Pope Francis, and The Weaponization of Queer Identities

— Interrogating The Heteronormative Language of Casting queerness as Punition, and How The Socio-cultural Impact Is The Reinforcement of Homophobic Violence

In October of 2018, I got in a big fight with a friend of mine. At issue was the position of the church on homosexuality, Pope Francis, and his tokenistic pretentious PR stunts on the issue of the Church’s violent attitude towards the LGBT community. At the time, Pope Francis was radiating in Liberal media adulation for being a progressive champion, a reformer, etc. etc. In April of that year he had reportedly said to a gay man, “God made you like this. God loves you like this. The Pope loves you like this and you should love yourself and not worry about what people say” and in August he had told the Press that homosexuality was not an illness.

My friend, lets call him Sam, on that day touted that the Church was at least more progressive than it has ever been in its history. It after all held, in official doctrine, that being homosexual was not a sin, as long as the individual didn’t act on the inclination, which was more than many other religious institutions of it’s age had done.

And so I went off on Pope Francis. Being formerly Catholic, I fully understood why the Pope was a very soft spot regardless of the circumstances. When Pope Francis arrived on the scene, it did first appear like he was revolutionary. He was the first Pope to say the word Gay instead of Homosexual. This might seem meaningless but it wasn’t. It was the catholic church’s first denotation of homosexuality with a word other than the one used in official medical parlance when it was still classified as an illness. That was the prelude to him being the first Pope to openly say Homosexuality was not an illness.

But it really only takes light research to see this charade for what it is: a ploy to Photoshop progressiveness on an institution of violence and abuse, while at the same thing not really doing anything to put an end to the abuse and in fact fueling it.

First of all, I told Sam that Pope Francis was a fraud. A man who back when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and still went by his birth name(Jorge Mario Bergoglio) cynically urged other Argentine Bishops to throw their support behind Civil unions, as a ploy to stop the clamour for marriage equality. At the time in Argentina, there was fierce debate over a marriage equality bill introduced by Silvia Augsburger of the Socialist Party, and Vilma Ibarra of The Front For Victory. Argentina was about to become the first Latin American country to recognize same-sex marriages. Civil unions were at the time legal in only four Jurisdictions in Argentina including in Buenos Aires but if the church threw their support behind that as a compromise position, it could stop the clamour for marriage equality, or so Cardinal Bergoglio thought. The Church eventually failed, though not from a lack of trying. There is an article in the National Catholic Register titled: Cardinal Bergoglio Hits Out at Same-Sex Marriage in which he is quoted as saying, “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family. At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Note that he was at the time the Primatial See of Argentina and President of the Argentine Episcopal Conference. He was the highest ranking Catholic in Argentina and 76.5% of Argentines are Catholic.

Anyway, Sam was incensed. That was eight years ago, he said. And he wasn’t Pope then. Being Vicar has helped him grow and see things in a different light and grace.

Well, fair enough.

So I moved on from that to 2015 and 2016, when he acted in his capacity as Pope.

In 2015, when the Alliance For Family backed by The Conference of Slovak Bishops initiated a referendum to further strip LGBTQ Slovaks of their rights, Pope Francis said to them, “I greet the pilgrims from Slovakia and, through them, I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society.”

The questions of the referendum were:

• Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage?

• Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children?

• Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the children or their parents don’t agree?

Later that same year, while officiating a mass in The Philippines, he said, “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage. These realities are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation. Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself.”

In late 2016, the mainstream press gushed again at Pope Francis. They were all awed with him saying while visiting Azerbaijan, “When a person (who is gay) arrives before Jesus, Jesus certainly will not say, ‘Go away because you are homosexual,’”

Predictably enough in the very same interview he referred to the gender identity of trans people as “Gender Theory” and said in regards with LGBT education in schools, “What I was talking about was the nastiness that is present today in indoctrinating people in gender theory. It is one thing for a person to have this tendency, this option, and even change sex, but it is another thing to teach it in schools along these lines in order to change mentalities. I call this ideological colonization.”

Sam was not happy about this lack of gratitude from my end. To be fair, I used a lot of strong language to characterize Pope Francis that day, none of which I regret. And he could not get over my attacking a man who was at least doing something to “help you people.”

It did not give him pause how homophobic and Transphobic Pope Francis is. How his language serves only to provide cover and continued legitimacy as the church continues to pursue its conservative agenda. In his mind, the Pope was an improvement on the norm and for that I should have been more grateful, more welcoming.

Most people who continue to use and endorse homophobic language while claiming to be non homophobic are like this: very hostile to criticism, very opposed to any challenge to their charity and their goodwill, they who are at least deeming us worthy of acceptance and tolerance. There is an expectation for gratitude, and hostility when this gratitude isn’t forthcoming.

I have not always known Pope Francis to be a fraud. In the beginning, I was grateful for his tokenistic backhanded lip service. But more and more I began to see the dangers of accepting language like his, let alone being grateful for it. Our society is marinated in Homophobia. A deep mass hatred of queer identities and this ignorance is upheld by a plethora of asinine, most times contradictory views of queer identity.

For instance, we gay men are portrayed as physically weak, and not ‘real’ men and at the same time portrayed as dangerous to cisgender-heterosexual men, so much so to warrant preemptive violence, police brutality and exclusion from societal spaces which are all more or less committed to the maintenance of the heterosexist status quo.

This homophobia is ubiquitous, it is embedded in our educational systems, in our healthcare systems and in language, even from people who normally do not consider themselves homophobic. Queer people have to deal constantly with homophobia from the most sanitized of spaces. Whether it is the most progressive Pope in human history or that New York Times cartoon portraying Trump and Putin as being in a relationship as criticism, or in the form of religious Christians characterizing homosexuality as yet another sin, like their award winning Pope encourages them to do.

Fun fact: In 2019, Pope Francis was named person of the year by The Advocate — an LGBT magazine(Liberals grate on my nerves).

That same year, Pope Francis defended Catholic doctrine which holds that homosexual inclinations are not sinful, rather it is basically all forms of us expressing our sexualities that are sinful. He used an even more troubling analogy: “tendencies are not sin. If you have a tendency to anger, it’s not a sin. Now, if you are angry and hurt people, the sin is there.”

The only reason, we do not consider him a dangerous transphobic and homophobic man in charge of an extremely powerful transphobic and homophobic well funded global organization is because of our conditioning as queer people, to unabashed hatred. I see no other reason why we go to such lengths to celebrate people who can’t even acknowledge us fully. If someone is not adding an A for Ally in LGBTQIAA, then someone is designing a flag for allies or giving Jay Z a Lifetime LGBT advocacy award for accepting his lesbian mother.

It is so enraging because so often we are used as nothing but props, even among those who claim to accept us, and we are expected to only politely disagree, as if these opinions aren’t what literally fuels violence against us. We are expected to not take it like that because the people who utter them don’t take them like that. The casualness with which these ideas are traded in conversations isn’t proof of its harmlessness, it’s a testament to how normalized homophobia is in our communities.

The very notion of punishing sexually abusive cisgender-heterosexual men by making them have sex with gay men, the idea of wishing queer children on homophobic and transphobic people, of using the gender identity of trans people as a punchline, the idea of photo shopping huge rainbow coloured dildos onto armed white supremacist anti lockdown Amerikkkan protesters, to call their masculinity into question, to mock and belittle, is nothing if not homophobic.

It brings into clear relief the impulse of society to treat queerness as a negative, as undesirable, as a pathosis, and it directly reinforces the homophobic narrative that queer people are dangerous, something to protect general society from. There are connecting dots between wishing gay sex on rapists and rape apologists and the violence visibly queer men face for just existing outside where the same toxic masculinity is used to justify violence against us. There is a straight line between saying men being so bad at sex is why women would prefer to be lesbians and the sexual violence that queer women face as corrective therapy. There is a very clear connection between the Catholic church’s doctrine and Conversion therapy — a practice which has been proven to be psychologically damaging to queer people, especially youth.

The language itself is dangerous because it so strongly reinforces the idea of queerness as a dangerous novelty, as unwanted, as curable, as a moral taint meant to be overcome, not embraced.

And a big part of the problem is that it emanates from those who we are supposed to acknowledge and celebrate as Allies, and for whom our criticisms are so censored and tone policed. Many cisgender-heterosexual people who consider themselves to be non homophobic are so hostile to any criticism of their politics as homophobic. In fact, accusing them of homophobia is a bigger offence than the violence their language might be reinforcing. And because of this, meaningful conversations online about interrogating the language of homophobia and heterosexism is derailed and transformed into a discussion on the tone and the combativeness of queer people.

We are accused of falsely characterizing people as homophobic to feel morally superior, of being on the look out for things to be offended by, of not knowing how to take a joke, and so on. All because these so called Allies do not want to confront the possibility of their own homophobia. There is so much this culture of moral sanctity when people in the oppressive faction lend solidarity and acceptance to oppressed people, and to negate this is to break an unspoken agreement. To call this moral sanctity into question is to tarnish the pristine image of Justice advocate they have of themselves. Today still, civility is a bigger priority for these people than the well beings of queer people because in the end they do not have to live the consequences of the homophobic environment this kind of rhetoric creates. They think because they have denounced homophobia, they can go ahead not questioning how it remains engrained in so much of our daily parlance and in powerful institutions they prop up, such as the Catholic church.

To negate homophobia in its totality, there must be a conscious reexamination of language, including the language used in arguing against homophobia. There must be a self critical interrogation of how LGBTQIA people are spoken about and how our identities are casually deployed in conversations. Nothing less is acceptable. It is not enough to simple say you do not support homophobia when your very words continues to reinforce the social myths that fuel it. There must be a constant process of unlearning and relearning, and a vigilance to the myriad of ways in which homophobia pervades every facet of society. Nothing less would do.

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU