What is a Queer Catholic Sexual Ethic: Eve Tushnet, Tenderness, and Queer Sex

Eve Tushnet entitled her new book Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love. I love that she has chosen the word “tenderness,” a word evoking humility, vulnerability, and intimacy. I see these qualities in her recent personal reflection in The Tablet.

I have to begin by admitting my bias. I am not a big fan of Tushnet. As a Queer Catholic who writes on family, an institution inseparable from sexuality and a healthy, active sex life, I have reservations about Tushnet’s defense of mandatory celibacy for members of the LGBTQ Catholic community. While I have friends who have told me that people such as Tushnet helped them survive into their queer identity, I also see how “Side B theology (the self-named movement of Christians who believe that lesbian and gay people are required to be celibate) could be very harmful for queers seeking to embrace sexuality to its fullest. Frankly, reading Tushnet has made me angry.

In her recent article, I see some complications in Tushnet’s position that fill me with tenderness, even as I know we will continue to radically disagree on what constitutes a Catholic sexual ethic. Tushnet begins by acknowledging that in her first book, “What I didn’t talk about was trauma”:

“Those feelings of secrecy, shame and a fear of God which crowd out any possibility of love will be painfully familiar to many gay people who grew up in the Church. These feelings are reinforced by experience: by the confessor who asks if we’ve tried therapy to fix our same-sex desires, by the friend who responds to our coming out with discomfort, or the mother who responds with anguish. And they’re reinforced by silence.”

“If you are gay and hope to live in harmony with Church teaching, you probably heard no homilies which acknowledged your existence; your education, from RE to ‘sex ed’ to the school library, bore no hints that people like you were in the Church; and you definitely didn’t see people like you in the movies or on TV. This silence can make it seem like there is simply no future for a gay person in the Church.”

This compassion from Tushnet speaks truth to the current realities of many queer people in the church, who have experienced secrecy, shame, erasure, and silence. I can see that she seeks to heal those in our queer community who are most vulnerable to the impacts of religious trauma.

Tushnet becomes further vulnerable as she shares her own experience of grappling with why she accepts church teaching on sexuality. She reflects:

​​The reasons why are likely as complex as the reasons anybody believes what she does. If I could see all my reasons for seeking to live in obedience to Catholic sexual discipline, I doubt I’d respect all of them. Who can say what in our hearts is worthy of respect? But I became Catholic because I longed for the Eucharist.”

Eve Tushnet

It breaks my heart that Queer Catholics are asked to decide between queer sex and longing for Eucharist. This is not only because I see the two as able to coexist, but also because I experience queer sex as distinctly Eucharistic. 

Tushnet goes on to suggest scriptural images for queer people to see themselves in in the Bible:

“The same-sex love stories Scripture gives us for admiration and emulation are non-­sexual and non-marital. But they are models of emotionally rich, life-shaping devotion – and they help us understand not only our longing to love one another, but our need to be loved by God. The covenant between Jonathan and David, the promises made by Ruth to Naomi and the intimacy shared by Jesus and John “the Beloved Disciple” are as holy and tender as any loves in Scripture. They are models for all people, regardless of sexual orientation; but gay people are rediscovering them with especial urgency.”

I also believe it is important for queer people to see themselves in scripture, and for straight people to realize that important aspects of queer life exist outside of sex. The relationships we create with each other are intimate and erotic without necessarily needing to be sexual. In this way, I see Tushnet as a champion for what an expanded and complexified approach to sexuality can look like. I, too, love the ways in which the realm of the sexual exists beyond the mere act of sex. In some ways, this is what queerness means to me.

Tushnet ends on a confessional note:

“We can stop thinking gay people’s big problem is chastity when, for many people who grew up in the Church, the sin they struggle with most intensely is despair. Even when we do talk about chastity – and for my book, I made myself get over my embarrassment and write about my own ‘struggles with chastity’ – we can talk about how trauma affects our experience of sexuality, and how we can stay close to God and accept [God’s] love for us even when we’re not living the way we know we should.”

Overall, Tushnet exhibits a deeper and more complex reflection on sex than I have seen from her before. She acknowledges that trauma informs the way that many religious queers approach. She is humble, vulnerable, and intimate elaboration of trying to be a queer woman living amongst the Catholic Church’s teachings. She displays tenderness, and it brings me to tenderness, too. I see Tushnet on her own pilgrimage with her sexuality, as we all are. 

Eve, I appreciate your honesty, and I genuinely hope that one day the beauty and pleasure of queer sex will align with your Catholic identity in the way that I know is possible.

Barbara Anne Kozee (she/her), New Ways Ministry, January 25, 2022

3 replies
  1. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    When the Church is not obsessing on sexuality, it’s ignoring the subject altogether.

    I like this comment by political commentator, writer, comedian, John Oliver:

    “If chastity is your only virtue, you need to find more virtues.”

    Reply
  2. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    What is a Queer Catholic Sexual Ethic? II

    As a Catholic Christian who happens to be gay, I cannot accept mandatory celibacy for members of the queer Catholic community. Rather, I accept the well thought-out and researched treatise by Margaret Farley: “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.”

    Reply
  3. Father Anthony
    Father Anthony says:

    I am a retired Catholic priest. At age 38 I came to accept myself as gay. Now I have plenty of time to think. What I am thinking is St John’s words that God is love. Love is the energy of the Universe. Love is the creative energy. Love is a choice
    If not accepted and lived one does not have God. Jesus was filled with this energy so he is the Son of God.
    Sex is part of being human.
    A sexual experience feels good. Sex is part of a relationship and between a male and female can produce another human. In a same sex relationship sex can be an expression of love or can just feel good as it can in any relationship.
    Or one can just enjoy a pleasure able experience.
    I know this is not traditional belief and appears opposed to what we have believed and taught. But what we have believed could be wrong. In any case this would mean any non sexual relationship is wrong.
    Well there is something to think about whether yo agree or not. And having been raised in a different age I don’t know if I agree with myself

    Reply

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