Editor’s note: This is the second part of a keynote address delivered by the Rev. Bryan N. Massingale at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York on June 25, 2022. The first part of the speech can be found here. This version has been edited for length and clarity.
One of our community’s bonding experiences is sharing our coming out stories, our processes of understanding, realizing, accepting and then ultimately sharing our sexual awareness. I share with you now my story of coming out as a Black, gay man of faith.
I made my first Ignatian retreat—a silent, directed retreat—when I was a seminarian in 1982. I remember going to the retreat kicking and screaming. I remember thinking: Okay, I can understand being quiet during the day, but we can’t even speak during meals. What kind of barbarism is this?
My spiritual director looked at me and simply said, “I invite you to enter into the silence,” which is spiritual-director-speak for “Shut your mouth and get with the program.” And so I did. One of the passages I was given to pray over was the first creation story in the Book of Genesis, where God creates the cosmos in six days.
In the Ignatian prayer, you’re invited to put yourself in the situation and to imagine yourself as a character in the story. So I pictured myself as an observer, watching creation come into being. In my meditation, I pictured myself watching the beauty of creation as it unfolded according to God’s word.
I saw the stars coming to be, the dry land appearing, the Earth’s animals and creatures filling the land and the sea, and finally human beings emerging as the fulfillment of creation. I looked at creation and saw friends and people that I knew. It was wonderful. Except as I looked at creation and the world’s people, I noticed that when creation was finished, there wasn’t a single Black person, nor were there any gay people.
I looked at humanity, at all those created an image of God, and there were none that looked like me or loved like me. There was nothing in creation that mirrored me. This deeply and profoundly shook me.
My spirit ached, because it meant that despite eight years of Catholic grade school, four years of Catholic high school, four years of Catholic university as a theology and philosophy double major and three years of graduate seminary training in theology (and being relatively good at it), despite all that I have been taught about how all human beings are created in God’s image and likeness, at some deep place within me, I didn’t believe it.
I didn’t believe. My prayer experience betrayed that I didn’t believe it. I did not believe that God could be imaged as Black or as gay, and certainly not as both simultaneously. When I reported this experience to my spiritual director, she wisely said, “Well, I think you’ve got some work to do.”
So she gave me other passages to meditate on, passages that spoke of God’s love. She invited me to pray with these. But I couldn’t pray with them. I didn’t want to hear about God’s love because I was angry. I was furious. I was furious at God for making me Black and gay.
I remember waking up one night, beating my pillow in rage and sorrow, saying over and over, “Why did you do this to me? I didn’t ask for this. Why would you make me this way to endure all this hurt and pain and rejection? What kind of God are you?” I screamed and yelled, shaking and sobbing with angry, bitter, sad and burning tears.
It was only after I cried and moaned and screamed and yelled and simply exhausted myself by pouring out my hurt, my anger, my fear, my pain and my outrage, it was only then that God could break through the cracks of my soul. And then I could hear God speaking when I prayed this passage from the Prophet Isaiah: “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is 43:4).
I wept again, this time crying tears of joy, a joy that was inexpressible then and is indescribable even now. It was then that I could pray the second creation story from the second chapter of Genesis, the one where the earth creature is formed out of the ground. And I could see myself as that original human being and felt God blowing life into me as I was Black, gay and faithful. I was, at last, truly part of God’s creation.
That’s one of my coming out stories: coming out as a Black, gay man of faith, coming out to God, or rather, letting God come into me. I’m sure that many of you related to parts of my story: the pain, the not-wanting-to-do-this, asking God, “Why?” Take it away from me. Then gradually, but slowly, entering in that path of grace and self-acceptance. That part is common.
But my story is also unique in that it shows forth some of the challenges that LGBTQ persons of color have to endure and to navigate, as we live in a church and in a world where Catholic all too often means straight and LGBTQ all too often means white. As Jamal Jordan, the Black, gay author of Queer Love in Color, put it: “When the world values being white and straight above all else, how do you learn to love yourself when you are neither?”
But how is my coming out story relevant to today’s challenge of white nationalism? What does white nationalism have to do with us? Well, I guess that depends upon what your definition of “us” is. We’ll come to that.
The greatest threat to the LGBTQ community in our entirety and in our diversity is the rise of white nationalism. And if we don’t take that seriously, then we’re not doing adequate LGBTQ ministry.
White nationalism is the existential, visceral conviction that this country—its public spaces, its history, its culture—belong to white people in a way that they do not (and should not) belong to others. It’s the conviction that America was meant to be, and should always remain, a white Christian nation. But note that white nationalism is not principally a matter of hate—it’s a matter of belonging. It answers the questions, “Who belongs here? Whose country is this? Whose church is this?”
In a culture of white nationalism, people of color and most of us in this room belong only by permission and toleration. And that permission and toleration can be withdrawn whenever the comfort of certain whites is disturbed, exceeded or threatened. This means that multiracial democracy is an existential threat to white nationalism.
The results of the 2020 election, with the election of the first president to ever use the phrase white supremacy, and the election of the first woman and woman of color as vice president, was an existential threat to white nationalist hopes and aspirations, and a confirmation of its deepest fears that the country was slipping away from them.
And the election had to be overturned by any means necessary, including through allegations of fraud, armed rebellion and violent insurrection. The brutal mob violence of January 6th was a clear declaration that many white Americans would rather live in a white dictatorship than in a white multiracial democracy. If democracy means sharing power with people of color, they want no part of it.
Note that white nationalism is inherently violent. It depends upon violence and the threat of violence in order to create and maintain it. Now, some of you out there might be saying, “Okay, Father Bryan, I can see why this concerns you. After all, you’re a visible target. What does it have to do with us?” White nationalism endangers the wellbeing of all LGBTQ persons precisely because it is intersectional.
Its commitment to racist and political cultural supremacy is obvious, manifested in voter suppression laws, protests against critical race theory (which, I assure, you it’s opponents have never read), public vitriol, and, as we’ve seen, the blatant targeting of Black lives for murder.
But white nationalism is also anti-women, as evidenced in its toxic masculinity and macho posturing, the overwhelming male violence of January 6th and the public vilifications of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Liz Cheney. It doesn’t matter what your political party is. It denounces any woman who refuses the directives of male leadership.
White nationalism is also anti-immigrant and anti-life, with its cruel family separations, inhumane caging of children and callous indifference to brown bodies seeking shelter and safety. But to the point today, white nationalism is also anti-LGBTQ, as evidenced in its homophobic rhetoric and the hysteria surrounding the smallest attempts to recognize the humanity of trans persons.
Let us not forget that it was champions of white nationalism who denigrated transgender soldiers in the military, who championed anti-trans bathroom policies, who did not recognize therapies that facilitated physical transitions as legitimate medical expenses, who also appointed judges hostile to recognizing the equality of gay and lesbian-headed families and who champion their churches and their crusade to weaponize gender ideology against those who would advocate for policies to protect gay and lesbian students in schools.
White nationalism’s intersectional threat—its racism, homophobia and trans hatred—become obvious when we considered the unprecedented rates of book bans being proposed and enacted by school boards and state legislatures across the country. Measures in Texas and Florida are instructive, but they’re not only going on in those two states.
In Texas, for example, a public official has compiled a list of over 850 books that are deemed problematic. Among these are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. But that’s not all.
These lists also contain titles such as Beyond the Gender Binary, Identity: A Story of Transitioning, Gay and Lesbian Role Models and a biography of Harvey Milk. These books are also being banned. But why? One Florida legislature stated that the aim of these measures is to prevent any school lesson that causes an individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race or sexuality.
But here’s the question: Whose distress? Whose discomfort? It’s patently clear: It’s the discomfort of white people, and especially the comfort of white, straight, cisgendered men that is being privileged and protected.
The insidiousness of these measures cannot be overstated. If you doubt, put yourself in one of these classrooms and ask yourself how would you feel if you were a young, trans kid knowing that books that acknowledge your identity are banned? Or imagine that you are a gay student in a school where the teacher can’t use the word “gay” in class. Or imagine being a young Black person who can’t learn their history, or who is told that they have to be happy because all the slaves were happy and the masters were good people.
These measures attack and dismiss the humanity of all of us. Make no mistake: If you create a Venn diagram of overlapping circles and map the advocates of white nationalism, those who are hostile to LGBTQ equality and the opponents of gender inclusion and justice onto a chart, you would see an almost perfect overlap.
If you are racist, the chances are that you’re also misogynistic, homophobic, trans-hostile and anti-immigrant, too. To use Catholic language, white nationalism, patriarchy and sexual rigidity are a virtual seamless garment. They are a consistent ethic of intolerance and hate.
What’s my point? If the Catholic LGBTQ community and its allies and ministries do not name white nationalism as a grave danger to us, to all LGBTQ persons out of a truncated or racially exclusive understanding of who we are (or out of a desire to not be too political) then we are not talking about a situation which impacts and endangers us all.
Idaho was no joke. It’s real. And so, what’s the challenge for the Catholic LGBTQ community? The major challenge is this: Whose groans and cries are heard? Whose voices are welcomed and attended to? Or, to put it more directly, the challenge is this: Who counts as part of the Catholic sexually- minoritized community?
Let me be forthright: If Catholic LGBTQ ministry and advocacy for sexual and gender inclusion is going to be credible and effective, it must become more consciously intersectional in its thinking, identity and practices.
Sexual justice can no longer be a standalone issue. Single issue groups and struggles will not be effective or compel people’s attention or support. To paraphrase the Black lesbian author Audre Lorde, many of us do not have the luxury of single-issue struggles because we do not live single-issue lives.
And moreover, let me give you a hint. The young, queer people that I teach at Fordham University, when they go to the websites of our organizations, they want to know, “Where is commitment to racial justice?” If it’s not there, we are not credible. And they will even say that we’re not Catholic. To put it again bluntly, the radical inclusion of gender- and sexually-stigmatized Catholics is impossible without a commitment to racial justice, because the opponents of sexual inclusion and racial justice are so often one and the same.
But there’s a third reason: the Catholic faith community is changing. Our Catholic community is browning. The future of the national and global LGBTQ movement is brown. See this chart done by our wonderful folks at the Center for Applied Research and the Apostolate (CARA). The blue bar represents the proportion of the Catholic community in that age cohort that is white or Caucasian. The older the group is, the whiter it is. The younger the group, Catholics born after 1982, are only 39 percent white or Caucasian.
As the church gets younger, its face gets browner. Therefore, if the Catholic church and the Catholic LGBTQ community are unwilling or unable to hear the voices, the moans and the groans of Catholics of color, if we’re unwilling to be a proactive ally in the struggle against white nationalism, then we do not merit the title Catholic and universal.
Did you know there’s a major Eucharistic Congress being planned right now? You talk about coming together and talking about that we don’t need to have Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Now, I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in case anyone from Church Militant is listening. But the blunt question facing us is not whether we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but whether we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Black and brown bodies.
That’s the question for the Catholic Church. You guys anticipate my next line. The next line is this: I believe that many, indeed most of you, agree with me in principle by your applause. But let’s be honest, the overwhelming complexion of most Catholic LGBTQ organizations and communities is rather pigmentationally challenged.