In honor of Pride Week, The National Memo features American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, And Politics by Dan Savage, New York Times bestselling author and founder of It Gets Better, a non-profit organization that assists and protects LGBT youth. Savage’s deeply personal book details his experiences as an advocate for the LGBT community and the son of profoundly Catholic parents. In this excerpt he explains his own struggle with his faith. Having once aspired to serve as a priest in the Catholic Church, he came to the difficult realization that a majority of the community to which he belonged was turning its back on him.
You can purchase the full book here.
Gay Catholics are being targeted in ways that straight Catholics are not. While the Church still opposes birth control and abortion, divorce and remarriage, and all non- procreative sex acts (even within marriage), and has become more aggressively political over the last two decades, it can’t identify and persecute heterosexual Catholics who trust “their own grasp of certain things.” Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholic women. Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women use birth control—presumably with Catholic men. Ninety-three percent of Catholics support the use of condoms to prevent disease and HIV transmission. Seventy percent of American Catholics think abortion should be legal. Sixty-seven percent of Catholics believe premarital sex is morally acceptable.
When it comes to the issues of sexual morality, straight Catholics—Catholics like my mother—are telling the celibates that while they may run their church, they may not run, or ruin, their lives.
When a Catholic priest stands on the altar on Sunday and looks out over his congregation—like my father once did—he sees Catholic mothers and fathers sitting with one or two children. He can’t see the birth control pills and the abortions that prevented those couples from having more children than they wanted or could provide for. He can’t tell just by looking who among his flock has been divorced and remarried— or who, for that matter, masturbates. The Church condemns homosexuality as “intrinsically and gravely disordered.” The Church uses the exact same language to condemn masturbation: “Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action,” reads the Catholic catechism. But there is no effort to turn away the children of divorced and remarried Catholics, or the children of Catholic families that by some miracle only have two children, or to seek out and fire heterosexual church employees who use birth control or masturbate.
The pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests know that straight Catholics are using birth control, obtaining abortions, having premarital sex, having sex for pleasure, and masturbating. But they can pretend not to know it because they can’t actually see it. All straight Catholics automatically get rounded up to “good Catholics” because their sexual sins can only be guessed at or inferred.
Priests can’t do the same when a gay couple walks into a church. A priest can refuse to see—or refuse to do the math on—all the masturbating, birth controlling, divorcing, and remarrying that he knows straight parishioners are getting up to, but he can’t not see homosexuality. So long as we insist on coming out, so long as we insist on living and loving openly, our “sin” is visible to the naked eye. And Church leaders can’t see past our homosexuality; they can barely see our humanity, which is hugely ironic, considering how many of those priests in the pulpits of Catholic churches are gay themselves. Father Tom was one of them. I was almost one of them.
Of course I don’t think homosexuality is a sin at all. But for the Catholic Church it all comes down to the nature and purpose of sex. Back to the Catholic catechism: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose,” as human sexual expression must open to the “gift of life.” Birth control, masturbation, homosexuality—any sex act that isn’t open to the “gift of life” is wrong. Some well-meaning “liberal” Catholics claim that the Church isn’t singling out gay people since all non-procreative sexual activity is wrong regardless of whether it’s gay or straight. But only gay people are expected to live lives devoid of intimacy and romantic love. (And, I’m sorry, but you can’t claim that supernatural phenomena—miracles—routinely take place and then insist that homosexual acts are closed to the “gift of life.” Either God can do anything or he can’t, AMIRITE?)
“The natural purpose of sex is procreation,” Wills writes, summing up the Church’s position, “and any use of it for other purposes is ‘un-natural.’ But a primary natural purpose does not of necessity exclude ancillary advantages. The purpose of eating is to sustain life, but that does not make all eating that is not necessary to subsistence ‘unnatural.’ One can eat, beyond the bare minimum to exist, to express fellowship, as one can have sex, beyond the begetting of a child with each act, to express love.”
The Catholic Church would like human sexuality to be about one thing—reproduction—but biology tells us differently.
“For Homo sapiens, sex is primarily about establishing and maintaining relationships, relationships often characterized by love, or at least affection,” writes Christopher Ryan, in Psychology Today. “Reproduction is a by-product of human sexual behavior, not its primary purpose.
“The vast majority of species have sex only to reproduce—a function reflected in a very low ratio of sex-acts-to-births,” Ryan continues. “Gorillas, for example, have intercourse at most about a dozen times per birth.” Humans are different. “We and our chimp and bonobo cousins typically have sex hundreds—if not thousands—of times per birth.”
The Church got sex wrong. It is confused about what sex is for, confused about what sex does, confused about why we have it and why we have so much of it—shocking, I realize, considering that the Church is run by people who don’t have sex. (Or aren’t supposed to have sex.)
Fact is, straight people have more sex—a lot more sex—than they do babies. And gay people have sex for the same reasons straight people do . . . most of the time. Gay or straight, we’re all having sex for pleasure, for release, and to cement bonds of intimacy. And every once in a while, some of us—even some of us who are gay—have sex in order to make a baby.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Excerpted from American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage. Reprinted with permission from Plume/Penguin Random House.
Want more updates on great books? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!