good of the other and the will of God, not one’s own interests. Jesus himself experienced friendship, both with the disciples as a group and with John the “beloved disciple” in a special way. I don’t think his love would have been greater or more special had it been expressed sexually. This union of souls is something gay (and straight) Christians can strive for; along with familial love, and love in community, again following Jesus’ model of loving his parents and disciples.
- I hope it’s not defensive to suggest that there’s a special freedom to serve which is available to some unmarried people. When I was living by myself I could spontaneously take in homeless women. That spontaneity is much harder to exercise responsibly when you have a spouse and kids. For some people celibacy offers a special undividedness of the heart and soul.
RNS: How do you think the Catholic Church needs to change to better serve and minister to its LGBT congregants?
ET: The biggest thing is probably to focus on how we can love, not how we can’t. We hear so much about what the church forbids, often larded with not-great explanations of why she forbids these things. But we rarely hear or see examples of what a fruitful future for a gay Christian might look like. I also think we shouldn’t require that gay people, almost uniquely among Christians and seekers, get our lives totally in line with the church before we’re welcome.