Thursday, August 04, 2005

Can Catholicism be Good for Gays?

by Michelangelo Signorile

As the Vatican becomes even more homophobic under the new pope – it recently condemned the country of Spain for legalizing same sex-marriage while news reports have claimed that the Vatican any day will release a paper calling for a ban of gays in the priesthood worldwide – there’s been a lot of anxiety about what direction Catholicism will take globally and how it will affect gay rights. But the impact of the church’s crusade actually might not be so negative in the long run. Catholic culture might in fact do more to nurture gay relationships than many people think.

Is it really a coincidence that many of the gay rights victories globally, large and small, are happening in countries that overwhelmingly Catholic? Spain this year passed the most far-reaching marriage rights law for gays of any country – allowing for full adoption rights. And in many traditionally Catholic South American countries gays in recent years are gaining more visibility and benefits than many people believed possible, particularly on the municipal level. Meanwhile, a new poll from Poland shows that in a few short years people in the predominantly Catholic country – and birthplace of Pope John Paul II – have become much more supportive of gay rights, with 46% now in favor of civil unions.

There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed in the West and which is reflected upon in the long piece I wrote in the mid-90s, “Murder Among the Ruins” (all about homosexuality – and a series of antigay murders -- in Italy), which is also included in my new book, Hitting Hard . Here’s what it is: Generally speaking, in devoutly Catholic countries – think of Italy and France – interestingly there have historically been few or no laws against homosexuality, and often, though not always, the gay movement in these countries is disorganized. In Italy, for example, there has never been any law banning sodomy, nor is there a specific law keeping gays out of the military. But activists have had an enormously difficult time getting gay men and lesbians to turn out for demonstrations or even pride events, so afraid are they to come out of the closet even though homosexuality hasn’t been criminally penalized.

Conversely, in largely Protestant countries – Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands ) – there have historically been laws on the books criminalizing gay sex, or outlawing some aspect of homosexual identity, and in those places the gay movement has been very organized. The Scandinavian countries have been at the forefront of gay rights, the Stonewall rights that kicked off the modern gay rights movement happened in the U.S., and Canada has been a progressive bastion of gay activism for decades.

What you come to realize is that this is an outgrowth of the cultures created by the two different versions of Christianity (and it doesn’t matter how devout people within these countries may now be about their faith; religions shape cultures over time in ways that we often don’t realize). Catholicism is about the collective, the group, the family, and adhering to the church principles as handed down to the minions from a sole authority. The religious culture thus has always had a built-in dynamic that discourages individuality and personal pronouncements – such as “coming out” as gay -- even as people secretly engage in gay sex. Historically, there was no need for the state in such countries to ban homosexuality, because Catholicism and religion did enough to discourage gay people from going public. The paradox is that, with no laws actually criminalizing homosexuality – and no discussion of it at all – there is often a disorganized gay movement in such places. It all stays vastly underground, along with all other types of transgressions, like heterosexual marital infidelity, which is common and winked at in Italy, France and Spain , even though it is never, ever acknowledged or publicly accepted. The rule of thumb is: Do whatever you want, just don’t talk about it, and just keep upholding “the family” as primary.

In Protestantism, however, the focus is on individualism – having a relationship to God in your own unique way – and thus the entire culture embraces a “do your own thing” mentality and encourages people to speak publicly about their personal struggles. This ultimately fosters self-empowerment movements such as feminism and gay rights in countries that are largely Protestant – and it fosters the idea of coming out of the closet. The state in such countries often responded, long before such movements could even congeal, by crafting laws to control sexual behavior. This, in turn, has had people organizing fiercely and publicly to fight for their rights, and stressing the importance of “gay visibility.”

But there is, perhaps, an upside to how homosexuality plays out in Catholic culture. Because the family is paramount, when and if people do come out in such countries -- and that is a big if – families may react with anger, but often in the end they accept and love the gay family member, as the family and keeping it together, as per what Catholic culture espouses, is more important than anything. In Spain, same-sex marriage became increasingly more acceptable to the public largely because its promoters appealed to people’s Catholic sense of “family” and their desire to include their gay brothers and sisters in their lives, even if homosexuality itself is "sinful". Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who spearheaded the same-sex marriage legislation, often talked about “family” and the people we all “love” when he discussed the issue. In his speech to Parliament in June he said: “We are not legislating, honorable members, for people far away and not known by us. We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and, our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, because a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members.”

Surely those are Catholic values – the kind of values about family and community that the Church has fostered for centuries – and Zapatero was using them in the service of promoting same-sex marriage, which is of course the Vatican’s worst nightmare. It may be surprising to many people that Spain became the first nation to pass such a sweeping marriage law for gays in such a short period, and without the massive, decades-long protests that it took the gay movement in the U.S. to get as far as it has – which is far short of Spain . But maybe it’s actually because of Catholicism itself, and maybe that means that no matter how much Pope Benedict tries to ban homosexuality worldwide, the very promotion of the values of his faith in fact may be helping gays in the long run, which is a wickedly delicious irony.