Jacob grew up in a religious household, and wrestled with the growing awareness that he is gay. For a long time, his prayer was, “God, fix this! Fix me.” This is the story of how he came to terms with what it means to be both Catholic and gay.
I turned down the gravel alley behind our dilapidated one-storey house, pulled into the driveway, and switched off the engine. The Jeep’s headlights splashed against the wall of the house, bathing us in yellow light. For a minute, neither of us said anything.
I gripped the steering wheel and dove into a conversation I never thought I’d be able to have: “Tyler…” He turned and looked at me. I stared at the wall straight ahead. The resolve I had built up over the past month wavered. Tyler had a flight the next morning to visit his family out of state. This would be my last chance for a couple months. The silence dragged on for several seconds.
“What’s up?” he asked at last. I turned the words over in my head. Tyler reached for the door handle.
“Tyler – I think I’m gay.”
He turned and looked at me without saying anything.
“Wow, thanks for telling me,” he said after a minute. “Do you want to talk about it?” The knot in my stomach untied, and I let go of the steering wheel. When we got out of the car more than an hour later, we were both laughing and wiping tears from our eyes.
This was the summer after my junior year of college. I was 21 at the time, and Tyler was the first friend I had ever come out to.
In grade school, I had had big crushes at different points on most of the girls my age. I pined. But this started to change around puberty. In eighth grade, one of the boys in my class passed me a note with an unfamiliar acronym in it: “LOL.” I spent the rest of the day trying to think of what it could mean — this was before I had access to Urban Dictionary — and the phrase I kept coming back to was “lots of love.” What was he trying to say? Was he just being friendly? This was not typically how middle school boys expressed friendship. When another kid told me what it actually meant the next day, my heart sank a little. I didn’t quite know why.
In my first couple years of high school, I still had long, unrequited crushes on girls. I would pray to God that they would return my interest or that I could stop liking them. But over time these crushes became less frequent, and I spent more of my time in dread and denial. During Mass at my Catholic high school, I would find myself praying to stop noticing what Alex had done with his hair that day. I tried to convince myself that I liked a girl in the class ahead of me. Then she graduated, and I didn’t miss her.
During the winter of my junior year of college, I started to keep a journal. I wrote in it almost every night, sometimes filling several pages with thoughts, experiences, and prayers. I wrote about temptation and sin and how they were different. I vaguely alluded to “struggles” I was having, but never wrote down exactly what I was talking about.
At one point, I told myself I had a crush on a girl I went to high school with. In my journal, I wrote that I was sure if I was going to get married, it would be to her. But I never worked up the nerve to ask her out.
It’s easy to see in retrospect that I was in denial. I didn’t know many people who were gay, let alone anyone who was both gay and Catholic. It seemed to me that there was no future as a Catholic if I was gay, but I did not want to walk away from the faith. This sexual orientation did not fit into any possible image I had for how my life could play out. Being Catholic did. So denial made sense.
But the more I tried not to notice the guys I was attracted to, the more I would fixate on them. So I vacillated between several positions: I would alternately pretend I was not attracted to them; or come up with excuses for why I kept looking at them; or offer the prayer, “God, fix this! Fix me.” In my mind, there were two alternatives: either I was not attracted to men — not permanently, anyway — or God did not love me. If He loved me and I was gay, He would make me straight. I thought admitting to myself that I was gay would make it true.
I had joined a study group at my college that met weekly to read about and discuss the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. We read selections of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. And I’d found that, as much as I wanted to reject it, it resonated deeply with my humanity — it showed me more of what it means to be human. It convinced me that the Church’s teachings around marriage and sexuality were true. But I didn’t know how they could be true for me.
One day I had a conversation with a priest who worked at my college. I talked vaguely about the spiritual funk that I was in. He stopped me. “Do you hate yourself?” he asked.
I took several seconds to mull over the question. “I think so,” I said at last.
“I think you don’t believe God loves you because you don’t love yourself,” he told me. “You don’t believe you can be loved. You think if people knew the real you, they wouldn’t love you either.” He paused for a moment. “God doesn’t make shit.” He told me that I could not convince myself that God loved me. “You can ask Him to show you, though. And you can pay attention to the relationships where you know you’re loved.” I left that conversation feeling lighter than I had felt in months.
Around the same time, I read an article by a closeted gay Catholic who wrote under a psuedonym. He embraced the Church’s teaching about marriage and sexuality. And he accepted and embraced the fact that he was attracted to men. He did not fit into any of the categories I had constructed. His words resonated with my experience — he had lived what I was living, and found a way. I wondered if I could, too.
One day in class, I noticed a guy across the room from me. He’s beautiful, I thought, and the world didn’t end. Actually, I discovered that I was able to move on, and not fixate or try to convince myself that I just really liked his jacket. I stopped mentally screaming “no no no no no!” Slowly, over several months, I stopped having a visceral sense of disgust with myself when I realized I was attracted to another guy. It stopped dominating my life.
I started to pay more attention to my friendships, and realized that I had become guarded and shallow in all of them — partly out of fear that someone would find out about this secret part of my life; but mostly because until I could be honest with myself, I could not let myself be loved as I was. I had built walls to prevent vulnerability. Slowly, those walls began to come down. I didn’t come out to anyone right away, but I found that I wanted to tell someone. I wasn’t as terrified of what might happen.
A couple years after I told Tyler I thought I was gay, a friend invited me over to watch a movie at his house. By this time, I was open about my sexuality with most of my close friends. I had accepted being gay and was trying to figure out what it meant to be both gay and Catholic. The movie started and the main character came on screen. Oh my God, I thought, he’s really beautiful. I looked around to make sure I hadn’t said it out loud.
Throughout the movie, I found myself paying attention to the protagonist — to the way he looked at other characters, to the tenderness in his eyes. When the film ended, we discussed the story for an hour or so. It was clear that I had seen something in it that no one else had.
The whole drive home, moments from the film kept coming back to mind. The simple love I had seen in the main character’s eyes reminded me of moments in my own life. I found myself thinking of the conversation with Tyler in my Jeep and the way he looked at me.
When I arrived home, the stars were out. I stood by the car for a few minutes in the cold, looking at the sky. Thank you, I whispered. If I had not been attracted to the beauty of that character, the film wouldn’t have moved me as deeply as it did — I would have not been able to recognize the truth it conveyed.
I had long ago accepted the fact that I was attracted to men, but this was the first time I experienced gratitude for it. The words of the priest from college came back to mind: “You can’t convince yourself God loves you, but you can ask Him to show you.” At the time, I’d thought this meant God loved me in spite of my being attracted to men. But I started to see He was using my sexuality to reach me with His love.