A Story About Coming Out, Catholic Politics, Internet Stalking, Family, Pope Francis, Radical Generosity and the 2008 Election
I don’t have a coming-out story. I actually have three.
The first time I said it out loud, I was a sophomore in college, and it was National Coming-Out Day, and my friend Ben and I were waiting in the hallway outside our classroom. He asked me how I was doing, and I blurted out, “I’M GAY,” and then we hugged and burst out laughing. (If you ever wonder, my God, who are these people who need a designated day, those people are me.)
The second story took place in my mid-twenties, when I FINALLY got up the nerve to come out to my family. PRO TIP: If people ask you why you’re not out to your family, and you just shrug and say, “Well, you know, they’re Catholic,” they just nod sympathetically and drop the subject. This helpfully saves you the trouble of having to admit that actually, your family are super-liberal Catholic Democrats who love your gay friends and you’re just a giant goddamn coward who would rather gnaw her own arm to a bloody stump than discuss FEELINGS. (I’m not proud of this, but it did work for seven years.) When my friend Daniel finally, very reasonably, informed me after we returned from a gay Christian conference at UC Irvine that I had stalled long enough and I had to tell my terminally ill mother before she died or I would hate myself forever and that he was not leaving Portland to drive home to Seattle until he knew I had actually done it, I caved with very bad grace, grudgingly blurted it out in the living room to absolutely no fanfare, and then the whole family basically shrugged it off and we all got in the car and went out for pizza, and I thanked my lucky stars that it was over, the data had been transmitted, AND I WOULD NEVER BE FORCED TO DISCUSS IT AGAIN.
The third story is about how a right-wing Catholic blogger forcibly outed me to the entire staff of my church in an attempt to get me fired from my job as a high school youth minister because she believed I was a danger to children.
It’s also the story of an amazing community of faith who never stopped having my back.
* * *
The first email was sent to the nun who ran the adult education programs at our parish. She was visiting her family in Vietnam for two weeks with no internet access and didn’t get it. I never saw the first email, but I know what was in it. It was this.
I know because I saw the second email.
I was not out at church. I was a Catholic youth minister who loved her job and was not an idiot. I never taught anything in my classes – about sexuality or anything else – that contradicted Catholic church teachings. And for the whole eight years I was employed by the Archdiocese of Portland, the only people I ever came out to were teens who had come out to me. To them I knew I owed the knowledge that their home was still their home, and anyone who told them they didn’t belong there was wrong. Apart from those handful of conversations it was something I never discussed. I was careful on Facebook. I was careful in social situations where my church friends might interact with my college or theatre friends. It became second nature, and I got alarmingly too good at self-censoring, redirecting conversations, dodging questions, depending on where I was. I became an excellent liar. I was always, always careful.
I forgot about the video.
In a hundred years it would never have occurred to me that the documentary filmmaker who interviewed me and Daniel at the UC Irvine gay Christian conference would turn out to have such a monumental impact on my life. Because Daniel and I were so charming and delightful, he used our clip to promote the forthcoming documentary on YouTube. Because he knows how social media marketing works, he made both our full names searchable keyword terms.
That was how it happened.
Monica called me into her office, sat me down next to her, and opened her laptop. “Do you know what this is?” she said gently. Of course I do, I thought to myself. That’s my face. Then the penny dropped. I had forgotten for months that that video existed – had certainly never thought for one second that anything from my Gay Person Life would ever cross over into my Church Person Life – yet there the video was, thumbnail image of my own face staring back at me, in an email addressed to my boss that I hadn’t sent.
“How did you get this?” I asked her, cold knots twisting at my stomach. “Who sent this to you?”
“The name on the email is Jose Chavez,” she said, “but Father thinks it might be somebody using a false name. It could be anybody.”
“What does it say?”
“Do you really want to see it?”
“I need to see it. What does it say?” It didn’t say much.
To the leaders of the church youth,
There was no answer to my questions about this video . . . The youth leaders are not interested in caring for the youth?
I’m telling you this story as I learned it. So at the beginning, that was all I knew. Somebody had found the video. Somebody had sent it to the nun who worked at our parish and ran the programs for baptism and all the other sacraments except Confirmation, which was mine. It was clear that this person thought Sister was my boss and had set out to warn her. Except Sister was in Vietnam visiting family, without email access for two weeks. She hadn’t seen it. I never saw that first email, which I’m not sure is a bad thing. So in frustration, the sender resent the email, and this time blind-copied it to more people. In a political climate where the Vatican was doing a massive sweep of American seminaries to weed out deviant sexuality, and the Archdiocese of Portland had filed bankruptcy after a massive wave of sex-abuse lawsuits which many conservatives blamed on gay priests, this Jose Chavez – which might have an assumed name for anyone in the world, maybe someone I knew – had sent a video of me outing myself to the staff of my church.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that this is about the time when I burst into tears.
Much of what I know about this situation I didn’t know until much, much later. I didn’t know anything about all the politics swirling around above my head – who had sent the video, how it got there, or why. I didn’t know at that moment that my family had become collateral damage in an ongoing feud between the liberal and conservative wings of the Oregon Catholic community. I didn’t know that my family was about to change forever, that I was about to become an accidental activist, that the internet crazies you read about in the news sometimes live right in your backyard. I didn’t know that amazing things were going to happen later because of this, or that I would finally come to peace with my mother just in time, months before she died. All I knew at that moment, in Monica’s office, was that I was afraid.
I was afraid – but Monica was magnificent. “The very first thing you need to know,” she said, looking right into my eyes to make sure I heard her, “is that nobody cares. We were surprised, because we didn’t know. That’s all. Father didn’t even want us to tell you,” she added. “He didn’t want you to be upset. But I told him, if someone was targeting me, I would want to know about it. I would want to be prepared.”
“This is the second email,” she explained. “There will be more. And we don’t know who has it, or who sent it, if this isn’t their real name.”
“So it could be someone from here,” I said. “Someone who knows me.” Monica shook her head forcefully, and a look came into her eyes that I would get to know very well over the coming years – a look that said, Come at me, bro. A look that said, You try and hurt this person I love, you better get through me first. “No,” she told me. “Nobody who knew you would ever, ever, ever do this.” There were tears in both our eyes as she put her arms around me and hugged me for a long time. “Whoever this person is,” she told me, “whatever it is they want, you and I have worked too hard for our kids to let them undo this. We are going to get through this together.”
Now, Monica is like a sister to me. She planned my mother’s funeral rosary. I sang at her wedding. We have years of history. But that day, in her office, she had been my boss for all of three months. And she was a Republican. Left to my own devices, I would absolutely never have told her. This is why, my liberal brethren, you are never, ever, allowed, in my presence or on my Facebook wall, to hurl verbal abuse at conservatives. We can disagree on policy all we want – that’s the basis of a thriving and healthy democracy. But despite the positions held by any given politician at any given time and whether or not I agree with it, until the day I die I will never forget that the person who held me when I cried after being outed, who told me over and over, “This is your church and you are loved,” was a bow-hunting conservative Republican who had only known me for three months. A lot of people say a lot of things about the Catholic Church and homosexuality. But the most important thing you need to know in this story – not just about Monica and Father, but about everyone else – is that after an internet crazy who had successfully stalked me from UC Irvine to my home church had outed me to my place of work, the very first thing they told me was that I was loved.
Father and I bickered a lot. Before Monica was hired and I was running the program more or less on my own, we squabbled constantly in staff meetings about class curriculum and administrative procedure. There were many times before that day, and after, when we drove each other absolutely to the brink. But he was handed an out that day, and he didn’t take it. I had gone from a scrupulous private person to a public relations disaster waiting to happen, and he could have thrown me to the wolves, quietly, with virtually no consequences. He could have sat me down and said, “Look, this person is crazy, you know it, I know it, everyone knows it, but the fact is that we have no idea how long this will go on for, or who these emails are going to, or when if ever it will stop, and all it takes is one kid’s angry mother to call in a complaint to the Archdiocese Child Protection Office, and that’s the ballgame, and you know I hate that it has to be this way, but it’s better to just do this quietly now before it becomes a scandal.” He could have said all of that. It would have been the practical thing to do. You know what? I wouldn’t even have been mad. Instead, something else happened. I walked out of Monica’s office and he bear-hugged me with tears in his eyes. “Nobody,” he said, with a firmness in his voice that made him sound almost dangerous, “comes after my friends.”
In the office a few days later I ran into Kathleen, a feisty middle-aged woman and close friend of my mom’s who worked as the Director of Religious Education. “Hey kid, great video,” she said without preamble, making me cringe and begin to tear up again. “No, really, I thought it was terrific. I don’t know what the heck that guy’s problem was with it other than the word ‘gay.’ I thought you were wonderful. Funny and articulate and you made very good points.” She saw my distress and hastened to reassure me. “It’s just some wacko,” she said. “Better if you ignore them. I told Father that too, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“What do you mean?”
“He just HAD to reply to the email. I said, ‘Richard, you’re just adding more fuel to a crazy person’s fire,’ but he couldn’t let it go.”
“What did he say?”
“He just wrote ‘John 8:7.’ That was the whole email.” She smiled at me. I pulled a Bible off the shelf behind her and paged through until I found it:
“’Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.’”
* * *
Here is the part of the story I learned later.
When I left the office that day, after that first meeting with Monica, I called my sister Catherine, who was currently the Director of Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland. If you watched that video, you may remember that she’s in it too, and it had suddenly occurred to me that if this Jose person had managed to track me down at All Saints, they would surely be able to find Cat as well. I called her, and through tears told her what had happened. “Talk to whoever you need to talk to,” I said. She asked if she could give a brief, tactful heads-up to her boss Mary Jo, which I agreed to. She put me on hold for a few minutes and then came back, and told me, “Mary Jo says not to worry about it. She already knows.” Mary Jo was the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, essentially #2 to the Archbishop. And despite being an incredibly imposing-looking woman, faintly reminiscent of a stern Victorian aunt, she turned out to be kind of a teddy bear underneath. Several months before all of this happened – before Catherine was even hired – Mary Jo had fallen on the wrong side of the right-wing Catholics when a priest came in from out-of-state to give a talk at St. Philip Neri, one of Portland’s known “open and affirming” parishes, on how parishioners and clergy could be more welcoming to LGBT Catholics. Whenever a priest from another diocese comes into Portland to do an official event, the Chancellor’s office has to sign off on it to ensure that the person is in good standing with the church. He was, so she signed the paperwork, waved him on through, and instantly aroused the ire of a vast and diverse crowd of anti-gay Catholics who took this as a tacit endorsement of the homosexual agenda. The noisiest of her new enemies is a woman I’m going to refer to as Wendy, because I don’t want to reward her with click-bait for her lunatic blog by using her actual name. She and Mary Jo had been thorns in each other’s sides for years.
Then Mary Jo hired my sister, Cat, a progressive activist whose record included labor protests, refugee resettlement, sexual assault prevention, suicide prevention, homeless activism, and all kinds of other things that were not abortion. And abortion and gay marriage were the two things Wendy cared about. Cat’s job was fairly straightforward; she was in charge of administering grant funds from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development which went to assist nonprofits that dealt directly with poverty or the effects of poverty, and she also provided resources and program assistance to those programs. Wendy, who apparently has nothing better to do, spent hours doing internet searches and trying to dig up dirt on Catherine (She wrote activist poetry on the blog of a socialist coffee shop! She shaved her head one time!), which she would then send to Mary Jo, and which Mary Jo would calmly ignore.
Jose Chavez might have been a real person, one of Wendy’s helper monkeys, or it might have been a pseudonym, which was something she did on the regular. (“They’re always Mexican name at gmail.com,” Mary Jo said. “I don’t know why.”) But either way, Mary Jo was one hundred percent convinced that she was behind it; she was going after much bigger fish – the Archbishop, really – and the Sisters Willett were caught in the crossfire. Of course that YouTube video must have been Christmas morning.
This is where the Cold War cloak-and-dagger shit gets UNREAL. Because the very first thing Wendy (or someone) did is one of absolutely the craziest things I have ever heard of in my life. She recorded a video of that YouTube clip – I mean an actual video, someone pointed a camera at the computer screen and recorded it onto an unmarked VHS tape which they mailed to Mary Jo anonymously. Return address? “Friends of All Saints,” with the All Saints parish address listed. Mary Jo, who is not an idiot, watched it, immediately figured out who it must have been from and why it was sent, and threw it in the trash without ever mentioning it to anyone. By the time Father finally responded with “Let he among you without sin,” an increasingly enraged Wendy had been waiting fruitlessly for five weeks to see me get fired.
“I’ve been working for the Catholic Church for fifty years,” Mary Jo told me once, “And I’ve never seen anything like this. The fact that they’re going after people now, instead of issues, is a new low even for them.”
Oh goody, I thought. We’re making history. FABULOUS.
There are few things in the world as disorienting as having concrete proof that somebody out there hates you, viciously, and not knowing who they are. I found myself in the position of having to take actual security measures, like meeting with the principal of my little brother’s school and providing information to the human resources staff at my workplace. Because you don’t actually always know if someone is Blog Crazy or Sawed-Off Shotgun Crazy until it’s too late – and none of us knew who she was or what she looked like. She could have been anyone. She was a faceless creature of the internet and every member of my family got their chance in the spotlight on her blog. This was where the fear began – Cat’s dreams about having her house get broken into, her fears about strange cars parked outside the house, her discomfort at work. I was angry, and Cat was afraid. I was angry that somebody had made her afraid, and she was afraid that my anger would make me reckless. We were each about a thousand times more worried about the other than ourselves.
* * *
It seems inevitable, looking back, that there would have been more letters – that Wendy would keep pushing until she got a response. I should have been prepared for it. But remember, I never saw the first letter, and the second one was only a few lines. I understood the nature of her objection without ever seeing it spelled out in black and white. But the next one was worse. It went to everyone. The entire staff received it, from the receptionist to the maintenance guy, as well as God knows who else since the email was once more BCC’d. In addition to the link to the video it contained the following text:
Sent: Sunday, December 16, 2007 3:36 PM
Subject: Help for your Confirmation leader
To All Saints people of Faith,
Since the confirmation program in All Saints still has Claire Willett in charge. I am praying for you who care for the teens to pray for a change in this girl who can hurt by her bad teachings and example in her life. Her father in in charge of the music and you have more in problems. Christ will come again and see how we have treated his church going people. I sent this before as this was sent to me. More people know that All Saints closes its eyes to hard things. It is not a mean thing but a loving thing to help this girl. The church is loving, and needs people in charge to be keeping with the teachings of the church that never change.
“More people know that All Saints closes its eyes to hard things” might not make any sense to you out of context, if you did not know these two important facts: #1) The Archdiocese of Portland had recently declared bankruptcy, buried under the weight of settlements from sex abuse lawsuits, primarily incidents which occurred in the 70’s and 80’s; and #2) One of the main priests accused was Father Loughlin, who in the early 80’s had been the pastor at All Saints. So if you knew that, here’s what you would hear, what I heard: The children of All Saints are in danger of sexual assault once again, and nobody is doing anything about it.
She didn’t know anything about me. All she saw was what she wanted to see – sin, corruption, danger. As unfathomable as it seemed to anyone who knew me, somehow she was convinced I was a dangerous sexual predator, and a tool of the liberal agenda to bring down the church. She didn’t know the most important thing – that standing in between those kids and harm was my job. That I would have stepped in front of a bullet for them. That youth ministers are the ones that get the call when they break up with their boyfriends, when their parents get divorced, when they run away from home or cut themselves. She didn’t know about the day I had to abruptly run out on dinner plans after a call from a teen who was about to commit suicide. She didn’t know about the kids in my Confirmation class who spke at my mother’s funeral rosary. She didn’t know the basic difference between being gay and being a pedophile, which was infuriating enough, but most of all, she did not know me. She had no idea that my faith had withered and stagnated until it was revived by those kids, that I owed them everything, that their presence in my life had been so profoundly transformative and that I loved each one of them, even the pain-in-the-ass fourteen-year-old boys, so deeply that I would have walked into fire if they’d needed me to.
It was the ugliest thing she could possibly have said.
* * *
My mother died six months into what would become a multi-year harassment campaign by Wendy and her blog crazies. There is a very real part of me that feels profound, bone-deep gratitude to this angry lunatic and her inexplicable anti-Willett vendetta, because she transformed the conversation inside my family about a topic I hated discussing. Coming out to my parents had been awkward and excruciating, and I had hoped never to do it again. But now it was a family safety issue, and we talked about it all the time. It became normalized. It became a thing we could have ordinary dinner-table conversation about: what was on the blog, what random accusations she was flinging about (the decree to which she linked Cat and I directly to Obama in stream-of-consciousness rants became almost amusing after awhile), what Mary Jo had said today, how I was feeling about it. I remember sitting in the living room with my mother, who was slowly dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and rapidly losing her ability to speak. By this point she communicated almost entirely by a talking computer she controlled with a sensor on her glasses, and our conversations became more slow and deliberate. We used to rattle off a mile a minute at each other. Now we made eye contact and took our time.
“I’m . . . very . . . proud . . . of . . . you,” she told me, struggling to form the words herself with her own voice. I looked over at her, tears in her eyes. That was all her throat could muster, so I watched her head bob back and forth as she typed on the screen, then looked at me when she was finished so I could read it. “IT TAKES COURAGE TO BE WHO YOU ARE WHEN PEOPLE ARE THROWING ROCKS AT YOU.”
Sometimes it looks like you’re being brave when you’re really just trying to get through the day. I wasn’t sure I was as heroic as my mother thought I was, but the only thing that mattered in that moment was that I got to hear her say she was proud of her gay daughter before it was too late.
We got a brief lull for a few months after my mother’s funeral, but by that point a year had gone by and we were closing in on the 2008 election. Wendy, who had been elected the head of Catholics for McCain, was ramping up her rhetoric, and the angriest I have ever seen my sweet dad in my whole life was the day she dragged my dead mother into her blog rant. She had linked to the video under the headline “Scandalous Message From Her Own Lips About Her Lifestyle – NO COMMENT FROM ARCHDIOCESE!” and followed it with, “I found this in July of 2007 and have sent emails and a letters to the Archbishop with no response. I chose not to be really public with this video in respect for Mrs. Willett until after she died, even though chances are she saw the YouTube video of her daughters.”
Subtext: “I hope their mother didn’t live to see this.”
It would be impossible to overstate at this point how angry this entire situation made my dad – who even posted a comment on that blog post, saying, “I find it quite offensive that you continue to persecute my family (the Willetts) on your blog . . . It is also patently untrue that you went easy on the Willetts while my wife Theresa was dying of ALS. Not that I understand what that has to do with slandering people on your blog.”
We were driving out to visit my aunt and uncle one evening and somebody brought up Crazy Wendy. That was when we all found out that apparently my dad had secretly, and ADORABLY, become an amateur gay-rights activist. A few days before, after the renewal of the attacks, he had gone back and re-watched my video online, and disappeared down the rabbit hole of the sidebar videos; you know, all the “People Who Watched This Video Also Liked . . .” recommendations. He had spent hours online watching videos about the ex-gay movement, the damage it does to the psyches of gay men and women, and the impact of religious bigotry. He told us about video footage he watched of a rally where two of the founders of Love In Action (the biggest and most prolific of all the major Christian ex-gay programs) got up in front of a huge crowd of people to apologize, sobbing, for all the horrible things that their program had done to gay people and how high the suicide rate is for people coming out of their programs. He had spent an entire afternoon on YouTube and had an arsenal of facts and statistics to share with us. Then he told us he had had to confront one of the guys in his poker group a few days earlier, when the man was making homophobic comments. He was sounding off to the group about how gay people choose to be the way they are and don’t deserve “special rights” since they could stop being gay anytime they wanted. So he told him, “Actually, being gay’s not a choice. Nobody would choose to be gay. Being gay is really hard. People are awful to them.”
And then the rest of the group – the other middle-aged software developer dads drinking their beer – chimed in with their own stories. Everyone knew a gay person who had experienced discrimination. Everyone had a story about something horrible that had happened to a gay person they cared about. Suddenly in that room, over the beer and man food and poker chips, there was real dialogue happening.
“I talked to Mike,” he said. Mike is our family’s lawyer. “I want us to look into suing her for hate speech, and possibly harassment.” I was floored. “I think it’s pretty clear that the intent of all her emails and blog posts is to get you fired. I want to know if an outside party trying to get someone fired for being gay constitutes hate speech. I think it should. I don’t think people should be allowed to treat people that way.”
I watched him drive for a few minutes, in silence. The stubborn set of his jaw, his determined profile. I was twenty-seven, and my father would still step in front of a bullet to protect me. At that moment, I loved my parents so much I thought my heart would burst out of my chest. I’m Ken Willett’s daughter, I thought to myself proudly. That’s my dad.
* * *
It took us awhile to figure out how to handle the situation with Colin. He was in high school at the time and not a baby, but we wanted to protect him as much as we could. Cat and I didn’t want him to be unnecessarily freaked out, so we withheld some of the gorier details at the beginning. I also don’t think I had told him at the outset that I was gay, since conversations about my personal life with my teenage brother were not high on my list of priorities. But once I did, he astonished me. We walked to get burgers one day, and on the way he told me he had had to smack down some friends at school about the issue of gay marriage. We sat in Wendy’s with our Frosties and had an almost comically adult conversation where he told me how he felt, which was that every religion should be able to decide what marriage means in their own culture but it should be totally separate from the civil rights of married people.
“Did you know,” he told me, appalled, “that if a gay guy is in the hospital that his partner can’t visit him? Did you know that they can’t always use each other’s health insurance? Isn’t that fucked up?”
Don’t cry, I told myself. Don’t embarrass him.
“You think that’s fucked up?” I told him. “Want to hear a story that will totally freak you out?”
“Um, always.” (Colin loves a good story about crazy people.) So I began at the beginning, and I told him everything. I came out to him, and I told him about the harassment, and that I had gone to his school to meet with his principal, and that we didn’t think she was dangerous but we didn’t 100% know, that Cat and I were being smart and safe about it, and that someday we’d look back on it and laugh. I didn’t want him to be afraid. He wasn’t.
“So Dad wants to sue her for hate speech?”
He took a contemplative bite of hamburger and then lit up and looked at me. “You know what would be rad? If we won and got millions of dollars from her and used it to set up a gay rights group at every Catholic school in the state. But I would want to be there when she found out, to see the look on her face.”
Talk about hope for the future.
* * *
The hilarious irony here, of course, is that sometimes now I’m like, “Am I even really gay? Maybe I’m not! Who knows! Life changes! I’ll figure it out when I figure it out! WHATEVER!” But I would never, ever, ever tell Crazy Wendy that. She made an accidental activist out of someone whose whole goal in life was to avoid conflict in absolutely all circumstances. Cat is our family’s designated protester; I’m the one who keeps her head down and her mouth shut. I would have stayed that person my whole life.
I live at the intersection of two different worlds whose inhabitants often don’t get along. Balancing being gay and Catholic is like an exacerbated version of that horrible feeling when your two best friends can’t be in the same room together and you wear yourself out running back and forth and trying to cover and say, “No, no, what she really meant was . . .”
But all that’s changing. Pope Francis is changing all of that. If you’re not Catholic, or don’t follow my obsession with this Pope, you may not understand just how deeply we feel this change. This isn’t about politics – this isn’t about gay marriage or Catholic teachings about sexuality. This is much, much simpler than that. This is about being welcome at the table. That’s all.
The deep, paralyzing fear that comes from being marginalized from inside your own church is that you start to wonder if they’re right. That maybe if you met Jesus face-to-face he’d look you in the eye and he wouldn’t like you very much. But the moral of this story is this: there was only one Crazy Wendy in my life. There was one woman, and perhaps a handful of angry blog followers, who decided that they were in charge of whether or not I got to do my job, whether or not I was corrupting teenagers, whether or not I was a good person. But there were way more people who had my back. My church had my back so hard that it took my breath away. Radical generosity came from the most unexpected places.
This is a story about how, when cruelty came out of nowhere, it was met with the full force of a community of love. This is a story about how hard my family rocks. This is a story about how youth ministry transformed my life.
This is a story about how grateful I am to have had the experience of being forced to examine my privilege, to learn what hate looks like, to understand that the person on the other end of the hate is also a human being, and to commit myself to changing that dialogue. You will never hear me talk about people like Wendy the way people like Wendy talk about me.
This is a story about how everyone – gay, straight, crazy or not crazy – should be welcome at the table.
This is a story about how love wins, every time.
Happy National Coming Out Day.