Meeting like-minded people in Cambridge has helped Eleanor Smith feel supported as an LGBT+ CatholicIhar

Most of us, when we first come to Cambridge, have some kind of reinvention in mind. For me – as for many others – that was coming out. Though I was already out to my family and a few close friends, I had stayed quietly, determinedly closeted at my Catholic secondary school. It wasn’t the sort of place that preached hellfire and brimstone; but I knew my classmates and the administration, and I knew very well I had no assurance of support or safety if I came out.

In Cambridge, I felt considerably safer. But I hadn’t anticipated the emotions that would come with coming out over and over again: sickening fear, hesitation, a strange, protective defensiveness. I was deathly afraid of being seen, now that it was finally an option, and judged unworthy – weighed in the balance and found wanting. Floating in a sea of bi-ace-queer uncertainty, feeling I didn’t look or act not-straight enough, I anticipated being dubbed ‘bad at being LGBTQ+’. And choosing to identify as Catholic didn’t help with that. I kept all my feelings about sexuality and faith in the same private, vulnerable place in my heart, and that vulnerability was terrifying.

“The space you make can be a very lonely one, and in Cambridge’s pressure-cooker environment, it can take a heavy toll”

Nonetheless, I managed to come out in various awkward ways (over curry! Through bad puns! In the middle of Memorial Court!), and I started looking for religious community in Cambridge. Back then, in 2014, I could only find one LGBTQ+ Christian group (at St Edmund’s), and it seemed to have been inactive for years. I began attending Mass at Fisher House on Sundays: the smell of incense and the familiar responses helped with my homesickness, but I couldn’t help feeling like a double agent there. Everyone seemed so devout, so doctrinally sound – would they disapprove of me if they knew?

I tried out some other churches, in case that would help, but I hadn’t picked a good week to try St Andrew the Great: ‘The grace of God’s adoption isn’t for everyone’ is a message guaranteed to get any queer Christian’s hackles up. My brief experience of Holy Trinity was very similar. Truth be told, I felt uncomfortable around vocal, enthusiastic Christian student communities. I felt – and still feel – what I think many queer Christians do: alienated by a faith seemingly without doubt, without the same desperate need to wrestle with Scripture, to go searching in the wilderness for your own space in your religion, since no-one else seems to have made one for you.

“Meeting other people who just got it, no explanations needed, was an unimaginable relief”

The space you make can be a very lonely one, and in Cambridge’s pressure-cooker environment, it can take a heavy toll. I have vivid memories from second year of sitting in the library, crying silently, unable to write because looking at an exchange of views with CICCU in the Tab had made me feel so hopeless I couldn’t think. It felt like something breaking inside me: I still feel it every time I run across traditionalist Catholic Twitter. In third year, going through a crisis of faith without knowing who to talk to, I was achingly lonely. For a while my life fell apart in slow motion, one unread email and neglected laundry bag at a time.

Yet I also found unexpected sources of affirmation and community. Father Mark, at Fisher House, was one of them – I came out to him and was met with great warmth and kindness. My college chapel was another. It was there that I heard Alice Goodman preach on Pentecost, comparing the people who flew home to Ireland to vote for equal marriage to the Jewish farmers coming to Jerusalem for Shavuot. Jamie Hawkey, the Clare dean during my time there, turned out to be a warm, supportive listener, and very willing to lend me books! When I prayed, uncertainly, trying to let God in where I’d been afraid to before, I turned to the words of the Compline service I’d sung at Clare: Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

In the same year I cried in the library, I found a new LGBTQ+ prayer group in Cambridge – Centurion. As I loitered outside the Eagle, waiting for the first meeting, people would come up to me saying “Centurion?” in a hushed tone of voice, like a password. It made me think of the early Church in hiding. Meeting other people who just got it, no explanations needed, was an unimaginable relief; praying with them, singing the Taizé chant I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord, reminded me of why I’d stuck with Christianity in the first place.


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Mountain View

Investigating intermission

I would love to say that I’ve completely integrated my faith and my orientation. Truthfully, I’m still looking for a space to do that in, to feel like a whole person, open without fear. But I know now I am not alone in looking; and if I’m in the wilderness, well, God’s presence in the wilderness is well-known.

Note: the Centurion group is inactive this year, but there remains a supportive Facebook group: if you’re interested, contact the author of this article at es648@alumni.cam.ac.uk.

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