Growing up, Brian was the quintessential Catholic kid. He received a Catholic education, graduated from Catholic High School in Little Rock and participated in parish and diocesan youth ministry. Even living on his own, he was “an every Sunday Mass guy.”
“I loved the history and the ritual of the Church and how much reverence we have in the Church with the Blessed Sacrament, that you feel the true presence of Christ in the Church,” he said.
But Brian, who preferred not to use his real name, no longer attends the Catholic Church. Though he’s always kind of known, as a teenager Brian accepted he had a same sex attraction.
According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 4.1 percent of the U.S. population, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). That number increased to a new high of 7.1 percent in a 2021 study, which is double the percentage from 2012, when Gallup first measured it. The study found that 20.8 percent of Generation Z Americans who have reached adulthood — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identify as LGBT, nearly double the proportion of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — who do so.
The Diocese of Little Rock’s “Synod on Synodality,” part of a larger synod launched by Pope Francis, will be listening to many groups, including current and former Catholics who identify as LGBTQ.
“There are more gay people in your circles than you think. We’re everywhere,” Brain, who is in his late 20s, said. “We gay people who are Christians, we believe we have souls, we are trying to keep our souls clean, and we want an afterlife in heaven.”
Homosexual relations are against Church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states, “They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
In February 2021, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor was one of 12 U.S. bishops to sign a statement against bullying and for protection of LGBTQ youth for the nonprofit Tyler Clementi Foundation, which works to end bullying and harassment in schools, workplaces and in communities of faith.
Catherine Phillips, diocesan director of the Respect Life Office, emphasized “every person has been created in the image and likeness of God.”
“Our identity, if we're going to label ourselves, we’re human, we’re holy and sometimes our actions may not match that of what we’re called to be,” she said.
Phillips admits the Church and its people have not always communicated the message of love clearly to those in the LGBTQ community.
“I know the wound in your heart is there. And I'm sorry for that. On behalf of the whole Church, I’m sorry you have been wounded, but let the love of Christ heal you and give us the opportunity to do it together. You enrich us because you are a part of us … When the fabric of the body of Christ is torn because one member is wounded or missing, it hurts all of us,” she said.
Dr. Sherry Simon, a clinical psychologist for more than 30 years and parishioner of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, has worked with Catholic parents and LGBTQ youth.
“I have worked with a couple of priests who were very supportive of the individuals and also worked with the family to come to some acceptance,” she said.
Simon saw depression, anxiety and some “put on an act” of being straight, leading to divorce. Simon said derogatory definitions of homosexuality can damage a person’s mental health.
“It’s Jesus’ command to us” to love one another, Simon said, “and this is what I think about when I don't entirely understand what’s going on, is choosing the path of love.”
Skye Hart, a longtime music director for a parish in Arizona, is an accomplished organist, who has played everywhere from a small chapel to Sunday Mass at Vatican City. He has even sung for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Hart, who grew up in Arkansas, was not comfortable revealing he was gay until college.
“There was so much shame surrounding being gay in a conservative Catholic community we were in,” he said. “I think the hardest part was the sense of being seen as being different or defective. Even the catechism uses words like ‘intricstically disordered’ when it comes to being gay. Those are pretty strong words. I think those are words as a gay kid you internalize. ‘Am I disordered? Is there something wrong with me?’ I was also afraid of disappointing my parents.” Hart continues to work for the Church and remains an active Catholic. Today, the 41-year-old said he’s been fortunate to work with supportive clergy and parishioners. In a 2020 essay he wrote about his coming out experience with family and the aftermath, he discussed being “dropped off” at a Trappist Abbey as a young adult and finding a place of welcome.
“While I braced myself to get messages of disapproval from on high, I ended up chatting with several kindly retreatants. One was a lovely nun from the Philippines. Despite wearing a habit and appearing ‘traditional,’ I was floored when she encouraged me to live my life and be happy. What? Me? Happy? Is that even on the table?” he wrote. “Years later, I’m finally beginning to see what that nun meant. Maybe it was true, that all God really wanted was my happiness. The other details would work themselves out.”
Hart said he does not “openly flaunt my sexuality” and is not in a relationship.
“There’s still so much beauty in it,” Hart said of the Church. “As a musician, I absolutely love the musical tradition of the Church; the music, the art, the liturgy is beautiful. A lot of that speaks much more powerfully to me than dogmas and doctrines.”
But it doesn’t mean the messaging of his youth, that gay people were “depraved” and “evil” hasn’t impacted his life. The Trevor Project, the largest global suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for people who identify as LGBTQ, estimates more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (13-24) seriously consider suicide each year. One attempts sucide every 45 seconds.
“I’ve survived suicide attempts. It’s still tough,” Hart said.
Brian struggled with an eating disorder stemming from hiding his sexual orientation.
“I felt like I didn’t belong there I guess you would say,” he said. When he came out to his family in college, his mother said she always knew, while his father “had a really rough time with it.” But they all “still have a wonderful relationship.”
“I am a man who is gay. I am not a gay man. I don’t let my homosexuality define who I am,” Brian said. “Because I think nowadays even outside of orientation, we’re too stuck on labels.”
Heather Miles, 61, converted to Catholicism at Christ the King Church in Little Rock in 2002. She attended Catholic schools while living in Spain and “loved” going to Mass. In her 40s, around the time she came out as gay, she was searching for a religious home.
“The process of Mass and the prayers and getting on your knees, that was so meaningful to me,” she said, adding she knew Church teaching, but her connection was to God in the Church. “It just felt like a good spiritual connection for me. It wasn’t that I was looking in terms of policy or anything like that, it was a soul connection with God.”
An attorney for a circuit judge, Miles said the priest sex abuse scandal hit her hard, particularly when people began vocally equating homosexuality to sexual abusers.
“I was troubled quite a lot by some of the priest abuse because my whole career is working in court systems involving kids and families so that’s a big deal to me … I didn’t see that as associated with being gay at all,” she said.
For the past eight years, she has not attended any church with regularity.
“Yes I do miss it. I’d say I do,” she said of Mass.
Words matter, especially the way the Church communicates its teaching. It will take work on both sides, Phillips said.
“We’re called to be Christ to one another. If you have been a person that has been not so understanding, open your heart a little bit. If you’re a person who has been so wounded and closed off, open your heart a little bit. How do we do that? With God’s grace,” she said.
Around the time of the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, Brian left not only the Catholic Church but broke away from church in general.
“I did sit through a homily where the priest just pretty much berated the LGBTQ community and how gay marriage was the devil basically, and this country is on the wrong track if we’re going to accept same-sex marriage,” he said. “It makes you kind of sink down in your seat and you just want to hide.”
He found a church family in the Episcopal church but said it is different because the Real Presence is not there.
“I would say no,” he said about whether he feels welcome in the Catholic Church. “When I go to my home parish I can tell, I get a look. I get a different look now ... I really do like Pope Francis, and I know he is really trying to bridge this gap … Gay people are children of God, and I know that the Church does not hate us per se … They don’t say we’re not welcome. And I know that. But I feel unwelcome because say I met the love of my life and we went to Mass together; we couldn’t go together.”
Miles understood the Catholic Church is going to be more traditional in its teachings, but she too was hurt by harsh words from the pulpit.
“I think some of the things the current pope has talked about in terms of people trying to be inclusive, even if you don’t always understand or agree in general, is a good thing,” she said.
Hart said it’s important for Catholics to see positive qualities in their LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ and for parents to love their children who identify as homosexual.
“Just assure them you love them unconditionally. Nothing is more damaging than thinking you are broken, defective or unlovable because of who you are,” Hart said. “Give them a safe space. It’s important to listen without judgment.”
Brian said it’s also important for people to know, as with any group of people, not all LGBTQ people are the same.
“What you see on TV, it’s not a 365-day pride parade. We are normal people. We have normal jobs, normal lives, some of us have children,” he said, adding that “looks can be deceiving, don’t judge a book by its cover and be careful with your words.”
It comes down to Jesus’ simplest, yet challenging command: Love one another.
“In a world full of hate, be a light,” Brian said. “That’s what we as Christians, as Catholics, we are lights of Christ to the world. We carry his light into this dark world that’s getting a little darker with conflict rising on the other side of the pond. That's what we should all strive to do: Love, be loved and be a light.”
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