Today’s post is from guest contributor Christopher Vella, a 43 year-old bisexual man married to Tyrone Grima and hailing from Malta. He is Co-Chair of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), and Coordinator of Darchma LGBTI in Malta.
I recently read an article defending heterosexual marriage as the only kind that is holy. Articles like this characterize LGBTIQ+ people as representing all that is wrong, harmful, and unhealthy in society. Reading through such discourse reminds me of the thick layers of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia but they also enflame internalised homophobia that so many of us LGBTIQ+ persons still battle, despite our coming out and our activism. The shadows of shame and the misuse of faith continue to hurt us, even decades after we thought we had let go of all that.
I have been involved in church circles for as long as I can remember. My relationship with Christ, and my loving relationship with the Church, remain core pillars of who I am. I am grateful for this gift of faith. Yet, from very early on I had to battle internalised homophobia, engendered from my religious upbringing. Like many Catholics, I am very familiar with the use of the terms “objective disorder” or “intrinsic disorder” for the people with the so-called ‘homosexual inclination’ and ‘same-sex attraction’. I heard many homilies quoting (or misquoting) the Bible out of context, and I know how the Church has generally made a very selective use of hermeneutics when it came to the ‘homosexual question’.
Enmeshed in this orbit of Catholic theology, it was very difficult to find fault with what appeared to be an absolute ‘picture-perfect’ worldview of life: heterosexual marriage, openness to life, biological complementarity, chastity and friendship, and the responsible expression of sex and love. Except that, LGBTIQ+ people were practically invisible. If mentioned, it was only in a bad light, as biological freaks, suffering, or the standard bearers of a gay lobby, espousing dangerous gender ideology, and threatening the very basis of the family and civilisation.
I was exposed to this rather skewed worldview for most of my earlier life. It was present everywhere, like the very air we breathed. I was completely shaped by this homophobia, and it became a completely internalised phenomenon.
I felt ‘shame’ for the homosexual ‘dirt’ I felt within. I felt ‘sodden’ for harbouring a ‘same-sex attraction’. I felt like a monster. Only a celibate life that sanitised all traces of sex made sense for me at the time. But I was living hell. Whenever I heard or read any of the gay-bashing discourse, it was magnified a trillion times in my head and soul. With each hateful word, more nails were being hammered into my lived-in coffin. I felt I was walking down another of the circles of Dante’s hell.
When I did emerge as an out bisexual man, it was nothing short of a divine intervention. I had experienced the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with all their rigour, asking God to show me the way to myself and to Him. The answer came, quite suddenly, and unexpectedly on 24 April 2012 when I literally heard a strong calming voice within me, calling me.
Little did I know that this voice would lead me to Drachma, Malta’s organization of LGBTIQ+ Catholics, to my husband Tyrone, and to a long journey of faith renewal. Slowly and painfully, I read the Bible with new eyes and continued my spiritual discernment with very able spiritual guides, understanding that there is a much larger theological conversation beyond the confines of Catholic orthodoxy.
Yet as I write these words, I must also admit that every time a church official or conservative Catholic denies our reality and venomously describes us as unnatural, it awakens the shadows of internalised homophobia. Though weakened by years of care and love, these feelings of shame, fear, and diminished self-love remain deeply embedded. It is like a silent back-seat nightmare that flares up occasionally, making me doubt God’s love for me, and my own self-worth.
Part of me has always felt a bit ashamed that I still harbour this consuming circle of hate. How can I possibly remain anchored in this internalised homophobia, when I am so much in the vanguard of activism, accompanying others on their journeys? But Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer reminds us that only by admitting to our wounded-ness, can we be truly authentic and help others. Life is not linear, and often we return to places we left behind, only to emerge stronger and more wholesome.
I am thankful God gave me Tyrone: my husband as my companion, my best friend, and the person with whom I live this life of communion. I am grateful to my spiritual directors, to my siblings in Drachma LGBTI and Drachma Parents and in the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics for their journeys of faith all over the globe. Meeting them has made me realise the richness of faith, love, and authenticity.
I am also grateful to Church leaders, especially Cardinal Mario Grech, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, Bishops Joseph Galea-Curmi and Anton Teuma for responding to the invitation of dialogue by the LGBTIQ+ faith community and who have engaged with me personally with great respect. I also appreciate the impact of Pope Francis’ messages which have shown more clearly the loving face of God. We all have a place at God’s table. We are all loved. No one should be excluded. We are Church! We still have a long walk together–and I say together because we walk with the clergy and with the rest of the people of God in uncovering the face of God, which is love.
The journey of life helps to untangle some of the mysteries of faith. As we continue to walk towards a wholesome vision of faith, we only uncover glimpses of the beatific vision in its holiness. St Paul observes we are all looking at Him like in an unclear mirror. The key remains the same – Jesus – the same one who loved me and who loves me still, in all that I am. And in my innermost being, I am an LGBTIQ+ person that God loves in a wholesome manner, with my sexuality, my gift for intimacy, with my love for Tyrone, who is my own sacramental key to God’s heart.
This long journey is mine, and it has been full of suffering, as well as with the painstaking trust in Him who leads me on. I share these thoughts so that many who continue to struggle with their sexuality, with intimacy, and with God, may find the courage and hope, to believe, for ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Cor 3, 17) So ‘let not your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid’. Rather ‘rise up, let us be on our way’ (John 14: 28, 31).
—Christopher Vella, June 13, 2022