Until Monday, being a gay Catholic was an exercise in being told, day after day, that you didn't make any sense. If you were really gay, you couldn't be Catholic. If you were really Catholic, you couldn't be gay.
I've been on dates where the mere mention of my religion has led to lectures on the general topic of "Have you lost your mind?" In prayer groups, I've had to duck the most straightforward questions about my personal life and been the one offering up prayers for nature, which is pretty much the most gender-neutral subject you can hit on. I've had gay friends tell me about panic attacks during masses; other friends who talk about dates walking away; and others who describe going to church but sitting at the back, unsure of where they belong.
There's a general idea out there that gay Catholics are troublemakers, angrily trying to sow division within the church. While it's true that many people – gay and straight – have been working for decades to increase inclusion, most gay Catholics are simply too overwhelmed to engage in much anger. There's too much to keep track of: Did the gay press really just describe gay Catholics as complicit in hate crimes? Did the Vatican really just compare homosexuality to the destruction of the rain forest? And did that conservative priest really just say that courage means suppressing your sexual orientation?
The only place where all this confusion falls away is at a gay mass. That's right: a gay mass. Such masses have been held monthly in Toronto and other big cities for years. They're led by generous priests committed to the notion of inclusion, and they offer breathing room for gay Catholics. At a gay mass, all the head-spinning stops. You walk in knowing that no one in the room is going to ask you to pick a side, grill you on your politics or start a heavy-duty debate on how you can possibly be who and what you say you are.
I've been attending these masses in Toronto for more than a year. I'd love to say there's something uniquely gay about them – a Glee-like choir or an expertly arranged snack table – but in fact they're wonderfully ordinary: readings, hymns, a sermon, fellowship. They differ from an ordinary mass only in terms of the support and solidarity they provide. They're a chance to lean on other gay Catholics, a chance to be told that you belong where you want to belong.
Many people think these masses are secret. They're not. Yet despite the lack of secrecy, there was always an air of boundedness to these gatherings. Everyone knew the sense of belonging might fall away in other settings, that the lack of judgment might disappear the moment you walked out the door.
What Pope Francis said Monday legitimized work that gay Catholics have been doing for years. His phrasing amazed me: It was not for him to judge. How did he know that this was the problem? Not faith, but judgment: the sense of always having to explain yourself, the knowledge that the simple phrase "gay Catholic" might set someone off and put you on the defensive end of an angry argument.
It's early days yet, but I feel his statement has created more breathing room. He's taken the sense of non-judgment that's central to gay masses and extended it outward. This is simple but revolutionary, and it's what gay Catholics are excited about. It's kindness, it's goodwill, it's outreach. It's also the start – just the start – of being recognized as a coherent person, as someone who is both gay and Catholic, someone who has no need to explain or justify either aspect of their life.
Emily White is a Toronto-based writer and author of Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude.