IT WAS the first day of Spring of 1982, but in Kentucky it still felt much like winter. Despite the chilly weather and the fact that I had a ton of homework to do for my MBA program at the University of Kentucky, I decided it was a good night to head out the local gay club and dance the night away. As I leaned against the mirrored wall near the dance floor, a handsome stranger approached and asked me to dance. Who could have imagined that this inauspicious encounter would lead to our spending nearly the next forty years together in a committed same-sex relationship?
Michael and I quickly discovered that lived on the same street close to campus, just three doors apart. We became inseparable, going to the movies, clubbing, camping, and, perhaps peculiarly, we started attending services together at a Catholic church. We both had been raised Catholic, and we were still going to Mass regularly while away at college even before we met. But attending church together as 23-year-old gay men was something that none of our queer peers were doing. None of our friends in the early 1980s was even partnering up for any significant periods of time. They were quickly moving from partner to partner, so our commitment and endurance seemed to puzzle many of them.
You may not be able to imagine how attending Mass with someone for forty years can help you bond and sustain your relationship through all of the trials that life can throw at you. So many times, Michael and I took our troubles with us to church and came home with a sense of peace and of belonging a caring faith community.
For the last 34 years, Michael and I have been active members of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Louisville, Kentucky. When we first joined the parish in 1987, we made sure that the pastor would welcome and include us, and after securing that confirmation we settled in. In our nearly forty years as parishioners at Lourdes, we have been openly gay and quite active in a wide range of ministries. The Catholic Church has a long history of being inhospitable, even hostile, toward LGBT people, but somehow we found a place where we could maintain our faith and Catholic identity, and also our identity as openly gay and authentic people.
Michael has served on parish council, was vice chair for a while, and also participated in a wide range of other ministries including the Resurrection (funeral) Choir, grounds upkeep, baking, soccer coach, fish fry volunteer, and some others I know I’m overlooking. I have served as a communion minister for over twenty years and for a while was coordinator of the ministry doing all the training and scheduling. Besides that, I have served Worship Committee and was a Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader at the parish units for many years. Michael and I were consistently raising our hands to volunteer for parish activities, and doing so only broadened our visibility and acceptance within the parish community over the years.
Back in 1999, after we had already been parishioners for twelve years at Lourdes, we shook things up when we walked into church one Sunday with a newborn baby. Michael and I had decided that we wanted to expand our family, so we went through the difficult and complex process of adopting a child as gay men at a time when that was almost inconceivable. Many members of our parish still tell us they vividly remember that day we showed up for church with a baby, and just how remarkable that was.
Shortly after that, we adopted a second child. Time after time, we thought someone in the parish or Archdiocese of Louisville would object, but this rarely happened. Our children attended the preschool at Lourdes, then kindergarten through eighth grade at the parish school. They received in our church the sacraments of Baptism, First Reconciliation, First Communion, and Confirmation. They also went on to attend Catholic high school, and now as adults they still identify as Catholic.
People often (really, I mean all the time) ask us why we stay in the Catholic church when it is so often homophobic. It’s a difficult question, but it boils down to the fact that Michael and I were both raised Catholic, and we were taught that faith and family are the most important things in life. If you believe that faith is important, why wouldn’t one stay and fight for that? Often people like to say “choose your battles,” and I have tried to do that judiciously. Let me just ask, if you aren’t going to fight for your faith, what is there that’s more important? In my opinion, staying actively engaged in my church has allowed me to grow in spirituality and in service. But it has also given hundreds, perhaps thousands, of my fellow parishioners over the decades the opportunity to challenge their beliefs about what it means to be LGBT.
Greg Bourke and his husband, Michael DeLeon, have been partnered 39 years, and were legally married in 2004 in Ontario Canada. They have two adopted adult children, Isaiah (age 23) and Bryson (age 22). They have been openly gay and active member of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Louisville, Kentucky for 33 years. His book, Gay, Catholic, and American:My Legal Battle for Marriage Equality and Inclusion, comes out September 2021 and can be found at https://undpress.nd.edu/9780268201241/gay-catholic-and-american/
You are extremely fortunate in finding the rare Catholic parish that would welcome you both, especially in your state. Sadly, you are the exception and not the rule. Once I realized that it was far more damaging to me to enter the church than to leave, it was a weight off my shoulders. I now know that the true church exists outside the building, which really exists just to further it’s own existence. The early Christians didn’t require massive structures, using costly resources to serve God.