Feature

Coming Out

A gay-marriage opponent changes his mind

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Ten years ago, in July 2005, the Canadian government made same-sex marriage the law of the land. Various provincial courts had recognized marriage equality, but now it had parliamentary weight and royal assent. There was no turning back. As with all good laws, Bill C-38, or the Civil Marriage Act, largely affirmed what most people already accepted as self-evident: that the rights and obligations of matrimony apply to two men or two women as much as they do to a man and woman.

It is only a matter of time before the United States as a whole follows Canada’s example. Whereas a decade ago no viable Republican candidate could even flirt with supporting the idea, today we have Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush explaining that while they still oppose marriage equality, they nevertheless would attend a gay or lesbian wedding if someone they “cared for” were involved.

All of which is to say: a decade on and quite a bit has changed, including me.

This past February, a conservative Roman Catholic blog, Contra|Diction, gave me perhaps my best headline ever: “Michael Coren Complicit in Destruction of Souls Who Practice Homosexuality, Pt 1” (I’m still waiting for part two). It was one of countless posts, tweets, and articles that have condemned me for coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I’ve also been fired from columns that I wrote for years, been banned from various Catholic TV and radio stations, had speeches cancelled, and been accused of cheating on my wife. My children have been called gay, and I have been compared to a child molester and a murderer.

These are new experiences for me. Until last year, I was considered something of a champion of social conservatism in Canada and was well known among politically active Christians. I hosted a nightly show on Crossroads Television for twelve years, was a syndicated Sun columnist, and wrote briskly selling books with such titles as Why Catholics Are Right. Today, as a decade of same-sex marriage waves its arms at Pride parades, I am working away at a new book, Coming Out: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind over Gay Marriage. Oh, dear. How and why did it go so terribly wrong?

I grew up in an intensely secular home in England. Three of my grandparents were Jewish, but my mother’s mother—and it’s the maternal line that has to be kosher—was not. This was the 1960s and ’70s, and homosexuality always was mentioned in whispers. When people like my parents used the word queer, it was less pejorative than descriptive. The only acceptable face of it was on TV—British comics camping it up and playing effeminate stereotypes, all the while assuring us that in real life they could barely keep their pants on when attractive women walked past. They were, of course, all gay men off camera but never the caricatures they created on TV. Oh, the irony.

From a working-class home, I was propelled into university and then into London literary society, where I first encountered, at least in its inchoate stages, a proud and openly gay community. My first book, released in 1984, came about with the help of a highly respected—and gay—theatre critic, Jim Hiley, who recommended me to a publisher. There was no other way a twenty-five-year-old would have landed a contract. Then I went to work at the New Statesman, the country’s premier left-leaning magazine, when Christopher Hitchens still was on the staff. Ours was a masthead full of privately educated, clever, good-looking boys—all seduced by socialism. Gay influence was everywhere we looked, but none of us dared speak its name.

In 1985, I joined the Roman Catholic Church, which employs more gay men than any other institution in the world—despite leading the culture war against gay rights. That’s not to say the church is full of hatred and homophobia, but it has, as with some elements of the Protestant right, elevated the issue to a level that has no basis in scripture. Jesus never mentions same-sex attraction. Lesbianism is not referred to at all in the Old Testament. The letters of the Apostles mention homosexuality only briefly.

What references do exist make up a tiny, insignificant sliver of theological texts, a splash of minutiae within Christian thought. But it has become the prism through which myriad conservative Christians, particularly Catholics, judge one’s faith and conviction. It’s tragic on many levels.

As a newly minted Catholic journalist, I was thrown into the marriage debate, and I wrote and broadcast about the issue many times, defending the doctrine I had adopted as my converted creed. The issue was never a major part of my work, but, goodness, it sometimes felt like it. And I’m sure to gays and lesbians, who were understandably more interested in my views on them than on the Middle East, taxation policies, or Quebec, I probably became something of a monster. I said some bloody careless things, and at the very least empowered those who genuinely did have a hateful agenda.

But I never hated, because I couldn’t. I had too many gay friends, had been helped by too many gay people, simply did not care viscerally about the issue—which, in a way, makes my behaviour worse. It’s not that I was dishonest or disingenuous. More than anything, I was dogmatic.

Once I’d taken up the banner of anti–marriage equality, it became increasingly difficult to cast it off. I may sound weak, even pathetic and cowardly, but by 2012 I was hosting a daily show on the invincibly right-wing Sun News Network, writing columns for four Catholic publications, speaking to Catholic groups throughout North America and the United Kingdom, appearing on Catholic radio, and publishing Catholic books. A mingling of income, self-perception, and reputation made it difficult to say what I truly felt.

Finally, in 2013, Uganda’s biting homophobia brought me to my senses. Canada’s then foreign minister, John Baird, gently criticized a Kampala official about proposed legislation to further criminalize homosexuality—even to make it a capital offence. Baird, who had been a great defender of persecuted Christians, was stridently condemned by conservative Christian groups for criticizing noble Uganda and questioning its independence. I was outraged at Uganda and outraged at the treatment of Baird, and I said so on TV and in print.

And just like that, I realized how often the opposition to marriage equality was—and is—motivated not by a sense of duty to defend traditional wedlock but by a profound dislike of gays and lesbians.

I was bombarded with accusatory comments and stunned by how an innocuous, fundamentally Christian response to persecution could provoke such malice. The more I was pushed, the more I felt that I needed to speak out. In April 2014, I decided to come clean, or at least have a good wash, in my weekly Sun column. “In the past six months I have been parachuted into clouds of new realization and empathy regarding gay issues, largely and ironically because of the angry and hateful responses of some people to my defence of persecuted gay men and women in Africa and Russia,” I wrote. “This wasn’t reasonable opposition but a tainted monomania with no understanding of humanity and an obsession with sex rather than love.”

Then I went further: “I have evolved on this single subject because I can no longer hide behind comfortable banalities, have realized that love triumphs judgment, and know that the conversation between Christians and gays has to transform . . . I am sick and tired of defining the word of God by a single and not even particularly important subject.”

I was careful in my column not to contradict Catholic theology and didn’t even mention same-sex marriage. But that didn’t prevent an overwhelmingly hostile reaction from the Christian right. The response from the LGBT community, however, was quite different. I had come rather late to the secular dance (if fairly early to the Christian one) around this subject, but gay men and women from all over the world sent me kind notes and emails. I can’t imagine a Sun column was ever so widely read in gay circles, and it was impossible not to juxtapose the two reactions: anger and abuse from one group, forgiveness and gratitude from the other.

As a middle-aged, very white, very straight, very Christian man, I was obliged, first reluctantly and then eagerly, to explore the complex dynamic between faith and homosexuality and to work out a new narrative. The crux of that narrative: God is love. The love I felt when I first saw my newborn children, when I watched my mother dissolve into Alzheimer’s, when I found my late father’s diaries that spoke of his pride in our family, when I feel closest to the Christ I worship. Jesus spoke of love for everybody and called for forgiveness, justice, truth, turning the other cheek.

As my faith has deepened over the years, I have tried to broaden the circle of inclusive love rather than guard the borders of what I once thought was Christian truth. Instead of holding the door firm, I want to hold it wide open. I have realized that Christianity is a permanent revolution, a state of being in which we believers must challenge our preconceptions every moment of every day. How dare I—with all of my brokenness and sordid, banal sinfulness—criticize someone simply because he or she wants to live life fully? How the hell dare I?

The standard Christian response to homosexuality is the familiar but entirely inadequate mantra “love the sinner but hate the sin.” In other words, a gay person’s sexual and romantic attractions—much of their being and personality, and all that they want in a lasting relationship—is sinful, but they themselves are just fine. By way of analogy, the teachings go, Christians love alcoholics but not alcoholism, love those who commit adultery but not the act of adultery itself. Such logic presupposes that same-sex attraction is no more central to a person’s identity than substance abuse or unfaithfulness—which any reasonable person knows to be untrue.

More extreme Christians believe that one can pray away the gay and that gay people can be changed, which is why some continue to support so-called conversion therapy. They bristle at the suggestion that gays and lesbians are born that way: that thread of biological reasoning implies God created people who are powerfully disposed toward sinful lifestyles, which seems dubious no matter your religious tendencies.

The whole thing is like some theological rabbit hole that gets darker as you descend. It’s also dishonest. I have spoken to hundreds of Catholic groups and parishes over the years, and I would estimate that one out of every three priests is gay, and by no means are they all celibate. (Others have put the number as high as 50 percent.) The joke at the Vatican is that if the Swiss Guard find a priest in bed with a man, they are to ignore it. If with a woman, report it at once. There’s humour in that joke, but also horrifying hypocrisy.

There are Catholic priests in Canada living with their partners, and some of these men are prominent clerics. Living that lie, existing in such a state of moral dissonance, is achingly damaging. One former priest told me that he once visited a senior bishop (I am being purposely vague here) to explain that he was gay and needed to leave the priesthood. The bishop responded that it was okay to stay in the church and that the priest could have a parish outside of the city, where he could live with his lover. None of this, believe me, is shocking to those who truly know the church as insiders.

Evangelical denominations have far less of a subtly embedded gay culture (in part because they permit their male clerics to marry women), but there are infamous cases of high-profile Protestant critics of homosexuality being outed. Their hypocrisy takes another form: most evangelical churches blithely will remarry divorced people (even ministers can be divorced), despite the fact that Jesus, who doesn’t say a single word about homosexuality, is fiercely critical of dissolving a marriage. Indeed, in the Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures in which he lived—where divorce was common and easy—his stance was revolutionary. Yet his followers have ignored those Christian teachings while inventing others on sexuality.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, history is not on the side of conservatives. Academics, popular historians, and theologians alike are re-exploring the context of Biblical passages and coming to a new understanding of what scripture says about homosexuality (a term not invented until the nineteenth century).

Sodom has much for which to answer. But even the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah is more about hospitality—protecting one’s guests and neighbours, and loving God rather than oneself—than about condemning gays and lesbians. Remember, Lot offers the rape mob outside his house his virgin daughters instead of the male angels who happen to be visiting. Not exactly family values. The anti-gay interpretation is an anachronistic, tendentious one. When the Old Testament speaks of homosexuality elsewhere, it lists it alongside unacceptable combinations of cloth, eating the wrong foods, having sex with a woman when she is menstruating, and so on. If we’re to accept the modern applicability of these sins, we’re pretty much all of us irredeemable sinners. If we pick and choose what’s still a sin, we’re hypocrites.

We should read the apostle Paul’s rejection of homosexuality in his letter to the Romans in a similar spirit. Paul chooses the word exchange, which implies straight men who use boys, usually young teenagers, for loveless sex. This was common in Greek and Roman cultures, and Paul condemns abusive power dynamics with catamites as selfish.

A magazine is not the place to discuss the finer points of theology (I’ll save that for the book). But what I can say here, with complete confidence, is that too many Christians convince themselves that there are no questions to be asked, only answers to be recited. Ironically, because most young people in the West can’t even comprehend opposition to same-sex marriage and full equality, and because such acceptance will inexorably increase and spread throughout the world, we may see a time when the only opposition to what is loving and fair will come from an institution that regards itself as an icon of love and fairness. This contradiction will make it impossible to preach the gospel. Christians will be defined by their obstinate clinging to an outdated antipathy.

Recently, I had lunch in downtown Toronto with the publisher of a leading gay Internet site. We talked shop, laughed, drank wine. Family came up, and I showed him some photographs of my wife—the one I am supposed to have cheated on—and he remarked on her good looks. There was a long pause. He turned his phone around and showed me a picture of his husband. Then he looked up: “I was hesitant to show that to you. I was uncomfortable with how you might react.” I felt ashamed and very small.

“You know,” he continued, “you had quite an effect on my life. I’d just come to Toronto—wasn’t even out yet—and I was meeting with a colleague. He went off to the washroom, and I read the newspaper he had with him. It was the Toronto Sun, and you had a column in it that was critical of gay people. Of me, really. It broke my heart.”

The two of us are friends now. But, good Lord, I still have some apologizing to do. Quite a lot, in fact.

Michael Coren's most recent book is Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.

Graham Roumieu (roumieu.com) is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

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