A Face, A Name, and a Heart
I was in my car, driving to visit my dad who is in the hospital in Nanaimo, when I heard an interview on the CBC morning program “Q”.[i] Guest host Jann Arden was speaking with a country and western singer by the name of Chely Wright who has written a memoir titled “Like Me” in which she comes out of the closet and deals with being a lesbian in an industry that is not known to be “gay positive”. In a previous interview [ii] Chely Wright said that being a lesbian was “unforgiveable” for “They will forgive you if you beat your wife, lose your kids to state, get six divorces, make a sex tape, get labelled as a tramp — any and all of it is better than being gay.”
Chely Wright describes herself as a Kansas born farm girl, coming from a religious family, and entering a singing career knowing that being a lesbian – at home and at work – was a great handicap. She had a long relationship with a woman that she managed to keep hidden from everyone including close friends – not only to protect herself but to protect them. She thought that if they knew about her sexual orientation they would be in the position of having to cover and lie for her. She even played the game – participating in homophobic jokes and other “crimes against myself”. She had two high profile country singer boyfriends, who helped provide a cover, good men whom she knew she could not love in a romantic way. When some commentators would speculate on her situation there would be comments like “she better not be gay, she’s so good looking”.
With her own father there was a growing separation that came from an incident when her father made extremely negative comments about Ellen DeGeneres when she “came out”. Chely Wright had to struggle with her own identity – her family, her career and even her relationship with God. The hiding destroyed the one long and good relationship that she did have. “It is crazy making to live this kind of life – not living the truth about who you are” she said to Jann Arden. The memoir details the time when Chely finally came out to her father who could not understand the growing separation with his daughter. Chely describes her father as a typical “redneck”, very religious but also a very right-wing ex-navy guy.
When the great Oprah interviewed Chely and her father to talk about the memoir, she put the question to him: “how did you go from a guy who saw this was all wrong and sinful and perverted to a guy who accepted his daughter as a lesbian?” His answer was simply “I know her”. Chely had already moved to the stage of accepting who she was and feeling that “God and I are square – this is how God made you”. Her father could not square all the things he once believed about homosexuals and this revelation by his daughter that she was one of them – a lesbian. He knew that she was a good woman, a religious woman. It was more than the love of a father – he had to choose between what in his head he knew about his daughter and the propaganda of the dominant culture. He changed.
Jann Arden commented “change is inevitable – I wish it were such a non-issue, people need to un-teach themselves a lot of crazy things”. Chely Wright hopes that her memoir will not only help others understand the struggle that gay persons have to go through to deal with their “orientation”, but that it would also help gay people who are dealing with this situation at she had to do over a long period of time. Chely talked about the dangerous stereotypes that can so much harm people and relationships.
And then Chely said “If we can attach a face, and a name and a heart to that tiny 3 letter word “gay” we can change everything”.
I don’t think that I was “gay positive” until later in life. Throughout my high school years, I don’t remember anyone being slurred or ridiculed for being gay – it was something that was simply off the radar screen. Innocent or naïve – those were different times. I spent much of the 1960’s in a seminary
wearing a dress (well – it was called a cassock!) and only many years later I came to realize that not just a few of my fellow seminarians were gay. Most were in the closet – even to themselves. There were some who violated the prohibition on forming “particular friendships” but anything that was discovered among the seminarians was simply disregarded or quickly forgotten. I really don’t know if the gay fellows were more open among themselves – but they certainly did not confide their secret with me.
As a priest, working in Peru, homosexuality was not an issue. Of course there would be the occasional joke ridiculing gay people, but this was on the same level of “blond jokes”, or jokes about certain other groups of people. No one came to us and said that this type of humour was inappropriate because it stereotyped or belittled others. Men who have since come out did not at that time object to such characterizations, as they had to deal with their own secret feelings.
After my decision to seek early retirement from the priesthood I was challenged, just as was the father of Chely Wright, by two very good and beautiful people. One was a priest, a former colleague, and the other a very attractive and super bright young woman who was a colleague at work. They had the confidence to share with me that they were “gay”. I was forced to deal with my own prejudices and sexism because I knew them as “good” people. Good is not enough – they are loving, caring, beautiful people.
I really do not know what it is like to be “gay”, but then I also do not know what it is to be “a woman”. My box is straight and masculine. That is the way I was made. When teaching in Catholic high schools in Toronto I began to deal with this issue in the classroom. While working in an all girls high school in Toronto, there were incidents of homophobia and violence against students who dared to come out. One student was even punished after she had been physically assaulted in an incident of homophobia, a real case of blaming the victim. I would suspect that some of the nuns who worked in the school were dealing with their own fears about coming out or being identified as lesbian.
In the classroom I used a staged situation to begin the discussion about homosexuality. I would speak with a few students before class and get their permission to be hard on them during an in class exercise. Students were instructed to write in their best handwriting a dictation that I would give. They were told that their work would be evaluated solely on their “penmanship”, the quality of their writing. The twist was that they had to use their less dominant side – right handers had to write with their left hands and lefties would write with their right hands. Of course the exercise was hilarious, with students trying to do their best with the realization that not only could they not write well but that often their writing was illegible. After a short time I would proceed to orally evaluate some of the writings. I would go to some of the pre-selected students and then openly criticize and belittle them for their efforts. The mood would change from hilarity to passive anger.
After a short while, I would stop the exercise and begin to debrief the class. First I would ask the students who had been pre-selected to speak about their feelings about being put down for their efforts even though they knew it was a staged event. They felt insulted, ashamed, angry, and abused. I asked the other students for their reactions to my “evaluation” and without exception they thought that it was “unfair”, arbitrary, unjust and wrong. The class was told that the exercise was staged and that some students had consented beforehand even though they were not sure exactly what was going to happen.
We would then go into a historical and linguistic exploration of what it meant to be “left oriented” and how our language betrays a phobia of left-orientation. Things are described as being “gauche” (crude, lacking in grace), “sinister” (evil, possessed), having “two left feet” and so on. The majority who are gifted with “right-handedness” apply their preference to concepts in law – rights, correctness and justice. A few societies such as the ancient Incas attributed “left-handedness” to special spiritual gifts but such examples were rare. Generally to be identified as a “southpaw” was detrimental to success and acceptance. Kids were punished for writing with their left hand and in some countries demonstrating left-handedness was punishable by the state.
Of course this is all “unfair” for left or right “handedness” is not something that we choose. It has something to do with how our brains are wired early in our pre-natal development. It has nothing to do with correctness, goodness or worth. It is simply a fact – 90 % of us are born with a “right” dominance and up to 10 % find it easier and more natural to use their left hand.
Can this not also help explain “sexual orientation”? It is not something we choose but rather we recognize that this is how we are created. It is not a birth defect or a mistake. Humans are born with a natural attraction to the same sex or the opposite sex. One priest friend suggested quite seriously that homosexuality was caused by mothers who opted not to breast feed and instead fed their babies with phallic shaped bottles. Homosexuality just like heterosexuality is not learned. Of course the dominant culture, especially during our formative years as a child, can influence our expressions of sexuality just as everything else is affected by the forces of “nurture”. To complicate matters further, we are beginning to understand that sexuality is not a matter of straight or gay, but a wide spectrum of possibilities created by the joint forces of nature and nurture.
I am comfortable being who I am but then I was born into a comfort zone, being one of the majority. I was not different and I was not forced into living in a non-natural and contrary manner which could lead to “crimes against myself”. I did not have to “come out”. Good faithful priests who today risk “coming out” face retribution, punishment, and sometimes expulsion. Credible studies would suggest that the number of gay men in the priesthood is way above the normal ratio of gay persons in society, to the point that the priesthood could be described as a “gay” profession. This is difficult for the old guard to accept at times. A priest friend told me that he realized that it was time to leave “when there was a gay pride celebration at the novitiate”. Being part of a minority is not easy when one has experienced the power of being part of the majority for so long.
Chely Wright spoke to me a truth that I had learned late in life. Being able to learn and having dear friends who believed that I was worthy of their patience and love has proven to be such a gift and a blessing. “If we can attach a face, and a name and a heart to that tiny 3 letter word “gay” we can change everything”.
[ii] May 07, 2010|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times