Book Review: Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay by Daniel Mattson
Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace
by Daniel C. Mattson
Review by Sara Perla
At the end of this book, which is part memoir, part theological and philosophical discourse, Daniel Mattson quotes Thomas Merton: “[God’s] glory in me will be to receive from me something He can never receive from anyone else—because it is a gift of His to me which He has never given to anyone else & never will.” Mattson has certainly given God glory by giving the Church this book that dispels both the caricatures of “LGBT” people and simplistic thinking about Church teaching on human sexuality.
This is the book that the Church has needed for some time: the story of a witness. As Pope Paul VI put it, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangeli Nuntiandi, 1975). Mattson fulfills the role of a teacher who is a witness.
Let’s start with the bold title: Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay. The title engages the debate that is occurring within the Church about the acceptance or use of commonly-accepted labels: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The discussion usually involves people who do not experience same-sex attraction or sexual identity incongruence; these people are debating whether to call other people by labels that designate those people’s sexual attractions or gender identities. On one side, the argument is that using the label the person chooses is a sign of respect; on the other, the argument is that the label does not do justice to the person who chooses it, defining them by an experience that should not be self-defining. In this book, we have the entrance into the debate of someone who, by experience, has more of a stake in the question, but answers it differently and offers a reasoned argument for his position. He spends a whole chapter on this (p. 127- 140), exploring the way that labeling a person as “a homosexual” or “gay” emerged in a concrete historical context and with clear aims of conflating action and identity. This chapter deserves a careful read.
The first section of the book, which is also the longest, consists of Mattson’s personal story of wounds, confusion, experimentation, sexual activity, love, heartbreak, and conversion. “A well-done and useful testimonial is like a parable,” notes Fr. Paul Check in the introduction. Mattson’s story is like this. It is perhaps more complicated than we are comfortable with, especially since it involves a relationship with a woman amid continuing same-sex attractions—but isn’t real life always more complicated than we expect? The frankness of the telling, including sections from his journals, is refreshing.
The second section is about reclaiming the reality that men and women were made “for each other,” in relation to one another, and that is the true identity of each one of us—male and female, in the image of God. The third section includes practical advice and stories from Mattson’s experience of “running the race” of chastity. This section would be pertinent and helpful to anyone who seeks to live this virtue according to their state in life, but particularly to single people who are called to sexual abstinence. He includes the temptations to pornography and masturbation here and the way that the saints can help us to persevere.
Part Four is the most philosophical and theological section, going into the “why” of Church teaching and how these “hard sayings” can lead to freedom. Especially helpful is Mattson’s discussion of the term “disordered” as used in the Catechism for acts or inclinations (p. 209-232). In this section, Mattson also discusses “disinterested friendship” and dispels the false notion that this means that friends do not care if their friendship is reciprocated; it simply means that it is not self-seeking. Friendship seems to be in a sort of crisis these days, and this chapter is important for everyone. Friendship is an essential element of happiness, and too often today is it seen as “less than” a romantic relationship or a “consolation prize” for those who are not married. Mattson points out that even the ancient philosophers (particularly Aristotle) understood that the bond of friendship is a gift. This chapter may also help parents to form their children in the habits of friendship, starting with those basic lessons of sharing and taking turns to encouraging friendships to open and include new people. Learning friendship in this way as a child may help to prevent some of the struggles that Mattson worked through as an adult.
Finally, the last section is devoted to “The Most Important Things.” These are, in Mattson’s estimation, the virtues of humility and magnanimity, and the sure knowledge of one’s being beloved of God.
Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay should be required reading for the “people in the pews,” especially those younger Catholics who have been formed in a culture that uses “gay” casually. It is eminently readable, chock full of quotes from diverse sources, and bravely stands up against the pressure to conform to this age.