My journey as a celibate gay Catholic

Views J. Frank Pate / February 19, 2023 Print this:

I was a cradle Catholic, but despite eight years of parochial school in the 1970s and ’80s, my religious formation was weak. Around the time that I attended public high school, I stopped going to Mass. I don’t remember hearing anything about homosexuality from the church. I knew that I was gay, but it wasn’t culturally safe to be out.

In my senior year of high school, some friends invited me to their Baptist church. I was captivated by the music, which was unlike anything I had heard as a Catholic. (I eventually earned two degrees in sacred music.) That same year, I encountered the love of Christ through the simple message of the Rev. Billy Graham at one of his “crusades.” I joined that congregation and remained Baptist for 15 years.

I studied Scripture and therefore I knew the passages about homosexuality. I remember hearing two messages as an evangelical, not explicitly, but saturated in the culture: First, real Christians can’t be Catholic, and second, they can’t be gay. It took me 20 years to realize the former was wrong, and 30 years for the latter. 

I shared my “struggle with homosexuality” tentatively with Christian friends, which often resulted in rejection. Later, I found some refuge in ex-gay ministries, like the now-defunct Exodus International. I didn’t know any other way to integrate my faith and my sexuality, so I found some life-giving relationships there.

As a cradle Catholic, however, I always missed the Eucharistic liturgy. I would sneak away to Mass even while attending a Baptist seminary. Seeking to combine my evangelical and Catholic selves, I joined the Episcopal Church in 2001 and remained for five years. 

I came to believe that being Catholic meant being ex-gay, just as it had during my Baptist and Anglican years. 

It was an awkward time to be an Episcopalian. A non-celibate gay man was ordained bishop in 2003, and the debate over same-sex marriage raged. I was open about my orientation at the time and became a poster child for the traditionalist cause. I suffered through two parish splits, with the breakaway congregations eventually becoming part of the Anglican Church in North America.

The turmoil caused me to ask how I could best encounter the church, the priesthood and the Eucharist. After much reading, prayer and debate, both internal and external, I realized I sought what I had walked away from 20 years earlier. I had to leave it to find it. 

So, at the age of 36, I made a confession to my former pastor and came home to the Catholic Church.

Catholicism and conversion therapy

Unfortunately, I didn’t know that my parish and diocese were saturated in ex-gay ideology, as a prominent Catholic conversion therapist lived in my hometown. I was also a leader in the Courage apostolate

Courage is by no means uniform, but in those days, the community I was part of promoted various forms of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE). These efforts included reparative therapy and weekend retreats involving “healing” from same-sex attraction (SSA). 

For some people, Courage has been helpful. I sense that a sea change of sorts has occurred, given that the current director, the Rev. Philip Bochanski, spoke during the Outreach conference last summer in New York.

I came to believe that being Catholic meant being ex-gay, just as it had during my Baptist and Anglican years. My therapist would later deny that he practiced conversion therapy, yet during each session he sought to heal a memory that supposedly contributed to my SSA. 

He would guide me through dating a woman in my parish for a year, then two years of discerning priesthood, proclaiming that I had a calling to both vocations with equal fervor. I felt forced into a narrative that wasn’t my own, but being a people pleaser, I tried to make it fit.

After a decade, I was burned out and despondent. The dialogue in the SSA community was filled with contempt for both non-religious and religious LGBTQ people. In fact, by insisting on using labels like “ex-gay” and “SSA,” they were able to separate themselves from LGBTQ people. 

They could also ignore any injustices to LGBTQ people because they didn’t consider themselves as part of this group. Conveniently, they considered it a sin even to identify as gay, even though they could not justify this stance by any appeal to Scripture or church teaching.

Two transformative books

In 2017, God brought about another conversion in me, working (as He typically does) through books. In the same month, Daniel Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay and Jesuit Father James Martin’s Building a Bridge both appeared. 

Identifying as a celibate gay Catholic is not just a preference for me, but an imperative and a calling. 

The ex-gay community, both Catholic and non-Catholic, universally cheered Dan’s book and condemned Father Martin’s work. Astonishingly, many of those condemning Building a Bridge admitted they had not read it and never would. I even lost my closest friend in the community when I declined to endorse his own testimonial book, which criticized Father Martin’s views as “heretical.” (He also had not read it.)

I finally read Building a Bridge for myself and loved it. While endless words have been spoken about the “intrinsically disordered” (CCC 2357) language in the catechism, and some people, like Dan Mattson, have shared their story of chastity (CCC 2359), no one had explored what it meant for LGBTQ persons to be accepted with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity (CCC 2359). That is, until Father Martin did. 

He not only called the church to demonstrate those virtues to the LGBTQ community, but also flipped the question to explore what it would look like for LGBTQ persons to show those same values to the church, especially to the hierarchy.

Sadly, no one I attempted to dialogue with in the ex-gay community could identify just what was “heretical” about Father Martin’s book, or even answer the question haunting meWhy can’t both of those books be true?

I had often shared my witness of living as a Catholic with “unwanted SSA” to groups of high school and university students. But when I was invited to give a similar talk in early 2019, things were different.  

As always, I asked the ministry leaders what kinds of questions the students were asking. Without hesitation, they said things like: “Is there such a thing as a gay Catholic? Does the church welcome LGBTQ people?” At a packed Sunday Mass at a university parish, I teased my talk with those questions.

The following Wednesday night, I answered both questions in the affirmative. “Yes, there is such a thing as a gay Catholic because I am one.  And yes, the church welcomes LGBTQ people because it welcomes me.” I shared my epiphany that I can stay on my journey of celibacy while holding wide the church doors to all people. 

I talked about a close friend in Courage who said to me, “It depends on what you mean by welcome,” to which I replied, “There’s only one definition of the word.” I discussed the way in which the term “same-sex attraction” had become a shibboleth (Judg. 12)—a seemingly magical religious password used to exclude undesirables. 

Without dissenting from church teaching, I challenged the way that the church treated gay sexual sin more harshly than it treated straight sexual sin, if the latter is discussed at all.

In our concluding Q&A, a student asked me, “Why would God allow someone to be born gay, knowing they were condemned to a life of celibacy?” Yes, she used the word “condemned.” I was prepared for this question to a degree, given that I was sharing the platform with several people in consecrated celibacy. Only after the program did it occur to me that this was a 21st-century version of the questions asked about Jesus’ healing of the “man born blind” (Jn. 9)

The parallels are not exact, and the analogy could be misconstrued to support the claims of those believing in SOCE, which is not my intent. But consider that, as written in the Gospels, the Pharisees assumed there was sin involved (9:1-3). This particular group of Pharisees was seemingly more concerned with externals (keeping the Sabbath) than with the man’s healing (9:13-16).  

Here, we must be careful not to stereotype the Pharisees; this is the way that this particular group is presented in John’s Gospel. The man’s parents disowned him (at least spiritually) for fear of condemnation by some religious leaders (9:18-23). The Pharisees in the Gospel story refused to listen to him and believed he had nothing to teach them (9:24-34). Yet, Jesus sought intimacy with the man rather than with the Pharisees (9:35-38).

Encountering Sides A, B and X

Later in 2019, I experienced the Revoice conference, an outgrowth of the online Side B Community. The joy of worshipping and becoming family with hundreds of celibate gay Christians, who had never tried to become straight, was indescribable. I learned about the bridges built between Side A (Christians who affirm gay marriage) and Side B (those who hold to a traditional sexual ethic without believing in SOCE). 

I don’t demand that anyone’s story look like mine before they come to the church. To do so would make me like those who opposed the man born blind.  

While some in the community still prefer to identify as “same-sex attracted,” most are openly gay or bisexual, including those in heterosexual marriages, known in this community as mixed-orientation marriages (MOMs). I met many people whose experiences fell outside the Courage paradigm, including asexual and aromantic persons, and people with different gender identities. Some have formed communal living arrangements or covenant partnerships with other celibates.

At first, I hoped to maintain ties with both the Side B and SOCE (or “Side X”) communities, but I found that impossible. Even the openness to LGBTQ terminology was offensive to them, and I could not tolerate the hatred toward the LGBTQ community (whether non-religious, Side A, or Side B) that I believe is rooted in self-hatred. 

The social networks became too toxic, and even those who said “We’ll always be friends even if we disagree” didn’t back up their words with actions.

Finding joy as a queer elder

In early 2021, I discovered the “Catholic Side B” in a community known as Eden Invitation, which is now in its sixth year. Their emphasis on building intentional community, deepening spiritual formation, equipping laity (especially women) and reaching young adults (with an average age in the 20s) brings joy to this queer elder. 

I love the space the community holds for those who experience gender discordance, an inspired term which I think takes the transgender and non-binary experience away from psychological language.

Identifying as a celibate gay Catholic is not just a preference for me, but an imperative and a calling. We have long since passed the time when “gay” denoted any type of “lifestyle,” a frivolous word, or described anything other than an attraction or orientation. 

While I respect the freedom of all people to identify as they wish, an insistence on using “SSA” or a refusal to acknowledge the common meaning of “gay” is simply an attempt to “other” and exclude. It also contributes to denial in the many opposite-sex relationships where one partner (or both) experience desires that are not completely heterosexual.

Those who have chosen a traditional sexual ethic, expressed either in celibacy or through a mixed-orientation marriage, are often the quickest to condemn and exclude non-celibate LGBTQ persons from encountering Christ in the church.

Instead, I am able to pray with and build relationships with Side A Christians, and be richer for it. To the unbelieving LGBTQ person, I ask forgiveness for the church’s persecution of them, and tell them I have found the pearl of great price in its tabernacles. I don’t demand that anyone’s story look like mine before they come to the church. To do so would make me like those who opposed the man born blind.  

Yes, there is such a thing as a gay Catholic—you and me. Yes, the church welcomes LGBTQ people—you and me.

Note: An earlier version of this article included a quote from someone who, upon reflection, preferred that it wasn’t shared publicly.

J. Frank Pate

J. Frank Pate, O.F.S., works in public health administration. He serves as a pastoral musician and minister of his chapter of the Secular Franciscan Order. He holds a master's degree in music from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex.

All articles by J. Frank Pate

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  1. TY, Brother Frank. I love your point. All the Synoptic Gospels mostly describe Jesus interacting with and calling individuals of all persuasions regardless of life state. The only times he is noted as categorizing broadly is in reference to hypocritical or narrow-viewed groups. Thus, all individuals are invited and welcomed, but those with closed views might as well self-confine to their theological silos.

  2. This is brilliant Frank, and so clearly stated and supported.

    Well done you !!

  3. Thank you Brother Frank. What a great article! So many things that no one says but which need to be said. I did get lost in some of the abbreviations like SOCE but it was kind of fun figuring them out. I also must admit that for me the term “queer” brings back personally painful memories because in elementary school over 60 years ago I wore glasses and was bad at sports, and therefore the other kids sometimes designated me with the title of a “four-eyed queer”. For me queer just meant not being like everyone else.

    • Thank you, Gregory. We tried to keep things simple! I find “SOCE” is fairly agreeable to both proponents and opponents, while “conversion therapy” is controversial. The last thing I want is to trigger someone, so I am sorry about “queer.” Despite its history, I’m glad it’s being reclaimed, because it’s universal, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I’m a Gen Xer trying to learn from younger generations, while teaching them about their elders’ history. Sorry if that missed the mark. Blessings.

    • If you ask any young person, ‘queer’ to them is a valid, empowered identity and anyone trying to use it as an insult sounds like a dinosaur. I get that older people consider it touchy. But it has been successfully reclaimed and I for one am happy about it.