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Two Sides of the Same Coin

LGBTQ Catholics consider different ways to fit into the Church

Maggie Phillips
June 27, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
See all in Religious Literacy in America →︎

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Pope Francis recently gained media attention when he spoke out against the criminalization of homosexuality ahead of a trip to Africa, where many countries have such laws on the books. The move highlighted the precarious situation of many LGBTQ people around the world, and was hailed in much of the American press as a milestone. His follow-up statement, in which he acknowledged the inevitable objection he would receive from some quarters within his church—that homosexual activity is a sin—garnered less fanfare. (“Yes, but it is a sin,,” Francis said. “Fine, but first let us distinguish between a sin and a crime.”) This remark, however, echoed loudly in the LGBTQ Catholic community, whose members hold diverse visions for their Church—which Francis has called “a mother” who “cares for her children and guides them on the path of salvation.” Like many mother-child relationships, it’s complicated.

Jesuit priest James Martin was on the cutting edge when he published Building a Bridge, a book he wrote following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. “The book came in response to what I saw as a real lack of response from the U.S. bishops after the Pulse massacre,” Martin said in an email to Tablet. While the book drew him into LGBTQ ministry, garnering invitations to speak to Catholic audiences on related issues, including the Vatican’s 2018 World Meeting of Families, he said it also “caused some intense reactions—both positive and negative.” Martin continues undaunted. In 2020, he launched Outreach, an annual conference for LGBTQ Catholics, which has expanded to include a website with resources and articles intended to support them. The fourth Outreach conference was held June 16-18 this year at Fordham University, and featured a variety of panelists and speakers representing the spectrum of LGBTQ Catholicism.

A 2020 UCLA study estimates there are around 1.3 million LGBT adult Catholics in the U.S., although, said Martin, “I would guess, given how they often feel excluded and rejected, probably a lower percentage than their straight counterparts” are practicing. This year, the Outreach conference coincided with a rally at Dodger Stadium, as thousands protested the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who received a Community Hero award as part of the team’s Pride night (the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops voiced their disapproval of the group’s recognition and urged prayer, but distanced themselves from the rally).

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is laid out in its catechism, a nearly thousand-page compendium of every Church teaching on virtually every subject first commissioned by Pope John Paul II in 1986. He approved its definitive form in 1992, drawing from the Bible as well as Catholic theologians, saints, and thinkers throughout history. Its section on sexuality lays out that sex must not be detached from its “unitive and procreative purposes” within a heterosexual marriage, and that every baptized Catholic is “called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life.” This stance is part and parcel of their official opprobrium of gay sex (or indeed any sex outside of a marriage, including between a man and woman). Nevertheless, the catechism says in the same section that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,” even as it acknowledges its teaching on chastity may lead gay Catholics to encounter “difficulties.” This, as Christians are fond of saying about more controversial teachings, is a “hard saying.” So it may seem surprising that there are out, gay Catholics who have embraced it. It may be even more surprising that there are gay Catholics who disagree with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, but who have remained in the fold, working for change from within, rather than decamping for other Christian denominations that already allow same-sex marriage, such as the Episcopal Church, certain branches of the United Methodist Church, or the Presbyterian Church (USA). The two sides of this coin are often known in wider gay Catholic circles as “Side A” (supportive of gay marriage and relationships, hopeful for church recognition), and “Side B” (promoting celibacy). These distinctions are primarily used by LGBTQ Catholics in the pews. Leadership is a different story. “Catholic teaching prohibits both same-sex relations and same-sex marriage,” Martin said in his email. “But, for example, the German bishops have been very vocal about thinking about blessing same-sex unions.”

Like any binary, the Side A/Side B terminology contains nuances, misses subtleties, and obscures touchpoints. What is clear from the existence of groups and conferences allied with both sides is a sense that more institutional support for gay Catholics is needed. And even in a church that famously “thinks in centuries” instead of decades, there are indications that they are beginning to respond to the signs of the times.

Before Martin, there was Father Patrick Nidorf, an Augustinian priest in California who in 1969 launched Dignity, a group for gay Catholics to address what he saw as “an excessive and unreal problem of guilt that was sometimes reinforced in the confessional instead of being resolved.” The name, he said later, “just came to me as appropriate since one of our basic goals was to bring dignity into the spiritual and social lives of some very special people.” Nidorf ran the group with extraordinary sensitivity, taking steps to protect the identities and safety of members (age restrictions, requiring applications—even occasionally personal interviews—to determine good faith, holding closed meetings in private homes). The concept spread quickly, initially by word of mouth around Los Angeles and San Diego, where Nidorf was based. Nidorf published ads in the Los Angeles Free Press and later, The Advocate, with an address to write to for more information. He would then disseminate a newsletter with dates and addresses for upcoming meetings. “His mission really was a place to provide a safe, affirming place for people to find ways to integrate their sexual orientation and their faith,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the organization’s current executive director, and a keynote speaker at Outreach 2023. “Church teaching on sexuality was not terribly articulated at that point, there was just an assumption that everybody was straight.”

In 1971, Nidorf complied when his archbishop told him to cease his involvement with Dignity. Now lay-led, it continued gathering steam, and throughout the 1970s, chapters began to crop up around the country. As it grew over the decades, Dignity representatives advocated for gay rights legislation and cultural change on a broader level. Members also met with bishops to encourage an end to anti-gay discrimination and the promotion of civil rights, to call for more official Church outreach to gay Catholics, and to express concerns over the U.S. bishops’ opposition to legislation supporting initiatives like gay marriage and adoption.

Duddy-Burke attended her first local chapter meeting in 1982 at the suggestion of her straight roommate, who had read about the organization in The Boston Globe Sunday edition, and accompanied her that same night. Duddy-Burke was pursuing a masters in divinity at a Jesuit seminary in the city at the time. A recent college graduate, she had been asked as an undergraduate to resign from her position as president of the college’s Newman Society (a Catholic organization for college students), when the chaplain had learned she was a lesbian. Speaking to me over Zoom, Duddy-Burke was visibly emotional recalling the confrontation that occurred more than 40 years ago. “Catholicism had been just central to my life,” she said. “I was a sophomore in college at that point, and I just lost my connection to Catholic community. I didn’t lose my faith, I didn’t feel any less Catholic, but there just really wasn’t a comfortable place for me to pray and worship as a Catholic, so when my roommate read about Dignity, she’s like, ‘This sounds perfect for you!’” Duddy-Burke felt totally at home she said, and “never left.”

Participants at the fourth Outreach Conference, held in June this year at Fordham University
Participants at the fourth Outreach Conference, held in June this year at Fordham University

Cristobal Spielmann/America Media

Duddy-Burke places Dignity’s founding within the context of a changing, post-Vatican II Catholicism. What today is considered a challenge to Church teaching was, at the time, “just another call for the Church to look at things differently,” she said. “Here was this group of gay people, gay and lesbian people, and some straight supporters, who felt like, OK, we’re part of the church, too, and we’re not finding what we need.” Now called DignityUSA (there are now chapters in Canada, as well), its mission statement reads: “We believe that we can express our sexuality physically, in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving, and life-affirming. We believe that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way. We believe that our transgender and queer communities can express their core identities in a sincere, affirming, and authentic manner.”

It would be an anachronism to call Dignity “Side A,” since its foundation predated the term (and, by a few months, the Stonewall riots); DignityUSA doesn’t use “Side A/Side B” terminology on its website, and Duddy-Burke never used the phrase in her interview. But the organization anticipated a Side A worldview that it continues to put forward today, maintaining the classic Side A position that gay Catholics can express their sexuality in a physical relationship. In its work, DignityUSA seeks to obviate what it sees as a needless contradiction with Church teaching, and is determined to ensure the Church hears its views.

Today, Duddy-Burke said DignityUSA has a network of about 37 active chapters around the country, as well as nationwide caucuses organized around interest or identity (categories include women, trans, aging, young adult, racial justice). “Our work today is really broad,” Duddy-Burke said. In addition to “maintaining affirming communities for the queer community,” she said, DignityUSA also engages in advocacy work. At Catholic institutions, that means challenging the termination of LGBTQ employees, as well as what they see as anti-trans policies; it also means sending reports to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican from listening sessions they’ve held with LGBTQ Catholics. Outside the Church, she said, DignityUSA’s advocacy includes “working with supportive presidential administrations to ensure that conscience provisions that would allow health care workers to refuse to treat LGBTQ people, or to provide certain medical services, are stripped from regulations,” and working to make foster care “more suited to serving queer youth.” They also send a contingent of queer youth to the Catholic Church’s international World Youth Day, which will be held in August of this year in Lisbon, Portugal. “We make sure that at these local, international church events, we have a group of people who are willing to say queer people and family members are part of our church now, and we need appropriate pastoral care, and we need theology and doctrine that recognizes our humanity and affirms our rights.”

It’s difficult to generalize about “Side B” gay Catholics, who are trying to live out fulfilling lives in observance of their Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Eve Tushnet, author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, and an outspoken apologist for the Church’s teachings on this issue, and Grant Hartley, a celibate gay Catholic master’s of divinity student, both spoke with Tablet about their experiences.

Although the precise origin of the terms “Side A” and “Side B” is unclear, they seem to have begun showing up in the 1990s. (Today, two additional “sides,” X and Y, are sometimes included: X stands for “ex-gay” Christians, and Side Y are gay Christians who eschew identifying as gay or LGBTQ.) It’s a complex ecosystem with some overlap as well as wide chasms; Christian podcast Life on Side B” provides a helpful if lengthy primer on the different approaches on its website. A Side B Catholic himself, Hartley is one of the podcast’s rotating cast of hosts, and, like Duddy-Burke, an Outreach 2023 panelist.

According to Hartley, the underlying idea behind adopting the language of Sides A and B was so that gay Christians who took different views on how to live out their faith and sexuality “could both be a part of this community.” The intent was to avoid charged language, he said in a phone interview, “like ‘affirming’ and ‘nonaffirming’ can sometimes be, or ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive.’”

A former evangelical Christian, Hartley has only been Catholic a couple of years. He attended the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the Church’s required course for converts, for a year-and-a-half prior to his conversion. “I wanted to make absolutely sure,” he said. “I took my time.” He cites the Catholic Church’s historic and aesthetic legacies as the things that initially attracted him, as well as the biographies of Henry Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins. “I sensed that there was a sort of gay Catholic, queer Catholic theme running through the Church tradition,” he said.

Grant Hartley
Grant HartleyGregg Webb

“I was sort of searching for something that would make sense of sexual ethics for me,” Hartley said. “I had long been convinced of general teachings about sexuality, about sex reserved for a marriage covenant between a man and a woman for life.” However, Hartley said, “I never really had a high view of celibacy until I sort of had to wrestle through, oh, maybe I’m supposed to be celibate, so I gotta figure out how to love this. And it seemed that the Catholic tradition—I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Catholic tradition had a lot to offer when it comes to sort of a system to understand sexuality and marriage, and a lot of thinking about celibacy, just riches, that were really encouraging for me.”

As Hartley surveyed the Catholic tradition, he found that monasticism, celibacy, and same-sex love “are kind of intertwined in a lot of spaces,” he said. “Maybe my being gay was actually more of a strength than a weakness.”

Hartley is careful to note, “that’s not the vibe in the whole Church. There’s portions of the Church I’ve come into contact with that I don’t feel especially safe or welcome in.”

As for his relationships with his Side A counterparts in the Church, Hartley is quick to respond when asked if he’s friends with any. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I think one of the drawbacks of Side A/Side B language is that it ends up grouping people who come to these conclusions for lots of different reasons into the same sort of camp, and I think that maybe there’s some distinctions. So, because one is Side B doesn’t say a whole lot about how they got there, or about their approach to LGBTQ culture.”

Saying the Side A/Side B language can still be divisive, and that he “has a lot in common with a lot of Side A folks,” and as an academic and speaker, Hartley said he isn’t always warmly received by some on Side B when he speaks positively about LGBTQ culture “in a nuanced and often really positive way. I see a lot of beauty there.”

Hartley said his own approach is one of reserved humility when approaching other gay Catholics who don’t share his theology. “We’re all just trying to sort of survive,” he said. “I don’t want to judge anyone for how they’re trying to survive LGBTQ Catholic world.”

From one side, Hartley said celibate Catholics can be challenged by Catholics who view their choice as something that is either a judgment on noncelibate gay Catholics, or minimized as simply a personal decision. On the other side, he said celibate gay Catholics can receive pushback from more conservative Catholics who object to the use of sexual identity language as an identification “with sinful proclivities or temptations,” and for their engagement with wider secular LGBTQ culture. Pride, he said, “feels worse” this year. “It definitely feels like an uptick in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the Christian world,” he said. “All the talk about drag that is just—I just don’t think that people understand what drag is, actually.”

Duddy-Burke said something similar, observing that she sometimes feels LGBTQ Catholics are “used as political pawns,” and it’s less about the issues themselves than “it’s about promoting a Christian nationalist agenda,” citing recent furor over drag queens and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence being honored at the Dodgers game.

Hartley came recommended to me by Tushnet, a well-known writer and speaker in the Catholic world, a lesbian convert to the faith who also espouses a celibate sexual ethic. On Zoom, she is soft-spoken and thoughtful, occasionally pausing to find just the right turn of phrase to describe her nuanced positions on very delicate issues within the Church.

“Virtually anyone who considers themselves to be an LGBTQ or same-sex-attracted Catholic has gone on some kind of journey,” she said. Describing “overlapping, intertwining queer and same-sex-attracted communities,” Tushnet said something that helps them understand each other is that “we’ve often shared parts of our journey, we’ve wrestled with some of the same things. Sometimes that makes it hard, I think for some people. It’s very much like, ‘well, why didn’t you come to the conclusion that I did—the correct one?’ But I think for other people, the fact of that shared journey can be very powerful.”

Tushnet’s understanding of celibate gay Catholic life is complex. Arguments against gay sex from first principles, she has said in interviews elsewhere, have never made sense to her, but she was able to find her way into the Church’s arguments around sexuality, marriage, and family life through her trust in its interpretation of the Bible. However, in writing her second book, Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love, she same to realize that other gay Catholics, due to their experience with both the Church and their fellow Catholics, were not able to arrive at that same sort of trust when it came to living out something as profoundly countercultural and self-denying as lifelong celibacy.

“There are still pockets of the Catholic Church where people are still having experiences in 2023 that sound like they came from 1980,” she said. “Like, I actually did a bunch of interviews with people who had gone to Catholic schools, and I’ll have to say, the bad experiences especially, people said the same thing from the ’70s and like, five years ago.” Echoing Duddy-Burke, Tushnet said she found there is a persistent attitude that everyone in Catholic circles is straight.

She is now working on an educational resource for Catholic institutions, Building Catholic Futures, intended for both kids and parents. The materials are “created by queer people to serve the needs of queer kids in the next generation,” and while staying faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, attempts to avoid catering to the paranoias and fears of what she described as the “concerned mom person,” the parent who is perplexed by the way the world has changed from the one she grew up in, and who might be swayed in an anti-gay direction by some of the existing resources for Christian parents.

“People really said [to me], ‘One thing that would have been really helpful to me is just to know that there had been gay Christians, ever,’” she said. “So a real lack of any kind of role model and therefore any kind of vision for my own future. This comes up again and again, this is why Building Catholic Futures is called this.” She remembers being a “totally secular progressive kid” in high school obsessively scouring history, pop culture, and song lyrics to figure out who was or might be gay. “I think a big part of that was kind of, ‘what are the possibilities for me?’ So not having anyone who shares your faith, who’s in your world in that way, who shares the thing that you’ve been told all your life is the most important thing in life, and it is actually the most important thing in life, and there’s nobody who you can look up to in a way that fits with this experience that you’re beginning to realize that you have, is really devastating—and even with the internet does still happen.”

Tushnet said she has found in working on Building Catholic Futures that the gay Catholics she encounters frequently cite queer artists and writers who had an influence on them, even if they were not themselves Catholic, or were perhaps dissenters from traditional Catholicism.

“It made me conscious of how much overlap there really is in both kind of like, the joyful and beautiful aspects of queer experience,” she said, “and then also the like painful experience of being targeted and marginalized, that we can really use the guidance of people who disagree with us profoundly on the authority of the Church or the role of obedience or the nature of sexuality.”

In speaking with Catholic adults who work with young people, Tushnet said, “This is really an area where kids do not feel like the Church is giving them anything to hold on to.”

Even though Duddy-Burke, Hartley, and Tushnet may differ on the particulars, they all share a hope that the Church is beginning to listen to new approaches being developed by the laity.

When we spoke, Hartley was amping up to speak in a few weeks on the Bible and homosexuality and living a life of chastity at Outreach 2023. He admitted to being less nervous about the chastity panel than another one, on the Bible and homosexuality. “I feel really comfortable talking about why celibacy has been really liberating for me, and not like a restrictive straitjacket,” he said. “But I had to do a lot of research and thinking for the panel on the Bible and homosexuality” and what he calls “the clobber passages”: verses from Leviticus condemning homosexual sex, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and various letters from the early Church thinkers to fledgling Christian congregations. “Those aren’t really the bedrock of my sexual ethics,” he said, “But they are something that LGBTQ folks in religious spaces have to wrestle with because those are the ones that we’re confronted with.” The other passages, such as some contents of the Apostle Paul’s letters, are not necessarily the “slam dunks” against homosexuality that many Bible-quoting Christians think they are, said Hartley: “I just don’t think that’s true.”

Virtually anyone who considers themselves to be an LGBTQ or same-sex attracted Catholic has gone on some kind of journey.

For Hartley, historical and cultural context matters. “You really have to enter into a story. It’s part of what brought me to the Catholic Church to begin with, is wanting to find myself in a big story of God’s involvement.” He cites the audience for the Apostle Paul’s letters, which are famous for some lines that appear to condemn gay sex. “Some of the people listening to [Paul’s] letters were not in a position to refuse sexual activity,” Hartley said, “And so when Paul is saying these things, it’s liberating for his audience. It’s about justice and not just about sexual morality between equals. So that’s something really important to keep in mind when thinking through these passages.”

The present matters, too. Citing Leviticus 20:13, Hartley said, “It struck me that the death penalty for same-sex sex is on the books now in countries around the world.”

As an evangelical influenced by Protestant sola scriptura beliefs, “I used to think it was just a matter of reading the Bible and applying it in a straightforward way to life,” said Hartley, a view he finds “now sometimes is just downright dangerous.” There is no talk of punishment or retribution for those who violate Church teaching in speaking to Tushnet and Hartley, who were both keen to express the breadth of experiences and viewpoints within the gay Catholic community, on both Sides A and B. Both made a point of stressing their lack of judgment for their fellow gay Catholics. Duddy-Burke said much of the outright opposition that organizations like DignityUSA receive comes from ultra-conservative Catholic individuals and organizations, and occasionally “ex-gay” Catholics. She said there is room for ideological tension within the Church, but “the line gets drawn” when people operating out of animus engage in attacks based on beliefs: calls to violence, “combing records to find out if Catholic school or Catholic parish staff have taken out marriage licenses, or combing Facebook pages or Instagram—it’s that kind of stuff that I think our Church leaders need to be better about challenging, like, that is bad action, your only goal here is to hurt another individual and that needs to be stopped.”

Eve Tushnet
Eve Tushnet

Courtesy Eve Tushnet

“Many Catholics are concerned more about LGBTQ people’s sexual morality than almost any other moral issue,” said Martin in his email. “For some reason (mainly homophobia) it’s the LGBTQ person whose moral life gets looked at under the microscope. And yet, as you say, Catholics tend to overlook all sorts of other people whose lives are not in total conformity with church teaching: straight couples who use birth control, for example. More fundamentally, we overlook people who are not forgiving, not generous to the poor, not loving, and so on, things at the heart of the Gospel.”

“In places like sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe,” Martin continued, “any mention of LGBTQ issues in the Church is incendiary. The Catholic bishops in Ghana, for example, supported criminalizing homosexuality. This is one reason why Pope Francis’ call to decriminalize homosexuality, which may seem tepid in the West, was such a big deal. He’s speaking to the worldwide Church. In other places, like the U.S. and Western Europe, the discussion is less contentious, but it is still a hot-button topic.”

Duddy-Burke said she knows gay Catholics in Uganda who have encountered intense violence and discrimination, and are now fleeing the prospect of death at the hands of their government. “For the pope to have said [homosexuality should not be criminalized] is incredibly important for the people of the world, certainly from a legal perspective but even more from a cultural perspective,” she said. “I mean, the tone the Catholic Church, the official Catholic Church, sets, impacts the lives of all 8-plus billion lives of people on the planet in some ways. The Catholic Church runs the largest private educational network in the world, the private social services network, private health care networks. You know, so, so many people across the world, their lives are just impacted in incredibly important ways by what our Church teaches and what our Church does.”

It is this concern for the marginalized, that when asked why she stays Catholic, Duddy-Burke said her reason was her “deep love of what the Catholic Church is really about,” specifically love and justice. Those two things, she said, “really are at the core of our Church teaching, and you know, that means a lot to me. I love the sacraments, the rituals of our Church,” and “truly believe that every person should have access to that.”

The final keynote speaker at Outreach spoke on Sunday, June 18. Juan Carlos Cruz is a gay Catholic who was appointed in 2021 to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a whistleblower about Church sexual abuse who was initially accused by Pope Francis of calumny for sharing his own story of clerical sexual abuse. Today, “Juanca” and Francis are good friends; Cruz spoke of the process by which Francis came to realize the extent of the clerical abuse in Chile after more laity came forward with their stories, and recanted and apologized to Cruz. Cruz spoke about how he and Francis are in regular contact, initially with letters, then visits and frequent phone calls, with Francis sharing movie recommendations with Cruz during the pandemic. Cruz even helped draft Francis’ talking points on the decriminalization of homosexuality back in January.

Cruz said he encounters attacks from Catholics for being openly gay, and from members of the LGBTQ community for his close relationship with the pope. Someone who speaks with disarming candor of Francis’ quirks and habits with the easy articulacy of the PR professional that he is, Cruz insists he is merely a friend and not the pope’s spokesperson. Rather, he feels he has a responsibility, as someone with a foot in both worlds. “As part of the LGBTQ community, I think it’s important for me to talk about it, to familiarize people who have never had access or have been close to this, to normalize it,” he said.

After his remarks, Martin asked Cruz when things are going to change for gay Catholics in the Church. “I really don’t know,” Cruz said. Contrary to the perception, it’s not easy for the pope to change doctrine with the stroke of the pen, he said

For now, Cruz said of Francis, “I love that he is on the side of those who suffer.”

Like Hartley, Tushnet looks to the past when thinking about how the Catholic Church could develop its doctrine going forward.

“Real people who already have partners come to the Church and say, you know, I made a life commitment to this person—nowadays, I may have married this person—and I’m beginning to ask questions about my faith, and wondering if I should kind of come home to the Church. What does that mean for me?” she said. “In the past, I think it was more likely, sadly, that they would be told to leave the person, and they would either be like, ‘Absolutely not, well, I guess this really isn’t as true as I thought it was,’ or you know, make some pretty tragic decisions.”

Tushnet believes that both the Bible and Catholic history provide options to recognize same-sex love. She cites the covenant between David and Jonathan, the love between Ruth and Naomi, as well as a practice from Eastern Christianity known as adelphopoiesis, a kinship bonding ceremony between two men that while not a marriage, was a liturgical recognition of sacrificial same-sex love and support. Tushnet is a fan of the book The Friend by Alan Bray, a historical examination of the deep emotional and spiritual component that informed these friendships in Christianity’s past. “People really rediscover these because they meet a reality, which is, that two people of the same sex are loving and caring for and cherishing one another, and what are we going to do about it?” she said. “Are we going to just say well, the Church can’t acknowledge that at all? And you look, and you don’t have to say that.”

But Tushnet is careful to caution against one-size-fits-all solutions for LGBTQ Catholics, slotting covenant friendships “into the cultural space now taken by marriage, with a loss of other models of community,” she said, citing the Catholic Worker and intentional community as other alternatives. “I really don’t want there to be one model and if you do not find this one model, then you are sort of condemned to loneliness or isolation, or you’ve failed in some way.”

Even DignityUSA doesn’t discount celibacy as a way of life for gay Catholics. “Dignity believes that there certainly are people who are called to celibacy either lifelong or for a part of their lives, and that’s fine, and it’s a sacred way of life in the same way, you know, lots of other ways of life are sacred. Our problem is that it should not be imposed based on identity,” said Duddy-Burke. “There needs to be a recognition that gender identity, that sexual orientation are an inherent part of who we are.” Acknowledging that “there are people who choose celibacy for good reasons, for healthy reasons, for whom it helps them to lead a good and healthy life,” she added that “it should not be demanded of people” out of what she called “a very outdated understanding of what humanity is.”

Although he arrives at a different conclusion, Hartley makes a similar point. “There has to come a point as a Side B person,” he said, “when you choose your life, too.” He notes a “long history of being constrained, of being chosen, and it feeling like, I didn’t have anything to do with it, God sort of has this for me.” He had to “choose it back,” he said. “Something opens up, and you get to find a lot of joy in your life. So that’s what I’m experiencing, or have experienced, over the past few years, and I hope to experience even more.”

Tushnet said she has begun to place increasing emphasis on solidarity in addressing LGBTQ Catholics. Whether or not gay Catholics choose to engage with the broader secular LGBTQ culture, Tushnet said she tries to remind them that “you do owe these people. You have not really fled to the Church as your haven, and you can just sort of hunker down there and be happy, you know, with the priest who knows and likes you. You do have some responsibility to give back.”

This solidarity is a key part of the philosophy, “or rather, the theology” behind the Outreach conference, said Martin. “It is very much along the lines of Pope Francis’ model of the Church as a field hospital,” he said, “which not only treats people who have been wounded—in this case, often by the Church itself—but is radically open. What people sometimes forget is that the heart of Church teaching is not a book. It’s a person: Jesus. And by embodying his welcome of everyone, we are embodying Church teaching.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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