Joseph Gentilini was born in 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of four children, to Marie and Celso Gentilini. His older brother by seven years was a twin, but the other baby died shortly after birth. His sister is four years older than Joe.
Their family was a fairly normal Catholic family of the 1950s. They went to St. Mary Magdalene's Catholic Church and parish elementary school. Joe made his first Holy Communion in second grade at this Church. The school teachers were all Sisters of St.Francis of Mary Immaculate of Joliet, Illinois. They were strict as were the religious teaching of the priests. Joe recalls that he was taught in first grade never to "play"with himself and so he hardly looked at himself when taking a shower or bath. In second grade, he was taught not to even have a sip of water after midnight if he wanted to go to Communion in the morning. Fasting from midnight was required in the 50s and was strictly followed.
Joe obtained his undergraduate degree in 1970 in Social Welfare from St. Mary of the Springs College (now Ohio Dominican University) in Columbus, Ohio. After graduation, he taught World History for one year at Bishop Watterson High School (where he had graduated in 1966). In 1971, he began working for the State of Ohio's Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. It was his responsibility to help severely disabled persons become more independent and/or becomeemployed. He interviewed prospective clients, determined eligibility, developed rehabilitation programs, and helped them to become employed. He kept this job until 1995, when he moved to the agency's central office to develop the policy based on state and federal laws. In 2003, he retired from state service.
While working full-time, Joseph went to The Ohio State University to work on a master’s degree in Counseling and Guidance, graduating in 1974. Between 1978 and 1980, he went on an educational leave of absence to do the coursework leading to a doctorate degree from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in the same field. Returning to work, he completed his dissertation at night, obtaining a Ph.D. in 1982.
Joseph realized he was "different" in grade school, but had no words to explain it. By fifth grade, he thought that he was homosexual but tried to repress these thoughts and feelings, to no avail. By eighth grade he was scrupulous, seeing mortal sin in everything he thought or did and this lasted for several years. During one confession, he told the priest that he thought he was homosexual. Denying this could be possible, the priest told him to learn how to play baseball and "strengthen his manhood” by doing Royal Canadian Air Force exercises. They did not make him less homosexual.
In 1968, he had his first homosexual encounter the summer after his sophomore year at college. Feeling desperate, he entered conversion therapy from 1968-1974. During this period, he took medications which stopped his ability to have a physical ejaculation, was trained to make love to a plastic blow-up doll, visited prostitutes, and dated women. None of these attempts changed his sexual orientation. He became suicidal and kept the means to kill himself in the top drawer of his dresser.
In 1973, the National Catholic Reporter published excerpts of a speech that Father John McNeill, SJ gave to a gay group in California. This was the first positive article that Joe had read about homosexuality and Catholicism. It gave him hope that there was a way of integrating his homosexuality with his spirituality. The article mentioned DIGNITY and he wrote them for information. In 1974 or 1975, he joined DIGNITY and, with five other men, helped to form a local Columbus chapter.
In June of 1974, he attended a conference near Dayton, Ohio on “The Gay Christian” and this changed his life. While at the conference, he met a man to whom he was emotionally and sexually attracted. For the first time in his life, his emotional, sexual, and spiritual worlds came together.
By mid-week, however, he was overwhelmed with this sudden influx of positive information and the convergence of his worlds. He spoke to a priest there and was told that he was ‘coming out’ and suggested that he go to chapel and tell God that he was either going to continue in conversion therapy, be a gay celibate man, or live his life as an active gay man. Later that day, Joe went to the chapel, sat in the sanctuary, told God where he was in his struggles and began to cry. Afterwards, he felt at peace. Realizing that six years of therapy had not changed his sexual orientation, Joe decided to accept his homosexuality as God-given, stop conversion therapy, and live his gay life.
When he got back to Columbus, he went to The Ohio State University Library and looked for any book or article that discussed homosexuality from a spiritual or religious point of view. He gave himself permission to study about homosexuality and religion.
His parents found out about the conference and his decision and his mother was very upset. In October of 1974, he read an article by a priest in the Columbus Diocesan paper, The Catholic Times, urging the study of homosexuality. He wrote a letter in support, although he did not come out in the letter. His mother called him up at work and said, “It is a terrible thing to say, but I’m sorry I ever became pregnant with you.” A year later his mother said that he was like a rattlesnake around her neck and she had difficulty saying she loved him. Obviously, the relationship with his mom was strained, although he never broke off physical contact; he just withdrew emotionally from her.
Several years later, he had an opportunity to talk with his dad more openly. Joe told him what it was like growing up in his family as a gay man. He told him about going to the library when he was in fifth grade, looking up the word ‘homosexual’ and how he withdrew at the thought he could be “one of those.” He spoke about his years in conversion therapy and how painful that had been, although he didn’t go into detail about it. That would be too painful for Joe to tell and for his dad to hear. Joe told him that he had been suicidal for several years and kept the means to do so in his bedroom.
Joe’s dad asked him why he didn’t tell him when he was younger. Looking at his dad’s teary eyes, Joe said that he did not have words for it when he was younger and when he realized that he was homosexual, he didn’t want to tell him that he was a “queer” and a “homo.” At the end of two hours, they stood up, fell in each other’s arms, and cried. Joe’s dad said, “Joe, you are always my son and you are always welcome to come home.” Joe’s father did not show affection very often; this time he did and it was healing.
When Joe went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1978 for his doctoral studies, he became the first person to ever come out in the College of Counselor Education. It took a bit of time before the entire faculty was accepting, but over those two years of study they ultimately used him as a resource.
In 1981, Joe met Leo Radel at a Gay Men’s Support Group at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus. Leo was just coming out of a twelve-year heterosexual marriage and had three small children. Joe was hurting after dating a man who had returned to his former partner. Joe and Leo determined that evening that they were not interested in each other. Joe was not interested in dating a man with three small children and Leo only saw Joe as being too cynical and found this unattractive. At the next month’s meeting, Leo was the first to show up and Joe was second. Surprisingly, Joe remembered Leo’s name. The next month, December, there was to be a tree-trimming party at one of the guy’s apartment. Leo was the last one to arrive and when Joe went up to hug him, something was sparked. They sat down to talk and found out that they had grown up in the same parish, went to the same school, and had some of the same religious sisters as teachers. There was going to be another Christmas party at another man’s home that week and Joseph asked Leo if he was going. He was and so, at that party, Joe asked him if he wanted to do something the day after Christmas; he did.
They had their first date and they were both smitten. Leo was intense in the beginning and Joe was scared of emotional vulnerability. Having separated any sexual expression from his emotional and spiritual life, Joe seemed to cut all feelings toward Leo, even as he recognized that Leo was a wonderful and good person. Joe decided to go into therapy so that he could learn how to be emotionally intimate with Leo. The therapist suggested they commit to date for three months and then reevaluate their relationship. If either one of them had sex with others, they would still remain in a dating relationship. At the end of the three months, they renewed it for six more months. Since Joe had not committed to Leo, he still had sex with others; Leo did not. At the end of their extended agreement, Joe instinctively knew that Leo was going to date others if Joe said he was not ready to commit. The night before the end of the agreement, Joe told God that he was scared to death to commit to Leo, but he was not going to let this good man out of his life. On November 12, 1982, Joe committed his life to Leo and they just say they have been together since they first met in the fall of 1981. They also decided to be sexually faithful.
Even though they were in a good relationship, Joe’s parents would not come to their home and would not accept them in their home as a couple “because of the moral issue.” This hurt Joe and Leo.
Joe began to share his gay life with a contemplative nun as early as the early 1970s. Sister knew all about him and had read his unpublished autobiography. She knew the pain he felt from not being accepted by his mom and dad. Through grace, however, Joe‘s mother began talking to Sister every Thursday evening; it was their phone date. Sister helped her to reconcile with Joe and Leo.
To everyone’s surprise, in 1987 Leo was invited to all of Joe’s family gatherings starting with a luncheon with his second cousin in town for a speech in March. This was followed by Leo being invited to Joe’s father’s surprise 80th birthday party in October. And, yes, Leo was invited to Joe’s family Christmas that year. When Joe asked Sister how she accomplished this reconciliation, she said, “Joe, in spite of everything, you never stopped loving your mother; she could not deny that God was in your life and that Leo was grace for you.” Joe could not stop his tears at the healing of these relationships. The distance he felt from his family was healed. Leo and Joe were healed of their pain and hurt. Joe had prayed for reconciliation for years and God granted him this favor.
Over the years, Leo and Joe spoke to several groups about their relationship. In 1989, at a Gay Parents conference, they offered a workshop on how to keep romance alive in a relationship. At the Newman’s Gay Men’s Support Group they gave the same workshop. They are active members in DIGNITY/USA and value their spirituality.
Joe first met Father John McNeill, SJ in 1974 at a “Gay Christian” conference in which McNeill fleshed out his thoughts from his 1973 speech in California. Joe stayed in contact with John and somewhere in the early 1990s, began to let John read his monthly journal entries. John told Joe that he needed to share these journal entries with a wider audience. Joe did not know how to do this and so did nothing.
In January 2001, a monthly publication, PASSION: Christianity Spirituality from a Gay Perspective, published an article Joe wrote entitled “The Oasis In My Dessert.” It was a story of his years of retreats at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. In some way, listening to the monks pray and being accepted was helpful to his accepting his homosexuality, if only because over the early years, he was learning that God loved him.
God kept hounding Joe to do something with his journals. In 2005, Joe had an inspiration and asked the PASSION editor, David Schimmel, to edit his tome of journals. Joe sent David over 5,000 pages of single-spaced journal entries and David was able to edit them down to 164 pages and eight chapters. These became Joe’s book, Hounded By God: A Gay Mans’ Journey To Self-Acceptance, Love, and Relationship.
God also hounded Joe to begin writing the Catholic bishops of America. He didn’t get stridently angry with them or blame them. Instead, he just wrote about his life, the pain of not being accepted by the Church, and how God has touched his life. As a gay man, Joe is in relationship with God and with Leo. God is indeed good!
(This biographical statement provided by Joseph Gentilini.)