Toby Johnson Interviews Ron Long

An Excerpt from the Summer Issue of White Crane

69_toby_ronlongintrvu The Courageous Heart
Toby Johnson speaks with Ron Long
On the Mythic  Dimensions of Daily Life
and our Call to the Defense of Life.

Ron Long is a teacher of religion at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He was a long-time active member of the Steering Committee (and past Chair) of the Gay Men’s Issues in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion.

His recent book, Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods: An Exploration into the Religious Significance of Male Homosexuality in World Perspective, is a survey of variations in the way religion has treated homosexuality through the years. He deals with a rich (though, he acknowledges, intentionally not exhaustive) variety of traditions: primitive Papua New Guinean, ancient Taoist Chinese, Classical Greek, Islamic Sufi, Biblical era Hebrew, Early Christian, Native American, Buddhist, down to modern gay political and cultural movements, including antidiscrimination laws, gays in the military, and gay marriage.

He argues that “the revolutionary importance of the contemporary gay rights movement lies in its—by no means clearly articulated as yet—revolutionary idea of gender, that male sexual receptivity is part of the repertoire of a normal, adult, fully masculine male.”

At last fall’s Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Long was honored with a seminar on his book held as an appreciation of his contribution to the field. The seminar, titled Sacred Tops and Manly Bottoms, included presentations by fellow academic theologians and gay community voices Paul J. Gorrell, Robert E. Goss, Jay E. Johnson, and Kathleen M. Sands.

White Crane Contributing Editor, Toby Johnson reviewed Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods in White Crane last year (issue #64). Toby offered, “I liked the book and the boldness of Long’s defense and praise of homosexual male sexuality. I noted that I’d just missed meeting him last year when the AAR held its convention in San Antonio and I was invited by Mark Jordan to attend the final evening wine and cheese reception for the LGBT Caucus. Feeling a little beat up, Long had left before the closing reception. He’d taken part in a panel discussion on same sex marriage and Biblical perspective that was supposed to have been a dignified discussion of gay positive interpretations of Christian teaching, but turned into a rude and disrespectful attack on the gay members of the panel by Religious Right opponents of any legitimacy for gay perspectives. It was a courageous thing to try to talk to those right wing religious leaders, and a kind of emotional martyrdom to get attacked by them and have one’s most heartfelt religious convictions dismissed.

“In what I conceived of as a digital, ‘virtual wine and cheese’—with a toast, it turned out, to the Nordic god Baldr—I communicated with Ron Long a few weeks after this year’s AAR event in his honor. “How did it feel to be the guest of honor instead of the victim of homophobic attack?” I asked. When he told me it was great fun being honored, but that it had not been all fun and frolic, I knew there was more to talk about.”

Ron: It was nice—exhilarating—to have one’s ideas be discussed in a professional, academic setting like that. But it’s also really exhausting and emotionally draining. I had to address all these observations, comments, and criticisms about what I’d written in my book. And, you know, I had to work hard to take the high road! (laughing).

Toby: These things can be contentious.

Ron: There was a lesbian feminist presenter who offered some strong criticisms of my affirmative approach to gay male sexuality. She objected to my claiming fullness of masculinity for gay men, arguing that thereby I was simply trying to assure them a place in the patriarchal palace built on the backs of the oppression of women. Well, I confessed to being phallocentric in arguing that gay men represent a new understanding of masculinity. But I am also saying that, at their best, they likewise represent a new (non-patriarchal) way of understanding masculine power.

Toby: Right, homosexuality is about love and affection between equals. The phallic worship is about honoring the flesh and blood incarnation of the beloved, not about establishing dominance.

Ron: Funny, she said she found that my account of male on male sex missed the "push-pull" of “real sex” by focusing on phallos worship instead! I am not sure how seriously she meant her own description of sex. But an off-hand, knee-jerk characterization is all the more telling. I’d say, on the contrary, it’s insisting that sex is a matter of pushing into someone else’s body that reinscribes the very patriarchal understanding of sex that I’m seeking to supplant.

What I argued in the book is that homosexuality challenges the notion that sex is about penetrating other bodies, doing something to someone else who has been rendered passive, that is, that sex is a kind of war. By its insistence on the masculinity of the penetrated party, the bottom, the male homosexual movement is a movement for the spiritual liberation of all men. Getting over the fear of homosexuality and passivity would allow all men to discover they can be lovers as well as soldiers. Indeed, that they can stop seeing sex as war and war as sexy.

Toby: The dominance behavior of some straight men is really unattractive. It’s certainly not sexy to gay sensibilities.

Ron: Males are visually keyed. We enjoy seeing the beauty of other bodies. Sex is a form of seeing through touch. Appearance matters. I think there’s a kind of manhood that’s grounded in a desire to “look good” and to avoid being seen by others as a brutta figura. This indeed anchors a sense of male honor—what I am coming to call ‘chivalric manhood.’

Toby: I’m interested in your idea of religion as creating “a mytho-poetic world to dwell in which encourages living boldly, lustily, and honorably?”

Ron: There are a number of themes that my thinking continues to circle round, although how I see them fitting together keeps changing over time. Male on male sex for me is all about delighting in, “worshipping,” one another’s maleness. And while sex may be an expression of love and a matter of pleasure, it is at the same time a repeated “initiation” into manhood, in which each is reassured of his manhood.

Toby: I think a lot of gay sexual connecting, especially when one’s young, is about developing your own sexual self-image and sense of self-worth as demonstrated by how other gay men respond to you. One of the potent images for the mystery of life is wondering what you look like to other people. You can never know that except indirectly. And so it’s also telling other men how you see them. I always thought “coming on” to another man was such a generous act. That’s different from how heterosexuals see it.

Ron: I am fascinated by male beauty and I know—and I think this may be generally true—I want to be as well as to have a beautiful male. Physical beauties do not necessarily embody moral beauty, but I think their physical beauty symbolizes the moral. I tend expect a good-looking guy to be a good person but, if I find he’s not, he begins to look less good. By the same token, moral goodness has a way of transfiguring the flesh.

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