October 11th, 2016
On a bitterly cold January night in 1976, after cooking me a dinner of whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce, after sitting with me on his bed in a campus rooming house while listening to Maria Callas singing her signature role as Floria Tosca (Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore “I lived for art, I lived for love”), Jim Gilloffo, whom I met in a chapel choir at the University of Illinois, pulled me to him and kissed me.
A boy kissed me, and I like it.
I have never forgotten that kiss. I have never looked back, except fondly.
“I lived for art, I lived for love.”
Forty years ago I came out of the closet in the way that really matters and makes it real: mouth-to-mouth, skin-to-skin, in a tangle of arms and legs. If the personal is the political, this was an act of revolution, overthrowing 16 years (at that point) of Catholic education and a physically reticent temperament. The fact that it also occurred during the National Bicentennial only underscored for me my year of liberation from emotional and erotic colonialism.
Today marks National Coming Out Day, a celebration of the most personally and politically revolutionary act that queer people can perform. But it’s naive to think of “coming out” as a task performed and completed. Rather, coming out entails a continuous process of self exploration, expanding consciousness, acts of the will, and intentional and conscious self-representation.
I knew there was something different about me as a child. I knew I wasn’t like other boys. Later in grade school I felt a blurry erotic attraction to other boys, which crystallized in high school (thank you, gym class). I tried dating girls in high school and college. None catalyzed the same cathexis as boys.
I experienced years of unrequited infatuations in high school, college, and beyond.
In college, I lived with four other men in an intentional community (all of us considering some of form of Catholic religious community). eventually coming out to them, an encounter whose awkwardness I realized only years later was the product of three of them residing deeply in the closet themselves (two subsequently coming out and in relationships with other men, one a deeply closeted Catholic priest who has never to terms with his sexuality).
I returned to a Catholic university to enter the seminary and was later ordained as a priest. While that may seem like another closet, the pervasive presence of gay men among ordained Catholics made it less a closet than a convention hall. At the time that I was ordained, there was hope that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s might extend to issues related to gender and sexuality: artificial contraception, married priesthood, women in ministry, gay Catholics.
I left the priesthood and the Catholic Church because of women and sex. I could no longer represent its increasingly reactionary positions on a whole range of issues related to gender and sexuality.
Shortly after Jim Gilloffo’s kiss I became involved in the University of Illinois Gay Student Alliance. While I was a pries I served as a chaplain to a local Dignity chapter and ministered to people with AIDS, their partners, and families. After leaving the priesthood, I took on leadership roles in the newly formed Hampton Roads Pride coalition and served as a volunteer educator for a local AIDS service organization.
Since Jim Gilloffo’s kiss I have fallen in lust, fallen in love, loved passionately, been loved passionately (and a couple of times those coincided). Although a decade and a half ago I’d persuaded myself that I had landed comfortably in gay bachelorhood (I’ve never wanted a husband, and often joked that I wanted a boyfriend in my telephone area code but not my postal Zip code), the Journey and the Path have their own surprises and twists, and something (or I should say someone) earlier this year made me realize that what had actually happened was that, about 20 years ago, I closed and locked a door to my heart, and walked away.
Where the Journey and the Path are going remains to be revealed.
As T. S. Eliot observed:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
. . . We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate. . .
. . . Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Serenity, detachment. Here, now.