Why is Pope Francis The Advocate‘s ‘Person of the Year’? December 17, 2013

Why is Pope Francis The Advocate‘s ‘Person of the Year’?

Yesterday on my daily binge-reading of Advocate.com, the daily website of the country’s oldest LGBT newsmagazine, The Advocate, a headline caught my eye: The Advocate‘s Person of the Year: Pope Francis.” 

My heart sank and my brain nearly imploded. The leader of the most homophobic institution in the world with a “NOH8” logo splashed on his cheek? Really?

Pope Francis was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year last week, and that makes a little more sense to me. TIME speaks to a greater audience than The Advocate, for one. Pope Francis has undoubtedly said and done more decent things thus far in his papacy — acknowledged the worthy humanness of female convicts and LGBT folk, conjured an image of the Catholic Church as a church of healing and acceptance, etc. — than popes who came before him, and the man certainly has a lot of influence over the estimated 1,200,000,000 Catholics in the world. For TIME, that’s something worth noting. (Maybe not grand-prize-winner-something, but fine. I’m letting it go.)

But for The Advocate? Absolutely not. I’m deeply disappointed the staff felt otherwise.

I write this hesitantly because The Advocate has, and always will have, a little piece of my heart. It was the first place I ever turned to for gay news, the first publication that taught me LGBT media was both a legitimate field and a viable career path, and the first summer internship that offered real insight as to what I wanted to do with my life. If anything, my friends there taught me to question what I read and contribute to the conversation as best I can.

All year, we’ve talked about Francis as the most “LGBT-friendly” Pope in history. Among a host of shorter statements implying his greater tolerance for gays and lesbians, Francis most famously said to reporters in July, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” This line seems to have won Francis the most support in the LGBT crowd by implying that the Church would no longer look down upon them — even though that’s not really the case.

The Advocate‘s Lucas Grindley wrote:

The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know. In the same way that President Obama transformed politics with his evolution on LGBT civil rights, a change from the pope could have a lasting effect on religion.

This is a problematic comparison in a couple of ways. President Barack Obama, an elected official, made statements in full support of policy changes that served to improve the lives of LGBT people — the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (whose future remains uncertain) and the repeal of DOMA, to name two of the most prominent. Francis didn’t do that for us — and religion often works a lot like politics. Not once has he advocated for a change in the Church’s adherence to the Catechism, the doctrine that continues to describe homosexuality as a mental disorder, nor has he advocated for any change in the Church’s stances toward marriage equality, abortion, or contraception. (Quite the opposite, actually.)

Francis later followed up his quote with an explanation, which The Advocate also cited:

“During [a recent] return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

Again, media harped on those last few words without paying due diligence to the middle part of the quote. Pope Francis claims he was rephrasing the Catechism — the one that says we can be gay as long as we don’t act gay — by saying gays shouldn’t be judged. He was invoking the same “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality we’ve seen pervade religious circles for decades. Sure, it’s nicer than being specifically targeted and abused, but it’s certainly not emblematic of a year’s worth of progress. Not at all.

Look at the next part of Pope Francis’ statement:

He continued, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

True to his word, Pope Francis hasn’t used his biggest moments in the world spotlight to condemn LGBT people, as Benedict had done.

Again, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. “The teaching of the church is clear and I am a son of the church.” Translated: “My stance is the same as any other Pope’s, but I’m deliberately avoiding talking about social issues because my church is in the middle of a PR fiasco.” (Cheap shot? Maybe. But it’s true.) And sure, Francis hasn’t used his fame to gay-bash, but he hasn’t used it to promote greater inclusion for gays and lesbians within Catholicism, either, and that’s the kind of visionary leadership I’d want to see from an LGBT magazine’s Person of the Year. In fact, it seems clear to everyone that this might all be for show:

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring.

Daring? I’m not so sure. Rhetoric? That’s more like it. After a short laundry list of how past popes have failed LGBT people, we are reminded that the Person of the Year doesn’t actually support us:

Pope Francis is still not pro-gay by today’s standard. He started his term by issuing a joint encyclical in July with Benedict, in which they reiterate that marriage should be a “stable union of man and woman.” It continues, “This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgement and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.”

This point is reason enough to toss out any other arguments in favor of praising Francis for his not-quite-contributions. In what other context would we honor someone who openly decries marriage equality as one of their first orders of business? Perhaps we hold the Pope to different standards — different, not higher — but it’s completely outrageous to Photoshop a “NOH8” logo onto the cheek of someone who says outright that LGBT people do not deserve equal rights.

Toward the end of the article, the author cited the LGBT Catholic group Equally Blessed, who were thrilled that anti-gay church leaders could no longer say that the Pope supported their discriminatory practices. (Arguable.) Here’s an interesting excerpt from their statement:

Pope Francis did not articulate a change in the church’s teaching today, but he spoke compassionately, and in doing so, he has encouraged an already lively conversation that may one day make it possible for the church to fully embrace gay and lesbian Catholics.

“That may one day make it possible.” One day! Not today and not tomorrow and maybe not for another four or five or 20 Popes. Hinting at the beginning of a conversation that may take place decades (or more) down the road is not good enough for me.

Francis did not articulate change; he smiled for the cameras.

Perhaps he said what was in his heart, but the Catholic schools and hospitals and businesses that proudly discriminate against queer folks do not consider the Pope’s feelings in their decisions. They go by the books — those that the Pope refuses to discredit.

We must also note that The Advocate‘s Person of the Year is not actually gay (presumably). In a year when there was no shortage of options, why not select someone else more worthy of the distinction? There were queer people, trans* folks, and people of color who made incredible strides for the LGBT movement this year by coming out, or speaking out, or just doing a great job at life while being out. Jason Collins? Brittney Griner? Laverne Cox?

(Uncomfortably telling is that one of The Advocate‘s runners-up is Macklemore, the straight, white rapper who made a name for himself as an LGBT advocate with his pro-marriage-equality single “Same Love.” While he certainly contributed positive energy to the movement, hardly half a sentence is devoted to Mary Lambert, the actually-lesbian singer who accompanied Macklemore on the song’s mesmerizing chorus and released her own song, “She Keeps Me Warm,” of the same tune.)

Both TIME and The Advocate shortlisted Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old “matriarch of the gay rights movement” whose case against the federal government brought down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and helped same-sex couples take leaps forward toward equal rights. Truth be told, Edie should have won the title in both magazines. No one has been a more prominent icon in the years-long fight for marriage equality, particularly this year, and she owns the role with humility and gratitude. We need more Edie Windsors out there supporting us, and far fewer Popes.

Decades ago, when this movement was still in its infancy, it may well have been praiseworthy when a public figure said something nice about gays, even if the person’s actions didn’t back up their neutral-to-kind words. But times have changed, and there are too many incredible advocates out there to glorify those who have merely surprised us with their optimistic indifference. As Noah Michelson snarkily wrote for the Huffington Post Gay Voices this week:

  • If you have a gay friend (or sister or coworker or…) but still think that queer people should not be able to get married, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you’re fine with queer people as long as you don’t have to see them kissing or holding hands, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you don’t have anything against queer people but wouldn’t want a gay man leading your son’s scout troop, then you are anti-gay.
  • If you think that inside queer people there is anything lurking — however small — that causes us to have any less integrity or humanity than straight people have, then you are anti-gay.

The Advocate‘s Person of the Year should be someone who has done more than anyone else to amplify LGBT voices and stand up for our rights. While I wholly recognize and appreciate that Pope Francis has made statements that are uncharacteristically left-leaning for a Catholic figure, words aren’t enough. Edie and Mary and Laverne and hundreds of others live some element of the queer experience to the fullest, and they report back to the rest of us to show us how to make our surroundings better. That’s the kind of person I want to see on the cover of this magazine. That’s the kind of person who makes LGBT media worth preserving.

***Update****: One of the editors for The Advocate responded to our inquiry about how the decision was made (via email):

The Pope was not a unanimous decision; there was plenty of debate as to whether we should put a presumably straight man who has not exactly come out in full favor of LGBT rights as our person of the year. But we collectively agreed that we’re not saying Pope Francis is the most passionate ally of our time — we’re saying that his words, “Who am I to judge?” and other similar statements are a major shift in Catholicism… We named him Person of The Year because he has challenged both church leaders and parishioners to think about why they oppose LGBT rights, whether it’s worth the effort to do so when there are real problems the church must address, and whether being antigay is part of Christ’s teachings.

There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, and there are countless other people who see the Pope as a legitimate, spiritual leader, no matter their personal beliefs. That’s one in seven people on the planet. While people observe Catholicism in varying degrees, there’s no doubt that the Pope’s sentiments are incredibly influential, especially among those people.

Nearly every major new news outlet in the world had watched intensely, as the Vatican chose a new Pope, immediately followed by intense punditry and reporting over his every move. The influence of the pope — and his words — is nothing to shake a stick at. People care about what he has to say, and as pointed out in Lucas’s article, his words are already influencing the church’s leaders to be even just slightly less hateful toward LGBT people. The church was integral in raising money in so many states to ban marriage equality — you have to wonder, had Pope Francis been in charge then, would that have been the case?

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  • Richard Thomas

    This is indeed disturbing. To me, it almost seems like a pandering to the religious e.g. “Oh look, the pope said he’s ok with us, so we can come out of the closet now! Huzzah!” as opposed to, “Your religion says I’m going to hell because of who I am? Well your religion can shove it then!” It’s a capitulation to the religious influence in society that we have been combating.

  • Persephone

    It’s _The Advocate_. Maybe it was relevant a long time ago or something, but it’s _People_ magazine for gay men now. If you want journalism, look elsewhere.

  • Rationalist1

    Aside : Take the 1,200,000,000 Catholics in the world with a huge grain of salt. The number is formed by adding together all the Catholics that individual diocese report which is you take their reported number of Catholics and divide by number of parishes works out to 16,000 Catholics per parish. My guess is it’s lucky if his influence extends to the one tenth of that would attend mass at any time.

  • This is what makes this pope so dangerous, so much worse than the last ones. There’s been zero change in policy, yet his smile has hypnotized people who should know better.

  • I stopped reading the Advocate years ago when it turned into a glossy celebrity obsessed puff piece publication. According to friends who still read the online version, it has taken a right-wing direction the last year or so. See the discussion on joemygod.com for more details.

  • regexp

    The Advocate – much like many other organizations claiming to represent gay men and women (like LCR and HRC) – is an attention whore who carries very little weight in the gay community – or anywhere else.

  • This is how I view the Pope.

  • Steve Barry

    Once again…

  • NoMoreDivision

    That editor from The Advocate is so wrong. There has not been a “major shift in Catholicism” recently. This pope is good at one thing: talking out of both sides of his mouth. It’s nothing more than a scheming tactic to gain favorable publicity with misleading media sound bytes.

  • Baby_Raptor

    The Pope has said pretty words, and a lot of people are taken in by pretty words. I see people crowing all the time about how he’s “changing the Church”…Yeah, he’s changing the church’s PR. That’s about it.

    I wish people would wake up.

  • WoodwindsRock

    He is not much – if any – better than the last pope. He’s merely PR, and it infuriates me that it’s working on the public, just like the Catholic church wants.

  • Spectrall

    I wish I was held to as low of a standard as Popes are.

  • Let_Y_be_any_other_man

    “had Pope Francis been in charge then, would that have been the case?”

    Ask the people in Croatia, or Chicago, or Ecuador, or Colombia…

  • Scott_In_OH

    Part of the problem is that everyone speaking here is correct: Francis has not changed Church doctrine; he has only said nice words; but those words matter; but they leave a lot unchanged.

    The fact is, Christianity can be implemented in many, many different ways in practice. A pope who emphasizes poverty relief, the dignity of the oppressed, and accepting your brother/sister as s/he is is different from one who glorifies wealth, blames the downtrodden for their fate, and singles out certain brothers/sisters as bound for hell because of their sins.

    None of that, in my mind, makes up for the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, the opposition to marriage equality, or the advocacy of corporate “freedom of religion” (among other things), but the change is real, and for some people it is enough to assuage their consciences about the other things.

  • Malcolm McLean

    Western states have been declaring divorces and recognising remarriages after divorce for many years now.That’s a much bigger issue for Christians, because it goes directly against the words of Jesus. Words that almost certainly go back to the historical Jesus because they are a rare case of Jesus directly saying that the law of Moses was too lenient.
    Jesus only mentions homosexuality once, and then very tangentially. He says “it will go easier with Sodom at the day of judgement than with that town [which refuses to receive the disciples]”. That’s all there is. So clearly there’s no basis for being obsessed by the subject.
    A person who was married, divorces, and marries another whilst his spouse is still living cannot have his second marriage recognised canonically. Two men who marry are in basically the same position, but a less serious one, because if they change their minds the marriage can simply be declared null without any real fallout, seldom the case when a man and a woman remarry. Pope Francis is just putting the emphasis back where it ought to be..

  • Roy Gamsgrø

    “had Pope Francis been in charge then, would that have been the case?”

    Very likely, yes.

  • cyb pauli

    This is just brown but not chocolate icing on the Pope Francis Is Like Totally A Libruhl cake.

  • Frank Mitchell

    If no other reason than my addiction to irony, I’ve decided that Pope Francis is being 100% sincere about changing the focus of the Church … because the Church will not change. Steering the Church is like steering an oil tanker with an oar. Even if he convened a tribunal on priests’ sexual abuse tomorrow, the bureaucracy would drag their feet and conveniently lose documents. The Church hierarchy likes the status quo — quasi-medieval fiefdoms, convenient scapegoats, and all — and nothing short of financial bankruptcy (to match the moral bankruptcy) will provoke any real soul-searching.

  • God’s Starship

    He’s not anti-gay by Pope standards. Which is still pretty fucking anti-gay.

  • God’s Starship


  • I agree with you about the organizations not carrying any weight inside the community but they are often exploited as useful idiots by others. “See, even the Advocate says the new pope is okay.” I’m no fan of LCR but they bring bring a successful lawsuit against DADT. Of those three that’s the only useful thing any of them have done.

  • Many religions do this. Anyone who was ever a member is still counted even if they haven’t attended for decades.

  • Stev84

    There is a chance that the Pope is more than pretty words and that he will start some badly needed reforms. But it’s way too early to tell. Maybe in a couple of years, we can see some change. Until then the praise is very inappropriate.

    Being less of an asshole than the previous boss is not a great accomplishment.

  • While I strongly disagree with the RCC’s stance on social issues, they have a constitutional right to hold those views, just not to impose them on those who don’t believe as they do. (A line they have often crossed in funding ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments.) But the child rapes and subsequent cover-ups are CRIMINAL acts and not covered by religious freedom. What they did was despicable and the martyr act that let them get away with it is unforgivable. Nothing any bishop, archbishop or pope has to say carries any weight until they come clean. Until them I will continue to regard the RCC as a criminal organization that is shielding rapists from prosecution.

  • LesterBallard

    You know what “seeks the lord with good will” means? It means stop being gay.

  • Thanks for linking to my statement on homosexuality and the Catechism. Speaking as an openly gay and Catholic activist, the position is simple – the Catechism is clear. as you correctly state, that one can be gay, but cannot act gay. But that’s not the end of it – the Catechism is clear, but the Catechism (as shorhand for the whole of Catholic teaching) is also wrong, and most lay Catholics know it, along with a possible majority of professional moral theologians, a substantial proportion of priests, and a growing number of Catholic bishops.

    This is the same position as the Church’s stance on contraception, and on remarriage after divorce, and sex before marriage, and masturbation. Everybody knows that the formal teaching is widely ignored, and must change: the only issue is not whether it must and will change – but how can the bishops muster the courage and loss of face to admit it. That will come, I think, when the 2014 synod on marriage and the family considers the results of its global survey on Catholic responses to the issues. Key questions are whether Catholics “accept” the official teaching on contraception – and sexuality more generally. That question seems innocuous, but is in fact deeply significant. The only honest answer, evident from abundant research, is a clear “no”. In orthodox Catholic teaching, that answer is profoundly important, because any doctrine that is not “accepted” by the whole church is simply not valid.

    The likely response will be the long delayed, but inevitable, conclusion that sexual teaching (all of it), must undergo extensive revision. It’s undeniable that Pope Francis is not about to change Catholic doctrine, on gays or on anything else – but he is undoubtedly creating the conditions for such change.

  • Neko

    Good luck to you all!

  • cyb pauli

    I am a member of the Dinner Party Club. I do not agree with many of the club’s rules and I have little power to change them. The club’s rules are so restrictive that I have to do certain things that are important to my life in secret, because if the club leaders knew what I was doing, I would be in trouble. When I meet with the club, there is a chance that leaders will be speaking out against people who break their rules, including the ones I break privately. Money I donate to the club goes to campaigns to make the club’s rules part of my country’s laws and acceptable social practices, and to spread the message of my club’s rules in other countries.

    Yet I have no plans of leaving this club. I just hope one day, maybe in the next century, they change the rules.

  • Agni Ashwin

    …and Godspeed!

  • It’s analogous to a Jewish magazine in the midst of the holocaust putting Hitler on the cover as person of the year had he subtly changed his tone.

  • rg57

    I do get your point, but why lie?

    “most homophobic institution in the world” ??

    Perhaps you’re confusing the Catholic church, which hasn’t executed anyone for anything recently, with any of a number of Islamic countries, which have and do execute gay people for being gay.

  • Lonestar

    “the Catechism (as shorhand for the whole of Catholic teaching) is also
    wrong, and most lay Catholics know it, along with a possible majority of
    professional moral theologians, a substantial proportion of priests,
    and a growing number of Catholic bishops.”

    Can you point me in the direction of any numbers regarding the growing number of (Catholic) moral theologians, priests, or Bishops? Since to become a Catholic priest you must go to a Catholic seminary, I’ve been under the impression that this is a positive feedback loop. I’m sure that the number will probably grow over time due to cultural influence, but I suspect very slowly. So if you have any numbers or evidence in this regard, I’d be interested in seeing it.

    “The likely response will be the long delayed, but inevitable, conclusion
    that sexual teaching (all of it), must undergo extensive revision. It’s
    undeniable that Pope Francis is not about to change Catholic doctrine,
    on gays or on anything else – but he is undoubtedly creating the
    conditions for such change.”

    Maybe. I think he’s definitely setting the stage, but I’m skeptical if anything will happen within the next 20 years due to this. The sexual teachings have a very long historical tradition that pose a particular problem for the Church. The Church has long taught that it is immune to fundamental mistakes, being protected from such by the Holy Spirit. As I think the view of the past is somewhat revisionist, I think they can get around it eventually, it just takes a really long time.

    Without changing that fundamental position, I don’t think they’ll be able to ever say homosexuality is not sinful. The best is probably just making it venial.

  • Steve Rush

    Note that the “Person of the Year” is the one Time considers most newsworthy, not necessarily praiseworthy. Hitler was a Man of the Year, and so was Stalin.

  • This is like having a father who mentally and/or physically abuses you and there is nothing you can do to please him and he at one point, off handily, says “I’m proud of you…” and you have selective amnesia about all the previous abuse and say “He loves me….”

    I have no idea why LGBTQ people continue to want to be part of a religion who doesn’t want them and tries to make their lives a living hell.

  • Nomad

    That “explanation” of the who am I to judge line disturbs me. I’m honestly asking this, does that really mean, essentially, the same thing as saying “if someone wants to murder his family with an axe, who am I to judge?”?

    That’s what I could gather from the explanation. That basically he was trying to say that he can’t judge anybody. So, what then… the whole “who am I to judge” speech was basically specifically designed with an out he could use later so he could appear to say one thing, but then escape out of a trap door that was left in it intentionally? The whole speech wasn’t about tolerance of homosexuals at all, it was only intended to appear to give it to those that wanted to see it?

  • Matthew Baker

    I read an issue of the Advocate or Out (I don’t remember which one they always kind of ran together to me) a few months ago after years of not reading either–it had an interview with a pet psychic. It was very cringe worthy on so many levels. I put the magazine down shortly after that and didn’t bother to pick it back up.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    I disagree with the idea that “who am i to judge?” is a change in catholic dogma. The official view of the catholic church is that loving someone of the same-sex is still intrinsically flawed and only once that view change can we talk about a shift in catholic dogma. I am sorry, but as a gay man I don’t get all the love that is being shown to the pope.

  • Baby_Raptor

    You’re not the only one. Bisexual, gender-fluid person here who can’t for the life of themsevles understand it either.

  • Neko

    I disagree with the idea that “who am i to judge?” is a change in catholic dogma.

    This is a straw man. No one would ever say such a thing, because the Pope can’t single-handedly change Catholic dogma. What the Pope did was to call for a cease-fire from the Catholic hierarchy in the culture wars. He may also be genuinely ambivalent about the Church’s position on homosexuality. Some of these old Catholics just want to bring people to Jesus and recognize that bigotry is no way to go about it.

  • DaveDodo007

    Because when a religious leader behaves almost normally it is noteworthy. Lol.

  • Seriously? #facepalm There’s so much gay news these days, and plenty of newly out gay celebrities to interview. Plus non-celebrities doing far more interesting things. They interviewed a charlatan “psychic”? Of course this is what has become of the media overall. Low information, plenty of fluff and too lazy to do the work to cover real stories.

  • tsig

    Maybe the whole thing is a bad cop, good cop ploy by the church.

  • lainnj

    Wonderful article. The Advocate’s decision is sad and pathetic. They are hoping that, perhaps, the Church will no longer wage a fully funded war on gay rights. For the hope that this war will cease, they are willing to praise the new leader of a sworn enemy — if only he might be just a bit kinder. You are right: there are so many true advocates deserving of this recognition. To give it to someone who has clearly stated his opposition to equal rights is a slap in the face to all of them.

  • Rationalist1

    Of course they do. And clerics pretend they speak for 1.2 billion when they probably only have a few 100 million followers and many of them disagree on key issues.

  • phantomreader42

    You’ve gotta admit, this pope is not quite as much of a sociopathic bigoted asshole as the last guy. The fact that that’s an accomplishment is an indictment of the papacy in itself…

  • kirrwed

    I some ways, I agree with the sentiments in this article that Pope Francis has changed nothing. The Pope’s comments about judging others is straight out of Catechism paragraph #1861 and his comments about not discriminating against persons of homosexual orientation is straight out of Catechism paragraph #2358. He has said nothing new. It’s easy to find quotes from Pope Benedict saying these exact same things. The media just didn’t report on it when he said it.

  • ~SoACTing

    Thank you for this! It echoes my sentiments exactly!

    ~ SoACTing

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