A few years ago, I was on a studio-based television show. One of my fellow guests was a reasonably well-known Catholic priest. He was in a buoyant, perhaps reckless mood, pepped up by the adrenalin surge that comes with the nervous anticipation of a live appearance before the nation. And he was charmingly, delightfully camp.
He flirted harmlessly with everybody, made amusingly risqué comments to the make-up ladies about another male guest who had just sat in the same chair, created self-consciously exaggerated gestures with his hands. He was for all the world like Mary O’Rourke in a dog collar.
I watched on the television in the green room as he went live on air, riveted to see what the nation would make of this camp clerical persona. But the persona had vanished. The priest had performed an exorcism on himself. It would not be true to say that he was now a paragon of macho manliness. But there is a priestly demeanour – soft, asexual, unthreatening, controlled, precise – and he seemed to have just slipped it on like a mask. He was fluent and self-confident and charming, but all the campy exaggerations were gone. The charm was now bland, the body language stilted, the voice half an octave lower.
I have no idea whether or not the priest in question is gay and it’s none of my business anyway. Being camp doesn’t mean you’re gay and most gay men are not camp. But it was pretty clear, at least, that he was quite comfortable, behind the scenes, with a version of himself that matched a certain kind of gay male persona. And equally clear that he could switch that persona off at will, that he could be a different person on the altar, on the pulpit, in a parishoner’s home, on television. Maybe he had worked out some kind of compromise with himself and, if so, he seemed able to manage it with admirable agility.
Everybody who has had contact with clergy over the years knows that there are many, many priests who are gay. How could it be otherwise? At the very least, one would expect the same proportion of homosexuality in the priesthood as in the general population. But – and Colm Toibín has written particularly perceptively about this – the likelihood is that the proportion within the priesthood is actually significantly higher than among the general population of men.
Sexuality is a very troubling issue for young gay men, especially if they come from families where coming out would be impossible. The celibate priesthood seems to offer a refuge from those storms of doubt and guilt. Even when it becomes clear that the storms will not subside, the black suit and white collar create a decent disguis
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