There was never a better Catholic than me. I spoke (privately) to Jesus and felt His part of the conversation in my heart. I went to Confession every Saturday (even though I had nothing to report) and Communion every Sunday. I paid attention in Catechism class. In fact, when other students came up with difficult questions, the nuns often turned to me for the answers.
Then I discovered masturbation.
Actually, I had known about it since I was about two years old. My mother came upon me "playing with myself" on the living room sofa and told me to never let her catch me doing it again. So I found a private spot behind the sofa and she never did.
However, I didn't know the name of what I was doing until sometime in high school. We had a priest visit our religion class, who took the boys into a separate room and told us, very solemnly, that "playing with ourselves" was called "masturbation" and it was a Mortal sin.
In the Catholic church, there are two classes of sin: Mortal and Venial. The latter classification is reserved for minor infractions: Eating meat on Friday (no longer an issue but it was then), telling small lies (such as assuring our mothers that the dress they've chosen doesn't make them look fat) or saying "damn". If a person should die with a Venial sin unconfessed (and therefore unforgiven), he or she could still go to Heaven, but only after a period of cleansing spent in Purgatory (which is like renting a house in Hell, rather than buying one).
A Mortal sin, on the other hand, is very serious. Although it can still be forgiven in Confession, if one manages to die with a Mortal sin on his or her soul, that house in Hell is purchased, fully paid for, no mortgage, no chance of post-mortem redemption. Thus, the Mortal classification is reserved for the gravest of errors: Murder, of course, is a Mortal sin. Now, we had learned, so was touching our very own private parts, at least, in any way that felt good.
And then the priest added another to the list. Touching another boy's private parts was also a Mortal sin. (Touching a girl's, unless you were married, was just a Venial sin.) In fact, this priest maintained, God was so adamant about this that even thinking about touching boys' private parts was a Mortal sin.
I was old enough to have started fantasizing about that very thing. And now, I had learned, my very thoughts, which came unbidden at unexpected times (but especially in the shower after gym class) were one-way tickets to Hell.
I was so flabbergasted I asked no questions. I only blushed intensely, as if the priest's lecture was aimed specifically at me. That no one noticed I can only ascribe to the other guys' being too involved with their own sudden guilt to notice mine.
The thing is, it made no sense. Why would God build us with parts that feel too good to resist touching, and then condemn us to Hell for giving in? It felt inherently wrong to me, like finding myself in a crooked card game I couldn't escape.
Yet, obviously it was possible to resist this temptation. Priests did. Everyone knew, priests never had sex and never touched themselves. If they could resist, so could we. Somehow.
When I finally got up the nerve to ask a priest in confession about the matter, he--a different one than had come to our religion class--told me he didn't think masturbation was a sin at all.
I was astounded. "But Father so-and-so said..."
In the dimness of the confessional and through the screen, I could see Father shrug. "There are differences of opinion on that," he said. "Follow your conscience. If it seems wrong to you, don't do it."
I felt the same way I had when I was in first grade and Mom told me the "wrong way" to add my numbers together. Who should I believe? The first priest, or the second?
I decided to believe the second, simply because what he'd said made more sense. But it still bothered me that there was a priest out there who was teaching that masturbation was a Mortal sin. What about boys in the class who didn't think to ask their confessor? They might spend the rest of their lives either missing out on a special pleasure God had built into us, or feeling guilty about it.
These experiences and others eventually led to my leaving the Catholic church while retaining a belief in God. Eventually, I came to understand that most organized religions, if not all, suffered from the same flaw: By claiming to stand in for God, the temptation to superimpose their own judgment over God's was too powerful to resist...and when they did so, people suffered.
In the last two or three decades, we as a culture have made great strides in recognizing homosexuality for the normal difference it is, like left-handedness (which was also once classified as a sin--in fact, our word sinister is simply Latin for "left-handed"). Yet the churches, which thrive on guilt, continue to pretend that it is not. Yes, this pushes the more resilient of us out of the fold; but as recent revelations in the news have shown, it also forces the less resilient into a deep, deep closet. And the difference between being out-and-proud gay and self-loathing homosexual seems to simply be that closet.
Make no mistake: The perversions exhibited--sometimes spectacularly--by repressed homosexuals, should in no way reflect on or be considered typical of the behavior of healthy gay people.
No gay man I know wants to have sex with children. We may prefer younger men or older, thinner or bulkier, smooth or hairy--but not children. Yet, the very priest who lectured us on the evils of masturbation is now under investigation for years of child molestation, as are so many others that it's become a joke. Senator Mark Foley, author of anti-gay legislation, turns out to be homosexual, and a predator of 16-year-old Congressional pages. Ted Haggard, head of the anti-gay Focus On The Family, has confessed, not only to being homosexual, but to having had sex for the past three years with a drug-dealing male prostitute. The two men who founded the Ex-Gay movement left it when they fell in love with each other.
On every side, we find evidence that suppressed sexuality erupts in perverted sexuality, just as people who starve themselves dieting usually wind up binging. What would you expect? As human appetites, neither will be denied. Yet powerful churches continue to demand such repression. The Catholic church continues to insist priests be celibate (although St. Peter and the other apostles were all married). Fundamentalist churches continue to fund legislation withholding marriage and its benefits from those who the churches disapprove. And conservatives everywhere ignore scientific and empirical evidence that gay people don't choose their orientation. In fact, although the American Psychological Association took homosexuality off its list of mental diseases decades ago, just this week a group of American Bishops declared that homosexuality was a "disorder".
Why is it that so many priests molest children while few, Baptist ministers do? This is a simple matter for statistics, folks. Priests try to be celibate and ministers don't. Why is it that virulently anti-gay leaders and politicians are the ones to be found in the company of male prostitutes and drugs? Obviously it's because the stress of living a lie cannot be maintained.
The danger is not homosexuality; it's the repression of one's sexuality, whatever it is.
Those of us who are proud gays need to be very clear that closeted homosexuals are not us, and not representative of us. While homosexuality is not a disorder in the eyes of science and of psychologists, self-loathing is. We don't need to cure closeted homosexuals of being gay; we need to cure them of hating themselves. And a big start to doing that is to put and end to blasphemous religions that teach God's creation is man's sin.
That won't be easy to accomplish. But we can start by distinguishing, verbally and politically, between well-adjusted gay men and women and self-loathing closet cases.