Little Priests: Gay Men and Old Habits

I haven’t taken any oaths of poverty, chastity, or obedience, but for all intents and purposes, I life a life very much in the tradition of those of my Irish forebears who spent their days as Roman Catholic priests.

It creeps me out a little actually, the ways in which so much of my life, and the lives of many gay men I know, conform to the precepts of someone in a formal religious brotherhood.

It wasn’t always the case that I felt such a weird affinity with men of cloth. Through my 20s I definitely didn’t, so perhaps there is a developmental aspect here. What is clear to me is that as a gay man rounding 40, there are multiple ways in which I seem priestly to myself—some that I’m more comfortable with than others.

Certainly, I’m aligned with people who have committed their lives in the service of a particular community or cause. In my case, as a social worker and therapist in the gay community, I gain satisfaction from trying to help others, listening and reflecting upon people’s stories and experiences. Many gay men can relate to the commitment of giving themselves over to something like this—whether as a practitioner of an art form, a specialist in a helping profession, or a hard worker devoted single-mindedly to a business, a boss, or a belief.

Perhaps because there are still relatively few of us who have taken on the mantle and responsibilities of parenthood, we often devote ourselves to our careers or our hobbies with greater zeal than those with kids generally have the time to. We remain social commentators as well, the shaman standing slightly to the side of the culture and observing, delivering insight and the occasional zinger in a well-packaged homily.

But I’m also in black suit/white collar mode in much of my sexual and romantic life as well. I have less sex than I’d prefer and I haven’t found a way to establish an ongoing, committed, and fulfilling relationship with another man.

I’m not alone in this, of course, and its one of the things about gay life that saddens me the most—so many wonderful, smart, talented, compassionate, and attractive men live like they’ve taken the veil. Some dropped out of the game when AIDS reared its ugly head and made sex seem just too dangerous. I know some young men who avoid sex for this reason now.

Some men clearly struggle with self-esteem issues that manifest as problems with drugs or alcohol or just make the possibility of rejection too great to risk. Or others if they aren’t celibate or don’t experience extended periods of abstinence, leap from infatuation to infatuation in an endless adolescent cycle or focus on purely sexual conquests and baroque entanglements and erotic practices.

Another way that I play into the whole Holy Orders thing is by living a life that maintains a strong tendency toward impoverishment; whether of emotions or material aspect, its way too easy for me to retain a poverty mindset that may or may not have to do with the actual circumstances of my life. Life my father raised in the Depression who saved foil and rubberbands all his life even as he became wealthy, I can sometimes embrace an internal sense that resources are provisional and fleeting.

The truth of my life, and those of other gay men who identify with the trends I’ve been describing, is that the vast majority of us are not actually priests and the constrictions on our life are not intentional decisions. They aren’t the result of vows taken, but rather the outcomes of patterns of behavior and actions chosen only gradually—and unconsciously—over time. Of course, as gay men, we are free to make different choices about how we structure our lives. We need not remain obedient to any scripture or dogma for what the lives of gay men should be like.

Once upon a time, being homosexual was thought to mean that one would live an unhappy, lonely life pre-destined to end in alcoholism or suicide. While that story has been discredited, it’s still the case that many gay men struggle to free themselves from narratives that would see us hidden from view, locked in shameful shadows. The sheer weight of our habits—pardon the pun—serves to keep us in patterns of behavior that sometimes don’t serve us well. Some of the ruts we’re in seem too deep to get ourselves out of.

I was talking to a friend of mine about this nouveaux priesthood concept recently. Jim was a Catholic priest for much of his adult life, having in the last decade chosen instead to renounce his vows and live life as an openly gay man. Given his personal history, he probably has a better sense than most gay men how difficult it might actually be to break out of ways of life that ultimately don’t contribute to our sense of satisfaction and happiness. But while Jim continues to serve the needs of others in his professional life, he no longer embraces the protection that the role of priest afforded him from confronting his sexuality and his need for an abundant personal life.

To the extent that some gay men hide out as the chipper best friend, or the acerbic queen, or the bitter workaholic, or the favorite funny uncle, we still smell of altar wax. If we are to fully and completely live our lives, we must—I must—be willing to lose Rome’s stifling but powerful protection.

It’s important to recognize that the modifications some of us made to our lives and the constrictions we’ve deemed acceptable were compromises made to keep us alive. But we deserve more now. And as the current conflicts with Church dogma reveal—whether about gay marriage, gay adoption, or gay archbishops—we’re ready to ask for more colorful lives for ourselves than just black suits in our wardrobe.