Thursday, June 13, 2013

No Gay Friends

Having reverted rather dramatically to the Catholic faith about ten years ago, I have an interest in conversion narratives (an interest which extends to my professional life, since the book I'm currently writing for a British publisher, one of the reasons for my currently scanty blogging, is about religious conversion in Victorian England). In light of this, I got hold of a book that made a bit of a bump in the Christian press a few months ago, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, the conversion memoir of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a reformed lesbian and erstwhile professor of feminist studies and queer theory. (I like that her name means "rosary"; she is Italian-American and was raised Catholic, but her conversion was into a Reformed, i.e. evangelical Presbyterian, denomination.)

This is not a book review; I'm only a few dozen pages into the book. I have to confess to being slightly put off by its slapdash writing and virtually-nonexistent copyediting (though I suppose a small Christian publisher like Butterfield's doesn't have much of an editing budget), but the book is both more complex and more honest than most conversion narratives I've read. What interests me most, though, is what Butterfield, after her conversion, did with her past. After becoming a Christian, she felt constrained to jettison not only her career, but also her friends, and she writes: "I felt like a vampire -- possessing no reflection in mirrors. I realize now that this is what it means to be washed clean, to be truly made new again. The past really is gone. The shadow of what was remains, but the substance is truly taken away." But is it really?

One of the things that stood out for me in the early pages of Butterfield's book was her description of  hospitality in the gay community.  She describes how "[on] Thursday nights, I had a regular tradition: I made a big dinner and opened my home for anyone in the gay and lesbian community to come and eat and talk about issues and needs." Wow, I thought; it sounds so beautiful. It reminded me of Christ, after the Resurrection, cooking breakfast for his friends on the beach and calling them to come and eat. Why can't we have that? Why can't we do that? Or is such friendship and camaraderie, such openheartedness, the special province of the marginalized and oppressed? I felt myself filled with longing for the community that Butterfield describes -- the community from which (thought I haven't read far enough to ascertain this) I am assuming she later cut herself off completely.

The book jacket states that Butterfield now lives in North Carolina with her husband and children, and I suppose that this kind of fragmentation of a formerly sprawling community into a nuclear family is not only the (hetero-)norm, but also the gold standard for a Christian family, but it made me wonder nevertheless how well such a narrowing and siphoning off of a once outwardly-directed hospitality would work. After many years of commitment not only to a sexual identity, but also to what sounds like sincere friendship and generosity within a community of the like-minded, what would it feel like to become someone else, someone suddenly rootless? Does the new community of believers who are strangers successfully take the place of the old community of hardened sinners who are beloved friends?

And then there's marriage and home life. If you marry young, when you're still becoming who you are, you and your spouse grow together in mutual recognition and come to share a certain language, a particular lexicon of references. But if you marry later, when you are already essentially who you are -- as I have done, and as Butterfield must have done -- I think there's a certain area in which you must always be a stranger to your spouse, and a certain degree to which you will have to attempt to translate the understanding of the world at which you arrived in the past, as if it were in a foreign language. If Butterfield's former friends are now strangers, she must now be engaged in the work of turning strangers, including those in her own home, into friends. Does this work?

The person that I believe myself essentially to be -- a lover of beauty, an associater of the workaday and the pedestrian with transformative aesthetic experience -- seems distant now from the person who performs the actions of my everyday life. When I think about my old life, I feel a sense of profound dislocation from its suchness, which was mainly concerned with finding meaning and beauty in the mundane. Now, perhaps like Butterfield, my life is primarily taken up with attempts to get through the day, to fulfill my commitments, and to make friends of the strangers with whom I live.

It's tempting to make a little joke here about having no gay friends, which was a bon mot in the opera world back when I was in it, and referred mainly to sopranos who chose unflattering audition- or recital-wear: "She clearly has no gay friends," we would say, because, obviously, if she had any, they would have put paid to these unfortunate sartorial decisions.

But when I think about it, it strikes me that I too have made it a practice to jettison people, places, and things when I felt that they had become (to quote the Catholic writer who once asked me to marry him, and later denounced me as a blasphemer and a bad wife, mother, artist, and person) "detrimental to me spiritually," or maybe when I felt they had just grown a little tiresome. So often in my life I've wanted to change, to be different from what I've been, to become somehow better, kinder, purer, and more sincere; and getting rid of personal effects, or dumping my friends, or going to hang out in new places were symbolic gestures that helped me believe I was inching forward in what I thought was a good direction. I left a thrift-store men's cashmere overcoat hanging over a chicken-wire fence once, because I felt it represented a dark time in my life; I gave away the flowing hippie skirts I'd purchased in the hopes that they would encourage a certain man to love me, since they would signal to him that we wanted the same vaguely-conceived alternative lifestyle; I gave a pair of expensive earrings from Tiffany's to my neighbor because of their painful associations; I left boxes and boxes of books in the basement of my building for the taking. And I placed my first wedding ring on one of the side altars at my old parish church a few years after that marriage went awry, and just walked away.

And I received my conversion. And eventually I got married and had a family and then moved away in space as well as in time from the site of my old self and my former understanding. Am I like a vampire? Am I washed clean? I don't know; but I do know that, when I walk through my new neighborhood at twilight, I sometimes wish for my old life. I sometimes wish for one of my old, far-flung friends to be there, one who would understand perfectly the lexicon of this particular darkening cloud, of that particular warm light illuminating a room in a house and pouring onto the grass outside, of the scent of this particular mock-orange tree, and would say, "Oh yes -- that." I do not know yet if Rosaria Champagne Butterfield wishes for these things too. I have to keep reading.


Otepoti said...

I retrace my life every day, so I can't comment on whether it's even possible to lose one's past - how would I know? I, also, have often pondered the comparative, and, with the addition of childen, increasing introversion of a marriage compared with singlehood. I miss the ability to offer hospitality untrammeled by the needs of others in the household, and I accuse myself that I've become more selfish.

However, an inner voice protests that there's an apples-and-oranges comparison here. The individual has vanished, and family has become the unit, and while its size has made it unwieldy and sluggish to respond to the needs of outsiders, its compass is so much the greater. The acts of charity have become small and scattered, but their outreach is hugely greater. What larger charity can there be than to raise children to love and be kind?

Rosaria may have shed her gay friends; but it's at least equally likely her friends shed her; or that the cross-state move simply left them behind. At any rate, she (and we) have been promised in this life, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands. Along with persecutions, of course.

Good post, P. Don't bite any necks, now.

Pentimento said...

Just the sort of comment I was hoping for, O. Thank you for that. I love having these conversations.

Enbrethiliel said...


Last year, I chose to end a relationship with someone I had been friends with for half my life. (Which is really not that long, a fifty-something mentor told me, but which certainly seems even longer to me!) It's very hard to explain why I felt I had to do that. So far, exactly one person has heard the story and said, "I totally understand where you're coming from"--but he is someone who once faced the same choice and made the opposite decision. He doesn't regret it.

What happened was that my friend, whose parents were lapsed Catholics and who only went through the motions of baptising her because it was early in their separation from the Church, decided to return to the sacraments at last and for real. ("For real" because I'm not counting the time she got Confirmed as an adult solely because she wanted her paperwork to be complete.) After years of thinking that she never would--because of a lot of her own residual anger at the Church--I was overjoyed! It seemed like the fruit of years of prayer, and the crumbling of the last wall between real closeness between us. (Before this, I had often felt that there were so many things dear to me that I could never share with her because the subject of religion always got us fighting.)

Then I learned that she only went to Mass when she felt like it. I found out when she invited me to stay at her home for a week (because she didn't want to be totally alone in a big house) and I had to go to Sunday Mass by myself because she wasn't up for it. Was this the same woman who had been writing deeply emotional e-mails to me about the richness of her prayer life now that she had rediscovered the rosary and her new sense of the love of God when she received Communion? So she told me that a priest had advised her that it is a worse sin to go to Mass if you don't feel like it than to miss Mass for any reason. And she just didn't feel like it. Nor did she think it was a sin.

Now, is this such a bad thing? Surely there are worse things a person could do to make close friendship unbearable--and I agonised over my decision months before I made it. Was I being controlling and selfish, wanting her to conform soley to my ideas of appropriate Catholic behaviour? Was I so narrow-minded that fifteen years of friendship couldn't weigh against a new--and actually positive--change in my friend's life? Worst of all, would I make her hate the Church again if I ended our relationship for such openly religious reasons? I asked myself all these questions before anyone else who was appalled by my decision did--and none of them could stand against the real sense of anguish I felt when I learned more about her new religiosity. I really felt as if we could never be friends anymore . . . that there was no future for us. But this is so hard to explain in words . . .

(To be continued)

Enbrethiliel said...


(Part 2)

And now that I've lost her, through my own actions, well, I'm lonely. But what did I expect, right? =P I'm currently cultivating some other old friendships with people I've known even longer than I'd known her; but it hasn't been easy. For one thing, I haven't been so close to the other two friends--ironically because I chose to spend so much time with my now former friend--and so it feels like playing catch-up rather than the natural work of building a friendship. The three of us have been through so many things without each other--and been through them with other people--that I don't know if we can now fit into each other's lives in the way I desperately hope we can fit.

And now I suddenly remember that I mentioned my lost friend to you once before, perhaps two years ago, on your blog as well. It was under a post of yours about having few really close friends in your town. I told you that I had felt similar loneliness, only to look up one day and realise that my friend and I had developed a really wonderful relationship. Well, I guess I typed too soon, aye?

Oh, one more thing . . . Last night, I was listening to I Still Believe from the musical Miss Saigon and crying over it. The song is a duet between a Vietnamese girl who still dreams of her American lover and the American's new wife. (They are not in the same room, but on opposite sides of the world.) At the end, when they are singing together, it is the former who carries the lovely melody, while the latter has to sing some really choppy second vocals in counterpoint. (I have no technical vocabulary for this! Sorry!) It underlined for me that sometimes those in our past, whom we don't see anymore, can be more real than those in our present. Simply because they were there at certain times, while the others, due to no more than circumstance, were not. And fate seems so cruel.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, every morning that I remember to, mostly when I'm still lying in bed, I say this prayer from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola: "Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and all my will -- all that I have and possess. You have given all to me; to you know I return it; take and dispose of it according to your will. Give me your love and your grace, for these are enough for me."

Does it work? I don't know. If I didn't have my longing, my nostalgia, and my loneliness, I wouldn't be who I am -- which is not to say that who I am is who I'm supposed to be. And who that is, I don't really know yet.

But the people who seem to know tell us over and over again to jettison the emotional constructs of love and longing, and get in and do the hard work. Love is not an emotion, and all that. I'm quite sure this is the central challenge of my own life, and every morning that I remember to I also ask God to please, please show me how to love. I'm pretty bad at it, and I don't do it with grace. I think love and friendship to my mind have a lot to do with my sense that I should be somehow at the same time greatly admired and left the hell alone.

Apparently God's plan is that you learn these things that you -- I mean I -- piously say that I want to learn, but really don't -- best in the cauldron of family life, because it's not as easy to jettison your family members as it is your friends when they displease or offend you.

This is no criticism. I've dumped people for far less. I'm trying to figure out when one is supposed to dump a friend and when one is supposed to suck it up.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, thank you for your answer. It was exactly what I needed to read at this time. I have been tempted to think that the emotional constructs are the proof that love is real.

Pentimento said...

We've all been tempted to think that, E.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

You know when I lived in the Dallas area after college we had that kind of community. A big group of friends who were constantly in and out of each other's houses. Friends who would drop by unannounced on their way home from work, six pack of beer in hand and would end up staying for dinner and a movie. Thanksgiving feasts with more than 20 people crammed into our apartment. I was really much more gregarious back then because I did have a group of friends. And while most of us went to university together we were a pretty diverse group.

When I moved to Boston for grad school it felt so cold and lonely. I never was able to gather a group of friends like that. The friends of my roommates never seemed to become my friends too. They were pleasant enough to hang out with in a group, but somehow they would never would move to invite me to things in my own right, only ever as a part of the group and if my roommate couldn't go, then I wasn't invited. I concluded that New Englanders really are different. Or maybe I just had bad luck.

I'm still in touch with many of my college friends, though. I even went to a wedding two years ago and reconnected with a bunch of them. It's geography rather than any change in beliefs that have separated us.

Pentimento said...

My old building was like that in New York, Melanie. And then later, after I got married and had my first child, I had a really good friend who I saw several times a week with her first child, though she didn't live in the same neighborhood, and more in my neighborhood who were less qualitatively "close," but great to hang around with.

I think that adult friendships in "the rest of America" must be essentially different, because people are not in physical proximity to the same degree. There's much more fragmentation, and the time you spend driving in your car is time that in a place like New York you would actually spend interacting with other people on the street, the subway, in shops, etc.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I do think that physical proximity has a lot to do with it.

I was just thinking how interesting it is this idea of jettisoning the past. I didn't intend to leave all my friends behind, but I guess by moving across the country that's what I did. I always intended to move back to Texas, I guess. And now I wonder if that's even possible.

I wonder about this turning your back on your friends. In a way the choice was taken from me because my best friend moved to the other end of the country. Now we talk once or twice a year. Mostly my fault because I find talking on the phone to be terribly hard these days. But if we lived near each other how would I deal with her choices? Right now there's too much distance I don't even feel I can begin that conversation. But if we were seeing each other all the time... how would I navigate those waters? Maybe I'm glad I'm not faced with that choice?

E, Ten years ago I was in the place where your friend was. I only went to Mass when I felt like it. I sort of knew it was wrong, at the same time I also was astonished when I learned (from Dom's Bible study group) that it was a mortal sin and so was receiving communion afterward without going to confession. I really didn't know. Not the clear black and white teaching, only a vague sense of guilt easily dismissed because it made me uncomfortable. If anyone ever told me, it hadn't sunk in. I made my first confession as a child and then maybe went once after that, but no one ever took me and so I never developed a sense that it was really important. I mean I sort of knew that one should... but if it were really that important why did no one make sure I had plenty of opportunities to go? Why wasn't I dragged to confession every week? I'm still working that out. I know I'm supposed to go,but have a lot on issues to work through. Major anxiety and an ill-formed conscience.

I'm not saying that you made the wrong choice. I don't have all the facts or know the person involved and all the ins and outs of the relationship. Just that in the bare bones story as you gave it, I felt a strong sympathy for your friend. To what degree was her culpability reduced because a priest had okayed the behavior? That's a question I'm still struggling with.

Pentimento said...

I wondered the same about the priest. Perhaps it's a convenient excuse when we don't want to think something difficult through and take responsibility for it, but it's always carried a lot of weight for me when a priest has told me something, even something heretical.

Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie, those are fair questions. There are other incidents, plus my overall understanding of her character, which make me think it there was more to her decision than the priest's advice. (Honestly, I think he told her what she wanted to hear and she would've had trouble if he'd counseled her otherwise.) I don't know if it's fair to go into more detail, though, because it's all just my side of the story and I have no way of getting hers now.

Your questions also remind me of one recent post on your blog that I've been trying to comment on for a few days. (It's not a technical problem. But every time I start, I'm not quite sure what to say!) I mean this post: Rhetoric and Evangelization. In it, you quote someone who asks, quite reasonably: "If Catholicism is true, why isn’t everything we do ordered around this Truth?"

A few months ago, if I had been in a more confrontational mood (or in an ideal world, if I had been a better evangelist), I would have asked my friend something similar: "If you believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus, why don't you want to receive Him more often?" You might say that I preferred the pain of cutting her off to the relatively small inconvenience of coming off as an ass by explaining Church teaching to her. And that's also not very Christian, is it?

Now that you've mentioned your own lost friends, Melanie, I recall a significant difference between this friendship we've been discussing and another I still miss . . .

My uni experience was a little like yours. I made some very close friends in uni whom I had to jettison because we were all from different countries, with different homes to go back to after graduation. One of them was a Japanese girl who was an atheist and one of the best friends I've ever had. She and I actually argued about religion (and abortion!) all the time: obviously, we each thought the other was wrong! =P But there was also a bedrock of respect that we built our relationship on and things rarely got personal. (When they did, it was usually my fault, although she had a doozy of a moment herself!) I felt I could say anything to her without it being taken the wrong way, and I wanted her to feel free to say anything she wanted to me as well. And she did! =)

But for whatever reason, I didn't have that with the former friend I originally mentioned. And I found out, after several years of twisting myself in knots to pretend I didn't see her receiving Communion on a whim or didn't hear her making cheap shots against the Church, that she also been concealing an active sex life from me! (Mutual friends to me: "You really had no idea? It was so obvious!") While I was worried about coming across as judgmental, she was worried about being judged. (There's an irony here more tragi-comic than that of The Gift of the Magi!)

It's fair to say that I was deeply unsatisfied--even to the point of loneliness--with our friendship long before religious practice became an issue. Perhaps that newest development was just the excuse I needed? I really don't know. Maybe I'll need a few more years of distance before I can see things objectively. I'm far from writing my own version of Butterfield's book.

Pentimento said...

By the way, the Butterfield book is really growing on me. I've been reading a little every night. She is unflinchingly honest, and I respect that immensely.

I'm trying to sort out a difficult friendship of another kind right now, with an impoverished single mother from the Bronx who moved her last year (I've written about her here before). She was making headway but things have gone from bad to worse: her boyfriend followed her here and he's now in jail for domestic assault against her; she was evicted a few days ago; her sister, who has also moved here with her own autistic toddler, threw her out and threatened to have her arrested; after I begged her landlord to let her keep her stuff in the apartment for an extra day or two, she still couldn't get it together, and I'm pretty sure it got put out by the curb last night, including her rental furniture. Boyfriend also did significant damage to the place in his rages. I found myself driving her to the shelter with her three very little children the other night; it's a crappy hotel on the outskirts of town, and I almost cried when I saw the three little ones on that bed and I had to turn away.

I don't know what to do here, but I know A. has to get it together and be responsible, and she can't stay with me again.

Is this a friendship? I genuinely like and respect A., though I'm very upset with her right now. But she couldn't even tell me she was sorry when my mother died six months ago, so preoccupied is she -- understandably -- with the day to day.

Pentimento said...

This may be fodder for another post -- how do we really help the poor? How do we be FRIENDS with "the poor"? But I don't really have time to write it.

Enbrethiliel said...


I remember A., Pentimento. And I know what it's like to have someone in your life whom you can't help if he doesn't first help himself. But that doesn't mean I have any advice or words of comfort.

You're right that dysfunctional relationships are probably best worked out in family. You can keep your distance from a family member in the name of "tough love," with the unspoken understanding that no one is getting cut off forever.

Vaughn said...
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