Halloween Hauntings in Hallowed Suburbia

Letters from the Lesbeyond

by Jennifer Schumaker

Let’s talk about ghosts. My brother is a ghost. I am a ghost. My mother’s parish priest, likewise.

My heterosexuality is dead and buried and may it rest in peace. My brother was tragically killed in a car accident eight years ago. I am a lesbian living in the ‘burbs, a time zone away from the ‘burbs inhabited by my parents. But when I came out, I became dead to those Catholic parents.

Now I hear that my mother’s new priest looks just like my dead brother. Apparently, every Sunday, my mother mourns her lost son anew.

There is much haunting afoot, not the least scary of which is the lesson that living my sexuality is a sin. It was taught to me by Mother Church and is still being fed like stale grain from dilapidated silos to countless lesbian and gay youth. Hearing about my mother’s anguish at “seeing (my brother) right in front of me every Sunday” when she refuses to see her living daughter drove me to reach out my transparent hand and make a phone call.

Skeleton Boy

I called my mother’s priest. I left a cryptic message and asked that he call me back. I hung up the phone and immediately regretted calling. I am mostly “over” my Catholic thing and pretty well over being disowned by my “devout” parents. But the message was left and I forgot about it. Later that very night, Father Mark called. In tones of candor, empathy, and promised confidentiality he listened to the story of my family. He tried to be supportive and told me something I’ve heard officials from other denominations say: “We encourage all parents to love their children unconditionally and not to judge them.”

Well, that sounds great. Or it used to when I was more naive. Nice advice, right? But he was speechless at my response. Does he really not understand that there are hardcore homophobes in his congregation? Some will, as they put it, “love the sinner.” But for those who are most homophobic, and in may parents’ case inordinately concerned with making sure the other parishioners and neighbors don’t find out, there is a frighteningly simple barrier to Father Mark’s loving suggestion.

Here is a quote from my own mother. Perhaps you’ve heard something like it. “I do love my daughter. I’ll always love her. But the Church teaches that the way she lives is a sin. I can’t reinforce her sinful lifestyle.” But here’s the stabber: “I’d still love her if she were an axe murderer, but you wouldn’t expect me to validate her in her sin. You wouldn’t expect me to have an axe murderer in my home.”

Sound extreme? Well, if you haven’t experienced this particular type of rejection in your life first hand, then I am glad for you, but of course you know it is out there among us, in the shadows and the light, casting its creep down our spines. Believing that because I have left a church that calls lesbians and gay men “sinners,” said church is now irrelevant to me is beyond naive.

I am now a happily settled Unitarian Universalist, a faith that strives to welcome everyone from everywhere. But like anyone who has left or has no use for a church that discriminates against LGBT people on so-called moral grounds, or has found one of those rare Catholic or other congregations that unofficially welcomes us, I will not slip into thinking that the rest of those groups are irrelevant. I won’t turn my back to the teeth of the monster. There are many visages to many churches. Some are beautiful while some are able to compensate for other less beatific aspects. But the homophobic face of the Roman Catholic Church, with its rule condemning lesbians and gay men, still bites like Dracula.

Many of us heal ourselves with a strategy of staying away. If these ancient churches come around at all, they will be the last, and we cannot afford to use our creative and life energies to move such huge, old institutions filled with skeletons. We have a right to lick our wounds and live authentically, rather than continue to haunt these congregations. We have a right to find new churches or groups that affirm who we are and receive our gifts in return. But the church that condemns us, whether we were ever formally connected to it or not, is still relevant. The danger does not lie inherently in the de facto public statements or the railings or whisperings from the pulpit. It is in the stranglehold on our families.

So I talked with Father Mark. I told this shepherd of an affluent suburban flock that his advice would not fly. It would not protect me or my friends from the fangs of hatred nor the deathly chill of ostracism. I reminded him that he had many, many families with LGBT members and that not talking about us and/or giving the “unconditional love” speech did not cut it. I spoke with the calm of the dead, but I was relentless in my message, just like his church always was with me.

I asked him whether he knew any gay or lesbian people. He said, “Yes, and many make the effort to stay chaste.” I nearly dropped the phone. Axe murder the sexuality it took me 34 years to rescue? Add that to the phantoms pining among us? I became emphatic with this well-meaning, presumably celibate man as I hailed my sexuality as a beautiful, integral part of myself that I would never, ever again allow to be asphyxiated. It would live and breathe in the dark and the light.

How many ghosts are seated in Father Mark’s pews every Sunday? These ghosts of the sons, daughters, parents, nieces, nephews, cousins, sisters, and brothers who disappear when their family members enter the hallowed sanctuary? Before our conversation, Father Mark did not know that the ornate bench in his church’s garden, donated by my parents in memory of their beloved son, would never provide rest for the banished daughter. Father Mark, who else haunts this place that purports to offer peace and salvation?

I do not presume to predict what this particular priest with the phantom face of my brother will do with our conversation. I left things my asking him to keep his heart open to what we talked about and to look for any openings for dialogue or healing. I guess I was trying to start something, to materialize out of my ghostly manifestation over the phone, to help move something in the right direction through a call from the Lesbeyond.

I know that I’ll never go back to the Church, which he suggested, but I also know it is not irrelevant to me. Not as long as the Holy See tells my mother and father not to see me. Other parents remain in their religions and disregard such judgments because they want to have relationships with their LGBT children. But for those who need a validation on their bigotry, the Church provides the perfect tool for damnation. Damnation in another’s eyes is something to which I can refuse to give credence, choosing self-love instead. But it can never be irrelevant. It is hatred thriving among us and cannot be ignored. It is living destruction.

Halloween is upon us. Whom do you know who sees you as a ghost and perhaps influences others’ beliefs? Reach out a haunting hand and feel it solidify as you touch one who previously looked through you. As for me, my relationship with my mother will continue to rest in peace, but who knows? And I may check in with Father Mark again sometime.

And for this Halloween, as in the past, I will dress up my children in their costumes, because in our family we only have to play at being something we are not. Whatever masks and makeup they put over themselves on ‘Hallow’s Eve, I still see them: My oldest boy, Harry Potter nut, clarinet natural, and Yu-Gi-Oh aficionado, I see you. My spitfire girl who can scale a 25-foot rock wall, lights up a stage, and loves pink and tutus, I see you. My math whiz, perfect student with girls already chasing him at 6 years old, I see you. Any my littlest boy who loves dogs, sparkling pink jewels, and choreographs show tunes in the car, I see you. I see you all. There are no ghosts in this family.

(“Letters from the Lesbeyond” is a column Jennifer wrote for Update, Southern California’s oldest GLBT newspaper. This is one of the articles which chronicle my lesbian suburban pioneer adventure and reflections in the northern area of San Diego County, California. An earlier version of this column appeared in Update Issue #1140, October 30, 2003. Update closed it’s doors in April 2006.)

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