There are always a few anecdotes you can tell at a party that will be guaranteed to break up the usual repetition of young drunken chat. My mic-drop anecdote, as a 27-year-old queer person who often wears a woman's sequin top with hoop earrings and lipstick, is to say: "I spent a year living in an all-male religious commune run by the obscure Roman Catholic sect Opus Dei."
Once you pop that cork, all prior conversation derails for at least a good five minutes, as people ask you why and how you survived the best part of 2010 living in effective celibacy with a midnight curfew in a religious house of residence where women were not permitted to enter. My standard answer is, "It kind of happened by accident." Which is simplistic but, in essence, accurate.
I had been fervently religious in my teens—I spent my final year of sixth form deciding whether to apply for a degree, drama school, or to enter a monastery. As I began to question my faith around 18, I decided to pursue an English degree. In my three years at college I stopped attending church every week, began smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. I came out—first as gay, then started wearing women's clothes. I promptly started seeing a female friend and updated everyone that I was bisexual as I started my finals.
The year after my degree I decided to do a postgrad law conversion course in London. The recession had happened and I was getting by with a loan. I'd found Netherhall House in North London in an internet search for affordable accommodation that was term-time only. On arrival, I was greeted by the director of the house, a man named Peter. Peter asked me what I was there to study and I explained I'd be at the College of Law. "Ah, I used to be a lawyer at Allen & Overy [a very prestigious City firm in London] before I was asked to come and work here," he said.
This—his use of the passive voice—was my first inkling that the presence of Opus Dei ("the Work of God"—often called "the Work" by its members) was behind the scenes at my new home. Netherhall House was opened in north London in 1966 to be an intercollegiate hall of residence for male students studying anywhere in London. It was founded under the financial and spiritual direction of Opus Dei.
It can be difficult to explain what Opus Dei is to regular Catholics, let alone to those outside the Church. The organization was founded in 1928 by a Spanish priest, Josemaria Escriva—now a saint—whose spiritual framework for Opus Dei lay in the idea that holiness could be found not in a monastery or in church but through the performance of your ordinary work. It has been described as the most controversial force within the Church, and critics describe it as secretive and elitist.
Opus Dei encourages a strong work ethic. This is, arguably, why many of my housemates—some of who were members, or whose parents were—were postgraduates on some of the most prestigious courses in London. Many of my housemates were Spanish, Latin American, or Polish and had excelled in secondary or tertiary education in their own countries before moving to London to study—sciences, medicine, and economics were common.
Escriva himself is the source of much of the controversy about Opus Dei. Members refer to him as "the Father," and it is clear from historical accounts and his own letters that his repulsion for Spanish communism drove him into the arms of the fascist dictator Franco. Soon, it became clear to me that most of my fellow housemates were from wealthy backgrounds, with extremely conservative politics that accompanied their religion.
The organization is made up of mostly lay members with three different membership types. Peter was a numerary—the strictest type of member. Forming 20 percent of the Opus Dei membership, these are members who live in Opus Dei centers segregated by sex and are celibate for life. They usually work in normal jobs. Indeed they are often high-flyers: doctors, bankers, lawyers—but they hand over the bulk of their salary to the Work. When Peter discreetly said he was "asked to come and work here" he meant that after years of being a high-earning lawyer in the city and paying his salary over to Opus Dei, he was asked one day to simply resign for good and start a new career running Netherhall. Would Peter's lawyer colleagues in his past life have known about his life outside of work—the celibacy, the lifelong commitment to Opus Dei? It's hard to say but discretion (or, as some angry ex-members see it, "secrecy") is part of the way Opus Dei functions.
Supernumeraries are the the largest group. They are ordinary people, often married with children, who take their spiritual direction from Opus Dei rather than their local parish. Ruth Kelly, a minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was an Opus Dei supernumerary.
Women were not permitted in the house—as residents or guests. After seven years as an effeminate teenager in an all-boys' school, university had been a time of much greater freedom in large part due to the presence of women. Now, in an all-male space again, I found little there for me.
I had renounced much of masculinity already and here I found not a laddy space like school but somewhere filled with men artfully impersonating a new type of manhood—religious and nostalgic for a time that never existed. For instance, one resident named Frank smoked a 25-year-old pipe. Another, Luca, spoke earnestly about courting a girl from the women's counterpart house, as if it were the 1940s. There were a couple of others who were almost certainly queer but not saying it. My suspicions seemed to be confirmed years later when I spotted them at East Bloc, a gay club in east London. These were men so desperate to speak of women with dignity and respect that they made them very much an "other," nothing more than a receptacle for their own anxieties.
When I say no women were permitted to come in the house that's not strictly accurate. Opus Dei has a third type of member—the numerary assistants. All women, they are also celibate and devote themselves specifically to the physical care (i.e. the cleaning) of Opus Dei centers and houses like Netherhall. At 9 AM every morning, the small, cell-like room I had would be opened by Peter—a signal that it was time to leave my room for no less than two hours. The ground floor door to the stairs was locked until 11 AM to prevent us having any contact with the invisible women who would clean and tidy our rooms every day. One morning, I was accidentally locked upstairs with them. The numerary assistant who saw me dropped her eyes and seemed very anxious. Saying nothing, I bolted down the corridor towards a fire exit balcony.
Misogyny is one of the most common accusations against Opus Dei. In 2002, a former member, Isabel de Armas, published Being a Woman in the Opus Dei.The book accused Escriva of misogyny and megalomania, and it ridiculed the organization for marginalizing women members and imposing "complete submission" upon them.
This traditionalist environment had an impact on my own gender presentation. I stopped wearing makeup and wore more boyish clothes—just as within a few weeks I stopped attending the communal meals I paid for as part of my fees because I had nothing to say to anyone at the table. The "family" with which I was living was not an unkind one and I was questioned gently at times about "participating" more. But it was not my family; invitations to get more involved only made me retreat more into my room over the Advent and winter period. I considered leaving after Christmas but costs were prohibitive and I still had my course.
When spring came, I was joined once or twice in my room by a fellow resident—a Polish guy who seemed as discontent there as I did. He had started chatting to me around the house and in the end I invited him to my room for some wine—frankly because I had no internet. He started explaining to me how he was doing a masters but wanted to be a hairdresser. He was the first person to introduce me to the drug mephedrone—which was legal at the time and which he had delivered to the house in regular post in large packages ordered online at his college. Mephedrone is a drug associated with gay sex, which is funny given I was taking it merely to be sociable in the most sexually austere of environments.
In our disinhibited conversations, he gradually explained how he was bi and had very religious parents who would have only let him come to London if he stayed at a religious house. I could tell by his ear piercings and facial hair he had no investment in the community we were living in at all. The drunkenness made him seem almost like an unreal figure—an imaginary friend children craft in solitude. We both knew this was a transient time and there was no true friendship to be built upon it.
Angry ex-members accuse Opus Dei of being a cult and say it recruits aggressively. Recruitment is called "whistling." I have no doubt some in my year group went on to "whistle" but I cannot say Peter, the staff, or my fellow housemates tried to recruit me. I was a lost cause, perhaps—though they were too polite to say it. Netherhall was a spiritual journey for me but not in the way a middle class gap year in Thailand is. Being surrounded by men living the best kind of masculinity I could envision for myself, I found it so alien. I realized for good my religion could not redeem that gender in my eyes.
Escriva, the Father, reportedly beat himself so hard with rope to mortify his flesh that he would leave his cell covered in blood. Less severe body mortification is still practiced. That I could spend a lifetime beating myself up mentally, if not physically, was the biggest realization about my contact with the Work. I left Netherhall knowing my Catholicism would always be important to me, but that I had transcended its daily realities and no longer subscribed to its tenets.