Too Much Information
Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Dept. chaplain who died in the World Trade Center attacks, is perhaps the most iconic of the 9/11 heroes. Revered by millions around the world in his death, he was in life a beacon to firefighters and recovering alcoholics, as well as to gay activists, whom he befriended and supported despite the Catholic Church's animosity toward the gay movement.
That was perhaps because he was gay himself, something he didn't hide among those he considered his friends. An effort to have him canonized—as much of a longshot as that may be—has taken off, with a We bsite (www.saintmychal.com) devoted to the cause. Articles, books and Web sites have chronicled every aspect of his life. Just about anything you'd want to know about the brave and beloved deceased chaplain can be found with a quick Google search.
But the one question that has lately been weighing on my mind is this: Was Mychal Judge celibate?
You might think that is completely irrelevant. Maybe you even think that delving into private issues about a deceased individual for no apparent reason is a bit unseemly. OK. So tell that to the Associated Press, which recently reported—in a description I recall seeing often in media reports in the past 15 months about the now legendary priest—that Judge was 'gay but celibate.'
Ask editors and reporters if they believe in prying into public figures' sex lives—even dead public figures'—for no reason, and most will swear to be against it. And yet, reporting that someone is celibate is reporting on that individual's sex life, since you're stating that the person actually doesn't have much of a sex life at all.
And how would reporters know that Judge was celibate anyway—with a certainty that allows them to report it as a fact—particularly since Judge is dead, and isn't here to tell them? Why do these same reporters seem only to describe a gay priest as 'celibate'? When was the last time you heard the press describe a priest as 'heterosexual but celibate,' or, for that matter, as 'celibate' but without any description of his sexual orientation? We're told that all priests are supposed to be celibate, so why must it be pointed out when talking about a gay priest?
Since the Associated Press has opened this can of worms, these questions are now important to ask and to try to answer, particularly as Judge's icon status continues to skyrocket, with several biographies of him due out this year. You can't help but think that some people just weren't happy when it turned out that Judge wasn't straight, so they turned him into the next best thing: gay but celibate. Gay journalist Rex Wockner broached the subject recently in his column on PlanetOut.com .
'Somewhere along the line, some media outlet apparently threw up its arms in exasperation and admitted that Judge was indeed gay, then calmed itself down by deciding that, as a Catholic priest, Judge, of course, practiced celibacy, and thus was only sort of gay,' he wrote.
Wockner was the first journalist to report that Judge was gay, in a story he wrote on Sept. 12, a day after the World Trade Center attacks. He'd interviewed several people who knew Judge was gay, and who'd said Judge was open about his homosexuality to them. Some people questioned Wockner's reporting; others didn't like the idea of 'outing' someone, even a dead man. But in the weeks that followed, Judge's homosexuality was widely reported on. New York City Fire Dept. Commissioner Thomas Von Essen even told New York magazine that Judge had long ago told him he was gay. Judge wasn't outed, because he'd not really been closeted.
So, while Wockner's assertion that Judge was gay was soon backed up by Judge's friends and associates, who spoke on the record to many news organizations, the mainstream press' claim that he was celibate seems to have come out of thin air—and has yet to be confirmed by anyone. The fact that reporters would believe it relevant to report something that is not confirmed—and really can't be—underscores how important they hold this alleged factoid to be. One reason they view it as relevant to report that a gay priest is celibate, but don't offer such a qualification for straight priests, is that they associate 'gay' with 'sex'—and a lot of it. The idea that their readers might think a gay priest could and would be celibate—without someone stressing that point—doesn't seem to have crossed their minds.
Nor do they realize that they've now gone down a road fraught with peril for them. By reporting on Judge's alleged celibacy, after all, they now must be willing to report the opposite, correcting their own previous assertion, if indeed evidence were ever brought forth showing Judge was not celibate.
The issue of Judge's sexual life—or lack thereof—is a thorny one even for gay activists in New York who knew Judge or who praised him in his death. Some of Judge's conservative friends were enraged when gays and lesbians close to Judge said he was gay in the days after 9/11. Revealing that he was sexually active, if that were true, would take that anger to a completely new level—a level to which some activists might not want to go. Some activists might also be concerned with how the issue would reflect on gay priests, fearing it would play right into the church's hands about gays and the priesthood. And of course, if it came out that Judge wasn't celibate, it would certainly be the death knell in the energetic, if uphill, campaign to make Judge a saint.
Still, those reasons shouldn't keep anyone from discussing the possibility openly, as long as it is not reported as fact (unless one or more individuals were to come forward and confirm it). The idea that gay activists and journalists shouldn't dare raise the issue for fear of how it would play strikes me as problematic, even homophobic—especially since it has become relevant thanks to news organizations like the Associated Press.
Judge was a human being, and a gay one at that, someone with sexual urges and desires. Why is it wrong to broach the idea that he may have had involvements with other men? And why would we allow members of the press—based on absolutely nothing but their own moral convictions—to foreclose that possibility, claiming Judge to have been celibate when they have no way of knowing?
Michelangelo Signorile hosts a daily satellite radio show on Sirius OutQ, 149. He can be reached at www.signorile.com .