Editor’s note: Outreach is publishing this essay anonymously to protect the author’s identity, at his request. The author is a former seminarian who currently works at a Catholic high school.
It’s not often a gay TV drama is so spot on that you say, “Wow, it’s like someone was writing this with me in mind!” But for a closeted gay Catholic man like me, Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers” is just this.
An eight-part miniseries spanning several decades, the drama follows the government bureaucrat Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Matt Bomer), and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), a bright-eyed employee in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s office, as they navigate the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Hawk is a put-together professional from a wealthy family, while Tim is young and naive. Both men are gay, but are forced to remain closeted to keep their jobs.
There’s an immediate attraction between the two men after meeting in a bar during a campaign event. And what follows is nothing short of tragic and heart-wrenching. Throughout the series, we watch their on-again, off-again love story unfold. Hawk, consistently concerned with being “found out,” is secular in his beliefs and cold in his views about life. He is willing to do whatever it takes to climb the government ladder to fame and fortune. But all the while, he harbors a deep yearning to be free, to live a life without the need to hide.
Tim, a devout Catholic who attends daily Mass, has succeeded in separating the reality of his sexuality from actively “living it out.” This formula, which is very relatable to me, has worked well for Tim. Yet, as he falls more deeply in love with Hawk, Tim is forced to confront the intersections of his Catholic faith and his sexuality.
One of the show’s most meaningful scenes, for me, comes towards the end of the first episode. In an empty Catholic church, drenched in sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, we find Tim praying the rosary. A priest notices the visibly troubled Tim and offers to hear his confession.
“I can’t make confession today,” explains Tim. “Why not?” asks the priest. Tim says that in order to make a valid confession, he needs to have perfect contrition. (The Catechism notes that imperfect contrition, also called “attrition,” still allows a penitent forgiveness at confession, but it does not allow the forgiveness of “grave sins.”)
“I’ve had carnal relations,” Tim says. “That’s a serious sin. Are you in love with a young woman?” the priest asks.
Tim pauses. “It’s not women,” he says shakily.
“Even for the gravest of sins,” the priest replies, “if you’re sincerely sorry, God will forgive you and make you pure.”
“That’s the problem,” Tim remarks with tears welling up in his eyes. “When I committed this sin, I felt pure. More pure than I’ve felt in my entire life. So how can I be sorry for it?” Tim hurriedly leaves the church.
While watching this scene, I couldn’t help getting emotional myself. It was tough to watch. I knew exactly what Tim was feeling, that constant push and pull that so many gay Catholics feel. How can I be Catholic and gay? Since a very early age, the Catholic faith has been an part of me. I learned the importance of faith from my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. I went to a Catholic grammar school, a Catholic high school, a Catholic college and even a seminary. I work for that same Catholic high school now.
It was during my time in the seminary, to quote a line from an episode of Vine and Fig’s “Tabard Inn,” when “all the alarm bells started to go off.” I couldn’t avoid my sexuality any longer; I needed to confront it head on. Tim undergoes a similar struggle in “Travelers.” In a later episode, he laments to Hawk: “I seem to be always searching for something to lose myself in completely. …It’s like we say in seminary—‘beyond measure.’”
If I’ve learned anything from my own struggles, it’s that not being honest with my feelings is a recipe for disaster. To borrow a phrase from a mentor and colleague, many gay Catholics suffer “a second trauma” learning not only how to come out, but how to be Catholic and gay. “Travelers” brings these feelings to the screen, specifically through Tim’s story. I’m so thankful for a series that recognizes closeted gay Catholics exist.
During Advent, we are called to see light. For any closeted person reading this, I encourage you to see light through the story of Tim. His story is tough, but it ultimately confronts the truth that pure love cannot be denied, no matter how hard we might try.
In a later episode, Tim finds himself at confession, saying he’s committed a mortal sin through his ongoing relations with Hawk.
“Are you aware the church views this as a mortal sin?” asks the priest.
“I am,” says Tim, “but I don’t know how love can be a sin.”
“Are you willing to give this love to God as a gift?” the priest inquires.
Tim replies, “I can try.”
This Advent, let’s try to give over to God this great gift of love, no matter where and how we feel it and how confusing it might seem. In the words often attributed to Pedro Arrupe, the former Jesuit superior general: “Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”
The series finale of “Fellow Travelers” airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.