As soon as I saw "We have white smoke" on Facebook, I tuned in to CNN to catch the latest on Pope Election '13 from the Silver Fox live in Rome. As a born and bred hard-core Catholic from the Midwest, I couldn't help but get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of it all. As with a royal wedding or the Olympic opening ceremonies, you can't help but think of the history and tradition still on display. It all brought up a lot of good memories from going to Catholic schools, being from such a devout family, and being accustomed to the formality of the Catholic Church.
But as an adult, I force myself to step back a bit from it all. It has been an ongoing internal struggle to reconcile my strict Catholic upbringing with the reality of living as a gay man. Religious prejudices and "norms" were the majority of the clamoring voices that rang through my head right before I decided to come out to my parents over the phone when I was 21. When I am back home in Wisconsin and go to church with my family, I'm always paranoid. I feel like I am wearing a gigantic rainbow-striped scarlet letter. It's like I'm with Leo DiCaprio in Inception when Ellen Page's character starts questioning the dream setting -- if I make myself too aware of the surroundings, everyone will turn on me and attack.
For the last nine years it has been an uphill battle to sort out where exactly I fit in the context of the religion I was raised on. Am I accepted enough to go to church services? Can I bring my partner of nine years with me to Mass? What if we decide to have a family? Could our children be baptized or attend Catholic schools? Would we even want them to?
The track record of our new Pope Francis I is varied and one of mixed messages. It's hard for a gay to know exactly where he may stand in this new chapter of the Catholic Church. On one hand he has washed the feet of AIDS patients and on the other hand described gay marriage as a "destructive act on God's plan." He has called out hypocrisy of priests in his region for the inappropriate treatment of the disenfranchised, citing that Jesus healed the lepers and dined with prostitutes, but then in another breath calls adoption by gays "discrimination against children," I frankly don't even understand what that means.
At times, Pope Francis I seems to be forward-thinking and accepting of those previously shunned by the church. The unfortunate reality is he likely will not change his opinion on LGBT issues. None of us are expecting to be able to walk down the aisle with our partners in a Catholic Church in our lifetime. All hope is not lost for some forward movement, however. At best, at least here in the United States, perhaps we can look forward to improving the dialogue with Catholic churches. If the LGBT community is to have any place within the church going forward, we need to see at least an attempt to reprioritize perceived values and opinions of the LGBT community.
If anything, we need to work to eradicate the shame, uncertainty, and humiliation felt by many Catholic LGBT youth. Adolescence is a hard enough time, as we all know, but being gay and young can be especially hard, particularly in religious households. Religious reasons are the number 1 reason why LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes upon coming out in the United States. LGBT youth receive mixed messages from society on whether it's OK to be gay and to be yourself, and whether "It Gets Better," but in the context of the Catholic Church you are made to feel like something is wrong with you and that you need to be fixed.
With so much dialogue in the news the past few days about the need for a more liberal pope and attitude in the church, we need to take advantage of this momentum and at least get the wheels in motion for change. Even if it means going church by church within our communities to educate and appeal to church leaders to practice what they preach (as cliche as it sounds). I challenge the Catholic Church to at least show they want to accept me or at least acknowledge there is a need to consider me as more of an equal, instead of as a threat to "God's plan." Now it's your turn, Pope Francis I, not just for me but for all the LGBT Catholics all over the world.
ANTHONY ARMSTRONG is the development manager and grant writer for the Center For Drug Free Living Inc., the largest AIDS service organization in central Florida. Armstrong is also a founding board member of the Zebra Coalition, one of the first full continuum of care housing programs for LGBT youth in the United States.