An Interview with Greg Bourke, author of “Gay, Catholic, and American”

In Gay, Catholic, and American, Greg Bourke tells his inspiring story of how the Bourke De Leon family struggled to overcome antigay discrimination and became one of the named plaintiffs in the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Obergefell vs. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015, all while remaining steadfast in his lifelong Catholic faith. Greg sat down with Notre Dame Press recently to reflect on why he finally decided to tackle a memoir and who he hopes his story will reach.

Greg Bourke

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

While our marriage equality lawsuit was winding its way through the federal court system on the way to the United States Supreme Court, my husband and I were encouraged by many of our friends and coworkers to write a book about this experience and about our life together as a committed long-term same-sex couple. That thought remained in the back of my mind for a few years, but I was so busy with our children, caring for elderly parents, volunteer commitments at church, and my career that I couldn’t find time to get started. The final push to initiate the writing project came in summer 2016—as I describe in the book—when I received a bit of a divine nudge while attending Mass.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

Recent polling suggests 70% of American Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage. This point and my book highlight the growing disparity I have witnessed over the years between the official and sometimes hostile doctrine of the Church toward gay people and the increasing acceptance of them by the people in the pews.

Same-sex couples have been longing for, and pursuing in many ways, marriage equality for generations. My book tells the story of one common, unassuming couple that navigates challenging and perilous waters to arrive safely at their destination which achieved that goal.

More than that, it tells the story of the benefits of perseverance and the triumph of love despite all odds. It will provide much hope and optimism for people at a time in our history when many desperately need it, particularly many LGBTQ Catholics who long for acceptance and inclusion by the Catholic Church.

How did you research this book?

The book was primarily about personal experiences, and focused heavily on my family’s unique and historic journey through the federal court system. Useful sources while researching and writing the book were my extensive email archive and personal notes taken through the lengthy legal process. Social media history was another helpful resource capturing relevant developments throughout the case progression, as were the SCOTUSblog, the archives of the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the archives of the United States Supreme Court.

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

This book will further stimulate the discussion among Catholics about whether the Church should recognize and bless the unions of same-sex couples. This book certainly makes the strong argument that by all means it should bless those marriages. 

Growing up in Kentucky during the 1960s and 1970s, there were no books or resources available to me that dealt with LGBTQ equality struggles or history. Queer people were universally hated and despised. There just was not any positive or affirming literature to help people appreciate or understand the journey for equality that LGBTQ people were on. This book covers a time span from the early 1980s to the 2020s, capturing some of the overlooked gay history that transpired. 

What did you learn while writing it?

In the course of writing this book I learned that American Catholics are far more progressive than they are given credit for. These fine people have time and time again surprised me with how willing they are to look at the person and listen to their story and perspective before passing judgement. So many times over many decades, living as an openly gay Catholic I expected to encounter rejection, condemnation, or criticism; but instead I was most often greeting by my fellow Catholics with compassion, empathy, and Christian love. 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Initially I thought the book would only focus on my experience with my husband as plaintiffs in our marriage equality U.S. Supreme Court case. There was plenty to cover just over those years fighting it out in court. But as I started with that approach it became clear that the story seemed out of context. People needed to know the whole story of our lives, the more than 30 years we spent together as a couple before we even started with our marriage equality battle. To understand what motivated us to act in 2012, people needed to understand how we got there and why it was so important to us. Hence, the book was written to cover our nearly 40 years together as a committed couple and lifetime practicing Roman Catholics.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

Perhaps as ridiculous as it sounds, I have to say the Holy Spirit was been the biggest influence on my writing. Whenever I would sit down to write I would first pray for the Holy Spirit to come and bring me the words that I needed to best deliver the message I felt called to convey. As a result, I never suffered from a writer’s block or a lack of something to write. It helped immensely to have that support.

Other than that, of course, my husband was a tremendous influence on what and how I wrote. He kept me honest, and helped fine-tune my message in countless ways. This very easily could have been a title written jointly by the both of us, but in the end I felt compelled to get it done and out there from my perspective. 

What is your writing schedule like?

As a corporate associate, my work schedule has always been pretty demanding. To get this writing done, I would rise most days at 4:30am and try to write for an hour or two each morning before my corporate job took over. Then often after a long work day and dinner with the family, I would return to writing in the evening. It was as disciplined as I could be and still meet all the work and family demands that occupied my time. I do have to say that those wee hours of the morning, fresh from a good night’s sleep with the first cup of coffee of the day, were my most inspired and productive periods of writing by far.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Be prepared for it to take much longer and involve infinitely more effort than you can possibly imagine. Reading books—we all do that—is quite easy. As I have learned in my professional and personal life, consuming is infinitely easier than producing. To produce a finished book requires an incredible investment of one’s self. Time, effort, painful attention to detail, research; it all gets focused on that task to the detriment of other endeavors. Also, potential writers should make sure your family understands what you are doing and why they should expect to engage a lot less with you during the writing process.

Who would you like to read Gay, Catholic, and American and why?

The first group of people I would like to read this book are estranged LGBTQ Catholics, especially young people. I hope this book provides them the inspiration to return to the Catholic Church and claim their place at the table. Also, for those LGBTQ Catholics who have remained faithful like my husband and I have, so they can appreciate our journey and possibly give them encouragement and satisfaction for their own.

The next group of people would be those Catholics who don’t know same-sex couples like my husband and I, who have been together nearly 40 years and who have remained faithful practicing Catholics for entire lives. When they hear about families like ours hopefully it will change the way they think about issues related to equality and inclusion.

Finally, readers interested in LGTBQ history and development of the marriage equality movement will find this an important piece of that narrative. People interested in Catholic social justice will find this book full of issues and discussions that challenge the status quo in the Catholic Church toward LGBTQ people.

What book are you working on next?

My career as a Health Economist at Anthem is pretty demanding and keeps me quite busy researching and publishing within the Anthem enterprise. But hoping to retire in the next couple of years, I would like to start a project capturing the oral history of gay and lesbian alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College. Much of the LGBTQ history from prior periods like the early 1980s, when I as a Notre Dame student, simply has been overlooked and unrecorded. There is much LGBTQ history that needs to be collected and chronicled to broaden historical accounts of the social justice efforts that have transpired in those institutions.

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