January 9, 2017

As He Grew Up Gay in Australia,The Catholic Church was a Heaven






This March, Australian Christians will be able to join a chorus of Catholics, Baptists and beyond asking forgiveness for centuries worth of anti-LGBTQI sins – among those sins, pushing the idea that "non-heterosexual orientations should be treated, healed or changed".
The landmark "sorry" is the effort of a new ecumenical group called Equal Voices, which, as reported by Buzzfeed, ultimately aims to present the apology to Parliament. The group says its mission is to ensure that the church is one "which acknowledges, respects and utilises the gifts of all, regardless of sex, sexuality or gender". Six months after our progressive pontiff told reporters that Catholics should say sorry to gay people, Australians of faith are listening. 
On one level, this is a surprise on the level of "somebody-moved-the-stone!". The church, so often an immovable wall in the fight for same-sex marriage and other rights, is apologising to us? This is, after all, the same coalition of religions that includes George Pell, the anti-Safe Schools Salvos and the Australian Christian Lobby.

And yet the apology comes as no surprise to me. The Christians in my life – those in the pews who don't make, nor seek, headlines – have been some of the most supportive people I've known. Of course they want to say sorry: it's the Christian thing to do.

My parents sent my brothers and me to Catholic schools as part of a common Australian middle-class compromise. They didn't want us going to the local public school, but couldn't afford private school, so they sent us to an institution named for a girl who was burned at the stake two millennia ago. There, we would wear uniforms we didn't like and say prayers we didn't believe in, but we would also be able to learn our times tables in a disciplined environment.

I did well there. I got straight As, was elected captain of both primary and high school, completed my sacraments and often led prayers at assembly and over the PA system. The family never went to church on weekends, but from Monday to Friday I was an evangelistic little Tracy Flick, biro in hand and halo on head.

I was also very gay. I didn't realise this at the time – I was quite late to my own coming-out party – but I already ticked all of the cliche boxes: terrible at footy, excellent at knowing the lyrics to Les Mis songs; Friday nights at an arthouse cinema, Sunday mornings at drama class. And the voice? Julian Clary could have given a more convincing straight-man reading of the Our Father. If my teachers had eyes and ears, they knew I was different. And these same teachers – not members of the clergy, but many of them laypeople of deep faith – were profoundly nurturing of that difference.

One of my earliest memories of school is from year two, in rehearsals for a class show for the weekly assembly. The part called for me to address the crowd, and I mumbled the line quietly in rehearsal, eyes fixed on my polished black Clarks. Miss White was having none of it. She pulled me aside to ask what was wrong. When I told her that I hated my voice, she told me firmly it was a gift not to sound like anyone else. And then she gave me a piece of advice I still use when speaking publicly: "Find a clock on the back wall, and stare at it." 

My school life was peppered with moments like this. Teachers who encouraged me into extracurricular activities for which my differences were an advantage.

And I was always protected. I was in the public speaking team in high school, and in one of my first years there, was asked to deliver a speech to the school. It was six minutes of my not-yet-broken voice from the lectern and jeers from the crowd. By the end, I was pretty shaken up. No teacher ever spoke to me about the incident, as Miss White had done years before, but I later found out someone had spoken to the rest of the year group. I am not sure what was said, but I was never jeered again. ln year 12, when I competed in a national public speaking competition, a chunk of the guys from my year showed up to cheer me on raucously.

Now I am an atheist when things are going well in my life, an agnostic when they aren't, and temporarily Catholic when I have to get up for the Eucharist at a wedding. But I've always liked core Christian values, particularly the simple "golden rule" I was taught back in kindy: "Treat others the way you like to be treated."

I know it's not everyone's story – and I know others whose time at religious schools was far less rosy – but I was able to grow up different and safe and proud because the people around me also subscribed to that idea.

I don't see much of that sentiment when I scan the statements of church leadership when it comes to LGBTQI issues today. But the Equal Voices apology is a reminder of the kinds of Christians who helped shape me growing up. These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.

As some of them get ready to say sorry this March, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you.


Joel Meares is a Fairfax Media columnist

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