Newsletter #9: My parents' friends who died of AIDS

In today's newsletter: sexual power and the Church, academia's activists, compassionate Catholics during the AIDS crisis, and more!

Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:

  • Sex, power, and the Church

  • Academia, entertainment, activism, and social change

  • Processing our Archdiocesan synod

  • What I’m reading: Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, by Michael O’Loughlin

Sex, Power, and the Church

I recently posed the question: What if McCarrick wasn’t gay? I outlined some of the ways in which focusing on sexual orientation can distract us from the dynamics of sexual abuse, which are often oriented more towards power and framed around access to vulnerable persons. Of course, sex can serve power dynamics outside of the specific context of abuse. Consider the way in which Roger Stone characterized Roy Cohn in The New Yorker:

“‘Roy was not gay,’ Stone told me. ‘He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access. He told me his absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the I.R.S. He succeeded in that.’ Cohn was a role model for Stone.” 

Stone, who was always taken by power and luxury, admired this sort of sexual proclivity. For Stone, sex at its most admirable was not about orientation or interpersonal desire but was about the image that could be projected through it. Stone could not be “gay” because of the “effeminacy” and “weakness” associated with that identity. So he was “a man who liked having sex with men.” Stone himself seemed to want power and strength in his sexual life. This can be observed in a personals ad he and his wife once posted for sexual partners:

“‘Hot, insatiable lady and her handsome body builder husband, experienced swingers, seek similar couples or exceptional muscular . . . single men,’ the ad on the Web site stated. The ads sought athletes and military men, while discouraging overweight candidates, and included photographs of the Stones. ”

The stereotypical toxic masculinity and power that Stone sought in sexuality is also seen in the key “rules” he had laid out for himself, such as:

  • “Attack, attack, attack—never defend.”

  • “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.”

  • “The only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring.”

Stone has been known for “hand-to-hand political combat” where “the process—the battle—interests Stone more than the result.” The New Yorker suggests that this may have been his approach to sex and sexuality as well. The sexual Stone appeared to also be the political Stone. He excelled in the virtues that these two worlds shared for success. That is, the way in which Stone approached sexuality was well-suited to the type of disposition and persona needed to succeed in his work as a political consultant and strategist.

For me, this raises the question: What if McCarrick’s modus operandi when it came to sex and sexuality was also the modus operandi that made him so successful as a Catholic influencer and high-ranking member of the Church? What if the type of skills and dispositions needed to be a skilled sexual predator are also the skills and dispositions needed to be a person of influence in much of the Church? And if this is so, what would it mean to deconstruct this aspect of the clergy abuse crises?

Academia could learn from entertainment when it comes to activism

It’s been a pretty busy year for me. I work in corporate retail, and navigating the pandemic has been an interesting, challenging, and exciting experience. Because my company is based in the Twin Cities, the killing of George Floyd has also driven change in addressing diversity and inclusion.1

American corporate life is in a state of rapid transformation, with significant results. Half of my company’s stores are now led by women. Leaders have been required to study texts on racial injustice and inclusion. More and more companies are reexamining how to create inclusive environments, from promoting diverse hairstyles to adding prayer rooms to corporate buildings.

These are changes that academia has also been trying to implement, but it continues to be far behind the corporate world. Part of this may be due to academia’s inherently conservative nature: academia relies largely on the handing down of disciplines from one generation to the next, engaging in both forward development and the maintenance of traditions. But I suspect a large part of it also has to do with the ideological nature of much of the academic world. I’ve found that ideologues tend to struggle to deliver actual results. Lasting change tends to occur slowly over time through patient and persistent engagement with communities.

In its engagement with consumers, even the entertainment industry (which often leads in cultural transformation) tends to be more pragmatic, less ideological, and more in-touch with the culture. Though Mindy Kaling’s romantic comedy The Mindy Project centered on a gynecology practice and Kaling identifies as pro-choice, the show’s star and creator said the decision not to tackle abortion was intentional. In an interview with Flare magazine Kaling commented, “It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.” Though she affirms the decision of others to discuss abortion in their shows, she said it just didn’t work for the show she was creating. For her, entertainment isn’t first and foremost about politics or activism. In order to entertain, one needs to engage audiences in a way that meets them where they are at. The audience, rather than the ideologue, is the starting point for change. I suspect that some of these dynamics may help explain why academia claims to be ahead of the curve but is consistently falling behind.

Processing our Archdiocesan synod

Here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, we’ve finished the second part our Archdiocesan synod, a multi-year process aimed at hearing from the laity and setting our pastoral priorities for the next several years. The first part of the synod consisted of large listening sessions with our Archbishop. The second part consisted of a parish consultation process. During this second part, individuals across the Archdiocese gathered in small groups to pray, learn, discuss, and provide feedback.

The Archdiocese has made an explicit call for diverse participation, encouraging “fallen away” and disaffiliated Catholics to participate and share. Unfortunately, as the synod has unfolded, this call seems to have been forgotten. Much of the materials released by the Archdiocese have been unnecessarily alienating to many. In the coming week, I’ll be exploring why this happened, and what we can do to improve. Later this week you can read my letter on it to The Catholic Spirit, which will be published in Thursday’s issue. And next week’s essay will expand upon those thoughts and provide concrete recommendations for the future. If you haven’t already, subscribe now to get that essay delivered directly to your inbox!

What I’m Reading: Hidden mercy comes out into the light

A couple of years ago, I finished the first draft of a memoir. A large portion of it covered trauma I experienced as a student at Notre Dame: outing myself during an “intervention” staged by some peers, getting kicked out of my dorm because of a same-sex relationship (and also being banned from attending Mass in it), and trying to find acceptance in Catholicism. When I gave the manuscript to my parents to read, I was offering a story that I’d hidden from them for years. I’m not sure I was prepared for the effect it would have on them. My father was furious. The story brought anger towards the Church, and towards a priest that had rejected me. My parents finally understood why I had struggled with a hatred for my undergraduate college. Finally, we could work on healing, together.

Though I decided to scrap that manuscript and do a rewrite, the effect of it has stayed with us. It’s played an important role in my life. It transformed my family, for the better. We can see each other now. And my father’s anger developed into something else. He told me that it fundamentally changed his work as a doctor. If he works with gay patients, he now asks them about their partners. He tries to be a source of comfort to LGBTQ+ patients who may have experienced rejection by friends and family in my hometown in Texas. He and my mother delight in the gaybors who moved in down the street from my childhood home. Through my memoir, I shared myself with them, and it changed all of us. We experienced another change while I was reading Michael O’Loughlin’s Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear.

I cried my way through the first three chapters of O’Loughlin’s upcoming book (now available for preorder). They were a sort of love story to the gay community, from Catholics whose only reason to love us was an abiding recognition of our humanity. In the early chapters, we encounter Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a nurse and member of the Hospital Sisters of Saint Francis. As the AIDS crisis began, and medical professionals often refused to treat AIDS patients (largely gay men), Sister Carol decided to make care for AIDS patients and outreach to the gay community her personal mission. She fought with insurance companies on behalf of young men in small towns and spent several months in New York City to learn at the center of the crisis.

She stood in sharp contrast to much of the Catholic community, which blamed and condemned the sick and dying for their “sinful lifestyles.” O’Loughlin compassionately weaves together stories in which the Church is not just good or bad, but is a complex institution in which both good and bad, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness, can be found. In the end, it is mercy that is worth recalling. His book is the untold story of how Catholics and Catholic institutions were pioneers and national leaders in AIDS care, housing, and outreach, and how Catholics at the forefront of this work overcame the fear, skepticism, and (at times) hatred of much of the Catholic community.

In many ways, this book couldn’t be timelier. The feeling of unknown danger unfolding from a mysterious new disease in the 1980s brought me back to 2020, with a mysterious coronavirus just arriving in the United States. But while we praised our healthcare workers in the early days of COVID, nurses like Sister Carol who served AIDS patients were often looked upon with astonishment and even credulity. Many medical professionals refused to help people with AIDS, and even recommend keeping a distance from the “gay cancer.” When Sister Carol and another Hospital Sister opened a drop-in center for people with HIV and AIDS, postal workers refused to bring mail inside. When the Archdiocese of New York decided to open a shelter for people with AIDS, several hundred Catholics signed a petition against it, and parents threatened to pull their kids from the school of the parish which would host the shelter. Those Catholics succeeded in blocking the shelter (though the Archdiocese eventually opened a shelter elsewhere, without alerting the laity ahead of time).

These dynamics that O’Loughlin explores are familiar to LGBTQ+ Catholics today. In recent years, a number of Catholic schools have chosen to hire gay faculty who had disclosed same-sex relationships, only to fire those faculty after irate parents found out about those relationships later (sometimes through searching for marital records on government databases when faculty and staff have tried to keep their relationships private). The harsh judgment of the laity sometimes overcomes the compassion of our leaders. Other Catholic schools, including those in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, have policies of forbidding admission to children of same-sex couples. For these Catholic schools (and Kansas City’s Archbishop), the untouchable disease of the “intrinsic disorder” extends even to children of same-sex couples.

Sister Carol would have none of that then. I’m sure she’d have none of it now. Hidden Mercy isn’t a story of rejection. It’s a story of love and the pursuit of justice, a story of Catholics accepting ridicule from their peers, and even from their leaders, in order to love the vulnerable. Some professionals who refused to work with people with Aids referred to Sister Carol derisively as “that woman.” Others found out about her AIDS ministry and accused her of being gay. (To this, she responded, “That’s for me to know and you to find out. That has nothing to do with what we’re dealing with here.”) O’Loughlin is compassionate with each person who steps into his narrative. Even Cardinal Joseph O’Connor, who often received the ire of the gay community, is offered redemption as a complicated and multi-faceted figure. O’Loughlin both shares and creates stories of mercy, stories that I have never heard and that must be told. These stories are LBGTQ+ history. They are Catholic history. They are American history.

And they are openings to other stories. After reading those early chapters, I called my parents to tell them about it, and to insist that they read it.

“Yeah,” my dad said, “I guess you were too young to really realize what was going on with the AIDS crisis. But for us, as young doctors, it was a really big deal.”

My mom said, “I had several of my medical school classmates and closest friends die of AIDS.”

“One of my classmates that died of AIDS.” my dad said. “He was one of my best friends.”

I knew my parents had gay friends in college and medical school. But I never knew any of their names. I just thought that maybe those friendships had ended or faded away after school. I never made the connection to the time, to the crisis, to the epidemic that the world associated with people like me. Those friends didn’t just fade away. They died. They never existed to me. Until now.

Hidden Mercy is an important book, not only because it offers the overlooked stories of a nurse-nun, and a gay priest activist, and Catholics who struggled with the loss of loved ones. Within O’Loughlin’s book, I discovered a bit of my own story as a gay Catholic, finding connection to gay Catholics and their allies who came before me. And not only that. Within the book, I discovered parts of my parent’s stories, the stories of people they loved that were taken away and hidden from me by death and the passage of time. Through O’Loughlin’s book, I got to meet beautiful people hidden in the memories of my parents. I can now pray for them by name.

You should read this book, because in it you will find your story, the stories of your parents and loved ones and neighbors and Church and country. It will show you who Catholics have been, and who we could choose to be today. I hope that you will read and share O’Loughlin’s book and bring all the hidden mercy out into the light.

Hidden Mercy can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. You can learn more about the author Michael O’Loughlin here.

You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.


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