Always Our Sisters
by Kate Reid, ASC
To our homosexual brothers and sisters… we stretch out our hands and invite you to do the same… We need one another if we are to “…grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
“Though at times you may feel discouraged, hurt, or angry, do not walk away from your families, from the Christian community, from all those who love you. In you, God’s love is revealed. You are always our children” – Conclusion of Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children & Suggestions to Pastoral Ministers, A Statement of the Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1997.
Forty-two women religious, representing twenty-three different congregations, gathered in December 2005 to participate in a conference entitled Lesbian Religious: Continuing the Conversation. It was the largest gathering of lesbian religious to date, and the first time congregational leaders and vocation/formation personnel were invited to learn about issues affecting sisters who are lesbian.
The [ASC] Leadership Team has been concerned about what we perceive in our Church and society to be a climate of escalating suspicion and hostility toward lesbians and gays who are our sisters, brothers and collaborators in Church ministry. We are particularly concerned about how such a negative climate may be impacting the well-being of lesbian Adorers. We observe that people of good will who are uninformed and misinformed about homosexuality can make life very difficult for gays and lesbians. We do not want that to be the case among us. So, as a representative of our Leadership Team, I went to Continuing the Conversation eager to learn what we can do to support our lesbian sisters.
I knew that sexuality is about much more than sex; it is energy for relationships. I learned that heterosexual persons need the company of persons of the opposite gender. They draw vital energy from healthy interactions with them in marriage and family settings, in social settings and in the workplace. Similarly, homosexual persons prefer the company of their own gender for a whole range of social, relational activities. To be a lesbian is to be a woman who needs the company of women—their collaboration, support, understanding, affection, care—and the vital energy that companionship gives them.
One would think, therefore, that a community of women religious would be an environment in which lesbian sisters give and receive a great deal of positive energy. However, I learned that if most sisters fear homosexuals because they know and understand so little about homosexuality, then lesbian sisters feel it is unsafe to be open about their orientation. They feel they must hide the truth of who they are. Such hiding dissipates the positive relational energy they might otherwise experience if they did not feel compelled to stay “in the closet” in order to be accepted by their sisters.
I learned that all of us need to support each other in fostering an environment that is free of the ignorance and animosity generated and perpetuated by heterosexism. Heterosexism is the irrational hatred, fear and disgust directed towards lesbians and gays. It is based in a belief system that asserts that heterosexuality is normal and superior and homosexuality is deviant, abnormal, a crime or a sin.
I learned that lesbian sisters fear that if they openly identify themselves as lesbian, then their sisters in community will misjudge their friendships with women as being sexually active relationships. Lesbian religious fear sisters will distrust their sisterly acts of affection; i.e. any hug will be seen as a “come on.” They fear that we, their sisters, will not believe that they are committed to the same celibate chastity that all of us vow.
Lesbian sisters participating in the Conversation shared what they want and need from their religious communities and from community leaders. They need our openness to a diversity of sexuality among us. It is important that we understand that while homosexuality is not the norm (not typical of the majority), it is not abnormal. It is simply a relational orientation that a woman gradually recognizes in herself. Some realize it in their teens; most take longer to name and accept their orientation—to “come out to themselves.” Given the hostile attitudes and negative stereotypes of lesbians and gays, it takes much courage for a woman to admit that she is lesbian.
In a social/political climate that often regards gays and lesbians as mistakes of nature—even when there is abundant data to enlighten us otherwise—a lesbian needs the love and acceptance of others who truly know her. She needs to live in an environment where it is safe for her to identify herself as a lesbian should she want to share this with others. If she hears remarks that indicate a prejudice against lesbians and gays and indifference to issues related to their human and civil rights, a lesbian sister will feel that she must hide her sexual orientation in order to be safe from suspicion and resentment. However, if we can cultivate a community climate in which we respectfully acknowledge and accept sexual diversity, then all of us can thrive. Lesbian sisters can trust that they will not be shunned if they choose to disclose their sexual orientation. Heterosexual sisters, likewise, can set aside the bonds of heterosexism and be free to know and cherish their lesbian sisters as women who bless others with their God-given gifts of nature and grace.
The women at the conference asked leadership to break the silence about lesbian religious and to offer education to dispel stereotypes and misinformation. They asked leadership to take steps to create a community climate in which it is safe to be known as a lesbian. This article is our effort to both break the silence and let in some light. We are offering the enclosed pastoral message from U.S. Bishops, Always Our Children, as a resource for our continuing education and as a tool to generate conversations that will “break the silence” among us.
I learned of other resources, as well. Womanjourney Weavings is a publication for lesbian sisters. If you would like to be on their mailing list send your name and address to Womanjourney Weavings, 4012 29th Street, Mt. Rainier, MD 20712. Two books that come highly recommended are A Challenge to Love—Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church, edited by Robert Nugent and Beyond Acceptance—Parents of Lesbians & Gays Talk About Their Experiences by Griffin, Wirth and Wirth.
If you have questions about the Leadership Team’s decision to take up the challenge to “break the silence,” please invite me to join your conversations. If I can direct you to additional resources, please contact me; if I do not know, I know who to ask.
This article is also to be read as Leadership’s outstretched hands to our lesbian sisters. We are all Adorers of the Blood of Christ, women who believe in the power of the Precious Blood to break down the walls that divide us. We need your help if we Adorers are to cultivate a climate in which the Blood of Christ can free us to be the women God wants us to be— good for ourselves, good for each other, good for God’s people.
This article was originally published in Gleanings, April 2006, a publication for the members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Sr. Kate serves on the leadership team of her congregation.