Every day on my walk to class, I stroll past the stunning Duke Chapel that towers above me. Sometimes I stop to stretch my head up and take in the glorious architecture. I see this iconic structure every day, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve stepped in. The chapel is the epicenter of this school, yet religion is the most distant thing I experience on this campus. The stained-glass windows give me aesthetic delight and a warmth of nostalgia, but the reminder of religious institutions brings back dormant memories that leave a sinking feeling in my stomach.
A week ago, the United Methodist Conference voted to tighten bans on same-sex marriage and LGBT ordinations, a decision that caused great pain for LGBT members of the religious community and prompted sympathetic responses from Duke Divinity School officials. LGBT members of congregations felt alienated by this decision and are faced with a painful situation. As a gay man from a Catholic family, I have innate empathy for the people affected by this decision, especially the LGBT students in the Duke Divinity School. This turmoil reminded me of my own internal conflicts with religion and sexuality, as well as my tendency to avoid such issues while being a Duke student. It leaves me wondering for the people affected by this decision, if it is possible to reconcile the prejudice of an institution with an individual’s own desire to pursue their faith.
I went to church every single Sunday while growing up. I had complaints with the Catholic church as an institution, but I believed in the fundamental truths we learned. I thought my purpose in life was to find a career that helped other people, marry a beautiful wife, and then start a family. This calling felt so strong and immutable that I ignored the writings on the wall whispering to me that I wasn’t straight. When I finally accepted that I was gay (after six years of adamant denial and self-hatred), my cookie cutter future dissipated. The dream I had been grasping on fell through my fingertips and scattered like ashes in the wind. My family accepted me with open arms, but the church blessed me with a cold shoulder.
I was told by my religious family and friends that being gay was acceptable in the eyes of God, even if the church historically antagonized homosexuals. Although their ideas varied, I generally heard the generic “love the sinner, not the sin” argument when it came to LGBT people. In the Catholic church specifically, I was taught that all sex without intention to procreate is a sin. Thus, through semantics, the Catholic church was able to not outwardly villainize homosexuals but still label their actions as sinful. Many Christian denominations share a similar doctrine in regards to LGBT individuals, one that is tolerant of their identity but intolerant of them acting upon their identity.
When we are faced with a community or institution that has a different belief, we have multiple options. We can speak out and try to change the overall beliefs, we can accept their rules and silently suffer, or we can distance ourselves from the community. For me, the Catholic church was years from accepting me to the same extent that I have learned to accept myself. I did not enjoy the thought of being expected to stay single my entire life, and I found the patriarchal system to be irreparably biased against women. Thus, I did not see the Catholic religion as being compatible with me being gay. There are Catholic youth who share my opinions on the institution but are committed to reforming it, and see a different, harmonious future. Likewise, there are LGBT ministers and future ministers who are paving the way in their own denominations, especially here at Duke Divinity School. Roadblocks such as the recent UMC decision question if reform is even possible in immobile institutions. How does one continue their existence in a community that denies the fullness of their identity?
I was never as attached to the Catholic church as I was to my feelings of spirituality. I enjoy reflection, acts of love, and contemplation of life and our place in this universe. When I stepped into my refreshed life as a gay man, I stopped seeing beauty in the religion that I knew before my memory. The condemnations of homosexuality by the priest at the altar cut deeper, and my aversion to my previous place of peace arose. I always go to mass with my family, since I love them more than myself, and when I walk through the doors my heart beats with nervousness as I feel the judgment of the congregation and God on my shoulders. It’s the same feeling I get when I stare at our great chapel, an inescapable feeling of shame and isolation.
I have met several Divinity School students in my time here, and these lovely individuals give me hope for future generations of LGBT youth who grow up in religious communities. I’ve had deep conversations with future ministers and preachers who are LGBT identifying or outspoken allies, types of people I never expected to exist. They have the bravery to embrace their full identities and beliefs in the face of institutions that try to shut them out. For them, their identity and religion are not only compatible, but intertwined. I can’t help but to imagine what would have been different if I had a LGBT religious leader or role model when I was younger. Maybe I would’ve been inspired to reform the institutions that shaped my personal life. Maybe I would’ve come out earlier. Maybe I would still feel welcome stepping into my home church. Maybe one sunny day, while strolling past the chapel on my way to class, I would pause to look up at the magnificent tower, and I would smile. Maybe I would go in.
Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.