An Interview with Eve Tushnet

After reading and reviewing Eve Tushnet’s newly released book, Gay and Catholic, we were eager to learn more about the author’s perspectives on related topics beyond the scope of her recent work. She kindly agreed to let us interview her on the blog today. If you enjoyed the book or are thinking about reading it but haven’t had the opportunity yet, you’ll be interested in the thoughts she has to share this morning. A quick heads up before we get into our questions: this interview is longer than the majority of our regular posts.

Let’s begin…

AQC: Eve, we’re delighted to have you with us today. There have been a lot of books published about gay Christian issues in the past several years. Where would you situate your book relative to the others? From your perspective, what is your book’s unique contribution to discussions of LGBT issues in the Church?

ET: There are two big differences with my book: It doesn’t attempt a theological argument for the Catholic position on sexuality, and it focuses on the many vocations open to gay people. Most of the other books we have are either theology/exegesis, or personal memoir. I do memoir because I think our stories are important, but most of the book is almost a guide to vocational discernment. It’s an attempt to help people think through the question, “Okay, so let’s say that I buy the Catholic sexual ethic. What on earth can my future look like other than pointless loneliness? How can I give and receive love?”

I wrote it largely because I really wish that when I first became Christian somebody had told me to focus on what God was calling me to do with my life, and not on what I can’t do or why I can’t do it.

AQC: One item that stands out in your biography is that you are openly lesbian. We’ve noticed that people are constantly challenging us our use of LGBT, saying that using LGBT language needlessly inflames the conversation in the Church. Why have you chosen to use the words lesbian and gay? Does your use of the words lesbian and gay mean you identify with the LGBT community? Why or why not?

ET:  I have a lot of reasons for using “lesbian” and “gay” for myself. I do try in the book to remember that this is just one set of self-identifiers and there are lots of others, from “same-sex attracted” to “queer” to “I don’t really label myself,” all of which have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to understanding oneself and being understood by others. But for me it was important to say “gay.”

Partly that’s because I am so grateful for my experiences in gay communities. I talk quite a bit in the book about how gay and lesbian communities were places where I learned to care for others and listen to others, to be less of a privileged jackass and less of an adolescent narcissist. Gay communities made me a better person and I want it to be clear that you can accept Catholic teaching and still have strongly positive associations with the term “gay.” Or to put it another way, I think the Church can relate to gay communities by seeking to baptize what’s best in them, learn from these communities and be changed by them while changing them, not just reject them totally.

The most important reason I wanted the cover to say “Gay,” though, is just that if you’re a scared Christian teenager that’s the word you’re eventually going to realize refers to you. There’s going to be a moment when you think, “Oh no–when people say ‘gay’ they mean me.” I think that’s almost always true for same-sex attracted kids in this culture regardless of how they end up identifying. And I really wanted kids in that position to have some evidence that there is a future for them in the Church.

Also it’s short. You can put it in a tabloid headline.

AQC: Sometimes Protestants dismiss celibacy as “the thing things Catholic priests do.” What are some of the most important things that you have learned about celibacy that are broadly applicable across the range of Christian traditions?

ET: To be honest, I don’t know how much I have learned about celibacy. I’m still right at the beginning of learning about it. I used to sort of assume that it was just a kind of guardrail or feature of the landscape, at best a tool which helps you live out your vocation rather than a calling in itself. So I’m not sure how much there is in the book about “what is celibacy”; it’s more about “what are forms of love open to celibate people.” I’m only now beginning to see what it might look like to experience a call to celibacy, to have celibacy as a color in one’s life rather than an absence of certain other colors. Your blog has helped a lot in that respect.

That said, I have learned from reading and speaking with celibate people in various forms of vowed religious life that celibacy requires integration of one’s sexuality. You get a lot of this in literature directed at priests and people in religious orders. You need to find some way of accepting and living out your sexuality. You can sacrifice sexual desire–sacrificing it can be a way of acknowledging it and honoring it. Desire becomes a costly gift you give to God. Or you can find ways to transform and sublimate desire into mystical prayer, service, friendship, etc. But just repressing it and hoping it goes away is a path to disaster.

AQC: What parts of the book were most enjoyable and/or challenging for you to write inasmuch as they enable you to live more fully into the celibate vocation?

ET: The two hardest things were writing the memoir part and reining in my constant, compulsive need to give advice. It’s an advice book! I need to own that fact. There is advice just crawling over every page. But I am so skeptical of our ability to give advice; so much advice is ego-driven projection, and so much of it, too, is heard in a very different way from the way it was meant. I’ve received some great advice in my life, and even taken some of it, so I do think fruitful advice-giving is possible. But rare.

The memoir was hard because I have the memory of a mayfly, and because I had to confront not only my drinking problem but the hypocrisy and compartmentalization which allowed me to drink addictively for over a decade while being a professed (and public!) Catholic.

The most rewarding things were getting to share the books I love with other people, and getting to quote insightful stuff said by my friends.

I see that none of that actually involves “living into the celibate vocation”! But see above re: my understanding of celibacy as a vocation is super-rudimentary.

AQC: Regarding same-sex attraction and same-sex friendships: you talk about how society gives LGBT individuals the opportunity for rather extensive experience in cultivating non-sexual friendships with people of their same-sex, even from early ages. Many people see this as a risk to chastity. What would you say to a person who views encouraging friendships between two individuals who experience same-sex attractions as too risky?

ET: My answer would depend on who the person is. If I’m talking to an actual same-sex attracted person, I’d ask some questions about their personal experience–are they afraid that painful patterns from their past will recur? are they trying to be obedient to advice they were given by someone else?–and, depending on their circumstances, encourage them to speak with someone they trust. I’d definitely encourage them not to be afraid of their sexuality. Being attracted to another guy or girl doesn’t make you toxic, and it doesn’t harm the person you’re attracted to. It doesn’t mean that you will inevitably damage yourself or the other person if you get to know them. That said, some people do have a really tough time being friends with someone to whom they are/were sexually attracted, so this is an area where you really have to know yourself and your patterns.

I guess my biggest advice (THERE IT IS AGAIN) to someone in that situation would be that they really need to be completely honest with themselves, with God, and with someone they trust. Denial of one’s own feelings, or demanding that another person play the role we’ve assigned them in our internal fantasy world, sets you up for misery.

I’d also try to see if they can get to know same-sex attracted people who have deep friendships with people of the same sex. Once you see that it can be done you might find it easier to intuit how it can be done. If the person asking me about this stuff is straight, I might go over some of the “what it’s like growing up gay” stuff from the book. We spend a lot of adolescent hours in single-sex environments, and we’re also a sexual minority so most of the people we fall for are basically never going to reciprocate our attractions, and that teaches many of us–not all–some important lessons about how to be friends with someone of the sex we’re typically attracted to.

Or I might just say, “Can you trust me that it happens?” Intimate same-sex friendship has been so fruitful in the lives of so many gay or same-sex attracted people I know. There’s so much personal testimony to the effect that same-sex friendship can be one of the most beautiful parts of our lives.

I would probably also talk about several aspects of what I’ve called the “sexualization” of gay people: We’re often treated as if we’re driven mad by lust for every person of the same sex that we like or spend time with; our friendships are viewed with intense suspicion even when we’re not actually attracted to our friends! Moreover, people assume that sexual temptation is the biggest temptation for us, when in fact loneliness or despair might be much more pressing problems. Being without intimate friendships is incredibly risky, if we’re talking about risks. The “safety first, don’t do anything which might possibly lead to sexual temptation!” model is unsafe, because it leaves gay people isolated, frightened to have friends.

AQC: People often accuse us of not defining celibacy as a way of life wholly distinct from marriage. Do you think it’s helpful to define both marriage and celibacy in terms so specific that every celibate vocation must be wholly distinct from marriage in its characteristics?

ET: I didn’t really define celibacy in the book. I do think it’s got to have “not planning to marry” as part of its makeup, but I really like how you two take that for granted and explore what might be other aspects of a celibate vocation, like hospitality. (Sorry, I’m not sure I have much interesting to say on this one!)

AQC: A reader asked: “Could you please ask Eve about celibate marriages where one partner has come out as gay or lesbian to the partner only, yet the couple remains together because of a child or children. Seems to me there should be some pastoral care for both partners in this instance because it can be very isolating for each side – sure, the couple has things in common and care about each other, even share kisses and affection, but, the lack of sexual intimacy has it’s struggles at times…”

ET: Oh, this is definitely a situation where both spouses need trustworthy spiritual guides. These situations are so specific to the individuals involved that I’m not sure I can say much more than, Find someone you trust and can confide in and be guided by. You need somebody who is spiritually grounded in prayer, obedient to the Church but without a rigid tendency to act as if his or her own personal opinion is the voice of God. Beyond that I’m hesitant to generalize.

AQC: Now that your book is out on shelves, what book or books do you think are still missing from the conversation? What are some of the books on LGBT people in the Church that you’d love to see a different author write?

ET: There are so many more books to be written! There’s a whole book to be done about celibacy in partnership. There should be a book directed more toward pastors, spiritual directors, counselors etc. There should be a book which engages more with lesbian history–I was pretty cavalier about sticking to history of men’s friendships, but there’s a lot of material about women’s same-sex devotion as well.

And I think there’s a whole book to be done about class issues for Christian celibates. Everything from, How do I cope with economic turmoil when I don’t have a spouse? (How can the parish truly act as a family for me?), to, How can celibate people shore up the families we love when times are hard?, to, Why is so much Gay Christian Stuff written from an overeducated, typically white-and-fairly-wealthy perspective, and what do people outside that narrow demographic have to say about their experience of gay/ssa/same-gender loving celibacy? I think that should be an anthology, so if you have thoughts on that stuff, get in touch with me.

That’s just for starters. There really is so much to explore here.

AQC: That’s a lot of food for thought! Thanks for sharing with us and our readers today. Readers, you can also check out Eve’s series of book extras at her blog.

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