In the latest of what I’m afraid will be a series of jeremiads against gayness, Catholic college professor Anthony Esolen makes two excellent points, plus a lot of … other points.
Esolen’s most recent installment is Talk To Your Father, in which he reminds teenage boys it’s very common for them to become aroused unexpectedly by all kinds of things, and that doesn’t prove they’re gay; and he reminds them that older men who love them can help reassure them if they’re worried or confused about sex.
No argument from me. Unfortunately, Esolen goes on to crush these two excellent points into a psychologically dangerous goulash of sentimental cruelty. Because there are some ideas worth salvaging in this essay (unlike the previous one he wrote), let’s take Esolen’s points in turn.
He counsels a hypothetical boy who suspects he is gay:
Talk to your father. Do not talk to a gay man or to your school counselor. If the counselor is a woman, she will know as much about your feelings as I know about being pregnant. If the counselor is a man, he likely has stock in the whole sexual breakdown of our time. Do not talk to your friends, whom you cannot trust to keep your words to themselves. They are, after all, young, as you are, and prone to give way to the impulse of the moment. Talk to your father.
Well. It’s easy to understand why a good dad would give this advice to young men. And it’s good advice … unless your father is a jerk who will respond to any funny business by tossing his pervy son out on his ear. Or unless your school counselor is a wise and compassionate human being with lots of experience talking to young men. Or unless you happen to confide in a woman who has some experience in life and can give you good information because of it (much as a male, celibate priest can give good information to, say, a female penitent about her marriage, despite having no direct experience with it). There are fathers, and there are fathers. Maybe talk to your father; maybe find someone different. But yes, do ask someone what’s up.
Next, Esolen says:
Think of how easily and stupidly your body is aroused. You may be sitting in an odd position. You may be horsing around with the dog on the floor. You may be wrestling with your kid brother. You may be taking a shower. Almost anything can trip the trigger. It means nothing.
Well, it probably means nothing. More on that later. (And yes, even as a woman, I did know that boys can get erections from sitting funny. Somehow, as a wife, as a mother of sons, as a sister of brothers, as a friend of guys, I knew this! And so do most of my women friends.) Esolen goes on:
But you are in the locker room and you steal a shy look at the kid with the muscles. Big deal. You think you are unusual? Every single boy in that locker room has done the same. They still do. You just don’t notice it, and there’s no reason why you should. You feel some misgivings, though. Let me try to explain what is going on.
He’s right, it’s not unusual. Lots of guys do this because they’re curious (and by the way, girls do the same thing, because girls are pretty to look at). A few guys do it because they’re gay. Some guys do it because they’re passing through a gay phase, that may pass away on its own.
What follows is the most sensible part of his essay, in which he speaks of three forms of love upon which “(e)very single culture in the history of the world has been built”: a love between mother and child, a love between husband and wife, which reflects the love of Christ for the Church, and the brotherly love between men. (No word on which kind of love is exemplified in The Visitation, for instance, but never mind.)
My teeth were set on edge by his rhapsodic tone as he ticks off the accomplishments of men-being-friends; but he’s not wrong, just rhapsodic. Male camaraderie, he says, is a phenomenon that
builds bridges, tunnels through mountains, raises walls, drains swamps, clears fields, drills wells, fights for the homeland, erects churches and temples, strings the nerves of commerce and power across a continent, and makes a people into a people rather than a confusion of squabbling families.
I would argue that exactly zero of these things could happen without equal (if not always identical) work, effort, sacrifice from and camaraderie among women, but never mind.
Then, Esolen descends into the truly bizarre. He says that a lot of boys have powerful feelings toward each other, but they get sublimated in football. Back in the old days, he explains, there were people who work on farms, and they were just too damn busy and hungry to even think of being gay. Because there has never been a gay farmer! You think I’m exaggerating, but this is actually what he says.
He says to boys who are troubled by possible gay tendencies: “Your real need is for masculine affirmation, so often expressed in a broadly physical way—think of a big bunch of coal miners showering after a day under the earth. This is ordinary.”
Coal miners. Showering. And also, every man is imbued with the wisdom and insight to explain male sexuality. And it’s women who just don’t get it. HMMM.
Maybe some boys really do just need masculine affirmation. Maybe they are just spending too much time navel-gazing, Reddit-cruising, fussing with their hair, and diddling with their minds, and maybe they really will get past some troubling thoughts if they just get up and do something noisy and boisterous for a while. Maybe.
But what about the boys who don’t? There is such a thing as a gay man who had a good, happy, healthy childhood. There really is. I don’t envy such a man’s lot as a gay adult trying to live chastely, but I also don’t envy the lot of anyone trying to live chastely right now.
Esolen’s advice is based mainly on wishful thinking, and will cause real people real psychological and spiritual harm. He advises boys to tell themselves, “This [gay] feeling is stupid.” A cruel and ineffective strategy, with no basis in spiritual or psychological health. You can’t just decide to stop being gay, if you’re gay. You can learn to control your actions and become comfortable with who you are, but that’s not what Esolen is saying. He’s saying that all gayness is some kind of illusion that only becomes real if you indulge it. What happens to the boy who reads his words, grows up, and finds himself still gay? Is the plan just “Go to Gehenna,” or what?
I don’t think Esolen hates gay people. His schtick of constant scolding and hand-wringing is tiresome, and he will someday have to answer for laying such heavy burdens on parents whose children somehow failed to spend their entire childhoods playing out his bucolic fantasy of overalled youngsters plashing in brooks, playing tag in wheat fields, and the plopping down to read Homer under the shade of a chestnut tree. But I don’t think he hates anyone, really.
I think he’s fallen prey to a dangerous fantasy, almost a fetish, of what the world once was: A world where fathers are always good, kind, and wise, where women are gentle and nurturing but not awfully bright, where the sun was always golden, sheets were always clean, and most of all, no one was ever, ever gay. (And if they were, it was because they accidentally talked to a gay man, who probably got that way by … not thinking about showering coal miners often enough … hmm.)
So here’s my advice to you, teenagers. Puberty is weird. It’s pretty common to go through a lot of confusing, contradictory feelings about your own body and about other people’s bodies, including the bodies of people the same sex as you. If you feel like this, it might mean you’re gay, or bisexual, but it might mean that you’re just going through a thing that will pass. So don’t panic. Do go speak to someone older, if you’re troubled. A parent—yes, probably a dad, but not necessarily—would be ideal, but it might make more sense to talk to someone else who seems wise and level-headed and who shares the ideals that you admire, and who gives good advice, not just advice you want to hear.
Do be friends with people the same sex. If you love someone of the same sex, Esolen is right: It’s very likely simply the love of friendship, which can be a beautiful and powerful thing. It doesn’t make you gay (anymore than playing football makes you not-gay).
As Esolen rightly says, don’t look at porn—neither gay porn nor hetero porn. It teaches you stupid, awful things about sex, about yourself, and about other people. If you do look at porn and masturbate, get to confession, give it to God, and get on with your life. If you do it again, go to confession again. If you can’t stop, go to someone you trust for help. Lots of people get caught up in it, and it’s okay to need help getting out.
Remember—oh, please remember that God loves you. God knows you, better than you know yourself. God wants you to know what love feels like. Some people have a harder road to find that love within the safe confines of morality, but there is no one who is made to be closed off from love. God loves you, right now.
But for crying out loud, lay off the coal miners. Amen.