“For I know the plans I have for you:” The coming out story of a queer Catholic raised in the Purity Culture Movement part 2 by Emma Cieslik

You can read part 1 here.

Growing up, I sat through lessons about how my body was inherently evil, that my thoughts and attractions were sinful and unhealthy. I grew up in the age of the Purity Culture Movement, the height of purity culture dated between the 1990s and early 2000s, amid the flush of “modest is hottest” theologies. I grew up surrounded by language codified around victim-blaming, slut-shaming and heteronormativity. I had attended retreats where we were told to pray for our future husbands, where we placed white roses on the altar as an homage to our purity in veneration of the Virgin Mary. I did not wear a purity ring or sign a purity pledge, but the expectations placed on me reinforced the ideas embedded in these objects none the less. I learned over and over to keep my candle unlit until marriage.

I had repressed my sexuality so far that it felt non-existent. I had shamed and punished myself for years whenever I felt any sexual attraction. If I felt ashamed of my attraction to men, my response to my feelings towards women was far worse, avoiding the eyeline of Victoria Secret models and magazine covers. I didn’t know who to talk to about these feelings—I was conditioned that my thoughts about men were sinful but forgivable. Everyone struggles with attraction prior to marriage. But who could I ask or talk to about my attraction to women? I was worried that what I told a priest in confession would somehow make its way back to my parents or friends. Despite their unconditional love, I worried that this would be the line in the sand, a sin so ugly and unnatural that I wouldn’t be welcome back in our Church.

The issue was that as I sat down for the first time in summer 2021 after Replogle’s interview to Google “purity culture,” I only encountered books and resources centered around the American Evangelical Church. The most widely publicized story is that of Linda Kay Klein, a straight woman who joined an evangelical church when she was 13. She wrote about her experiences in her memoir Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (2018, Atria Books). As Klein describes in her book, young women in her church bore the burden of keeping male sexuality in check by thinking and behaving in a way that denied their own sexuality, often involving taking a purity pledge, wearing modest clothing, and practicing abstinence until marriage. Her upbringing in strict purity culture has affected every subsequent relationship and her marriage to this day.

I am Catholic and with that religious identifier comes a different set of ideologies and expectations. While many, but not all, Protestant denominations, such as some Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, and others, have welcomed their LGBTQ+ parishioners with open arms, rainbow flags on windows or front church signs, and PRIDE parade floats, the Catholic Church still holds its position that gay people cannot be formally married in the Church. Although Pope Francis asked “Who am I to judge?”eight years ago in response to the identities of gay Catholics, the question remains unanswered as concern has been growing among lay Catholics about a lack of action, or rather problematic proactive steps, taken by church leadership in the United States and worldwide in the past year.

While I want to be hopeful that one day my Church will accept me, that I will not leave my faith community like Replogle, I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. On December 9th, James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest and activist, called attention to guidelines released by the Diocese of Marquette in Michigan this past July 2021. Martin stated the diocese holds that “a person who publicly identifies as a different gender other than his or her biological sex or has attempted ‘gender transitioning’ may not be Baptized, Confirmed, or received into full communion in the Church.” In essence, these guidelines indicate that people in same-sex relationships and transgender parishioners cannot be baptized, confirmed, or receive Holy Communion, essential steps for this person to reach salvation.[1] This is not a new idea for the Catholic Church, given that the Vatican released educational guidelines in June 2019 stating that the identities of trans people disrupt an ordained concept of nature.[2]

As the growth of national organizations like DignityUSA, New Ways Ministry, and the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry in the past decade indicate, more and more Catholic LGBTQ+ individuals and allies are eager to push for acceptance. I am part of this growing pressure. I was baptized and confirmed. I am a cradle Catholic whose faith is so integral to her personhood that she remained in the closet for 22 years. I accepted my internalized homophobia, bought into purity culture, fully believed myself unworthy of love, unworthy of God’s sacrifice because of my sexuality. I didn’t believe that my sexual and religious identity could coexist, so I decided to choose. After moving to Washington, D.C. for graduate school this past year, I was amazed to learn that DC has a whole LGBTQ+-affirming Catholic congregation—Dignity/Washington —devoted to creating safe spaces for people like me.

This is why Replogle’s interview touched a nerve—it opened my eyes to why I was such an invested player in the fight for acceptance and recognition. I was so eager to dismantle purity culture and homophobia within American Christian communities through oral history research because I was trying to dismantle it inside myself at the same time, without really knowing. On that cold Tuesday morning in March 2021, I discovered something about myself that my Church and my own past self didn’t want me to acknowledge or accept. Nine months later, right before heading home for Christmas, I came out to my parents over FaceTime as bisexual. It took some explaining what that word meant, how long I had known, but it felt incredible freeing. This bunch of knots in my stomach, this repression that kept me perpetually on the edge, was finally released. It felt incredibly empowering but also exhausting to finally be my authentic self. Even now, I feel hesitant coming out of the closet at the age of 22. It sometimes feels like I am arriving to a party late with a last-minute invitation and without knowing the dress code or lingo. I know now, however, after hearing Replogle’s story, after her willingness to be her authentic self and to allow me to document her story for future historians, that representation is a key aspect of advocacy and progress. Sharing my story about being a purity culture survivor, not a victim, will create space for other queer people in the world who are struggling with their own sexuality and gender expression, who are just now putting together the pieces after years of repression and trauma. If anything, else, I want someone, somewhere out there, to know that they are not alone in how they feel, not alone in who they are.


[1] While the Diocese of Marquette notes that gay and transgender parishioners can participate in these sacraments if they repent through reconciliation—remember that this was something that I even felt uncomfortable doing for fear of being outed in my faith community or to my parents—it would mean ending relationships and abandoning gender identity that many may have already taken physically steps to affirm. These guidelines and the subsequent uproar speak to growing concern among Catholic membership about acknowledging that LGBTQ+ members exist within the Catholic Church and that this religious institution needs to take proactive steps to safeguard their rights, relationships, and identities.

[2] As of March 2021, the Vatican, specifically the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reaffirmed that priests are not allowed to bless same-sex relationships. Despite the Vatican stating it is not “unjust discrimination,” this message, approved by Pope Francis, holds that same-sex relationships fall under sexual activity outside of marriage, which it still holds is a union between a man and woman. The Diocese of Marquette follows this same logic, stating that “the status of same-sex couples can never be regularized.” Most recently on December 13th, the Vatican again came under fire for removing a reference to New Ways Ministry, a U.S.-based Catholic LGBTQ+ advocacy group, on the Vatican website although later apologizing.

BIO: Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a public historian and emerging museum professional eager to explore and curate the intersection of religion and gender and sexuality. She has conducted oral history, archival, and ethnographic research among different religious and LGBTQIA+ communities, and hopes to highlight more difficult conversations in American religious history through intersectional museum collecting and curation.



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3 replies

  1. Thank you, Emma, for this two-part post telling about your particular journey through discrimination fueled by your faith community. I like this: “I was so eager to dismantle purity culture and homophobia within American Christian communities through oral history research because I was trying to dismantle it inside myself at the same time, without really knowing.” I think we read, write, and research a subject best when the subject is personally meaningful to us.

    Like

  2. Yes! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know there are readers who will find themselves in it and feel as if they are not alone and be empowered by reading it. I hadn’t known about the movement in the Catholic Church you talk about, and I’m glad to learn about it!

    Like

  3. I admire what you’re doing!! It seems to me that churches are doing the best to define how to be a Christian.

    Like

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