By MARK OPPENHEIMER
WASHINGTON — “I spent the summer before college reading Shakespeare and staring out the window and occasionally being a roadie for my friend’s band,” says Eve Tushnet, the celibate, gay, conservative, Catholic writer. That was all good fun, she says upon meeting in Union Station, but she was ready for more, although she knew not what. “I was hoping for something very different in college.”
It is common, this freshman urge for self-invention. The football player tries his hand at poetry; the classical violinist fiddles in a bluegrass band. But Ms. Tushnet — whose parents, Mark Tushnet and Elizabeth Alexander, are a well-known liberal Harvard law professor and a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, respectively — did not imagine that she would become a Roman Catholic, nor that 10 years after graduation, her voice, on her blog and in numerous articles, would be one of the most surprising raised against same-sex marriage.
As the hundred or so daily readers of eve-tushnet.blogspot.com, and a larger audience for her magazine writing, know by now, Ms. Tushnet can seem a paradox: fervently Catholic, proudly gay, happily celibate. She does not see herself as disordered; she does not struggle to be straight, but she insists that her religion forbids her a sex life.
“The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants,” Ms. Tushnet wrote in a 2007 essay for Commonweal. While gay sex should not be criminalized, she said, gay men and lesbians should abstain. They might instead have passionate friendships, or sublimate their urges into other pursuits. “It turns out I happen to be very good at sublimating,” she says, while acknowledging that that is a lot to ask of others.
Marriage should be reserved for heterosexuals, whose “relationships can be either uniquely dangerous or uniquely fruitful,” she explained in an e-mail message. “Thus it makes sense to have an institution dedicated to structuring and channeling them.”
But same-sex marriage, she wrote in The New York Post in 2007, “can bring one of three outcomes: A two-tiered marriage culture, where heterosexual couples are asked to do the hard things (sex only within marriage, marriage for life in most circumstances) and homosexual couples work out their own marriage norms; reshape marriage into an optional, individualized institution, ignoring the creative and destructive potentials of ‘straight’ sex; or encourage all couples to restrict sex to marriage and marry for life, and hope that gay couples accept norms designed to meet heterosexual needs.”
Ms. Tushnet entered Yale in 1996 a happy lesbian, out since age 13 or 14 (she can’t quite remember). Her father, a nonobservant Jew, and her mother, a Unitarian, both belonged to progressive traditions, tolerant of her sexuality.
When, as a freshman, she attended a meeting of the Party of the Right, a conservative group affiliated with the Yale Political Union, it was “specifically to laugh at them, to see the zoo animals,” she says.
“But I was really impressed, not only by the weird arguments but the degree to which it was clear that the people making them lived as if what they were saying had actual consequences for their lives, that had required them to make sacrifices.”
In Ms. Tushnet’s time, as in mine — I was four years ahead of her at Yale — the Party of the Right had a benignantly cultish quality. “Have you read ‘The Secret History?’ ” she asks, referring to Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel about a secretive student clique obsessed with Greek literature. “It was like that.”
But she found the Party of the Right students compassionate, intellectual and not terribly exercised about her homosexuality. She was drawn to the Catholics among them, who corrected her misimpression that the existence of sin “means you are bad.” It means “precisely the opposite,” they taught her. “It means you have a chance to come back and repent and be saved,” she says. She began reading books like St. Anselm’s “Why God Became Man.” She began attending church. Her sophomore year, she was baptized.
“By the time it was real enough to be threatening,” she says of her conversion, “things had gone too far. I didn’t see it coming.”
After college, Ms. Tushnet worked briefly at the National Catholic Register, a weekly magazine, but since 2002 she has made a meager living through writing, computer programming and freelance research. She lives in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of downtown Washington and volunteers two hours a week at a Christian pregnancy-counseling center. She writes for liberal Catholic publications like Commonweal, and for conservative secular magazines like The Weekly Standard.
But it is on her blog that a small but presumably learned readership finds her most ambitious writing: lengthy, often obscure, for gay love, against same-sex marriage, and serious about Scripture, saints and medieval philosophy. She writes about obscure Hungarian fiction (“Janos Nyiri’s ‘Battlefields and Playgrounds’ is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.”) and struggles in print with St. Anselm’s “ontological proof” of the existence of God.
It is not simple to embrace both traditional Catholicism and unrepentant, if sex-free, gayness. For example, Ms. Tushnet finds it difficult to interest fellow Catholics in their church’s theology of friendship, as articulated in books like St. Aelred’s “On Spiritual Friendship.” She says that when she talks to people about the religious importance of same-sex closeness, “they look at you like you’re trying to get married in the church.” And few of her friends share both her theology and her predilections for Edmund White, Jean Genet and the Smiths.
She may befuddle others, but for her, life is joyful. She takes obvious pleasure in being an eccentric in a tradition with no shortage of odd heroes, visionaries and saints. “You can be really quite strange, and the Catholic church will canonize you eventually,” she says. She loves eating the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which she believes is a carnivorous meal, not a metaphor. She loves gay synth-pop bands.
“I really think the most important thing is, I really like being gay and I really like being Catholic,” she says. “If nobody ever calls me self-hating again, it will be too soon.
“Nothing is quite as great as getting up in the morning, listening to the Pet Shop Boys and going to church.”