After living as an atheist lesbian, Melinda Selmys converted to Catholicism and has authored several books, including “Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism.” She writes and speaks regularly about issues pertaining to the church and the LGBTQ community. In May she traveled to Alaska in order to participate in two public forums hosted by the Alaska Family Council on how Christians can more effectively engage the wider culture on the question of homosexuality, while also loving those who experience homosexual attraction. During her visit, the Catholic Anchor interviewed Selmys. The following Q&A is edited for length and clarity.
Describe your conversion from atheism to Catholicism. Did your sexuality play a role in this process?
SELMYS: I converted to Catholicism as a young adult. Most of my conversion has to do with atheism as opposed to sexuality. I’d been through half a dozen variants of atheism, from nihilism to communism to, at the time, Kantianism. At some point, I was reading “Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton and he was going through his philosophical development and it was very similar to my own. I decided to revisit this question of “Does God exist?” and decided the most scientific and appropriately skeptical way of going about that was to pray every day — a sort of prayer like, “If you’re out there, whoever you are, show me who you are and show me that you’re out there.” And slowly after doing that, over the course of several months, that transformed from this kind of very skeptical prayer to prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving for the created order.
I was hoping for a mother god or at the very least, if it had to be a Christian God, then liberal Anglicanism would be okay, because that was my background. But at some point, I could see it narrowing towards the religions that were far more conservative than I was interested in. And I said, “If you’re going to make me do this, then I will accept the teachings about homosexuality, but really? Seriously? Can you do something else?” And I basically got told to be a Catholic.
So I called my girlfriend and told her, “We have to break up, because I have to become a Catholic. God says.” Not very long after that, a relationship with a male best friend that I’d had for several years transformed into a romantic relationship because I was more open the possibility of that happening, and also because there was already a really intense emotional intimacy. Eventually we got married and have six kids, but I don’t consider myself to have gone through orientation change. I’m still predominately same sex attracted and I’m still not always especially comfortable with my femininity, but because we have that intense friendship, we make it work.
Once you had the conviction that the Catholic Church was true, what was it like coming to terms with Catholic teachings that were opposed to your lifestyle and what you felt were natural inclinations?
SELMYS: Throughout my entire adolescence, from the time that I first became rationally aware of things, it was quite routine for me to make radical changes in the way I lived simply on the basis of a change in my philosophy. So that was fairly familiar territory for me. Also I am a world champion at the art of repression. I think it was 12 years into my marriage, 14 or 15 years after I converted, that it struck me very suddenly that my sexual orientation had not changed. I think this probably would have been a crisis, except that I went to my husband and said, “I’m still queer, what do I do?” and he responded, “You didn’t know that?”
A lot of people who are sexual minorities married to a straight person do hit a point in their marriage when there is a crisis that emerges. It becomes evident that “this is not changing, this is not going away.” And very often that does not end well for people. So I feel I was very lucky. If my husband had freaked out, it would have been very different. I was then dealing with only my freaking out, rather than something that was rupturing the relationship. And also, I’ve written two books about this and blog constantly about this, and my husband and I have worked together on all of that, so it’s been a very open conversation, which makes a tremendous amount of difference.
In what ways is the church’s message deficient when communicating to the LGBTQ community?
SELMYS: In terms of how people talk about homosexuality, one of the big things is to recognize the difference between the Catechism and a colloquial discussion. Nobody talks “Vaticanese” outside of the Vatican. And a lot of the terms that are used in the Catechism are strict theological terms. Part of our job as Catholics is to take the faith as it is handed on to us and then figure out how to proclaim that faith to people in such a way that they will hear it and understand it in a cultural context. We see Saint Paul doing that when he goes to the Areopagus. He doesn’t quote Hebrew scriptures. He quotes pagan poets, and he appeals to the unknown god.
I have found that being willing to use LGBTQ language has made a huge difference. For a long time, I used the term “same-sex attracted” exclusively, because that’s the Catholic thing to do. And then I found that when I switched my language to the language that everybody else used, my audience substantially shifted from mostly concerned Catholic parents to mostly Catholics who are, to a varying degree, trying to live with the church’s teachings as gay people.
Of course, talking to the person as a person rather than as some sort of stereotype of what gay people supposedly are [is also important], and treating it the same way we would treat anything else. You’re not going to freak out if your sister who is openly contracepting brings her boyfriend to the Thanksgiving dinner, so don’t freak out if there’s going to be a gay couple there. If the sexual sins of the minority are treated with less compassion than the sexual sins of the majority, the minority will rightly feel they are being judged and excluded unfairly.
How do you respond to the claim that being gay is inborn and fundamental to one’s identity?
SELMYS: In a sense, it is. In another sense, it isn’t. The sense in which it is, is that we are all called into the woundedness of Christ, and that will take different forms for different people. And whatever form it takes primarily in any given individual is going to be in some sense essential to their identity. When Christ returns in his resurrected body, it’s not restored to the kind of body Adam had in the garden, that original perfect plan. There are holes. Not only are the wounds still there, the wounds are the way in which he is known by his disciples. So, in that sense, when people say “this is part of my identity,” they are talking about something that is real and that is true and that points toward something that is an identity in Christ. The sense in which it is not true is the sense in which it means “I must behave in a particular way.” Because obviously when we are incorporated into Christ, we are called to be in imitation of his virtue. So it becomes an identity which is redeemed and transformed through that encounter.
How do you respond to the claim that the church condemns gay people to a life of loneliness?
SELMYS: I’m part of a blog project called “Spiritual Friendship” that is devoted to trying to reclaim the traditional Christian understanding of friendship as a form and source of love that is not inferior to married love. When we look at the life of Christ, Christ never married. He had friends and he had very intimate associations with those friends, and we can see that the form of that intimacy is emotional, intellectual and even physical. For instance, John the Evangelist reclines at his breast at the Last Supper but it’s not sexual. And I think there’s been a tendency to say that any kind of gay relationship is horrible and perverse and wrong without recognizing that, in the same way that the redeemed form of heterosexual eros is marriage — most heterosexual eros is all over the place and basically sinful — the redeemed form of homosexual eros is an intimate friendship, what Saint Aelred of Rievaulx calls a “spiritual friendship” in his book of the same name.
What can one say to members of the LGBTQ community to draw them into the church?
SELMYS: There’s nothing you can say. It’s the experience of being loved by people within the church. My spiritual director always tells me this in relation to my kids: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you see.” Overwhelmingly, in terms of people who do convert and people who remain within the church and remain faithful is that experience of being loved by Christians, being loved as family. I know of at least two cases where that has meant Catholic families literally opening their doors and inviting someone who is gay to come live in their house as part of the family during a critical part of their conversion process, because if there’s an everyday experience of loneliness and isolation, people will start to feel like they are isolated, alienated and hated. Whereas if there’s an everyday experience of being loved, being welcomed, being edified and built up and being included in a community, then, at that point, the idea that “The church hates me” becomes the bizarre abstraction.