Melinda Selmys Replies

September 2011

Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism (Our Sunday Visitor, 2009). A regular columnist for the National Catholic Register, her articles have appeared in numerous Catholic publications, including This Rock, The Catholic Answer, and Envoy. She writes from Canada, where she lives with her husband and their six children.

Randall Smith asks whether it is possible to create a “safe place” in which “authentic dialogue” can take place. The answer: Not really. Dialogue is rather like sex: It can be safe, or it can be effective. When people dialogue there’s always the risk that one of the parties will have to change his mind or his behavior; apologies may be necessary; feelings might get hurt. The most effective dialogue involves all three of these elements.

Authentic dialogue cannot be safe, but it can be respectful. Respectful dialogue is not castrated dialogue that tiptoes around the truth; it is dialogue that speaks with genuine respect for the personality and free will of the other person. Prof. Smith is absolutely right in pointing out that when Catholics merely keep silent, and especially when priests scandalize their LGBTQ congregants by being “accepting” without being truthful about the Church’s teaching, it leads to misunderstanding and contempt. It is very unpleasant to be around someone who silently disapproves of you, or who paternalistically treats you as though you’re a spiritual infant who is not capable of handling the real demands made by Christian morality. A lot of people who have abandoned a gay identity in order to become Catholic have observed that it is demeaning to the dignity of gay and lesbian people to treat them as if they were slaves to biology, natural-born sex-addicts who are incapable of rational self-determination or responsible moral action.

The caveat is that respectful dialogue can’t just tell the truth; as Prof. Smith acknowledges, it has to tell the truth in charity. This is a principle most everyone is familiar with, but one which hardly anyone implements effectively. It is much easier to come up with an argument to explain why the things we’re already doing really are loving and charitable than it is to do the kind of honest self-examination necessary to understand why they might not be. In the case of the LGBTQ community, a lot of Christian outreach is hamstrung by its overweening concern with fraternal correction. Before we’ve even started to figure out how we’re going to love our neighbor, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to use that love to convince him of the truth. This is backwards. The truth is an important part of love, but it is subservient. If you first love someone, then telling the truth will happen naturally, and it will happen in a way that will penetrate to the heart. If you only “love” someone in order to teach him that his way of life is sinful, you won’t get very far.

The Dreaded “Ex-Gay” Speaker

That my appearance at Notre Dame was so heavily contentious is partly my own fault. When I first started writing about my conversion to the faith, I was still in the relatively early stages of trying to understand what had caused me to identify as lesbian, and some of the things I wrote were things I wouldn’t agree with today. I was more willing then to accept the reparative-therapy party line and wasn’t critical enough of some of the data that seemed to support the Christian “side” of the debate. When my appearance at the university was announced, the gay community tried to get some advance information on what I was likely to say. Unfortunately, most of what they came across was, from my point of view, seven years out of date. I’d since delved a lot more deeply into my own experience, and had done a lot more research in order to understand how the experiences of other LGBTQ people differed from my own. As a result, I’ve changed a good many of my opinions.

That being the case, shouldn’t the gay community have welcomed me? After all, I am a Christian who has not only listened to and tried to understand their point of view, but one who is actually willing to be convinced by their arguments when they happen to be right. The people who showed up to protest didn’t know me; they hadn’t read my book; they were reacting to what little they did know: that I was an ex-gay speaker addressing a largely Catholic audience.

As Prof. Smith points out, most ex-gay speakers don’t believe in behavioral therapies or in “praying away the gay.” So why are our stories unacceptable? One reason is that the LGBTQ people who have been involved with ex-gay ministries have found them to be demeaning and soul-stifling. And it is safe to say that more LGBTQ people have exposure to “ex-ex-gay” than to ex-gay testimonials, and so they assume that the ex-gays are there to promote the bizarre experiments that have been undertaken to “cure” homosexuality.

Another reason is that those who have successfully converted from homosexuality to heterosexuality have accomplished something that many LGBTQ people have tried, have suffered greatly in trying, and have failed to accomplish. It’s uncomfortable to have someone else stand up and declare that success is possible when you’re thoroughly convinced that you’ve tried everything and that it is not. The natural reaction to this is to say, “Well, she was probably just bisexual in the first place. It’s not possible for me to change — but if people listen to what she has to say, they’re going to think I just didn’t try hard enough.”

This reaction is somewhat justifiable. A lot of the demand for ex-gay speakers in the Christian world is a demand for a very specific, soothing message of reparation and healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. When I’ve been interviewed on Christian television and radio, I’ve felt a palpable pressure to give a very specific kind of testimonial. This is very difficult to resist, and in fairness to the LGBTQ people who would rather I kept my mouth shut, I haven’t always been successful in resisting it. The fact is that a lot of Christians want to hear that their sons, daughters, wives, husbands, nieces, nephews, friends, and so forth, who identify as gay or lesbian will one day be able to have full and happy heterosexual lives. I try to be clear that this is not a realistic expectation: My own situation involves the unlikely coming together of a number of incongruous variables that made it possible for me to fall in love with and marry a man, in spite of numerous interior obstacles. Understandably, people in the gay community want to silence this message because they’re sick of being pressured by their friends and family to “straighten out.”

The Homophobic Bogeyman

Prof. Smith references Matthew Franck’s First Things article, in which Franck recounts how, when he urged Washington Post readers “to reject the use of reckless charges of ‘hate’ to shut down debate,” he was promptly accused of hate speech. This highlights one of the primary difficulties with public dialogue. The average Washington Post reader has learned to think by watching television and wading through the Internet; he has practiced the skills that are useful for quickly sifting through large quantities of mostly inane information. Unfortunately, cogent arguments demand a longer attention span. I doubt that Franck’s Washington Post readers were reacting so much to his argument as to a series of stereotypes about right-wing Christians they’ve picked up from the media. Believe me, the stereotypes run both ways, and intelligent LGBTQ folks are just as irritated by this state of affairs as intelligent Christians.

Prof. Smith points out that there is fear in the Christian community of being labeled “boorish,” a “hater,” an “ignorant rube,” or a “worthless cretin” when one “refuses to grant without argument the moral supremacy of the other side.” This fear is real, and legitimate, but it’s important for Christians to understand that there is an equal and opposite fear in the gay community. Most people who identify as gay or lesbian have a long history of rejection and ostracization. I’m not talking about cultural history at large, but about individuals’ personal history. The standard gay narrative involves someone knowing, from an early age, that he is “different.” These differences crop up long before anything like sexual attraction develops, and they tend to be accompanied by peer rejection. For many people these differences are real, they lead to social alienation, and they don’t go away even if one joins Courage or gets married. For obvious reasons, people who are in this situation want it to change: LGBTQ people want their lifestyles to be accepted, certainly; but they also want to be accepted as people. In my experience, most are willing to tolerate disagreements about the morality of same-sex activity if they know they’re talking to someone who likes them personally.

Ultimately, I think the real problem is that the dialogue in the public sphere is not being accompanied by real dialogue in the private sphere. People cannot fruitfully talk to one another from podia and in the media unless they are already talking one-on-one. That’s why, when the gay community wanted to gain legitimacy in the public sphere, their primary tactic was to encourage those with same-sex attractions to “come out of the closet.” The campaign worked, not because of the constant media bombardment, but because suddenly a great number of people in America personally knew someone who was gay. It became possible to see and identify gay and lesbian people, to ask them questions about their sexuality, and to realize that they weren’t necessarily predatory monsters lurking in the darkness looking to seduce our children. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue that takes place between the Christian and LGBTQ communities takes place only within the public sphere. The ones who monopolize the dialogue on both sides are invariably the most hot-headed and reactionary. That’s no way to carry on a fruitful dialogue. The nature of public engagement creates the impression of a never-ending tug-of-war in which no progress is ever made.

The safest place for dialogue about human sexuality is a quiet corner at the back of the pub. Until Christian witness moves into that sphere, until there are millions of private conversations in which individual gays and lesbians learn that orthodox Christians are not hateful, bigoted, and irrational — and vice versa — the public dialogue will continue to be plagued by fear and suspicion.

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