Friday, 11 November 2011

Anthony Alfano: Openly gay student president at Catholic university

Here's a refreshing sign of the times: De Paul university is the USA's largest Catholic university - and has a student president who is openly gay.

Anthony Alfano's story is instructive for all those who still see a contradiction or tension between their innate sexual orientation and their Catholic faith. In a report carried by the Windy City Times, he describes and contrasts his experience of living in the closet, and that of living openly and honestly as a gay man.  At Catholic High School, he simply accepted the Church teaching that homosexuality was immoral, and from that assumed that there was something wrong with himself. Raised in a very Catholic family, homosexuality was never a point of discussion. He remained strictly closeted, and even dated girls as a cover. There was a price - he was emotionally a wreck and suicidal: three times he attempted to suffocate himself.

By the end of his senior year, he was still very unsure where he was headed, but had finally come out to himself -and to nobody else. That came later, after starting at De Paul. Significantly, the breakthrough event was on a retreat with other first-year students.  It was then, he says, that he truly understood the importance of coming out. 

"The day I returned from the retreat I called up my best friend back [ in the northwest suburbs ] and told her we needed to talk. That friend, Erika Kearns, was the first person I came out to, and I know it was a little difficult as she had a crush on me in high school.

"Then over winter break of my first year [ in college ] , I told all my friends back home and one in particular, Gretchen Bachrodt, was the most encouraging and supportive and was someone who, although I knew I could always count on, solidified that feeling when she told me she always knew, but waited for me to be ready." 

As a sophomore, junior and now as a senior, Alfano came out to friends at school, family members and, this past summer, to his mom, Anna, which he said has been his most difficult coming-out.

Alfano's coming out was a long process, but he found support at every step along the way - and that includes the Catholic university. His final, fully public coming out was on October 1oth, National Coming Out day, which he did in an interview with the student newspaper.  Assistant vice president Robin Florzak issued an important and instructive statement:

 "DePaul University is a diverse place that welcomes people of all races, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. Anthony made a courageous personal decision to discuss his sexuality with the university's student newspaper. Anthony is a remarkable young man and student leader, and we hope that his candor helps other young people facing these issues to feel comfortable discussing their orientation with family and friends."

There are several lessons that gay Catholics can draw from Alfano's story:

Come out to God.

Whatever humans may react to our sexuality, we must know that God will never reject us. Bringing the issue of sexuality into our prayer life will surely give us the confidence to move ahead, and come out to others. Alfano's journey began with a retreat. My own coming out preceded my return to the Church and any form of religious practice, but I certainly grew enormously in confidence about sexuality after I spent a major part of an extended, six daydirected retreat reflecting on sexuality and faith.

Begin with trusted, close friends.

Really close friends (and mothers) often know we are gay before we fully recognize it ourselves. Like Gretchen in Alfano's life, they will be simply waiting for us to declare ourselves. When we do, they can be immensely supportive and helpful, as we continue the ordeal of opening up to others.

Catholics are not inherently hostile.

While orthodox CDF doctrine certainly has seriously hostile elements, which some rule-book Catholics use to support and justify their own hostility to us, this is certainly not true of Catholics as a whole.  Alfano notes that his experience has been one of such a welcome and acceptance, that he was not ever discouraged from continuing in the coming out process. This welcome and acceptance, which he experienced and is formally endorsed in the statement by   for the university administration, is simply the other side of orthodox Catholic doctrine, spelt out in the Catechism and the CDF Pastoral Letter, which has been unduly neglected in the popular mind: that persons with same-sex attraction are to be treated with dignity, understanding and respect.

Coming Out permits "human flourishing",

It is clear that Alfano has found coming out to be a positive, growth experience. "Human flourishing" is an important concept in the theology of natural law. The concept of natural law has often been taken as one of the foundations of religious opposition to homoerotic relationships, but consideration of the concept of flourishing, together what modern science teaches us about the nature of human sexuality, leads to a contrary conclusion: natural law requires that, for those with an innately homoerotic orientation, we should accept and embrace our sexual identity - and come out publicly, to whatever extent we are able to.

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