Repent or Believe in the Closet: When Pastoral Care is Anything But


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Repent or Believe in the Closet: When Pastoral Care is Anything ButA recent chance encounter with a Facebook posting alerted me to an event that immediately grabbed my attention. The title of the posting read: “LGBT: What is our Response as Catholics?” The Lifeline College and Young Adults Ministry[1] at the Jesuit-pastored St Francis Xavier Church, Petaling Jaya in the Malaysian state of Selangor had organised a talk on the evening of Friday, October 26, 2013. They had invited a guest speaker who was a diocesan priest from a parish in a neighbouring state. I had never before encountered such boldness in a public advertisement of a forum on LGBTIQ[2] issues by any Malaysian Christian church. What proved to be even more exciting for me was that this forum asked the question “what is our response as Catholics?” I was looking forward to a forum for open discussion on what is largely a taboo subject in Malaysia, on Pope Francis’ recent comments on LGBTIQ people, on hearing our side of the story, on greater possibilities of theological and pastoral innovations. When my friends and I arrived, we found that we were part of more than a hundred people in attendance, some of whom may have identified as LGBTIQ. I was totally caught off guard by the homonegative and transnegative nature of the talk which went on for more than an hour. In what follows, I provide brief accounts of some of the exchanges that occurred between the speaker and me, and theological reflections that have emerged in hindsight. These exchanges occurred when the bulk of his presentation was over. While the theme and title of the talk suggested explorations for Catholics in negotiating LGBTIQ issues, it soon became evident that the talk was targeted at reparative therapy and the silencing of LGBTIQ Christians, particularly gay men.

A young lady introduced the evening’s talk as part of the “Lifetalk: Culture of Death series, including homosexuality.” My discomfort with her opening lines, which I publically expressed later that evening, was that it set the tone for a bias against LGBTIQ persons right at the outset of the talk. Upon further personal reflection, I realise that such a stand truly diminishes the possibility of any real dialogue as boundaries and regulations have already been cemented in place. All of us were “filled with the Holy Spirit,” but not all of us “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave [us] ability” (Acts 2: 4). I saw this stand as a muzzling of the divine, a preclusion of an openness to what the Spirit of God could have said that evening.

The speaker began his talk by showing a YouTube video clip of Zaza from La Cage Aux Folles singing “I Am What I Am.”[3] In addressing the speaker, I said that showing this video clip of a crossdresser-performing artiste on stage at the beginning of the talk reinforced a stereotype that all gay men are effeminate cross dressers, and it conflated gay men with transwomen. The speaker also read out a portion of the song lyrics. He concluded that “I am what I am; I am my own special creation” was an indication that LGBTIQ persons become their own creation, rather than God’s creation, when they engage in homosexual expressions. I was surprised by his uncritical conflation of crossdressing, trans* persons and gay men. I was disturbed by a dichotomous, disembodied theology of sexuality that the speaker was advocating. I do not see Zaza’s proclamation of “I am what I am; I am my own special creation” as an attempt to usurp the creative power of God. Instead, I see it as an analogy for how all sexual persons are co-creators with God, collaborating with God through the agency of their own embodiedness to develop their own createdness by being truthful to who they are becoming, and who claim “the right to live fully as embodied, whole human beings.”[4]

Towards the end of the talk, the speaker claimed that he had counselled several gay people out of their ‘gay lifestyle’ because he did not want them to be penalised by the Malaysian Penal Code which criminalises oral and anal sexual activity.[5] I thought it was ironic that he completely disregarded the feelings, companionship, commitment and love which LGBT Christians were capable of gifting each other, and chose instead to focus on the criminality of same-sex genital activity in the Penal Code. The speaker also read out paragraphs 2357-2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church[6] to reinforce the notion that LGBT Christians were called to chastity. When I objected by saying that not all LGBTIQ Christians are called to celibacy, and declared that I come from a perspective that celebrates alternative sexualities as gifts from God, he retorted that he could not ask his flock to celebrate because of the Penal Code. He felt that his role in counselling LGBTIQ Christians out of a ‘gay lifestyle’ was a form of pastoral care. Yet I question if this is really pastoral care. As I see it, the speaker’s solution to the “problem” as he called it was to ask LGBTIQ Christians to deny who they are, rather than educating the Malaysian populace on prejudice and discrimination surrounding LGBTIQ persons. For me, this perspective is anti-God, as it dismisses the workings of God in LGBTIQ persons, and remains passive as LGBTIQ Christians continue to face misunderstandings and suspicions in religious and theological circles.

Although I realise that was a strong refusal on the part of the speaker to consider the alternative that LGBTIQ persons are purposefully created by God, I am more troubled by my intuition that the speaker was actually canvassing for LGBTIQ Christians to remain in or return to the closet, both personally and publically. There were no pastoral and theological strategies for LGTQ Christians to discern ways of living lives of liberation, celebration and flourishment in a country that disapproved of them. There was no mention of the latest statements by Pope Francis on LGBTIQ persons and how his wisdom could form platforms for understanding LGBT Christians. There was no effort on the part of the speaker to bring gender variance and diverse sexualities in constructive conversation with the notion of the creativeness of a loving God, where “diverse sexual expression is affirmed as reflecting the Triune God.”[7] What took place instead were a call for self-erasure and a foreclosure of the possibilities of divine activity in the lives of LGBTIQ Christians. For me, this may well have constituted the gravest injustice towards the faith and lives of Malaysian LGBTIQ Christians that evening.

 

© Joseph N. Goh | josephgoh [at] josephgoh [dot] org

 

[1] http://www.sfx.com.my/index.php/parish-life/sectoral/73-parish-community-life/parish-life/sectoral/179-lifeline-college-young-adults-ministry (accessed November 11, 2013).

[2] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex and queer or questioning.

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbEBvU_0Sw (accessed November 11, 2013).

[4] Justin Edward Tanis, Trans-Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 173.

[5] See Malaysian Penal Code, 1997, sec. 377A–C, www.agc.gov.my/Akta/Vol.%2012/Act%20574.pdf (accessed November 11, 2013).

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm# (accessed November 11, 2013).

[7] Lai-shan Yip, “Listening to the Passion of Catholic Nu-Tongzhi: Developing a Catholic Lesbian Feminist Theology in Hong Kong,” in Queer Religion, ed. Donald L. Boisvert and Jay Emerson Johnson, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012), 76.

 

 


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