I’m 25 and realised I was gay at 21. I was born in the UK to Polish parents, and have always been a practising Catholic with a deep-rooted Catholic family background. There are no gay family members that I know of. Out of my closest family, I would probably be seen as the most ‘religious’ in that: I go on retreats, have explored my faith the most (mainly due to being gay) and for a year seriously considered religious life, even visiting a couple of convents.
My faith journey
Reconciling being gay with my identity as a Catholic – intertwining it in a happy, fulfilling way into my life with God at the centre, was a terrific struggle. Realising I was gay rocked my faith and was a time of intense inner turmoil. I have reached a happy place now, where I embrace the two aspects of who I am, and I look back and realise that during this time, God was powerfully at work.
When I first realised I was gay, the kaleidoscope through which I saw the world shifted – being gay had never been in the equation of how I had imagined my life would be. Initially, I felt disillusionment and anger at God because I didn’t believe I could live out my faith and be gay in a way that made me happy and fulfilled. This was devastating to me because I felt drawn to a life with someone and I was attracted to women. And I realised living in this culture that even if I could live celibately, I would likely never meet anyone who would want to be in a relationship without any sexual intimacy.
During this time, I continued to have an inner dialogue with God, but I felt estranged from the Church. I questioned God’s plan for me – in my eyes, it was so much easier for someone who was not religious to be gay, since acting on it would not be against their beliefs, so why had I been given this cross to bear – why not someone else for whom it would be easier to carry? I asked God to take the burden away from me; I even degenerated to a puerile approach of trying to ‘bargain’ with Him – things I would promise to be or do if ‘it’ went away. I stopped going to Church for a few months. I couldn’t concentrate at Mass; my mind would be racing, I would see young married couples all around me and feel more disillusionment, and didn’t feel like I would ever fit.
This for me was a period of darkness and personal turmoil. I was largely in the closet (apart from telling my twin sister). I felt as if I was living a hollow life – people only ever saw the façade, which I tried to keep placid. But underneath there was a deep isolation, terror and shame. My relationships with family suffered. I withdrew, and my personality changed – I became subdued, yet highly defensive which I think translated as irritable – my mother has described it as a hedgehog, ready to curl up with any touch.
At about this time, my twin got engaged to her boyfriend. She seemed to have the perfect, heterosexual life ahead of her, where her love could be explicit and recognised in all the Church sacraments; she could be with a partner that the family would accept and love. I remember a chilling, despairing moment where I felt all the colour was sucked out of me – when my sister and boyfriend were described as a ‘lovely couple’ by an aunt. I thought I would never be part of a ‘lovely couple’, because first it would be with a woman (and two women wouldn’t be seen as ‘lovely’, rather some abomination), and second, I was so far from being able to be openly gay that it seemed insurmountable to actually live that life with another woman.
On my 23rd birthday, which was March 2012, I thought about how I wanted my life to be, and how far I was from that. I wanted most of all to be able to form close relationships with people, where I could be my whole self. I wanted to embrace my sexuality and find a way to flourish with that as an integral part of my life. I realised that I had to reconcile my faith and sexuality because it was not an option for me not to be Catholic. That is who I am, the core essence of me, which influences all my decisions and forms my vision and hopes for the future.
Through counselling and self-reflection, I worked through a process of self-development ad acceptance. I came out to people. My twin was the first person I came out to, and was totally accepting, to the point where she couldn’t understand the struggles I had been through! My parents, whilst not effusively supportive, have nevertheless accepted how I am and respect my decisions, but I realise that they will need time. From the faith angle, with my scientific background, I approached things as rationally and scientifically as I could, slowly weighing things up. I spoke with priests, with mixed results, and did a lot of reading and research. I attended a ‘Conscience and Church Teaching’ course by two priests who were experienced canon lawyers, which was wonderful. I learnt about the role of the primacy of conscience and the different levels of authority regarding Church teaching on sexual ethics. I studied interpretations of the supposedly ‘antigay’ verses in the Bible and realised many commonlyheld beliefs are wrong. I summarised my findings in a document for myself, and shared it with others. I joined my university Pride committee, and set up a social group for postgraduates, where I met people for the first time who were gay and we supported each other and made friends. I was concurrently a member of the Catholic Society. I made sure the people in each of these knew about my involvement with the other. I knew no other gay Catholics, so I set up an ‘LGBT and Faith’ group, which I advertised through the Catholic chaplaincy, even though it meant I was openly identified as ‘the gay one in the red hoody’ at Mass one day. I met a few other young gay Catholics, most of whom I have found have not fully reconciled their faith and sexuality, or have lingering doubt.
These experiences made me resolute to process my own view and attitude. There were struggles along the way. I was reported to the Bishop by some people in my parish, and misrepresented in some vitriolic attacks online and in social media. Some extended family in Poland continue to adjust to the idea of me being gay, and sometimes the fallout from this is difficult, but I try to make these experiences opportunities to learn and grow. At this time, I attended the Soho Masses, where there was an LGBT community. I also joined Quest, as national women’s officer. In my work for Quest, I have been open about being gay and Catholic in radio interviews on BBC Radio Norfolk and BBC Radio 4 and on TV, on ‘The Big Questions’. I continue to build a network of supportive gay Catholics who, above all, I just consider amazing people with whom I share lots of my personal faith. I have found that within that network, I have also supported them. I was fortunate to meet a gay friend who asked me about elements of my faith. He gradually felt called to explore his own faith, and when he was received into the Church, I was privileged and proud to be his sponsor. I have seen how in a small way, my life has directly benefited others. Those moments touch me and I realise that if through my personal difficulties, this was God’s purpose, then He was totally right!
Being visible as Catholic and gay
I am now totally open as Catholic and lesbian. In my Catholic communities I am open about being attracted to women, and I speak out about being Catholic in LGBT circles. In both these contexts I do this if the situation naturally arises, rather than forcing out these facts at all costs. In other words, I feel I live ‘honestly’ to who I am.
I have often found it difficult to be openly Catholic in LGBT circles. A gay colleague once asserted to me that it was impossible for me to be Catholic because I was gay. I have also challenged gay people who have expressed resentment towards me because they feel I am ‘letting the side down’ by joining the ‘haters’. These are all situations where I feel that God is asking me, through my life and through what I do, to be visible as a gay Catholic. Not ostentatiously so, but visible for other people who are struggling, to find some hope. A few people have told me that I am the first openly gay Catholic they have met. I would have loved to have known a gay Catholic who was happy and secure in themselves when I was coming out. I was initially uncomfortable with being so open about myself, because I felt exposed and vulnerable, particularly in social media, radio and TV. However, seeing how many people have been touched, I have no doubt it is the right way to be.
The beauty of being Catholic and gay
I am now at a point in my life where I am certain that how I am is good, because God made each of us in His image. I have a girlfriend who is not Catholic herself, but deeply understanding and supportive of my voluntary gay Catholic work. I see the divine in our relationship, and through expressing my love of another, and being loved back, I feel so much closer to God. I know God is in our relationship, and I know that our love is good, because God is in all love. These feelings make me feel certain that God had a wonderful plan for me when He made me gay, and I feel fortunate to be this way, with all the opportunities this gives me. I believe that having a loving, committed same-sex relationship, which includes sexual intimacy as an expression of that love, is in complete concordance with being Catholic, and in complete agreement with my conscience. I recognise that other gay Catholics might reach a different conclusion in careful consideration of their conscience where they hear the inner voice of God, and I fully respect that.
In being a gay Catholic, God has also made me question, explore my faith and inform my ideas, resulting in the situation where I think deeply about what I believe in and why. My faith is stronger now because of all of this, because I had to frantically dig around to find answers and then embed the foundations into my life. Many people can drift along, going to Church ‘out of duty’.
However, many gay Catholics bear beautiful testimony to their faith despite going through feelings of rejection or, sadly, homophobic incidents in Catholic communities. I believe I am also a more loving, tolerant and sensitive person, and these are all wonderful gifts I treasure. They make me a more compassionate human towards other humans, and I realise I am less quick to assume and make conclusions about others, because I know that despite external appearances, people often have desolate personal battles they are fighting. I also consider that gay Catholics have so much to contribute to the Church in terms of a broader view of human life and love, outside the traditional family structure. We show that we need to celebrate our differences, rather than feeling threatened by them, and to embrace others and love as much as we can, in all the ways we can.
Fundamentally, I see this as the crux of the Christian message. We are fortunate that we can bear witness to this in our own way.
- Ania Kowalski, Women’s Officer