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A more universal church

Views Grace Doerfler / May 1, 2022 Print this:

Reflections from a young LGBTQ Catholic

What I love about being part of both the global Catholic church and the LGBTQ community is the diversity under each umbrella. No two Catholics and no two LGBTQ people look, pray, identify, or love in quite the same way. 

As a young, Catholic, gender nonconforming lesbian, I often catch glimpses of myself and my friends in tidy infographics: the proportion of my generation that identifies as something other than cisgender and/or straight; the percentage of young LGBTQ people who struggle with mental health or suicidal ideation; the members of Gen Z who identify as religious “nones”; or the LGBTQ people who say they left organized religion because of queerphobic messages.

These numbers tell parts of our stories, it’s true, but our stories are much richer than a few data points can sum up. What I long for is a church whose leaders want to get to know the young LGBTQ people whose stories lie beneath the statistics. 

Mine is just one of those stories. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience of being a young queer Catholic or former Catholic. But from spending the last four years at a Catholic university, and from my own experiences as part of the LGBTQ community, I do know that there are some things that many of us have in common. 

Most fundamentally, it is difficult for many of us to believe that the church wants us. All too often, Catholicism is an unwelcoming environment for queer people, one that makes it more challenging for young people to accept their identities. 

Contrary to how my generation is popularly depicted, I do not believe it is easy for most young queer Catholics to come out. Undeniably, we have more resources and visibility when we come out than our predecessors did; but it is still a process that requires deep thought and interior work. And doing so is no straightforward matter, particularly in a church that still all too frequently silences authentic speech about matters of gender and sexuality.

While it’s true that society broadly has shattered many of the stigmas about being LGBTQ, for Catholic youth in particular, the scripts of shame and fear remain in place and in need of rewriting. Early in college I realized that my sexuality was not going to change, that I could no longer delay the work of thinking through what it meant for me to be lesbian and Catholic. I did not consider this good news. I was terrified of being gay, and I did not know how to imagine a happy future that was not cis-heteronormative. I can still feel, viscerally, the muscle memory of that self-hatred and powerlessness. I would not wish it on anyone. 

What I would wish for other young LGBTQ Catholics, however, is support like that I’ve found since coming out—affirming spiritual mentors, a welcoming queer community. I believe that many of my LGBTQ peers who were or are Catholic have felt similarly, and we need those who lead and minister in the church to understand our experiences and lend us their support.

We come out because doing so helps us to become the people God created us to be—including the fullness of our LGBTQ identities. We come out because our honesty is the site where God reaches us, and where we begin to articulate our own vocations to love. 

Beginning the work of thinking deeply about gender, sexuality, and faith is emotional and overwhelming. But it is the only way to arrive at accepting LGBTQ identities—whether in ourselves or in our church. I believe in the goodness that lies on the other side of that reflective work. I want others in the church to be willing to see that goodness, too, and to welcome the gifts that young LGBTQ people offer. 

Much of what queer college students can contribute to our faith communities is born of our experiences in learning to love ourselves and one another. Many of us undergo educations unique from our straight peers’, learning about our genders and sexualities and so many aspects of the people we are becoming. 

Some of it is difficult—no one tells us in advance how to respond to a classmate’s intrusive questions, a roommate’s microaggressions, or a professor’s incorrect assumptions. And some of it is beautiful—we figure out how to dress in a way that feels affirming, how to articulate who we are, how to date. In all the highs and lows of this messy growth, we support one another. The LGBTQ people whom I have gotten to know as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame have taught me so much about community, generous love, and forgiveness.

I believe that young queer people can help to create a more catholic church—that is, a more universal church, in which all are truly welcome. Whether or not we find our homes in explicitly Catholic spaces, young LGBTQ people are deeply invested in figuring out how to make communities in which we authentically care for one another. We long for communities in which there are no conditions for acceptance, in which there is space for questions and creativity. Young people care about intersectionality; we want communities that seek justice and that are radically inclusive of all. 

In a few weeks, I will graduate from Notre Dame, a place that has promised to educate both my mind and my heart. And it has. Coming out, and all the learning that has accompanied that process, has been one of the biggest gifts of my time in college—and certainly a gift to my life of faith. In coming out, I’ve had the chance to meet other people who know what it is like to be queer and Catholic, many of whom have asked similar questions about balancing these two identities.

Above all, getting to know other young queer people has given me the conviction that we do belong in faith communities, and that what LGBTQ people have to offer is deeply holy. Young queer people have learned from experience that life is impossible without growth. We are unafraid of newness and change. I believe that making room for our experiences in the church can make space for the movement of the Spirit, as well. We are the church’s future, but we long for a church to which we can truly bring our dreams.

Grace Doerfler

Grace Doerfler is a graduate journalism student at Stanford University. She has written for America Media and New Ways Ministry. Follow her on Twitter @gfdoerfler

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