No Room at the Church

When the institution you revere responds to your honesty with prejudice, your only choice may be to keep on speaking from the heart.

Tom luce sits in the living room of the house in which he grew up, not far from the main street of Barre, Vermont. Judy Luce, his wife of 30 years, is in the kitchen making chicken soup. We can hear, now and then, the percussion of pot lids lifted and lowered, and her animated voice as she talks with my six-year-old daughter, whom I have brought to this house on purpose.

It is two months since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled, in Baker v. Vermont , that the state's constitution entitles same-sex couples to "the same benefits and protections" afforded by Vermont law to married opposite-sex couples and asked the legislature to figure out how to do that. The legislature, in turn, has been seeking the advice of theologians, academics, and legal scholars on gay marriage, domestic partnership, and other possible remedies, an effort that has brought Vermont closer than any state in the union to legalizing the bonds between people of the same sex. The legislature has also been holding public hearings, listening to the opinions of ordinary citizens, people like Tom Luce, a middle-school French teacher and a music director at St. Monica's Catholic Church, the son of a state policeman, and the descendant of a family that has lived in Vermont since 1787.

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"What I see when I look at the people petitioning for same-sex marriage are faith-filled, law-abiding persons adhering to what certainly are the central standards we all require in a marriage," Tom Luce testified. The House chamber was packed that evening despite a raging snowstorm, and Vermont Public Radio was broadcasting the hearing live.

"I fail to see how granting lesbians and gays the right to marry will pose a danger to the public or to traditional marriage," Luce went on. His statement was typed; he had been up all night composing it, hoping he would be one of those selected to testify. Now in his 60s and three decades into his marriage with Judy, he assumed he knew something about fidelity, about partnership. At the statehouse, though, he stood alone. Judy Luce, a midwife, was working in Guatemala. "There are some things you have to do as an 'I,' not as a 'we,'" she told him when he said, by e-mail, that he wanted to speak out. To him, this was her blessing.

Blessing is a word that is not uncommon in Tom Luce's vocabulary, nor in his wife's. Both are faithful members of St. Monica's parish, the biggest Catholic church in the state, and the church where Tom was baptized and grew up, and from whose embrace he entered seminary at 18. "I have this compulsion, technically called a vocation, to be centrally involved in the mission of the church," he explains as we sit together. Still wearing his school clothes, he tugs reflexively on his tie. "I resisted it, but the vocation kept pushing."

Just then my daughter wanders into the room, right on the heels of the Luce family dog, and commands him to lie down. The two of them wrestle on the carpet, not far from Tom's feet. He regards them absently. His mind is full already.

"For 13 years I lived a successful celibate life, as a Roman Catholic seminarian and then a priest for the Burlington Diocese," he had told the crowd at the statehouse. The clock was ticking that night. There was no time, then, to talk of his mission work in the slums of Boston or his public advocacy of marriage for priests -- a stance that lost him his collar in 1969 -- or of meeting Judy, a former nun, at the wedding of mutual friends, of dancing the hully-gully with her, of falling in love.

There was time only for the essentials, so this is what he said: "I want to close with another fact about myself. Whatever you wish to call the set of physical and emotional characteristics of homosexuality, I have them. I live with them now, and I have lived with them for as long as I can remember. I am 61 years old. I have, however, chosen not to live a gay lifestyle or to call myself gay. This is due in no small part to my Catholic upbringing.É But I want to say to you tonight that I stand in unity with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as they demand their right to marry." Tom Luce sat down, having said what he needed to say. He had spoken with a peculiar kind of authority, the authority of a man who had played by the rules.

"If the climate had been different when I was growing up," he tells me, "I might have made a different choice. It still would not have been an easy decision." For him, homosexuality -- his homosexuality -- is an idea, a feeling, true but incorporeal. He is gay in his heart, but it is a heart that also holds Judy and their three children and a lifelong commitment to their family. He was putting that on the line when he got up to testify -- not his heart and not his family, but their perceptions and the perceptions of his community, and of his students and his church.

But that, exactly, was his point. "Look at me," Tom Luce seemed to be saying. "I am one of you. I am one of them. Do not be so quick to judge."

Judgment, though, was swift. Soon after his public testimony he received a fax from the parish priests at St. Monica's asking him to "take a break" from his music ministry. Later they told him that people would get up and leave the church if he were ever to perform music there again. "They said the overwhelming response was one of anger over my identifying myself as a Catholic and former priest -- a betrayal and an unnecessary connection -- and my unstated opposition to the teaching of the church on homosexuality," he says.

"They held to their decision that I should not have any public function whatsoever in the church, including allowing me to run for election for the parish council. I told them that excluding me from music ministry and running for the council was a violent reaction that could only fuel more bigotry. I told them that I expect a compassionate handling of someone like myself rather than responding to angry people who cannot open their hearts."

My daughter, who had spent time with me at the local Christian bookshop earlier in the day, had heard the owner cite scripture in defense of her position against homosexual marriage. Now, listening to our conversation, she disentangles herself from the dog, rushes over, and whispers in my ear. "I don't get it," she says. "Why is it anyone's beeswax who you get married to?"

I tell her I don't know -- which I believe -- and that it is complicated -- which I don't, really. People have made it complicated, on purpose. And then they have solipsistically relied on those complications to "prove" their point. A man showed up at the statehouse hearing with two lengths of pipe that he tried, unsuccessfully, to insert into one another -- a failure that demonstrated, he claimed, the unnaturalness of homosexuality. But he could have brought pipe of different diameters, and then what? The woman in the bookshop could have cited Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians in defense of love above all else, and then what would her Bible be advocating?

The Vermont Legislature has been given the opportunity to uncomplicate marriage, to make it a universal declaration of love and commitment, to choose equality over equity in their interpretation of Baker v. Vermont. But while the compromise that has come out of the judiciary committee is far-reaching -- a recommendation that the state create something called "civil unions" between homosexual partners to ensure them the same domestic partnership benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy -- it will not afford them the easiness and unquestioned acceptance and standing in the community that is one of the immeasurable perks of being married. Equality would have been the beginning of transparency, of fitting in, of it not being anyone's beeswax to whom you are married, and of it being everyone's.

In my daughter's first-grade classroom there is a hand-drawn poster that says, "You can't judge a person by their religion, physical appearance, age, who they love, family." Next to it is another that asks, "What does it mean to be brave?" and then spells out the answer: "Believe in yourself and your ideas. Take risks that help you to learn and grow. Be an ally for yourself and other people. Find your voice and speak from your heart. Have empathy for other people. Do what is right in your mind and heart. You are more powerful than you know." This is why I have brought her to this house. This is why she is listening to Tom speak. He is an object lesson, and so is his wife. If my daughter does not figure this out, I will tell her.

"Why don't I leave the church?" Tom says, repeating the question I have put to him. He smiles auspiciously. "Can you leave your family? The church is my family. Maybe this is going to be my lasting contribution to it."