“My Big Hope Is That This Will Help Catholic Families to Be Better at Loving LGBT People”

A banner praising Pope Francis hangs in downtown Philadelphia ahead of his September 2015 visit.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The World Meeting of Families is a pretty big deal. Established by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican-sanctioned conference provides a forum for Catholics to discuss questions pertaining to families worldwide. Some of the most divisive social issues—abortion, birth control, marriage, and sexuality—fall under that umbrella. And for a really big finish, the pope shows up at the end. This year, the meeting will be held in Philadelphia, and for the first time in the conference’s 21-year history, it will feature a presentation by an openly gay man.

That the openly gay man is 40-year-old Ron Belgau, a celibate “Side B” gay Christian, makes this milestone a complicated one for the larger LGBTQ community. There’s a lot that’s frustrating about Belgau’s beliefs regarding sexuality and religion as viewed from a mainstream, liberal perspective—particularly his belief that sex is only appropriate within a heterosexual marriage, in accordance with his church’s doctrine. There are many Catholics who favor a doctrinal change on this issue, and they and their organizations have been excluded from this week’s celebrations.

Still, the World Meeting of Families could have made a far worse choice for someone to talk about homosexuality. Until the rise to prominence of Belgau and his Spiritual Friendship blog, the Catholic organization that addressed homosexuality in keeping with the teachings of the church was Courage, which promotes orientation change and discourages gay Catholics from even identifying as gay, lest they define themselves by their sin.  Instead, they recommend that such people refer to themselves as “same-sex attracted,” so as to more completely distance themselves from the larger LGBTQ community. Belgau does not do this. He considers himself a gay man and, at least to a certain point, he advocates for empathy and understanding to be shown to all gay men and lesbians, not just the celibate ones.

Belgau understands what it feels like to grow up gay in a religious home, to fear the reaction of his family, and to feel trapped between his faith and his unchanging, innate sexual orientation. On Thursday, Sept. 24, he’ll bring his story to a place few other queer people’s stories would be welcomed.

Last Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Belgau. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.

Tell me a little bit about why you were selected. When and how did you come to be a presenter at the World Meeting of Families?

I believe I was first invited to speak with the people involved in the planning way back in May of 2014. My final notification was in the fall of last year, I think. It was an interview process where we went over my ideas and what I could say. What concerns they had about what I would say, and how to avoid …

Heat? Controversy?

[Laughing.] … how to avoid bomb-throwing. The idea is to talk in an honest way about the experiences of Catholic families, so that families will have ways of dealing with this issue that is consistent with church teaching. My mom and I are both Catholic, and we’ll be engaging in a back and forth that focuses on our personal experience, while also addressing larger concerns in the church.

Do you expect to piss off a lot of liberals? Can I anticipate strong lines about the definition of marriage, for instance?

Well, I’ll be agreeing with the church’s teaching. I won’t be saying anything promoting changes in the church’s teaching on homosexuality. I’m more interested in inviting people to hear about God’s love for every person than I am in pissing anyone—conservative or liberal—off. 

One of the criticisms that I’ve heard from the LGBTQ community is that you and other celibate Christians are trying to convert the rest of us. For the record, can you estimate the percentage of your time that you spend trying to convince secular gays to stop having romantic relationships and convert to Catholicism?

[Laughing.] I would say that’s a very, very small percentage of my time. I have secular gay friends. Whenever we talk to people who we disagree with, on some level we want them to come around to our way of thinking, but I wouldn’t really say I go for the hard sell.

My main goal is to reach out and encourage people who feel trapped because they believe what the church teaches about sex but feel that this leaves them no way to have a meaningful life. That’s who I’m talking to most of the time and trying to find ways to help people who agree with church teachings to live out their convictions and be welcomed and supported by other Christians as they do so. 

Tell me about what you’ll be saying and about your hopes for what this presentation could accomplish.

My big hope is that this will help Catholic families to be better at loving LGBT people. A lot of Christians have a skewed picture of what it means to be faithful to what the Bible says about homosexuality.

One of the most difficult parts of the presentation will be talking about my dad. My dad was 44 when I was born, so he’s even older than most parents of children my age, and when I was young, he could be extremely homophobic. In part it was probably because he suspected I was gay and thought I’d live a lonely and sad life, and he was trying to scare me out of it—and in part it was just the way the culture was at that time. It was a very homophobic culture.

It was extremely painful. In many ways we had a very good relationship, but this drove a terrible wedge between us as I began to realize I was gay and to wonder, Will I be kicked out of the family?

Later, my dad apologized, and we had to rebuild that relationship. I don’t talk about this much, because I love my dad, and I don’t want to run him down in public. But as my mom and I were preparing [the presentation], it was my dad who said we had to talk about that and talk about how that did such damage to our relationship. He knew there were other fathers out there who might react how he reacted, and talking about this and saying it must not happen again—especially in the context of the World Meeting of Families—is so important for that 17-year-old in the pews, struggling with his sexuality. 

I don’t think my 17-year-old self could ever have imagined my dad being as passionate as he is about wanting to protect kids from homophobia. But it’s a reminder everyone can grow and transform. 

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.