PARIS - To look at them, you would never know the agony these young men, relaxed and self-assured, have endured.
Drinking wine and eating blinis in their comfortable Parisian apartment, Nicolas (not his real name), Bertrand, Fabrice and Damien all tell a similar story. Raised in practicing Catholic families, and believers themselves, they have taken years to come to terms with being gay and Catholic. Some of them have gone through organizations that work to improve the lives of gay people within the Church; however, they are still struggling, with some of their family members treating them as if they were diseased.
At a time when the Catholic Church is leading a revolt against the French government's initiative, which would allow homosexuals to have equal marriage and adoption rights, concerned Catholics are hoping that the Church will take the opportunity to revise its approach to homosexuality. The official position is that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered." In cases where the Church says it “welcomes” homosexuals, it asks them to practice abstinence.
"From the ages of 18 to 20, I started to understand that I had a problem with girls. I even thought of becoming a priest," smiles Nicolas, aged 32. But then he met Bruno. At the same time as he was discovering love, which he still shares with Bruno 12 years later, he discovered homosexuality: a reality that, at the time, "didn't even exist" for him. "When I was growing up, being gay meant AIDS, and after that it was the PACS," a form of civil union in France that was adopted in 1999, and which his parents initially campaigned against. His mother now works to help the gay community integrate in the parish.
To combat this supposed "incompatibility" of being gay and Catholic, inferred from religious teachings, Bertrand took a radical approach and "tried to stop believing in God."
"I really felt that there was a problem between my homosexuality and my faith. I kept going to Mass but I wouldn't receive Communion. It was really emotional." He has been in a relationship and civil union for years now. "People are fine with it-- the problem only arises with the Church," he says.
Recently, Fabrice has also stopped going to Sunday Mass because the priest was making "sarcastic and mocking remarks about gay people." However, in some cases, religious figures have started to take a more open approach to gay members of the Church. "The Church has felt obliged to stand up and say that it accepts gay people because of the debate happening at the moment," says Fabrice. "But there's still a long way to go."
The Bishops' Conference of France has published a long text, arguing against "marriage for all," yet it still talks about the need to move away from homophobia.
"When the people in the Church get to know us, including the priests, they generally come to accept us," says Bertrand. However, it is a completely different matter as soon as gay couples ask to take a more active role in Church events, as Nicolas and Bruno know only too well. "Like any other couple, we feel the need to talk about our relationship and the prospect of our having children," Nicolas tells us. "We asked to join a young couples group in our parish. The deacon who ran it was completely shocked and told us that we couldn't join. It's still hard to deal with, even if we are used to hearing bad things said about us in the Church.
"Since then, we've set up a discussion group for gay couples. The Church has forced us into a ghetto," he says. "They're really alienating the gay community, even though we provide some diversity for the Church."
"Accepting the Church.."
Aged 50, Jean (not his real name) has a different story, even if he does have the same reservations about the Church. He has been in a relationship for over 20 years but now wants to focus on his spirituality. Only five years ago, he turned to "Jesus and Evangelical texts," as they make no reference to homosexuality, in comparison to the violent condemnation contained in the Old Testament.
He says that one has to "accept the Church for what it is; its practices are above its beliefs." However, he is still wary of coming out in his parish. "I'm a bit scared of the reaction."
Aurélie (not her real name) also practices discretion in her parish regarding her sexuality and her long-term partner. The 58-year-old nurse went through a difficult experience and now volunteers for a local organization that helps gay members of the Church. "Nothing has ever disturbed my faith. I was angry with the Church, not with God. But I had to part with my false beliefs about suffering, holiness and sexuality," she says. She got married when she was 37 "by mistake," and has been in a relationship with a woman for 12 years. "People still make horrible remarks about us, saying that we're sick and abnormal," she says.
Annick, a 66-year-old retired farmer, was confronted with homosexuality when her daughter came out in 1997. "There are some Christians who say gay love isn't real love," she says. In order to accept this "revelation" calmly, she and her husband turned to a non-denominational association. "The Church wasn't very helpful," she explains. Until not long ago, Annick thought that homosexuality was "linked to upbringing," whereas her husband thought it was "a perversion."
Their daughter has distanced herself from religion, while her parents fight to "change the Church's position on these people." As, like Fabrice says, it is an "urgent" cause.
"The Church must change, if only to stop so many gay Catholics committing suicide," he says.
Aurélie adds: "The Church thinks it's there to improve humanity...Well, it's not doing a very good job."