"All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental."
This is the standard phrase that most publishers use to protect themselves against lawsuits. For my book Roman Catholic Jacuzzi, a story recounting my accidental discovery of a retreat for closeted gay Catholic priests, Brendan Dugan, owner of independent book publisher Karma (a name that could not be a better match), decided that it was important to do the exact opposite, proudly proclaiming "a true story" on the cover. Since the book launch last month, that is the question I'm asked the most: "Is it really true?" I explain that the only embellishment is in my in portrayal of the priests as both more attractive and more likeable than they were in reality.
In October 2010 I discovered the secret retreat where these priests meet in private once a year to let their hair down and be openly gay together for the week. I was not on a mission to find and expose such a retreat; I booked a cabin with the aim of being alone to concentrate on writing, and it happened to be at the same place and time as the priests. The disorganized resort allowed my stay without realizing what else they were hosting. As a gay former Catholic altar boy, I could not believe both the luck and horror of this discovery: Here I was, in the heart of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, face to face with gay men whose teachings give a moral backbone to homophobia and discrimination against their fellow gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, men who uphold a value system that made me feel terrible as a teenager and made the process of admitting to myself that I'm gay torture because of its unbearable moral dilemma: Repress your sexuality or be damned! I immediately knew how politically important this retreat was and wrote down my experience with the priests as it was happening. Roman Catholic Jacuzzi is the document of my weekend with these men, which resumed in their disco-drag party, during which I witnessed the hilarious irony of watching gay priests freak out on the dance floor to every Lady Gaga and Madonna hit, including "Like a Prayer."
At the time, I could not imagine all the major steps that the world would soon take, culturally and politically, toward gay rights and acceptance. Since then, Pope Benedict XVI has resigned amid unresolved scandals (with the Vatican's own internal investigation uncovering alleged blackmail from gay prostitutes); it has become common knowledge that the Vatican owns the biggest gay bathhouse in Rome; journalist Andrew Sullivan stated on MSNBC that he believes that many Catholic cardinals are gay (with few repercussions); Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign has caught fire; and Anderson Cooper and Jason Collins have come out -- all of this leading up to next month's historic Supreme Court rulings on the two most important gay civil rights cases of our lifetime, with public support in the majority, at 53 percent. Despite these developments, the Vatican clings to its stance against gay rights. Before Pope Benedict XVI resigned, he intensified his rhetoric, describing gay marriage as a threat to peace and denouncing those who he claims reject their God-given gender identities, arguing that their actions are destroying the "essence of the human creature." Before becoming pope, Pope Francis echoed these remarks, calling gay marriage "an anthropological step backward." It will be heartbreaking if this closeted gay mafia's influence sways the Supreme Court's decisions.
Roman Catholic Jacuzzi could have easily been used to publicly chastise gay priests as hypocrites, but as I witnessed firsthand the painful lives that these conflicted men lead, my position transformed from utter disdain to compassion. The gay priests I met told me that they estimated that the majority of their peers were gay. The gay men who are attracted to the priesthood are those who were brought up in the homophobic culture of the church. The church is both their problem and their solution, offering a respected position with the added value of a vow of celibacy that creates a seemingly perfect closet -- that is, until your unfulfilled urges get the best of you and preaching against what you are clouds your consciousness. A friend who read Roman Catholic Jacuzzi pointed out that the book ironically makes me an extremely unlikely advocate for this unregarded but important disenfranchised minority. I hope so. Openly exploring their plight seems like a path that could possibly lead to real, enduring change. This past Easter morning, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said that he would like to be more welcoming to gay and lesbians. It might do him well to start with his colleagues and open a real debate about the church's closeted gay staff. In the 1970s Harvey Milk famously preached that coming out is the central action to advance gay civil rights. I would like to build on that and invite all gay Catholic priests to be brave enough to join the movement. Their honest sexual freedom is key to ending homophobia and ushering in a new worldwide era of gay equality in which the Catholic Church has an opportunity to reinvent its position and play a new role that truly teaches love instead of hate.
For more information on Roman Catholic Jacuzzi, click here.