Shame and the misuse of faith cast a long shadow for LGBTQ Catholics

Views Christopher Vella / December 16, 2022 Print this:
Christopher Vella (left) and his husband Tyrone Grima, a theatre practitioner and the founder of the LGBTQ group Drachma, on their wedding day in Santa Luċija, Malta on April 8, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Vella)

Back in May, while reading the Times of Malta, I was saddened by an article written by a former politician. While I respect his right to free speech, and I can understand the case he makes for so-called “traditional families” based on holy matrimony between a man and a woman, I felt sad that, in the reasoning of certain persons, there is something “wrong,” “villainous” or “contemptuous” in same-sex relationships and rainbow families.

Reading such articles and other blogs on the net, one gets the impression that we represent all that is wrong, harmful and unhealthy in society. For me, reading through such discourse reminds me of the thick layers of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in our society and faith communities.

Such discourse helps to enflame the internalized homophobia that so many of us LGBTQ persons still battle, and continue to battle, despite our coming out and our activism. The shadows of shame and the misuse of faith continue to hurt us, even decades after we thought we had let go of all that.

I come from a very religious background. I was a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine (M.U.S.E.U.M.), a lay Catholic religious institute in Malta, until I was 33 years old, and I was involved in church circles for as long as I can remember. Faith is deeply embedded in me, and my loving relationships with Christ and the church remain core pillars of who I am. I am proud of that lineage. I am grateful for this gift of faith.

Yet, from very early on, I had to battle with my own internalized homophobia, engendered by my religious upbringing and doctrinal formation. Like many Catholics, I am very familiar with the use of the terms “objective disorder” or “intrinsic disorder” for the people with so-called “homosexual inclinations” and “same-sex attraction.”

I read and heard many homilies quoting (or misquoting) the Bible out of context, and I know how the church has generally made a very selective use of hermeneutics especially when it came to discussing, the “homosexual question.”

Enmeshed in this brand of Catholic theology, I found it difficult to fault what appeared to be a picture-perfect view of life. In this vision, everything seemed to make sense: heterosexual marriage, openness to life, biological complementarity, chastity, friendship and the responsible expression of sex and love. Except that LGBTQ people were practically invisible.

Even more traumatic to me was the constant references to same-sex intimacy as an “intrinsic evil.” These words still feel horrific, no matter how much I move away from them.

We were mentioned only in a bad light, cast as biological freaks suffering from some sexual disorder or as the standard bearers of a gay lobby, espousing the insipid and dangerous “gender ideology,” threatening the very basis of the family and of civilization. 

The only “good” homosexual was one whose sexuality was castrated, one who had been “converted” from the evils of gay sex. The good homosexual was one who lived immaculately as celibate for God, or unhappily married to a person of the opposite sex, based on lies and deceptions.

This was the skewed worldview I was exposed to for most of three decades. I wouldn’t blame specifically the religious institute I belonged to or any of the church circles I attended. It was present everywhere, all-encompassing. It was like the air we breathed. And no one else, apparently, had any other alternate view—except for a small bunch of misfits.

Even more traumatic to me was the constant references to same-sex intimacy as an “intrinsic evil.” These words still feel horrific, no matter how much I move away from them. Each time I heard them, I felt a shudder down my spine. Any sexual intimacy with persons of the same sex was not merely bad, but pure evil. Wouldn’t that be enough to make you feel beyond redemption?

It is no wonder, then, that I was completely shaped by this homophobia, which I internalized. I felt shame for the homosexual “dirt” within. I felt sodden for harboring a “same-sex attraction.” I felt like a monster. Sex was dirty and unnatural, and only a celibate life that sanitized all traces of sex made sense for me at the time. 

But I was living hell. And I suffered. Whenever I heard or read any of the gay-bashing discourse, all of that was magnified a trillion times in my head and soul. With each hateful word, more nails were being hammered into my lived-in coffin. Each time, I felt as if I were walking down another of the concentric circles in Dante’s Inferno.

When I did emerge, it was nothing short of a divine intervention. I experienced St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises with all their rigor, asking God to show me the way to myself and to Him. The answer came, quite suddenly, and unexpectedly, ten years ago on April 24, 2012.

That day, I literally heard a strong calming voice within me, calling me out of myself and calling out of my religious institute. Little did I know that it would lead me to Drachma, an LGBTQ group in Malta, to my husband Tyrone and to a long journey of faith renewal.

Slowly and painfully, I deconstructed all the caricatures of God and faith, reading the Bible with a new eye, continuing my spiritual discernment with very able spiritual guides and understanding that there is a theological conversation beyond the strict confines of doctrinal orthodoxy. While the truth remains infallible, I started realizing that, as St. Paul states, we are all looking at Him through a dark mirror (1 Cor. 13:12).

The journey of life helps to untangle some of the mysteries of faith, but as we continue to walk towards a more wholesome vision, we only uncover glimpses of the beatific vision in its holiness. Yet, the key remains the same: Jesus, the same one who loved me and who loves me still, in all that I am. And in my innermost being, I am an LGBTQ person. That is who I am, and that is the person that God loves in a wholesome manner, with my sexuality, my intimacy and my love for Tyrone, who is my own sacramental key to God’s heart.

In this journey, I am thankful for the gift of my husband whom God gave me. He is my companion, my best friend and the person with whom I continue to live this life of communion that God has made possible.

I am grateful to my spiritual directors, to my siblings in Drachma LGBTI and Drachma Parents and to the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics for the journey of faith all over the globe. Meeting them has made me realize the richness of faith, love and authenticity that I had the privilege to experience first-hand through my encounters with LGBTQ people of faith.

I felt shame for the homosexual “dirt” within. I felt sodden for harboring a “same-sex attraction.” I felt like a monster.

I am also grateful to members of the Maltese church, especially Cardinal Mario Grech, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi and Bishop Anton Teuma, for taking part in dialogue with the LGBTQ faith community and engaging with me personally and respectfully. I also appreciate the impact of the pope’s discourse in recent years, which has helped to show more clearly the loving face of God.

We all have a place at God’s table. We are all loved. No one should be excluded. We are church! But we still have a long walk together, and I say together because it is not just the clergy who walk with us. We also walk with the rest of the people of God in uncovering His face, which is love.   

Yet, as I write these words, I must also admit to another darker, more difficult truth about our earthly journey. Every time the church regurgitates the solemn denials of our reality, and it expresses negative statements about our “un-naturalness” with venom and almost fanatical conviction, it awakens the shadows of internalized homophobia.

Though weakened by years of care and love, not least by my own devoted and loving husband, this internalized homophobia remains deeply embedded, as do the other deep circles of shame, fear and years of diminished self-love.

It is like a silent back-seat nightmare that flares up occasionally, making you doubt God’s love for you and your own self-worth. It starts undermining your own convictions because you ask yourself: Could I be wrong? Am I really doing what God wants? If it weren’t for this journey of 10 years, the constant support of my husband and the faith I see in Drachma, it would have been more difficult to stay steadfast on this journey of faith.

I look back and I recognise this long journey. It is mine, and it has been full of suffering and painstaking trust in Him, who leads me on. Still, it is not easy, and at times it feels like something within is being torn apart.

It is difficult even to write these words, and to “come out,” declaring the internalized homophobia that remains within me. Part of me has always felt a bit ashamed that I still harbor this consuming circle of hate. How can I possibly remain anchored in this internalized homophobia when I am so much in the vanguard of activism, accompanying others on their journeys?

But, as Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer reminds us, only by admitting to our woundedness can we be truly authentic and help others. Life is not linear, and often we return to places we left behind, only to emerge stronger and more wholesome.

I write this so that many who continue to struggle with their sexuality, with intimacy and with God may find the courage and hope to believe, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3: 17). So “let not your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Rather, “arise, let us go from here” (1 Jn. 14: 1, 31). 

Christopher Vella

Christopher Vella is the co-chair of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics. The coordinator of the Drachma LGBTI group in Malta, he is also the assistant general secretary to the Malta Union of Teachers.

All articles by Christopher Vella

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6 Comments
  1. This is quite a wonderful article! I felt pierced by the pain you have suffered…and still do at times…and wish our church would recognize the truth of your love for your husband. I am the mom of a trans son (not Catholic) so always pray for inclusivity.

  2. I’m a cradle Catholic, who served as an altar boy when the Church practiced Traditional Latin Mass. At age 60, our adult kid came out as transgender.

    I had to choose between accepting the teachings of some cruel bishops, and misguided statements from the Vatican, or accepting my kid, as she was.

    I chose my kid. It was the best decision I ever made.

    Mary, our Mother, pray for us.

  3. Dear Christopher, please remember that you are a beloved child of God, knit with precision in your mother’s womb and being watched as you were formed in the darkness. God’s creations are perfect, as are you. Don’t forget that you were created in His image and likeness. The cross you carry is a heavy one, and by this, I don’t mean homosexuality, but the prejudice that still exists and erodes at your dignity. God bless you 🙏

  4. Christopher- thank you so much for this deep, candid sharing that resonated very profoundly. It is very comforting to know that we are not alone in these struggles.

  5. Atta boy! That’s the way to beat the horror of prejudice and ignorance. Glad to hear you did not succumb to the negative and discriminatory forces within our own Church. All the best to you and your husband.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. The reality of shame and stigma remain for many people, and I think it is so important to raise awareness, both to create pastoral accompaniment for persons who suffer from this situation and also to make people aware of the pain that comments can cause. Thanks