Patrick Joseph Mcnelis’ experience of the Catholic Church would be familiar to many gay men. As a child he attended Mass every Sunday, and became an altar boy. It was a normal rite of passage for a young boy with a very religious mother.
“Religion taught me how to be a good person. To have morals. To respect people. It taught me prayer,” he tells me. Then he pauses. “It also taught me shame, guilt and that being gay was a sin. Everything was a sin, and it had to be confessed.”
As an adult, Patrick - like many gay men - has moved away from religion. He is quite frank about his feelings: “It divides people. It causes upset. It encourages hate.” But escaping religion is not so easy. Barely a week passes without headlines reporting bigoted comments about LGBT people, whether this be from evangelical Christian groups such as The Westboro Baptist Church - certainly the most prolific offender - the Catholic Church, Islam or the Church of England.
On the surface, it’s perhaps easy to laugh off the increasingly ludicrous claims by the most extreme religious groups, who like to claim that gay people are solely responsible for everything from freak weather to imminent armageddon - but is this barrage of hatred taking a hidden toll on LGBT people’s mental wellbeing?
Patrick is in no doubt about the toxicity of these religious pronouncements. “They’re the primary cause of mental health issues within the LGBT community,” he says, adding that he believes gay suicides and addiction issues such as the Chem sex phenomenon can be linked to people internalising such vitriol.
Christopher Higgins, age 42, knows more about how religion operates that most. He spent seven years (from the age of 18-25) training to be a Catholic Priest in Rome. Towards the end of his training and just before his Ordination he met his longterm partner. Only after his Ordination did he decide to leave the Priesthood, and enter into a relationship. This caused much controversy and a very public homophobic backlash, with the respected Catholic weekly publication, The Tablet, publishing readers’ letters all bemoaning what terrible sinners he and his partner were. Christopher no longer follows a religion, but would still describe himself as a Roman Catholic.
“Old wounds have healed, and the whole experience has kind of created a protective layer over what I actually give a shit about,” he explains. “I listen attentively to what the Church has to say on matters of sexuality, but I live my life according to how I and my partner see fit.”
When he is confronted by religious figures preaching intolerance and blatant hatred, Christopher’s initial reaction is sadness, and then anger. “I feel sadness because I think these people have got it so wrong. A religion (and in this instance I mean Christianity) that believes in a God that created this beautiful world, sent his son to save us from sin, died in agony for our sins, was buried and then rose again three days later - and yet they focus on who I sleep with.”
“A lot of what is reported as Church teaching or religious belief, isn't. It's some rantings of a far-right Conservative or Fundamentalist - 'interpreting' in order to justify their own world view. Am I trying to say here that the Catholic Church is a victim of misunderstanding and they actually love the gays? No, not at all - but they're not the Westboro Baptist Church either. It's fundamentalism and extremism within religion that takes belief to that dangerous place of becoming damaging and persecutory.”
Bigoted opinions, Christopher concludes, has a damaging psychological impact: “Being told that you are wrong, or worse going to Hell, for being the person you are is both fear inducing and soul destroying.”
Like many gay people, 54-year-old Simon-Peter Trimarco’s adult experience of religion comes second or third hand: via the media - particularly social media, but also through some face-to-face contact with people in his work and social life.
“People choose their religion, no matter their culture or background. Everyone has a choice to believe in whatever they like” he says. “And this means for me, that whilst you're perfectly entitled to believe, you are not entitled to have 'respect' for it. The idea of 'respecting other people's beliefs' is utterly ludicrous. All beliefs should be challenged.”
Consequently, when Simon encounters religious hatred against gay people in the media, his initial reaction is often irritation that they are given publicity and accorded a level of respect. “People tiptoeing around them, affording them pseudo-liberal 'understanding' drives me wild. But, to be fair, I rarely come across hideous Christian homophobia. More frequently I encounter really dangerous and murderous anti-gay voices from Muslims. This is far more prevalent and rarely challenged in the way we all feel comfortable in challenging Christian fundaMENTALS.”
What relationship does Simon think there is between religion and the idea of gay shame - and the self-destructive behaviour that this can possibly lead to?
“Deep rooted shame, self-hatred, comes by believing in the rubbish peddled by almost all religions The only way to counter this is to stop according any religious or 'spiritual' (God! I hate that word!) belief respect.
“Bringing a child up in a religion, with no opportunity for questioning and opposition, is abusive. Those cute pictures of four and five year old 'Buddhist monks' in Tibet, wrenched from (or handed over by) their families and subjected to a life defined solely by self-abnegation? This would be abuse in most other cultures - especially ours. Yet people coo and smile because they look so cute with their big eyes, their colourful costumes, their rings and bells.”
But Christopher Higgins argues that the quest for tolerance should work both ways, and claims that he has experienced more hatred and bigoted opinion of his position of being a Catholic from within the gay community, than he ever did for being gay within the Church community.
“The bare teeth attacks from one side or the other produces more hatred and hurt. What needs to take place is a more grown up dialogue from both parties.”
“The theological threat of Hell for the gays vs the likening of gay priests to child abusing paedophiles is not helpful. Does the history of hurt run too deep for there ever to be a reconciliation and an acceptance of gays within the Church? Gays already do exist within the Church and in some cases hold considerable positions of power. I don't have the answers, if I did then I'd be in the running for the white cassock and zucchetto.”
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