Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Odd One Out: A Gay Agnostic in a Catholic Family

When I was three years old, I told my parents I wanted a puppy. They asked if I would rather have a baby brother or sister, and I said I wanted a puppy and a brother. When they forced me to choose, I said I would settle for a baby brother.

And so my parents, with the help of God, gave me the greatest birthday gift I have ever received: my baby sister.

On April 23, 1996, just five days before my fourth birthday, my family met Maci Janelle Long, the freshest member of our little corner of the world. I remember my mom telling me a few years ago that she was actually afraid to have a second child, because she didn't think she could ever love anyone as much as she loved me. She followed that with "But the first time I saw Maci's face, I felt guilty -- because I managed to love someone as much as I love you." My sister has been loved and treasured since the first moments of her existence, and I, naturally, was her biggest fan.

I'm the happy one.
My sister and I grew up in a home with a mom and a dad who both worked to put a roof over our heads, to put food on our plates, and to give us the best Catholic education money can buy in Southeast Missouri. My sister was a typical all-American tomboy, decked out constantly in ADIDAS shorts, Nike shoes, and a baseball cap (#CardinalNation #STLProud). She played soccer and basketball and was always one of the best players. She loved to skateboard, play with Bratz dolls, and watch Cartoon Network. We spent countless hours of our childhood playing at the neighbor's house or in our own unfinished basement, where our mother set up an adorable, huge playroom for us. For all intents and purposes, aside from a few hindrances here and there, from the outside looking in, we had a normal American childhood.

Looking back, my mom says she doesn't remember ever suspecting my sister was a lesbian. My sister, on the other hand, has known something was different about her since she was close to puberty. While her friends were developing crushes on boys and male celebrities, Maci found herself crushing on female classmates. She kept it to herself, although she didn't think much of it. In fact, she wouldn't have a word for what she was experiencing until she was in high school. She tells me she always knew "being gay" was a thing, but didn't realize that the term referred to "people like her" until relationships with boys proved fruitless and more like friendships. At this point, she came out to her friends as bisexual, but further life experiences slowly revealed to her that she was actually homosexual.

Although she has lived, more or less, an open gay lifestyle since high school, it wasn't until recent years that our mom's big Catholic family got clued in, almost by accident, to that aspect of Maci's life. While she isn't alone in the LGBT corner of our family, she was the first to be "out and proud," as the cool kids say. Since that time, our family has been on a whirlwind adventure of being....completely normal.

(The following is a conversation between myself and my sister about her experience being a lesbian in a Catholic family, her views on religion, and her answers to some of your questions submitted to my blog's Facebook page.)

Tori: The point of this piece, I hope, will be to provide an effective, if anecdotal, review of how families can maintain their Catholic identity while loving and embracing their LGBT family members. We know as Catholics that respecting and caring for LGBT persons is not in conflict with our faith, and is actually demanded of us by the Church. To that end, I hope you will be honest about whatever struggles and hurts you have experienced as an LGBT member of a Catholic family, in addition to helping me highlight the ways we can best love and serve members of the gay community who are also members of our Christian families. With that said, how did you view yourself as a member of our family growing up?
Maci: The little baby sister! I never thought we were different from any other family.

Tori: I think you should say "I feel like I was the favorite while you were crazy in high school."

Maci: I was the favorite always.

Tori: I think so, too. You've always been a favorite not only in our immediate family, but also among the Beussinks [our mom's family]. Were you afraid of losing the affection of our family when you started identifying as gay?

Maci: Yes. I thought I would be disowned. Not by Mom and Dad, but by our extended family. Well, when I first came out I never planned on telling Dad. He was never going to know. I was afraid of hurting Mom. I knew she would be hurt, but I didn't think she would disown me. As for the extended family, I knew they would eventually know. I fantasized about bringing girls to family get togethers just like any other cousin would do with their significant others. I always wanted that to be normal.

Tori: Do you feel like that is something that will happen in the foreseeable future?

Maci: Hopefully. I already brought [redacted] to Mom's birthday party, and it went a lot better than I expected. Everybody hugged her and welcomed her. Nobody stared at me like I was some freak. It was really nice.

Tori: As we've mentioned a few times in this post, Mom's family is Catholic. I think it's fair to say we're a mix of devout Catholics, devoted (but not necessarily devout) Catholics, and former Catholics with Catholic sympathies. Do you feel like those of us who are more devout view you or treat you any differently than the others?

Maci: I always thought the older and more devout people would be more judgmental or not as accepting, but it turns out they're just as accepting as everybody else. At Christmas, Uncle [redacted] had my name in the Secret Santa drawing, and I know he's a devout Catholic, so it meant a lot to me when his gift was about acceptance and being myself. It was a bracelet that said "It takes courage to grow up to be who you are," something like that.

Tori: That was sweet. Since you went to youth group as a teen and were Catholic yourself up until a few years ago, you know the Catholic Church's teaching that LGBT people should be accepted with respect and compassion, even though we don't believe in or affirm gay marriage. A concern for a lot of Catholics today is that their acceptance and love of their family members ought to be tempered with catechesis and conversations about their disapproval and rejection of gay marriage. Have you ever felt like our family's kindness and welcoming attitude toward you has communicated that they are, in some way, not "really Catholic"?

Maci: No. Some of them aren't against gay marriage, and some of them are. Everyone has their own beliefs but I'm allowed to have my own, too, I guess. I've never really thought about what their attitudes toward me have to do with their personal beliefs, and honestly I don't care what your views on gay marriage are.

Tori: Are you looking to be affirmed [in gay marriage] from your family?

Maci: I'd appreciate it if people came to my wedding, someday. I don't think it's going to be a huge deal when I get married if people choose not to come, though. For a lot of our family it will just be "Oh, another person is getting married." I don't feel like there will be any conflicting thoughts in their head like, "Oh, should I show up?" I hope they'll show up because they love me and want to support me. That's what I want at least. Besides, my wedding's gonna be cute as hell.

Tori: Can you elaborate on it not being a big deal for people not to show up?

Maci: I don't think anyone in the family will think it's a big deal. Honestly, I'd love to say that it wouldn't offend me, but it would offend me if people didn't show up to my wedding because they didn't "condone" my wedding. I don't feel a need to force anyone to agree with me [on gay marriage], but I go to baptisms and I go to First Communions. Like, I've never written off a family event just because I don't believe in it or agree with it. I go to these things because I love my family, and it's still an exciting thing even if I don't believe in it. Like going to someone's birthday party. It's not my birthday, but it's still exciting for them, because it's their birthday.

Tori: Suppose that everyone in the family attended your wedding someday. Would you take that as a signal that the more devout Catholics who don't believe in gay marriage now believe in gay marriage, or are totally cool with gay sex?

Maci: Like, if they show up do I think that means they believe in gay marriage? No. [laughing]

Tori: Suppose some -- in fact, suppose many -- of the family members didn't go to your wedding because their conscience wouldn't allow them. That's something I've personally wrestled with in my own heart and mind. You said earlier that it would offend you. Would that be something you would be willing to work through, or would it destroy your relationships with those family members?

Maci: Well. [pause] It definitely wouldn't destroy our relationship, because again everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. It would be a little upsetting that they didn't come, but, [pause] I mean, that's what they believe. I can't change their minds.

Tori: Would something like that communicate to you that they don't love you?

Maci: [Pause] No. Not if they told me their reasoning for not coming, rather than just not showing up.

Tori: My understanding is that you hope to have children someday, and you've stressed that you want to have "your own" children, meaning sharing your DNA. Do you think the family would accept those children?

Maci: I would hope so. I feel like they would be a little skeptical of it at first, but after the kids are born they'll accept them like they'll accept any other kid. I don't think it will be like, "Oh, this is the in-vitro baby" or "Oh, this is the gay baby." There are lots of ways to "sinfully conceive children" in the Catholic Church, and I plan on breaking one of those rules [laughs], but I think the family would accept children no matter how they were brought into the world.

Tori: I posted on my blog's Facebook page several weeks ago asking what my followers would ask a former Catholic lesbian in a Catholic family. Are you comfortable answering a few of those questions?

Maci: Yeah, what I thought some of them were funny.

Question from Facebook: "I know a lot of people who leave the Church because of something that was said to them by someone in the church. I have had difficulties with pastors and people in different parishes. I just sought out another parish. I would like to know if she would be willing to go "Church shopping" to possibly find a better spiritual home or if she's given up entirely on the Catholic church."

Maci: Well, it wasn't like it was a big ordeal when I left [the Catholic Church] -- I didn't leave because anyone said something mean to me. I just found over time that I'm not a religious person. I did go to a local nondenominational church for services geared toward college-aged people for a few months with a few friends, because my friends go there, so I went to support them. But, I stopped going because I didn't agree with some of the things the pastor was preaching about. He was pretty much saying that every other church was wrong -- like "We're right," meaning that every other Church wasn't teaching the right thing. It was a really loving environment and I loved all the people there. I just felt like I didn't belong there.

Tori: I think that view is pretty common for Christian churches [laughs]. I believe the Catholic Church is right and every other Church is wrong about certain things.

Maci: But you're still accepting of other people's beliefs. As for whether I would go church shopping, no, I have no interest in that. That does not sound fun. It wasn't the Catholic Church that made me reluctant toward religion, I just don't know what I believe, I just know it isn't all that stuff.

Question from Facebook: "What does she miss about the Church, if anything? Does she have a spiritual home? Does she know she is loved (by God, by family/friends/self)? Mostly I hope she knows she is loved. What does she think of when she hears the phrase "made in His Image?" And please tell her thank you for opening up. People are afraid of what they don't know, and her willingness may be what's needed for someone else to open their heart."

Maci: How. CUTE! I like that one. I definitely miss youth group. That was fun. I liked youth group, and Steubenville for sure. I don't miss going to Mass at all. I don't really feel a need for a spiritual home. I can be spiritual without being religious. I know that I'm loved by my family and my friends. I'm not so sure about by God or by myself [laughs]. I'm very iffy about whether I believe in God or not. I've pretty much come to the realization that if there is a God, my tiny human brain is not going to be able to comprehend something that huge and detailed and intricate. If there is a God, that's cool, but if there isn't, that's cool. I don't know if God would love me or not, because of my tiny human brain. I don't know the dude. When I hear "made in His image" I think of everyone looking exactly like Jesus [giggling]. I always thought that was really conflicting, because God as a being doesn't have a body, I guess? It just doesn't make sense to me. And, you're welcome. I'm an open book. Follow me on Instagram.

Question from Facebook: "I have met people that are attracted to their same sex, but they are abstinent due to believing that unwed sex between two people is a sin (regardless of who they are attracted to) what is her opinion regarding this?"

Maci: I don't care. You do you, pal. It's a beautiful thing to abstain. I have a friend who is waiting until marriage, and he and his girlfriend have the most beautiful relationship I've ever seen. I think gay people living in abstinence is actually pretty common, contrary to popular belief. I think it's possible to be gay and Christian and abstain; it's not a foreign concept to me. I don't see being in a celibate gay relationship as different than a straight couple abstaining. Just because people are gay doesn't mean they have to have sex. Not for me, though.

Question from Facebook: "Was she ever a 'practicing, Eucharist-receiving Catholic?' ... Does she hope the Catholic Church will one day change its teachings?"

Maci: Yes, I was a practicing, Eucharist-receiving Catholic. I was all about that Catholic life, yo. I'm not anymore because I'm gay and it was a very conflicting thing for me. I had a lot of different beliefs than the Church and it didn't feel right to say I was Catholic and not believe in what they teach. I don't hope the Church will change its teachings. I don't really care about that, because I'm not Catholic. If people want to be Catholic they will, and if they don't they won't.

Question from Facebook: "What's her favorite color? Ok but really.. ask if she feels the Church specifically excludes her because of her sexual orientation. Not just doctrine or "rules," but Catholic people. Has she encountered Catholic people who thought of her differently and treated her differently when she ..I guess, left the Catholic Church?"

Maci: Royal blue, thanks for asking. I do feel the Church specifically excludes me, but I don't want to be included, so it doesn't really matter to me. About Catholic people... In [our Catholic] high school, I felt really accepted, even though a lot of people didn't agree with the lifestyle. I don't think all Catholic people necessarily exclude me because we disagree. But I have encountered people who treat me differently now that I'm not Catholic and date women. There are people I just don't talk to anymore, not out of malice, but just because our lives are so different now. There isn't much common ground left. I'm okay with that.

Question from Facebook: "What is her favorite Christmas movie, and why is it Die Hard?"

Maci: I hate Christmas. [pause] I don't get it, why is my favorite Christmas movie Die Hard? I don't understand what that means. I am not trendy.

Question from Facebook: "What is the attraction of defining oneself by one's sexual partner as opposed to defining oneself in Christ?"

Maci: Dumb this one down for me.

Tori: There's a common Christian sentiment today that identifying as "gay" misses the mark of how we should identify ourselves. Some Christians take it so far as to say "there is no such thing as 'being gay', there is only being a child of God." The idea that gay people make it the whole sum of their identity. I think the question is meant to ask why you identify as gay instead of as a member of Christ.

Maci: I identify as gay because I'm gay. It's not the whole sum of my identity. Who I am is Maci. I'm really funny, and I like hugs, and I like going to the park, and I like dancing. There's more to me than being gay, but it is an adjective that describes me, so I use it. I don't define myself in Christ because I'm not religious, so that particular way of describing myself doesn't apply to me.

Tori: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule [hearty, deep laughter, LOL] to meet with me and help me write this. If there is one thing you could say to Catholics about loving their gay family members, what would it be?

Maci: Cash me ousside howbow dah

Tori: Okay. Anything else?

Maci: You don't have to compromise your beliefs to love someone. Families accept people all the time who don't agree with everything, so why should this be any different?

Monday, February 13, 2017

In Which I Address Everyone's Favorite Offensive Question To Ask About My Sex Life

As you probably already know, I got engaged to the wonderful Tyler Oswald on Christmas Eve, just a few weeks ago. Tyler is great, and we've been together for 8 1/2 years. We started dating when I was 16 and he was 18. We have been through almost everything there is to go through. He stayed with me through the worst times of my life so far, and I've likewise stayed with him through the worst of his. We are completely, madly in love and absolutely everybody knows it. That is, until they find out we don't sleep together. Then they don't know anything about either of us anymore.

For years since coming back into the Church, I have hesitantly answered many a question about my living situation -- no, I don't live with Tyler. Yes, we know we're in our mid-twenties and yes, we know how long we have been together. I have hesitantly answered many a question about my fertility -- no, we don't plan on using contraception and yes, we are aware that sex makes babies (were you aware that is, kind of, the point?). I have answered questions about what we "do" -- once people learn we don't have sex, they typically want to know what we do instead -- and no, we don't do anything "instead of" sex with our genitals together. If the point of what you're thinking of is to obtain sexual relief and/or achieve orgasm, no, we don't do that, and God-willing won't until we're married next April.

These are questions I hesitate to answer, not because they make me uncomfortable at all, but because of the response I usually get. People are weird about Catholics, and it's probably because Catholics are weird. Nonetheless, questions about sex and intimacy don't offend me. Not usually.

There is one. When people find out we don't sleep together, they become concerned, and make faces like these:

Look at these freaks. I bet they never get laid.

"What if you aren't sexually compatible?"

People who care about us seem occasionally inclined to worry about whether we will enjoy sexual intimacy together in marriage. Their concern is twofold: (1) our disappointment will devastate our relationship and (2) we'll be "stuck" with each other per our marriage vows.

Instead of hesitating to answer this question, I try to simply not answer it at all, except with a determined "I love Tyler." And I do love Tyler, so much, and that is the precise root of the offense I take to this question. The implication that I would allow awkward, painful, or boring sex to unwind everything Tyler and I have built together for the last almost-decade is, frankly, repulsive. What I hear when this question is posed to me is "Is Tyler really worth it?" Of course the answer is yes. We haven't had sex for just under a decade. I think we can survive a few hurdles of figuring things out, if there is anything to figure out.

I've had sex before, and I will say that what I have with Tyler is something I would choose over and over and over again before I would have all the sex in the world with anyone else. He is the most beautiful person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and I can't wait to spend a lifetime getting to know him more and more. Sex is great, and it's something I greatly look forward to, but we've got a lot of other stuff going on between us, too.

For example, I trust him more than anyone else. He makes me feel safe, and he can make me laugh when I'm angry. I have never loved anyone else the way I love him, and I am amazed that a heart so darkened and weak as mine can hold so much affection. We cook together, and have yet to be disappointed with a result. We binge watch Netflix together, and waste hours picking apart shows and sharing observations no one else would care about. We talk about politics, philosophy, religion, social trends, music, and bras. We set goals together and sometimes we even achieve them.

I already "know what I'm getting myself into." I'm getting myself into a lifetime of unity and shared mission with the most important person in my life. I'm getting myself into decades of growing and learning with the man I hope will be the father of my children. I'm getting myself into the most precious title I will ever hold: Tyler's wife.

He's a human being with an endless mystery of "self" to explore. There is no need to "test drive" something we'll have the rest of our lives to practice and perfect anyway. There is no need to test drive a person. How repugnant, really.

When, God-willing, Tyler and I stand before God and everybody and profess our commitment and love to one another, I'll feel like the most blessed person in the whole room. I'm the only person who will ever be Tyler's wife. In a room full of people who held him as a baby, watched him grow, kept his school pictures on their refrigerators and in their wallets, saw him graduate high school, and still even remember getting the call that he was going to be born, I'm the one who will be standing before him hearing him tell me and God that he vows to be mine for the rest of our lives, that he vows to be open to the gift of children with me, and that he vows to love me all the days of his life.

I assure you, sincerely, that no amount of awkward or boring, which I doubt will even be a problem, will ever overshadow that moment for me.