The priest I never was

When I reached Washington in 1989, just after college, my large Catholic family in Baltimore could not have loved me … Continued

When I reached Washington in 1989, just after college, my large Catholic family in Baltimore could not have loved me any more. And they could not have broached one subject with me any less: I was clearly a faulty heterosexual. There are Irish bachelors and unmarried aunts in my family tree; there was a priest and a few nuns. Not one of them was gay or lesbian, just very private; discretion trumped discussion.

Just before I got to high school, my father’s uncle, a boisterous police clerk whose childhood polio redoubled his dedication the church, offered me an inducement: Join the Jesuits, and he’d put $1,800 in my bank account. I was a happy enough presence in the sprawling and tight-knit family, but in crucial ways absent. Without anyone saying so, I must have seemed so confused that I needed some mission, so vulnerable that I needed some haven. The followers of St. Ignatius were studious and rebellious — an order for my chaos.

For my great-uncle, that sum was a generous gesture to help his cherished nephew’s youngest son. To me, there seemed no darker, danker prison sentence. Back then, the church rarely mentioned homosexuality with the intentness of today’s sermons and activism from the diocese. As a news-obsessed kid, I saw the stark conflict in new and loud terms. In Manhattan, men and women were protesting Cardinal O’Connor in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Without having acted on my impulses, I had a decision to make: which side of this divide was I born into—the priests or the protesters?

It sounds dramatic because it was, in a way it isn’t anymore. (Revisit the intensity in the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or any replays of “The Normal Heart.”) There’s an undeniable sentiment toward acceptance. Even when hotly debated in congregations, legislatures and political campaigns, equality now gets respect that was then unfathomable. But there’s still this private understanding in the enduring public battle: if you’re gay, you have to accept some genetic destiny that actually takes you outside your family, that defines you as different from those who have every other nature-and-nurture similarity. It’s the hardest part.

The AIDS plague complicated my coming out, back when diagnosis meant death sentence. And I can’t walk around 17th and P now without seeing the sufferers of then—ghostly men slowing walking in sweaters on hot days, assisted in their daily paces by saintly friends. I was physically healthy, but my own friends were helping me, emotionally, with the smallest of steps; it was as if I had a broken limb that had healed wrong and needed to be reset.

Today is National Coming Out Day and tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of a party my straight friends threw for me in New York. Since college, I’ve been close to a couple, and they wanted to share their gay friends with me, and invite others to do so, to speed up a social life that I had slowed. It was a big night.

Theirs were the first ears I ever bent about being gay. Years before, we all lived in D.C. and they were with me on the night, at the long-gone El Azteca, when I first saw two men dancing, up close, in real life—and maybe in real love. I moved to another side of the room, but kept an eye on them. They looked like they were standing on their own two feet, having fun.

Ned Martel is a reporter on the national desk and an associate editor for The Washington Post. He may be reached at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter at @nedmartel.

When I reached Washington in 1989, just after college, my large Catholic family in Baltimore could not have loved me anymore. And they could not have broached one subject with me any less: I was clearly a faulty heterosexual. There are Irish bachelors and unmarried aunts in my family tree; there was a priest and a few nuns. Not one of them was gay or lesbian, just very private; discretion trumped discussion.

Just before I got to high school, my father’s uncle, a boisterous police clerk whose childhood polio redoubled his dedication the church, offered me an inducement: Join the Jesuits, and he’d put $1,800 in my bank account. I was a happy enough presence in the sprawling and tight-knit family, but in crucial ways absent. Without anyone saying so, I must have seemed so confused that I needed some mission, so vulnerable that I needed some haven. The followers of St. Ignatius were studious and rebellious — an order for my chaos.

For my great-uncle, that sum was a generous gesture to help his cherished nephew’s youngest son. To me, there seemed no darker, danker prison sentence. Back then, the church rarely mentioned homosexuality with the intentness of today’s sermons and activism from the diocese. As a news-obsessed kid, I saw the stark conflict in new and loud terms. In Manhattan, men and women were protesting Cardinal O’Connor in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Without having acted on my impulses, I had a decision to make: which side of this divide was I born into—the priests or the protesters?

It sounds dramatic because it was, in a way it isn’t anymore. (Revisit the intensity in the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or any replays of “The Normal Heart.”) There’s an undeniable sentiment toward acceptance. Even hotly debated in congregations, legislatures and political campaigns, equality now gets respect that was then unfathomable. But there’s still this private understanding in the enduring public battle: if you’re gay, you have to accept some genetic destiny that actually takes you outside your family, that defines you as different from those who have every other nature-and-nurture similarity. It’s the hardest part.

The AIDS plague complicated my coming out, back when diagnosis meant death sentence. And I can’t walk around 17th and P now without seeing the sufferers of then—ghostly men slowing walking in sweaters on hot days, assisted in their daily paces by saintly friends. I was physically healthy, but my own friends were helping me, emotionally, with the smallest of steps; it was as if I had a broken limb that had healed wrong and needed to be reset.

Today is National Coming Out Day and tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of a party my straight friends threw for me in New York. Since college, I’ve been close to a couple, and they wanted to share their gay friends with me, and invite others to do so, to speed up a social life that I had slowed. It was a big night.

Theirs were the first ears I ever bent about being gay. Years before, we all lived in D.C. and they were with me on the night, at the long-gone El Azteca, when I first saw two men dancing, up close, in real life—and maybe in real love. I moved to another side of the room, but kept an eye on them. They looked like they were standing on their own two feet, having fun.

Ned Martel is a reporter on the national desk and an associate editor for The Washington Post. He may be reached at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter at @nedmartel.

When I reached Washington in 1989, just after college, my large Catholic family in Baltimore could not have loved me anymore. And they could not have broached one subject with me any less: I was clearly a faulty heterosexual. There are Irish bachelors and unmarried aunts in my family tree; there was a priest and a few nuns. Not one of them was gay or lesbian, just very private; discretion trumped discussion.

Just before I got to high school, my father’s uncle, a boisterous police clerk whose childhood polio redoubled his dedication the church, offered me an inducement: Join the Jesuits, and he’d put $1,800 in my bank account. I was a happy enough presence in the sprawling and tight-knit family, but in crucial ways absent. Without anyone saying so, I must have seemed so confused that I needed some mission, so vulnerable that I needed some haven. The followers of St. Ignatius were studious and rebellious — an order for my chaos.

For my great-uncle, that sum was a generous gesture to help his cherished nephew’s youngest son. To me, there seemed no darker, danker prison sentence. Back then, the church rarely mentioned homosexuality with the intentness of today’s sermons and activism from the diocese. As a news-obsessed kid, I saw the stark conflict in new and loud terms. In Manhattan, men and women were protesting Cardinal O’Connor in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Without having acted on my impulses, I had a decision to make: which side of this divide was I born into—the priests or the protesters?

It sounds dramatic because it was, in a way it isn’t anymore. (Revisit the intensity in the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” or any replays of “The Normal Heart.”) There’s an undeniable sentiment toward acceptance. Even hotly debated in congregations, legislatures and political campaigns, equality now gets respect that was then unfathomable. But there’s still this private understanding in the enduring public battle: if you’re gay, you have to accept some genetic destiny that actually takes you outside your family, that defines you as different from those who have every other nature-and-nurture similarity. It’s the hardest part.

The AIDS plague complicated my coming out, back when diagnosis meant death sentence. And I can’t walk around 17th and P now without seeing the sufferers of then—ghostly men slowing walking in sweaters on hot days, assisted in their daily paces by saintly friends. I was physically healthy, but my own friends were helping me, emotionally, with the smallest of steps; it was as if I had a broken limb that had healed wrong and needed to be reset.

Today is National Coming Out Day and tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of a party my straight friends threw for me in New York. Since college, I’ve been close to a couple, and they wanted to share their gay friends with me, and invite others to do so, to speed up a social life that I had slowed. It was a big night.

Theirs were the first ears I ever bent about being gay. Years before, we all lived in D.C. and they were with me on the night, at the long-gone El Azteca, when I first saw two men dancing, up close, in real life—and maybe in real love. I moved to another side of the room, but kept an eye on them. They looked like they were standing on their own two feet, having fun.

Ned Martel is a reporter on the national desk and an associate editor for The Washington Post. He may be reached at [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter at @nedmartel.

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  • SCRams2K

    If homosexuality is genetic as the author states, then two identical twins would both be straight or both be gay, since they have both have the same genes. But sometimes with sets of identical twins, one may be gay and the other one may be straight. How can that be explained by saying that homosexuality is caused by one’s genes? I think that homosexuality is caused more by a person’s environment and emotional pain that may occur during childhood. I think it’s unfortunate that impressionable children who are confused about their sexuality are being told that they were “born that way” and that they should simply act on their sexual inclinations. I hope that we as a society can once again develop an appreciation for the virtue of chastity, because chastity is the best option for people struggling with same sex attraction, not engaging in homosexual behavior.

  • PG_Living

    We actually know very little about biology and genetic expression… in fact, it could be said we know more now than in the past, but that additional knowledge just lets us know how little we really do know. Anyone who knows biological twins could tell you that there are countless differences, why shouldn’t sexual orientation be one of them? Irregardless, if homosexuality is caused by the environment or emotional pain, how cruel it is that you think such people should have to refuse sexual pleasure, the joy of long term companionship, or, by extension-though you don’t discuss it, the legal protections and social recognition of marriage. I pray that you learn to be more compassionate.

  • ajackmoore

    I’m of a far different generation than the author — I moved here just after after college only two years ago — and I was never faced with the thought of joining a monastery. And yet I connected with this piece.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    As someone who’s always wanted to know, “What was like it then — for us?” especially during those years, I found your words haunting and beautiful.

  • tony55398

    I have no right to judge anyone nor does anyone else. God Loves you just as you are, so we must do with others, no crude thoughts, no crude behavior towards each other, just Love each other. Christ died for gays as well as everyone else.

  • tony55398

    No one is perfect enough to deserve Heaven without the Love that raises man to eternal life and it IS Love alone that raises mankind to live that life of Heaven, so Love each other because without it hatred is all that remains and you will fall into Hell.

  • PhillyJimi1

    What god are you talking about? It sure isn’t god of the bible.

  • Rongoklunk

    There are no gods, and never were any. Our ancient information-challenged ancestors made them up, from what Neil deGrasse Tyson calls The Perimeter of Ignorance. All told they made up more than 3000 of them. It’s what humans did back then. But today – in the amazing age of science and technology, we don’t need them anymore.
    Gods are mythical by definition. Only Americans and Muslims still believe they actually exist. And what terrible lives they’ve given us over the last 2000 years – wars, Inquisitions, burnings, drownings, torture. It’s only in the last couple of hundred years that we’ve been able to experience secularism, and put crazy superstitions behind us, where they belong.

  • Rongoklunk

    In the good old daze Ned would have been tortured to reconsider his sexual orientation. If he was unable to do that he would have been burnt alive for perversion. The Church in those days didn’t fool around. Killing and torturing and fighting crusades was religion’s pastime, when they weren’t hunting down witches (which we now know never existed) and putting people on trial for heresy. The Church was boss in those times, and live was a living hell.

  • Rongoklunk

    …LIFE was a living hell.

  • csintala79

    Other than the false statement, “Only Americans and Muslims still believe . . .” I agree with you. ‘

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