This poem appears in Counterbound, Issue 3 (August, 2020).

To read all essays and poetry, purchase the print edition.

Seeking Confirmation

by Owen Gramley

The lecturer sat down in front of us with a solemn aura about him. He was dressed in a suit, which made him all the more intimidating.

The speakers that came to St. Mary’s Catholic confirmation classes were always so serious. To me, it felt they expected us to match their disposition. Of course, my peers and I did not. The guest speaker, excited to demonstrate the depth of his religious fervor, took out a pamphlet titled “The Ten Commandments.” I leaned back in my chair ready for another monotonous explanation of the themes we heard continuously: God’s love is everywhere, in everything, in us.

Somehow that idea seemed least present in those classes. In a somber tone, he explained what should be interpreted from the reading.

In retrospect, what came next was inevitable. I knew this kind of man, he was angry that things were changing and unwilling to embrace it. My peers and I could all anticipate his audacious explanation of the religious doctrine in front of us. It would be outdated and hurtful, but imminent. However, I chose not to accept that future. It was daunting to confront in my mind, something I had always feared as a queer person growing up in the Catholic church.

The straight-faced, dour man announced the interpretations from the scripture before us. He had a firm resolve while he read the document. His determination demonstrated what he subscribed to: an outdated Church, filled with principles that are now, at the very least, taboo to a younger generation. For many, conservative principles are outright unacceptable. The scripture he read to us reflected that. Within the church, many still believe that those disdainful words are sacred, unchangeable, spoken directly from God.

The room was still, his voice unwavering, as he rattled off the systemic, hateful rhetoric the Catholic church has institutionalized for hundreds of years. Among them, anything other than a heterosexual relationship is an egregious sin.

The words didn’t materialize. I always imagined myself to be the one to stand up to that sort of hate. But my expression never changed. I never stood up and told him off. Instead, I sat there convinced his worlds were not real. Had we not moved on? Pope Frances ushered in a new era for the church, one more willing to adopt progressive philosophy. Unfortunately, his openness to a progressive culture had not grabbed every part of the institution. I imagined the age-old belief system composing the Catholic church was crumbling; yet in that room, it seemed to thrive.

For centuries, religion, especially in the United States, was foundational to dominant social structures. Time and time again marginalized communities suffered because ideology was weaponized. I came to discover, as I grew up in such an institution, that hate in a religious context is still exceedingly familiar.

For instance, religious freedom, as an argument, is frequently used to uphold discrimination.

The infamous Supreme Court case regarding the business owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was an example of, as it was embedded in our homily during St. Mary’s mass, “standing up for your Catholicism.”

In Portland, a woman was fired from a religious school for being gay. The school specifically cited their freedom of religion and other legal loopholes to justify the termination. In a country that supposedly guarantees civil-rights to all of its citizens, in a religious context, this simply is untrue.

Religious-based discrimination cuts deeper than sexuality. It has consistently been a tool of the dominant culture to uphold ethnic and racial hierarchy, as well. When American’s justified slavery they pointed to instances of slavery in the bible to do so. When white supremacists defend segregation, they tout religious conservatism and a Christian way of life. Religion and ideology in this country have consistently been a means to institute reactionary oppression.

I am left wondering when, and if, the church can surmount the problems it faces. These challenges, however, are not just one the church must confront but rather fit into a broader narrative of powerful institutions. Religious freedom, as an argument, is concerned with who gets to hold leverage to shape a culture's values and worth.

To me, there is nothing holy about writing discrimination into the law or denying someone healthcare based on their identity. It should be uncontested whether someone is holy or whether they are sacred; it is unconditional.

I have never understood why faith is so selective. Why do some have the privilege of enjoying it while others are shunned?

At the high school I attend, St. Mary’s, religious discrimination may be less apparent. However, an environment filled with instances of bigotry are familiar to many students, including myself.

What I would discern as hate speech towards LGBTQ+ individuals has become normalized to others. Throughout sophomore year religion class, when we focused on particularly polarizing topics, students asserted that members of the queer community were “mentally ill.” The discussion I heard at St. Mary’s was stunning at first, but I have grown accustomed to the slurs that surround my educational experience. School leadership has been complicit in mitigating such harms. Virtually no accountability exists.

If both church and home don’t offer acceptance, an educational setting should. A safe place on campus for students to live free from hate is essential. During my junior year of high school I attempted to create a GSA, or gender and sexuality alliance, in hopes that it would provide a safe environment for students. I expected to be met with some resistance as state law does not guarantee the right to create a GSA at a private religious institution. The resistance that came was far greater than I expected.

Before I challenged the leaders of our school I first had to prepare. For weeks my friend Ainsley and I began to assemble our case. We discovered that there has been a lineage of students who hoped to create a GSA – all had been denied. The bureaucratic system that makes up the Catholic church is difficult for progressive ideas to penetrate. Our school is no different. 

The culmination of our fight for a GSA came in a meeting with school leadership. I feared it would repeat my confirmation experience. As we sat down facing each other, I could predict what would come. We were bombarded with a litany of empty reasons that supposedly barred us from creating a GSA. They defended their stance by quoting by-laws, legal reasons, and of course religious precedent.

In their minds, a GSA is not vital to the student body. The alleged pushback it could bring from angry parents, and a Church whose power they cower from, pose too big a risk. Especially when funding is involved. Students often come up to me near tears confessing the frustration and fear they feel at St. Mary’s. The problem that exists is a lost cause at best, and invisible, at worst, to some of our faculty.

We have found a way of existing at the school, not officially, but in a way that creates some semblance of a community for LGBTQ+ affirming students. I regret not fighting the school more. It feels that just having the space to congregate in the open is an important step in the right direction. But calling ourselves an official GSA or being able to hang up signs with the words gender or sexuality make a huge difference. Once the school understands the environment acceptance creates, I hope they will choose a more inclusive school.

Owen Gramley is a senior at St. Mary's high school in Medford. He hopes to study political science or environmental policy in college.

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