Strange Bedfellows: Queers, Conservatives, Catholics

By Jonathan AlexanderAugust 28, 2017

Strange Bedfellows: Queers, Conservatives, Catholics

The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray
Building a Bridge by James Martin

WE AMERICAN QUEERS LIVE in strange times. As the Western wave of tolerance for gay marriage finally hit our shores, our country elected a president who has surrounded himself with virulent homophobes. While the fundamentalist Tony Perkins, who blames gays for natural catastrophes, loses his home in freak flooding, Pope Francis suggests that he isn’t one to judge when it comes to homosexuality, a practice his church still considers sinful. As I write this, queer characters make a resurgence on a variety of television programs while Trump tries to ban transgender folk from the military. Strange times indeed.

The growing tolerance for queerness, setbacks aside, has resulted in the brokering of some odd partnerships — disparate folks getting into bed together (or at least feeling each other up a bit). Within one week, for instance, I heard on public radio neoconservative Douglas Murray, author of the just released book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, cite homophobia as a reason to halt immigration of Muslim refugees from the Middle East, then marveled at an interview with a Jesuit priest, James Martin, who just published his own book with the rather startling title Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Strange bedfellows indeed, at least to my Gen-X ears, having grown up at a time and in a part of the country (the Deep South) where saying queer, conservative, and Catholic in the same sentence could only ever be the beginning of a very bad joke.

But it’s no joke this time. And while I want to take seriously, in this review, the arguments put forth in these two books, I warn readers ahead of time that I foresee limited chances this partnership will produce viable offspring — or at least not any I’m interested in knowing yet.


Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe begins with a bang: “Europe is committing suicide.” The British political commentator, known for works like Neoconservatism: Why We Need It (2006) and Islamophilia: A Very Metropolitan Malady (2013), is no stranger to such rhetorical flourishes, and if you’ve been following his career and line of thinking, the arguments in his new book will come as no surprise. Basically, Europe’s imminent suicide is the result of its overly generous immigration policies, which are admitting a wave of refugees, particularly Muslim-identified people. These immigrants are flooding Europe with claims for material assistance, as well as with cultural and political ideas not just different from but positively anathema to European ideals and values. In Murray’s words, “The culture produced by the tributaries of Judaeo-Christian culture, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the discoveries of the Enlightenment has not been leveled by nothing.” Besides “the mass movement of peoples into Europe,” the other culprit, according to Murray, is Europe’s tragic loss of faith in itself — or, as the pundit puts it, “even the mass movement of millions of people into Europe would not sound such a final note for the continent were it not for the fact that (coincidentally or otherwise) at the same time Europe lost faith in its beliefs, traditions and legitimacy.” Together, immigration and the continental existential crisis are resulting in changes to European values from which Europe — and, by extension, the Western world — might never recover.

Part of the problem, as Murray sees it, lies in a European openness to others, to difference, to diversity itself — what Murray calls Europe’s “grand and uncommon receptiveness to foreign ideas and influence.” Sure, such receptiveness produces innovative ideas, new partnerships in business and cultural endeavors, as well as delicious fusion cuisines. But that very contemporary openness is twisted by Europe’s shame for its colonial history, such that “Europe is now deeply weighed down with guilt for its past.” As a result, many Europeans, particularly on the left, are now so open to the “foreign” that they are overlooking just how very different those foreigners actually are. For Murray, Muslim immigrants and refugees in particular don’t share typical European values; their religious views and cultural practices are simply too different. Murray shares many anecdotes suggesting that Muslims are failing to integrate or assimilate into European communities. Angela Merkel represents for Murray Europe’s worst tendencies toward self-flagellation, to the point of imminent extinction.

What seems to really get under Murray’s skin is the failure of many liberal Europeans to recognize the value of their own culture, the one produced by the aforementioned “tributaries of Judaeo-Christian culture, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the discoveries of the Enlightenment.” While lefty Europeans are patting themselves on the back for welcoming diverse refugees, they do so by kicking themselves in the rear for having once been colonizing monsters. In the process, as Murray puts it, “the only culture that couldn’t be celebrated was the culture that had allowed all these other cultures to be celebrated in the first place. In order to become multicultural, countries found that they had to do themselves down, particularly focusing on their negatives.”

To accept this argument requires that we agree with a variety of assumptions, such as the rather odd notion that “Judaeo-Christian culture, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the discoveries of the Enlightenment” have magically combined to produce contemporary Europe, as opposed to being vast, complex, vexed, and contradictory projects with their own histories and conflicts. Europe as it is seems more the result of a series of accidents than a serene confluence of traditions. After all, rather than comfortably coexisting, Enlightenment thinkers often challenged key components of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But even assuming some semblance of reconcilable stability, which Murray needs to assert to show that tradition is threatened and under attack, we are still left with the question that Murray himself is forced to ask: “What are European values?” The immediate follow-up hints that religious belief might provide a clue to Murray’s basic orientation: “Are we, for instance, Christian?”

From his neoconservative standpoint, the decline of church attendance throughout Europe and the weakening of belief in Christianity is a particular problem because Muslim immigrants are importing their religious views into a continent that has purportedly lost faith in its own beliefs. And while change over time is inevitable — think of the changes to “Christianity” itself as a belief system over the last millennium, producing an incredible splintering into competing and sometimes warring factions — that change wouldn’t be so awful if Islam, as Murray paints it, weren’t itself so terrible. Cobbling together a number of anecdotes and sources, Murray asserts that Muslim “views about women, specifically non-Muslim women, other religions, races and sexual minorities [are] pre-medieval.” Such devaluation of women has led, Murray suggests, to violence: “As the number of cases increased throughout 2015, the German authorities eventually could not hold back the growing number of reports of rapes against German women and boys by recent refugees.” Despite the veracity of the reports, Murray’s tone here seems a bit hysterical: a vulnerable population is in trouble, threatened by an invading hoard.

Murray holds up for particular censure some Muslim immigrants’ apparent views on homosexuality, one of the “sexual minorities” about whom Muslims allegedly have “pre-medieval” notions. In one data-driven passage, Murray blames recent reversals in growing tolerance for gays directly on immigrants with less tolerant beliefs:

So in 2015 when YouGov carried out a survey of British attitudes towards homosexuality, one of the questions asked was whether in general respondents thought homosexuality to be “morally acceptable” or “morally wrong.” Some people might have assumed that such a survey would smoke out latent homophobia in certain rural areas whereas the hip, diverse urban areas would show that they were relaxed about the whole matter. In fact, the findings showed precisely the opposite. Whereas in the whole of the rest of the country around 16 per cent of people said that they thought homosexuality was “morally wrong,” in London the figure was almost double that (29 per cent).

Part of what animates Murray about Muslim homophobia is not just the sentiment itself but Europeans’ responses to it. He describes the experiences of a Dutch university professor, Marxist, and gay man, Pim Fortuyn, whose liberal credentials were called into question when he published Against the Islamisation of our Culture (1997). Murray also castigates liberal gays for not paying enough attention to anti-gay views among Muslim immigrants:

Islamic homophobia — an issue that had barely occurred to the gay press, much less to the mainstream press — began to get a tiny airing. But the gay-rights groups that had been so virulent in their attacks on the Catholic and other Christian churches seemed willing not only to sit out this sharper problem, but to attack people […] for raising the facts.

Those silly liberals: they’re just too busy tolerating others that they can’t see how those others don’t share their fetish for tolerance.

I find Murray’s personal stake in this particular issue far more interesting — and compelling — than his abstract arguments. Indeed, what drew me to read this book — which is generally not in alignment with much of what I think and believe — is a recent NPR interview with the author, in which Murray identifies himself as a gay man worried about the homophobia that is, alas, cultivated among some adherents to Islam. This personal claim of concern is not developed at any length in the book, but it’s one that I can understand. As a gay man, I find myself identifying to some extent with this obviously smart, cultured, and educated individual who sees his country, and the larger European culture, welcome in people who think he deserves to die when, in fact, his own countrymen have just (mostly) gotten over their own fear of homosexuality within the last few decades.

But my identification pulls up short pretty quickly. Murray is a gay conservative, which may seem like an oxymoron to some, but they do exist. Such folks, including pundits like Andrew Sullivan and the Log Cabin Republicans, are usually fiscally conservative and a bit hawkish, tending at times toward the libertarian (but not always). Gay conservatives like Murray and Sullivan also tend toward cultural conservatism, lauding the values of Western civilization. Their primary concern with liberals seems to be that liberals value all other cultures except their own. Or, as Murray himself puts it, “As ever, amid the endless celebrations of diversity, the greatest irony of all remains that the one thing people cannot bring themselves to celebrate is the culture that encouraged such diversity in the first place.”

Encourages diversity? Hmm. While I personally sympathize with Murray (I don’t want to welcome in any homophobic fundamentalists of any kind), I do so while profoundly disagreeing with the implication that European cultures — and, by extension, the West — are so very enlightened about sexuality that they can cast stones at other cultures. I remember being in Europe in 2015, the summer the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and watching on television a variety of American and European politicians and intellectuals express shock and dismay at the recent killing of gay men by ISIS. These spokespeople for the Enlightened West used extremist Muslim homophobia as an example of what’s so wrong with radical Islam. After all, we don’t throw our gays off the roofs of buildings.

Really, I thought. This is way too soon, you fuckers, I found myself shouting at the television. Way too soon. We in the West can’t exactly claim to be all warm and fuzzy about queers. Not just yet. Perhaps especially after the election of Donald Trump.

And this is the point where I scratch my head about Douglas Murray. For the problem with Murray’s position is that he wants Europe (and perhaps the West) to forget more painful aspects of it past, and that unfortunately requires forgetting some of its past in relation to queer people. To be fair, he is somewhat younger than I am, so he may have grown up in a slightly more tolerant place and time. Maybe. My experiences in my part of the Western world have been marked not only by intense bullying and ostracization as a young person but also by seeing laws passed to curtail or limit the rights of queers in the jurisdictions in which I have lived as an adult — not only in the South, but in Colorado, Ohio, and even California. You haven’t really experienced democracy until you’ve gone into a booth to cast a vote about whether to extend yourself certain rights enjoyed by others. And when I consider that previous generations had it even worse, subject to imprisonment or death — and not just in the United States but in Europe too — then, no, it’s way too soon to argue that the West can claim the high moral ground due to its treatment of queers.


What’s even more surprising about Murray’s position is his defense of Christianity, which has been one of the primary sources of anti-queer feeling, not to mention assault on the lives of many homosexuals. (And yes, I said assault — both physically and psychically.) But Murray persists in his culturally conservative valuing of these contradictory belief systems, arguing that, “Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through [the decline of Europe].” Work with Christians? Hmm. I’ll admit that some of my best friends are Christians, and I have learned not to overgeneralize. I won’t deny that Christianity seems at times to offer worthwhile values of love and compassion, despite nearly two millennia of countless examples demonstrating its lack of love and compassion. But, once again, I’m not sure Christians have earned the right just yet to indict Muslims for their alleged intolerance.

Liberal that I am, I try to remain open to the other, even the other that at times has claimed to hate me and want me dead. It’s with that attitude that I approached James Martin’s short book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship or Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. This slim volume from a Jesuit priest comes at a time when Pope Francis has expressed openness to gay people — not exactly a reversal of church policy on homosexuality but at least a willingness to be less … judgmental? If I hesitate in identifying the Church’s policy, I do so only because it seems so unclear, as is to be expected given the Church’s vexed relationship not just with homosexuality but with sexuality in general, not to mention its numerous pedophilia scandals. No wonder that even such a seemingly generous soul as Francis is being careful — a care that still makes his willingness not to judge all the more impressive.

In this context, Father Martin tries to send a clear signal that, at least in his opinion, Catholics should be open to their LGBT brothers and sisters. Martin, an editor at large for America magazine and consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, is a frequent contributor and commentator on various public media. And he’s a seemingly goodhearted publicist for the Church, trying to model a spiritual graciousness and capaciousness that religious institutions are not historically known for. He’s been particularly active among LGBT communities, organizing many outreach efforts to queer people.

With a rhetorical flourish comparable to Murray’s, Martin opens Building a Bridge by recounting the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, noting that Catholic Church officials expressed concern but rarely mentioned that it was an assault specifically on gay people. “I found this revelatory,” Martin writes. “The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible.” I must admit that, upon reading this sentence, I couldn’t help but utter a loud “Duh!” — but I read on, wanting to be open to this priest’s “lament that there isn’t more understanding and conversation between LGBT Catholics and the institutional church.” And indeed, throughout the book, which contains not only Martin’s reflections on relations between the Church and LGBT folks but also commentary on biblical passages and a moving closing prayer and meditation, the author comes across as compassionate, sensitive, and even respectful. At one point, he notes that “Respect […] means acknowledging that LGBT Catholics bring unique gifts to the church — both as individuals and as a community,” and he recognizes that Church doctrine isn’t fairly exercised. Why fire gays from Church positions when the divorced should be fired too? Inconsistency is hardly the only problem here, I might argue, but at least this is a priest who is trying to be fair; as his title suggests, he wants to build bridges, not walls.

Such an enterprise is difficult, however, when so much history is ignored. We hear very little mention of the Church’s long-term condemnation of queer people, including burning some of them at the stake (a practice that gave us the word faggot). Instead, even as Martin “laments” the lack of understanding between queers and Catholics, he actually suggests that, “in the institutional church, it is the hierarchy that operates from the position of power. LGBT Catholics are called to treat those in power with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity.’” In other words, queer Catholics must still respect the Church that has not only cast them out over the last millennium (when not killing them outright) but that also still calls their practices of love sinful. But Martin persists, asking: “What would it mean to show compassion to the hierarchy?” Perhaps I’m just too skeptical, but I can’t imagine why any self-respecting queers would show compassion to a hierarchy that has belittled them.

My astonishment at Martin’s question comes out of my life experience. I grew up in the Catholic culture of south Louisiana, where I attended Catholic elementary and high schools. I know a great deal about Catholicism; its liturgical rhythms were a deep part of my childhood, bred into my bones through countless Masses attended as a child. To this day, my mother attends Mass weekly, and I drive her to church. As I struggled with my own queerness, I faced rejection first by Catholics, then by Baptists, who couldn’t conceive of me as anything but sinful. I was bullied extensively as a child, and that bullying was largely ignored by Catholic educators, as though I somehow deserved it; it might, after all, scare the gay away. To be fair, Father Martin acknowledges that “[t]he relationship between the LGBT Catholics and the Catholic Church has been at times contentious and combative,” but he also suggests that it has also been “at times warm and welcoming.” I know much about the former, but nothing of the latter. And while I’m willing to credit Father Martin with good works on behalf of LGBT Catholics, I have no personal experience of Catholics being generous with me about my sexuality. So when he asks, “if the LGBT community could give the institutional church the gift of time — time to get to know each other,” I find myself responding with a firm no. No, I cannot give them time. I have been hurt most in my life by straight white Christians. This isn’t perception or bias; it is simple reality.

Surely, others may have different experiences. When Martin says that he “believe[s] it’s important for the LGBT community, for everyone in fact, to treat others with respect, even when their own church at times feels like an enemy,” I want to believe that such respect is possible. But I also want to say, “No, Father Martin; the Church doesn’t feel like an enemy. It is the enemy.” And even if there are signs that it’s changing its views, those changes have been too long in coming and have too far to go. Martin recounts a cardinal who had a gay friend and the “qualified praise” he offered when his friend celebrated a same-sex union. Qualified praise? Not good enough. And commenting on how Jesus welcomed sinners doesn’t help either: “For Jesus it is most often community first — meeting, encountering, including — and conversion second.” Conversion? If the goal is to change who I am and how I love — after I have spent 50 years of my life trying to undo the psychological damage of self-hatred inflicted on me by Catholics and Christians of all stripes — then I can only say, “No, I do not respect your Church and its efforts. You must change — far more than you have — before you can ask for my respect. And you might start by acknowledging the damage you’ve done, the lives you’ve destroyed, the suicides you’ve caused, and the murders committed in your god’s name.”

To be fair, Martin smartly refers to the good work of Pope Francis, who has seemed like such a breath of fresh air in the stale, cloistered, secretive, and abusive halls of the Church, and who has called for an end to any “form of aggression and violence” against LGBT people. Martin’s book bears the “Imprimi Potest,” with the “Nihil Obstat” implied — there’s nothing in it that subverts Church doctrine. But calling for an end to aggression isn’t quite yet acknowledging the aggression and violence already perpetrated in the name of your god, Father Martin. Start there, and I’ll start listening.


Ultimately, what’s missing from Father Martin’s version of contemporary Catholic openness is precisely what Douglas Murray wants Europe to forget: its past sins. In both cases, institutions are being forced to grapple with the emergence and increasing visibility of peoples they’d formally shunned — or attempted to eradicate. In a way, Murray identifies a crucial dimension of the difficulty here: you can’t be open to difference without risking being changed. I think liberal Europeans and Catholics are right to be open to refugees and queers — but Murray’s also right: the former will be changed in the process, and so, I argue, will the latter.

Certainly, many of us in the West do not know enough about Islamic views on sexuality, and I refuse to think that such views are either monolithic or consistent. After all, Christians’ views on sexuality are complex and varied, and I expect the same holds true for Muslims. My personal experience with Muslims (and Christians) confirms this sense. Moreover, many queers identify as either Muslim or Christian. I wish them well on their journeys. They may yet show us all paths that move our world beyond homophobia. I hope we can listen to them as populations continue to flee oppression, whether they be Muslims fleeing political oppression abroad or queers moving to safer spaces in their own countries. Europe, as all of us in the West, will have to deal with the challenges of immigration. But castigating Muslims because some of them are homophobic or because their religious views are anti-queer seems the worst kind of hypocrisy. And, with apologies to Father Martin, the bridge some Christians are trying to build between their faith and LGBT folk isn’t going anywhere I want to go just yet.

I understand the pull of tradition and even religious sentiment, and I recognize that grappling with homophobia isn’t just a Christian (or Muslim) problem. At a recent bar mitzvah I attended, the rabbi paused during the service before the reading of a passage from Leviticus to apologize to lesbian and gay members of the gathering. The passage, which was assigned to be read that day, implicitly condemned homosexuality, and the rabbi acknowledged that tradition demanded that the passage be read but that we didn’t have to feel good about it. In fact, she was quite articulate in identifying the damage done over millennia to queer people in the name of such a passage — and she apologized for that damage. This was the first time I’ve ever been in a religious service of any kind in which an ordained representative apologized to queer people. Even the “open and affirming” congregations I’ve been in haven’t gone so far — at least not in my experience. I hope they have in others’. My only recommendation to this particular rabbi would’ve been to reconsider reading the passage at all.

So, in the absence of such an apology from Catholics (or Baptists, or Muslims, or …), I remain both personally sympathetic to Douglas Murray as a fellow gay man but also deeply suspicious of his turning to Christianity as one of the currently neglected and endangered sources of European (and hence Western) culture. And I have been suspicious for a long time. My experiences of most Christians have given me cause to be suspicious. In my more radical youth, I sympathized with the early Soviets who outlawed religious practices. I reasoned, similarly to them, not only that is religion often the opiate of the masses but that, given the corruption of most organized religion, perhaps we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Why hold on to traditions that were so often associated with the subjugation, immiseration, and even extermination of countless millions over millennia? And while we’re at it, why not ban the Bible, that book, cobbled together over centuries, whose interpretation has led to schisms, splits, charges of heresy, and the launching of wars — a book that has been (and still often is) used to justify a range of contradictory positions, from white supremacy and racism to sexual acceptance and love? Yes, there’s some good in there. One could argue, for instance, that openness to others, and the willingness to lend them a helping hand, is a profoundly Christian value. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. Think of Jesus among the poor, the wretched, the outcast. Think of Jesus feeding the multitudes. But there’s also so much abuse. Why not just start over?

If we in the West have something to be proud of, it might be the strains of our philosophy that have valued the search for truth. But we must recognize how that search for truth has not always prevented us from blinding ourselves to the realities of the lives of those around us and to the lives of those we have impoverished. There you go again, Murray might counter. More liberal guilt. Opposed to dwelling on such guilt, Murray would rather we be “inspired by the spirit of truth and the search for the great questions.” But maybe one of the great questions we should be asking ourselves is why our culture could produce such grand beauty and enlightened thought while also making so many people, at home and abroad, so miserable. Put another way, what kind of philosophies, creeds, and value systems produce rhetorics of love that also vilify whole groups of people? Might it be time to stop going back again and again to some of the toxic wellsprings that are the sources of our culture? Maybe those wells should be left to run dry.


Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literary Sponsorship (2017).

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!