Category: Religion

An Open Letter to Matthew Dooley

NOTE: On March 6th, Matt Dooley, a senior at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the ND tennis team, came out publicly in an essay published on Instead of writing to Mom this week, I decided to write to Matt instead.

Dear Matt,

You don’t know me from a hole in the wall, and the first time I heard about you was in an article published on Huffington Post earlier this month.

IMG_0022Despite the fact that we have never met, I feel like I do know you. You grew up in a traditional, Catholic home, just like I did. You realized you were gay in middle school but felt compelled to hide it for many years, just like me. You were driven by internalized homophobia and shame to attempt suicide, and although I did not attempt it, the thought was never far from my mind.

In your essay published on, you write beautifully about the darkness and pain of coming to terms with something about yourself that you wished desperately not to be true. You described Notre Dame as “a pressure cooker for someone struggling with his sexual orientation,” a place where you grew to believe that your true, immutable self was “wrong, undeserving of respect.”

I recognized those feelings from my own experiences in Catholic schools, from first grade through fifth, and then again in high school and at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The Catholic Church I grew up in bestowed a strong foundation in life, encouraged me to be gracious, kind, giving, and loving, and was intimately bound up in the life of my extended family. Yet it also taught me that I was a sinner because of an intrinsic, irreversible part of who I am, and hearing that message in church and in school caused me a great deal of pain.

You are 22, and at 46 I am old enough to be your father. I teach high school students who are just four or five years younger than you, and I marvel at how different their experience is from my own high school experience. I know that many more young people today are comfortable with their sexual orientation than I was, or my friends were, when we were in high school. Although not naïve, I am consistently started with the amount of normalcy that seems to come with being gay today, and on the one hand I feel an abiding sense of hope for you and your generation.

That is why I find the fact that I identify so clearly with you remarkably disturbing. Your essay was a reminder that all is not okay, and that as a society we still have a long way to go. We still live in a society that, all too often, finds fault with those who identify as anything outside the heterosexual norm. So many in the Catholic Church still, despite the Pope’s recent overtures to the contrary, preach and practice intolerance. Young gay men and women still contemplate, and unfortunately attempt, suicide. I am desperate for more change.

Your experience does, however, reinforce the hope that I feel for the future. Just like you, I was most terrified to admit I was gay, and horrified that I would have to share this news with family and friends. Your family, and your friends, responded like my own: with open arms, acceptance, and unconditional love. You are out at school and on your team, and finding support and encouragement from an unlikely place: conservative, Catholic ND (I know its particular conservatism well, by the way; my dad and brother are alums, and I visited South Bend often).

Deciding to be out, not just to your teammates but in the national press as well, is incredibly brave. I am thrilled that most of the feedback you have gotten is positive; this is a harbinger of better times to come for LGBT folks. It is also a testament to who you are as an honest, authentic, courageous individual that those closest to you would respond with love and support. I remember how important it was to hear the words that your teammate Greg said when you came out to him: “This doesn’t change anything.” It may not change anything for others, but we know that just hearing those words helps us feel more comfortable in our own skin, decreases our shame,  and enables us to be more authentic each day.

I take great comfort in the fact that I can be open and out in my everyday life. Not only do my colleagues and supervisors at the public high school where I teach know I’m gay, but the students do as well. I married the love of my life in a public ceremony in front of a huge gathering of family and friends.   My husband and I are present and involved at the elementary school our two children attend (we adopted, but there are so many avenues for you to pursue if and when you are ready for kids).

My hope for us and our world is simple: that those we come in contact with—be it a kid reading about you in the press or a future patient at your medical practice, some kid in one of my classes or a parent at my kids’ school—get to know us for all of who we are, and think to themselves: “Wow. What a great guy.”

And that’s that.

Best wishes for a full and fantastic future,


Venial Worries and More

Dear Christopher,

OK, I am a worrier. I admit it.  Well not all the time do I admit it.  Most times I like to pretend I’m relaxed. But I have the badges: sleepless nights and lots of wrinkles. I am glad kids growing up today have Mark Zmuda, a gay administrator in Seattle, to look up to.  But even in an era of Ellen DeGeneres, Neal Patrick Harris (and his very cute twins) and the out Mayor of Seattle, I do not think the time is over for gay kids and gay adults to feel totally accepted. I worry about the drunken sports fan or even the celebrity or politician who proclaims his intolerance of gay people.  These people often self-righteously couch their beliefs as part of their religion. Scary!! Just look at that oddball from Duck Dynasty, whom I never heard of before the kerfuffle about his anti-gay remarks.  And what about Michael Sam, the football player who came out last week?  Yes he received lots of positive feedback, but also lots of horrible hate speech on social media as well.

While I know you are a confident man I worry about your kids, about your brother Mark’s kids, about your cousin Lillian’s kids.  Those kids love their gay dads and gay uncles. How awful for them to be placed in a position to feel their family disrespected.  And sometimes when you travel out of the safe zone of liberal Seattle I worry about your physical well-being.  I shouldn’t have to worry about that at my age.  I should worry about cancer and heart attacks, about global warming, and the do-nothing Congress but I shouldn’t have to worry about some bigots harming my children and grandchildren. I remember the mother of one of my wonderful African-American high school students said to me years ago, “ I worry about him every time he goes out the door.”  Now I am in her shoes. Your skin color does not call attention but your family does. When you and Patrick go out with your kids you announce who you are.  You are proud of that and so are your family and friends, but what about intolerant others?

When you told me about the firing of the Seattle Catholic school administrator, Mark Zmuda, over his marriage to a man, it touched lots of old wounds.  It plunged me right back to my high school days.  Yet again the Catholic Church is obsessing about sexual behavior just as I experienced it in the past.

As a kid growing up in the 50’s I remember clearly the strict rules taught us girls in my Catholic high school.  Our nun teachers and the priests stressed the grave “sins of the flesh”, just at a time when we were discovering we had flesh!! We agonized over which kind of kissing was venial and which kind was mortal sin.  Sometimes we forgot in the heat of the moment with a boyfriend.  No one I knew would ever consider “going all the way.”   That for sure would get you sent to hell and to the home for unwed mothers.

In reading the New Testament many times I am struck by how little Jesus had to say about sex, but how much he had to say about the “good news” of love and acceptance. In spite of the wrongheaded decision by the board of trustees, that message seems to have connected with the students at Mark Zmuda’s high school. They seem appalled by the firing.  Right from the time when they learned about it, they have held sit-ins and have publicly protested both the school’s action and the archdiocese’s defense of it. I want to believe the message of Jesus got through, despite the damaging messengers. The students seem to know what’s right. Too bad the administration doesn’t.

So there is some hope for my worrying.  Even the President and the First Lady supported Michael Sam.  In addition, there are many out gay celebrities.  Ellen DeGeneres’s popularity seems undimmed. Neil Patrick Harris and his husband very publicly post photos of their twins.  The Mayor of Seattle and his husband led the march for the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl parade. Yes, encouraging to say the least.  But, still, can you blame a mother for worrying?

Love, Mom

Mark Zmuda, 1983, and Me

Dear Mom,

I’m going to take you for a little walk down memory lane back to the year 1983. Ronald Reagan was president (I know…deep breath), in September I started my sophomore year at St. Joe’s, and you were teaching high school English.  That fall I was cast in Annie, my first play at Mt. St. Mary’s, and with my new friends Sue and Denise and Jim and Anthony, I started attending the all-ages Sunday night disco dances at that nightclub near the University of Buffalo.  In my preppy button down shirts and corduroy pants, I danced to “Lucky Star,”  “Come On Eileen” and “Karma Chameleon” and I thought to myself that I might be gay.  I was terrified.

It was during those early and mid-80s that you proudly told me that you were watching MTV to “keep up on the videos.”  Did I laugh out loud? You, an old geezer in my eyes at 40, what could you possibly know about Madonna, Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Culture Club?  Now, some thirty years later, I am teaching high school English and getting ready to parent two teens of my own.  Driving to and from work, I tune in to top 40 radio stations, and listen with interest when Isabella tells me about new singers and groups she likes.  I get it now. An old geezer myself, I spend the day working with teens and nights with a tween, and in an effort to seem not so much like a dinosaur, I too am trying to keep up.

In the fall of 2008 my students first told me about a local rapper named Macklemore.  This was years before he burst onto the national scene, and although I took note of the name, I didn’t bother to track down any of his music.  It was October of that year that you and dad came to Seattle to stay with the kids while Patrick and I got legally married in California.  Of course it was also the year that, just weeks after signing our papers, voters in California passed Proposition 8 reversing the law that allowed us to get married.  That same night, Obama was elected president.

When I was at St. Joe’s, I did not know, or know of, one openly gay or lesbian adult.  There were no politicians, Hollywood stars, or sports figures, no teachers, doctors or lawyers who confidently and unequivocally came out publically and said “I am gay.”  The good Christian Brothers at Joes taught us that homosexuality was a sin, an abomination. Looking around, I was convinced that if I wanted to fall in love, get married, and have kids, I best not be gay.  And so I prayed, and tried, and hoped for it not to be true about me, because boy, did I want the spouse and the family of my own.

Today, there are some lucky young teens who attend Eastside Catholic High School, just outside of Seattle. They have a wonderful role model in Mark Zmuda. News reports have detailed his popularity as both an educator and coach; his sexual orientation seemed to have been, in the best possible way, an afterthought.  Having found the love of his life, he took advantage of Washington’s marriage equality law and tied the knot this past summer.  I cannot imagine what that must have been like for a pimply young sophomore boy or girl to find out. “It’s possible,” she must have thought.  “Love can happen for me,” he probably said to himself, “regardless of which sex I fall in love with.”

The world has changed so much for LGBT and questioning youth since 1983, and thank God for that.   It has even changed since 2008.  Prior to his re-election in 2012, Obama stunned the country by proclaiming his support for marriage equality, after saying during the 2008 campaign that, due to his religious beliefs, he could not.  Macklemore and Ryan Lewis rose to national and international fame, and their song “Same Love” became the anthem for the marriage equality movement across the nation. On the night of Obama’s re-election, you and I chatted on the phone (me shaking and near tears), incredulous about the impending victory for marriage equality in Washington, Maryland, and Maine and the defeat of the same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota.  Then came another elated call this last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and denied standing to the proponents of Prop 8, effectively overturning the law.

The gains are tremendous and stunning, and more and more young people will wake up day after day believing that a future of love happiness and (possibly) kids is in their future.  They will be spared some of the turmoil and indecision and pain I faced. Maybe I should reconsider my disbelief of miracles.

Zmuda spoke to the media about feeling overwhelmed by the support he received from the Eastside community, and in particular the vocal and persistent support he received from students.  After the 2012 election, more than a few of my students congratulated me on the victory, and several pressed me repeatedly for details on Patrick and my plans to get married.  I shared, tentatively at first, as I knew that a number of these students (all girls, truth be told) were a part of a Christian youth group.  As a recovering Catholic and a skeptic of organized religious organizations (particularly those, like the one my students belong to, that appear to be conservative and evangelical), I had a preconceived idea of what these young women believed, and was taken aback by their interest and support. When I finally had the courage to thank them and ask how their religious views impacted their enthusiasm for same-sex marriage, they boldly dismissed me with “Oh, we don’t care about that.”

My students, not unlike Zmuda’s at Eastside Catholic, give me hope for a better, more accepting future for those who identify as LGBT or those who are questioning.  I can’t help thinking that these students, Zmuda’s and mine, are carrying out the true message of the Bible.  This is, at least to some extent, what society and religion in 2014 looks like. It’s a far cry from 1983. Thank God.

Love Christopher