White Crane #69 – Reviews

Books Reviewed in Issue #69 of White Crane

  • Samuel D. Behrens’ Anti-Gay Equals Anti-God
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
  • Kenji Yoshino’s Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
  • Bazhe’s Identities: Poetry
  • Edward Field’s The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag:And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era
  • Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality: Keeping Religion Out Of Ethics
  • Urs Mattmann’s Coming In
  • Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows
  • Ritch C. Savin-Williams’ The New Gay Teenager

White Crane #69 – Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism and Kenji Yoshino’s Covering


Ethics in a World of Strangers
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
Norton Publishing, 256 pages $23.95
ISBN: 0393061558

Covering: The Hidden
Assault on Our Civil Rights
By Kenji Yoshino

Random House, 304 p. $24.95
ISBN: 0375508201

Reviewed by Kai  North

I grew up in a really small town in the American South. In my town, there were only blacks and whites. Integration came along after I had started school. Given the times and the place, my town, my parents, and I took it all very well. It even so happened that by the time I finished junior high school, my best friend was black. It wasn’t something I deliberately chose; I just liked him best of all my friends. We left that town, and moved to a larger one, and then a couple of years later to an even larger one. I got to know Latinos, Asians and Jews.  In college, I counted among my mix of friends a man from Zambia, and another from Japan. Neither of them was as weird as the guy from Idaho. My life has been one of increasing exposure to the wonderful and fascinating variety of cultures in our world. I have yet to travel outside the US, but I did choose to move to Washington, DC, and here I have met people from all over our planet, and some I have gotten to know very well. 

As I was moving toward increasingly urban environments, the world was growing closer together. This shows up not only in our commodities, but also our literature, art, and music increasingly come from far corners of the world, and sometimes sounds from many places will be blended together on one song. Far from being cacophonous, it merges well. And yet this rush to a smaller and smaller planet has been disorienting, too. Five years ago the United States suddenly woke up to realize it wasn’t universally loved, but many of its citizens didn’t know why—and unfortunately many still do not. More and more English is challenged not only online, but in the streets and marketplaces. A few years ago I went to a Salvadoran eatery wearing a DC United jersey. The waitress assumed since I liked soccer, I had to be able to speak Spanish. Fortunately, I knew enough to order food. 

How do we meet this world rushing at us—and past us—without losing dignity or our orientation? Fortunately, Kwame Anthony Appiah has supplied us with an ethical framework for the challenge. Dr. Appiah teaches philosophy at Princeton, and digging deep into the past as well as looking forward, he has arrived at what he calls “cosmopolitanism.” In classical Greek thought, a cosmopolitan was a citizen of the cosmos. To be cosmopolitan is to transcend narrow parochial interests—geographically and metaphorically—and reach out to the world. Culling from the history of cosmopolitan thought, Appiah notes that:

… there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.

Isn’t this multiculturalism? No, says Appiah. Too much that goes on in the name of multiculturalism defeats freedom—forbidding us to critique human rights abuses in other cultures, for instance—and the cosmopolitan is for freedom, for the individual, particular human life, and his or her longings and needs. That is why Appiah opposes facile “cultural preservationism,” the mistaken belief in cultural purity that must be preserved. Many a Western intellectual has decried the appearance of t-shirts and ball caps in the remotest village of the Amazon. They say that U.S. lead capitalism is destroying the world. But Appiah believes that if the inhabitants of these far villages really want to wear the t-shirts and ball caps, they should be free to do so. To deny them is to be against their rights and dignity as individuals.

Besides, there are no pure cultures. From time immemorial, cultures have been interacting, trading goods and ideas. And often the result has been more positive than those of cultural isolationism. The Romans borrowed from the pantheon of Greek deities, and then later from a monotheism out of a provincial backwater, itself a fusion of ideas from all over the ancient world. You favorite Italian dish probably wouldn’t exist without tomatoes originating in the Western Hemisphere or the idea of pasta from China. These are things everyone knows; few understand. Appiah argues that it is the very nature of culture to grow and change, by interacting with other cultures, incorporating elements of the others or reacting to them. To preserve a culture in its purity condemns it to stagnation and its individual members to a prison. 

Rather than facile multiculturalism and cultural conservation, Appiah calls people to a “conversation.” There are certain values a cosmopolitan will hold, about human dignity and freedom for instance, but how these values are to be carried out in individual lives and in various cultural settings require a frank and open discussion about our individual aspirations and worldviews. Appiah rightly argues that while the discussion can involve the rational, the appeals to change and acceptance will come not from rational argument, but from accustomization. The changes in the perception of women’s roles in society and the acceptability of gays and lesbians has come not through persuasively rational arguments, as much as through increased visibility of women in the workplace and gays and lesbians in public and in the media. People have simply gotten used to the ideas, and as a result their resistance has diminished.

So it will be with our intercultural conversation. We, as cosmopolitans, will seek to understand each other better, and though we will never completely agree, we will learn to accept each other, and greet each other as sovereign individuals with imperatives and values we often share even if we carry them out differently. And while toleration of difference is a hallmark of cosmopolitanism, that toleration is counterbalanced by valuing individual human lives. For instance, a cosmopolitan would not simply accept that curtailing the rights of women or the execution of gays in Muslim societies, but rather would promote the elevation of the status of those two marginalized groups within a Muslim context. Given that cultures evolve, in other words, our duty as persons who value the dignity of every particular human being is to promote the evolution of cultures in a way that they promote the value of every human being within those cultures. 

Rvu69_yoshino If Cosmopolitanism is about how the individual greets the world, then Covering is about how the individual presents herself to the world. Kenji Yoshino teaches law at Yale, and he believes he has discovered the final frontier of our struggle for civil rights. He interestingly starts with the civil rights of gays and lesbians, but extrapolates from that struggle to the struggles for rights for women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and beyond. Until very recently, gay people were forced to convert—to try to become straight, sometimes by means of horrifying physical and psychological torture (some of which even today can be found in the “ex-gay” movement). Progressing from “conversion,” gays and lesbians were required to “pass” for decades, to present themselves as straight, regardless of how they see themselves or behave in private. Finally, as gays and lesbians have come to be more accepted; the latest requirement is that they “cover”—–be gay but don’t be too vocal or too flamboyant. Covering means: not overly expressing who you are.

In a work context, a gay man will often be expected not to behave or dress flamboyantly. He may be expected to “butch it up,” and while his co-workers may know he is gay, he may be discouraged from keeping a picture of his partner at his cubicle, or at least from bringing him to the annual holiday party. An African-American may be expected to dress more conservatively—leave the mud cloth at home, for instance—to be able to advance in his job, or perhaps to keep it. Women, particularly, are asked to walk a fine line, being held back for being too feminine—for instance being too “touchy-feely” in managing employees—or too masculine—behaving too aggressively, too “man-like,” when trying to win a client or argue a case. Women have been held back at their jobs, not only for getting pregnant, but for being in some predetermined age-range for optimal child-bearing.

Yoshino cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a coverer. Everyone on his cabinet knew he was confined to a wheelchair, yet he always arrived at cabinet meetings first and had himself in place at the table before anyone else, to minimize the impact of his disability.

Yoshino says that whenever he starts expounding on how various groups of people are asked to cover, he inevitably gets a question from some straight white male in the audience, protesting that not only do women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT folk have to mute their individual differences—he battles depression, for instance, or has been required to cover his religious life in order to advance in the office. And Yoshino recognizes that this, too, is a form of covering, and just as bad as what is required for the traditionally protected rights groups. He says that the law in the US has traditionally favored immutable traits—skin color, gender, and increasingly, sexual orientation—but it has not protected behaviors. For instance, a black woman cannot be fired for being black, but she can be fired for wearing cornrows, rather than straightening her hair.

Yoshino’s solution seems strange for a professor of the law, and yet it rings true: we do not need more civil rights laws to free people from covering—we need a cultural shift in our attitudes toward individual expression. We continue to be asked to assimilate—to meet certain rather narrowly defined norms in appearance, conversation and behavior. He suggests instead that we should look to see how individuals can express their true natures, without crossing a line to offensive behavior. I shouldn’t mind the gay man at work doing some gender blending or swishing, if it doesn’t hurt his job performance intrinsically, but I have a right to be offended were I to see a leather queen in buttless chaps on the subway.

In working out the particulars in society of where to draw the line between what is an acceptable expression of individuality and what is offensive, Yoshino recommends a process similar to that of Appiah—a conversation. We need to get our thoughts and ideas out there and under discussion. We need to celebrate the dignity and the freedom of the individual to express herself, in her preferred cultural, ethnic, gender and spiritual expressions, and acclimate ourselves to an ever-widening variety in human life. Only as we push ourselves to acquaint ourselves with the Other—to make ourselves a little uncomfortable in order to stretch our boundaries—can we win for ourselves the right to reveal our own true natures. The discussion, according to Yoshino and Appiah may not be easy, but it will be interesting, and that will make our human lives more fulfilling and enjoyable.

Both of these slim volumes pack a tremendous amount of profundity and elegance, and yet they are highly readable, and filled with personal anecdotes and reflections; this short review cannot do them justice. Cosmopolitanism and Covering ought to influence our national and international conversations on the freedoms of people to express themselves while fulfilling their obligations within society.

We need to talk to one another.

Kai North is a writer living in Washington, DC.  He last reviewed Bilal’s Bread and The Taqwacores in the Winter 2006 issue of White Crane.

White Crane #69 – Urs Mattmann’s Coming In

Rvu69_mattman Coming In
by Urs Mattmann, 230 pages
Wild Goose Publications,
ISBN: 1901557987

by Steven LaVigne

There’s an episode of the television series, “Sex and the City” where, following her divorce from Trey, Charlotte seeks guidance through a Self-Help book. Over the years, I’ve reviewed my share of them, but seldom have I had the pleasure of lingering over, savoring and learning from them as I did with Urs Mattmann’s Coming In: Gays and Lesbians Reclaiming the Spiritual Journey. Mattmann recognizes and realizes the confusion and anger many gays have with organized religion, and beyond answering questions, he makes suggestions, recommends exercises, meditations and prayers as a practical solution toward becoming a 21st Century Christian.

While perusing the contents for Coming In, readers quickly learn that Mattmann’s manual addresses topics such as "Gay and Lesbian Gifts and Opportunities," the importance of the "Partnership of Love," "Sexuality as a Source of Strength" and "Community Models for the Spiritual Journey."

Mattmann often states his mind, using himself and his lover as examples to put his theories into action.  For one thing, he reminds us that the time for debating the development of gay people is finished. Studies of the coming out process reveal that many of our lives and experiences often parallel one another. He sees gays and lesbians as mystics who can use their shared sexual energy to service the whole of creation.

He finds the word “spirituality” all encompassing, because “true spiritual experiences encompass humanity and nature, all of creation.” Because there are so many different experiences with the divine through different faiths, Mattmann is capable of identifying these spiritualities and he explores them in depth. He sees spirituality as a means toward reaching a higher level of sexual energy, yet recommends deeper exploration becoming in tune with our genitals, our chakras and how to use them for heightened sexuality as a source of strength and nourishment.

Mattmann personalized his writing when he discusses how a backache during meditation led him to address his inner pain and once accepting it, how he dealt with it. He advises regular meditation, in whichever form chosen, and integrating it into daily life. This is one method of healing the collective hurt and guilt many gay Christians feel due to the Vatican,

Fundamentalists or Protestant attempts to change gays and lesbians. Meditation, ritual, self-help groups, therapies and talking circles are other methods he recommends toward helping to heal these inner wounds.

The information in Coming In is nothing if not thorough, and Mattmann’s arguments are convincing. He cites Moses’ journey in the desert as a model for liberation, and informs readers that they need to realize that that coming out is the start, not the end of liberation. By finding a system for making statements that define our sexuality, asking questions, answering them and appreciating our experiences, we learn to use our sexuality as a source of strength. This will give the second part of the liberation process, coming in, more meaning as we use spirituality to guide our lives. When we reach this enlightenment, we discover how Queer Power can serve the world. 

Unlike the multitude of other self-help books, Urs Mattmann’s Coming In is one book from which we can all learn, even people like those people like Charlotte of “Sex and the City.”

Steven LaVigne is a frequent contributor and reviewer for White Crane.  He lives in the Twin Cities.

White Crane #69 – Edward Field’s The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag

Rvu69_field The Man Who Would Marry
Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era

by Edward Field – University of Wisconsin Press,
302 pages, ISBN: 029921320X

Reviewed by Dan Vera

Edward Field has lived a life.  The Academy Award winner is the recipient of a Lamont Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Prix de Rome.  Of course he’s still living his life and receiving the accolades including the recent W.H. Auden Award for a lifetime dedicated to poetry.  Although he is known and has been honored for his poetry, Field has done us the great favor of laying his life out in a stunning and entertaining memoir titled The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag

What comes alive is the story of a writer who makes a life of his work.  He is brutally honest about his life’s experiences.  A lot of these stories are hysterically funny and I found myself calling up friends to read particular passages about people I’d only known through their writing.  The book sheds new light on the lives of well known figures like Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, and May Swensen.  Then there’s the amazing figure who the book is titled after, Alfred Chester, who epitomized the bohemian dedication to one’s work and paid the price with his life.  The passages on Chester’s eccentric genius and especially his letters from Morocco present a compelling portrait that is aching to be made into a movie. 

Field holds nothing back and in case you think this is just a one-sided book of gossip — Field gives himself a thorough going over.  He deals with his own life’s struggles with a candor that is alarming at times.  You get the feeling that he’s lived this life and doesn’t give a damn who knows what about it — he’s beyond such considerations.  Field introduces us to so many important people that demand more consideration.  Robert Friend, a mighty poet of heart and precision, is brought to life in this book.  I found myself searching out his poetry and powerfully moved by this little known gay poet and scholar.  Another forgotten poet was Dunstan Thompson, who Field credits with being the first poet to write unashamedly and publicly about his love of men.  He cites Thompson for his use of the word "gay" in his work decades before it garnered general use.  His work is harder to find and sadly out of print.

You know you have found good writing when you are slightly upset to have reached the end of the book. I really wanted this book to continue.  I wanted Field to tell me more stories.  I ached to hear the sound of his voice as he recounted the tales of the people he has known and befriended. 

Strangely, in the days after reading his memoir and remembering this world of poets, artists, thinkers and life-livers, I was reminded of that line from the Gospel of Thomas.  “The kingdom of God is before you and you see it not.”  I take the "kingdom" to be a life of possibility and passion.  Field has revealed the kingdom of his life’s experience and in the telling challenges us to be aware of the marvels who walk among us.

Dan Vera is a poet and White Crane’s Managing Editor.  He lives in Washington, DC  His personal blog can be found at www.danvera.com

White Crane #69 – Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality


Godless Morality:
Keeping Religion Out Of Ethics

By Richard Holloway
Canongate Books, 163 pages
ISBN: 0862419093

Reviewed by Malcolm Boyd

There seems to be a global civil war between adherents of religion, and it is drawing nearly everybody else into the melee.

Some people say it’s about interpretation of scripture while others claim it’s somehow related to what different folks do in bed—or on the sun deck.

Richard Holloway clearly states what’s emerging as a more and more prevalent view: “In fact, we no longer treat an injunction from scripture as having moral authority over us simply because it is in scripture. It has to have moral force independent of its scriptural context.” This would have seemed scandalous not too many years ago. Now many of us judge scripture by our own best moral standards, not the other way round. Holloway believes we do this in most areas except “the area of sexual behavior.”

I wonder. He acknowledges that the impetus of social reform usually happens “with the church right at the back of the procession.” At the present time, if the church wishes to remain back there—or seemingly can’t help itself, I think it may find that it has lost touch with a majority of people including an entire youth generation. If this happens, the church’s practice of identifying itself with God could turn into madly self-destructive exercise of irrelevance. God is not mocked. However, the church—when it keeps the trappings of religion, while abandoning all social and moral relevance—mocks itself.

Holloway is extremely helpful when he points out the “distinction between the priestly and prophetic poles in religion.” He is aware that the tension between the two is expressed, though not resolved, in the Bible. He goes on to say: “It is true that the priestly, controlling type of consciousness retrojected into scripture a dominant editorial overview, but the prophetic voice was never silenced, the voice of the critic and satirist, the voice we hear in Jesus.”

I find this close to the heart of the matter. Holloway is prophetic in his claim that most moral systems have reflected and given support to external structures of authority “because until very recent times most human systems were systems of command: domination systems, based on an ethic of obedience to authority.” When God was invoked, it was felt there could be little opposition. This assumed awful social and political implications when the divine right of kings was the rule of the land. Yet Holloway prophetically points to “the living word of Jesus that challenges us to follow the logic that scripture was made for humanity and not humanity for scripture.”

Holloway cites principles that we hold on moral, not theological, grounds. One is “Thou shalt do no murder.” It is accepted by unbelievers and believers alike. He believes if the church’s unity disintegrates over sexuality issues, “it will be because of disagreements over theology and philosophy, not because of sex.” In his view we confront a culture of injustice as well as “ingratitude for the contribution that gay and lesbian people have made to the life of the church down the centuries.”   

A writer and broadcaster, Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church until 2000. His work here is brave, groundbreaking, always lucid. He is a prophet of our times.

The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, author of 30 books, most recently In Times Like These, is a frequent contributor to White Crane and lives in Los Angeles.

White Crane #69 – Richard McCann’s Mother of Sorrows

Rvu69_mccann Mother of Sorrows
by Richard McCann
Vintage Contemporaries, 208 pages
ISBN: 1400096219

Reviewed by Dan Vera

Achingly beautiful, Richard McCann’s stunning collection of stories has recently been released in its paperback edition and rewards the reader with his abundant talents at painterly description. 

McCann evokes a moment with such gorgeous precision that many times I forgot I was reading a book — as if I was dreaming a reality and gasped into the night, waking myself from sleep and having to remind myself it was only a story.  What one is left with is a refreshing meditation on the gritty complications of our relationships as gay men.  This book has stunning power and an ability to leave the reader breathless at its beauty. 

McCann is the recipient of the Beatrice Hawley Award and the Capricorn Poetry Award for his earlier collection of poems Ghost Letters, and it is clear that he has enlisted his poetic talents to reveal images of powerful honesty in this moving memoir of his life.

Dan Vera is a poet and White Crane’s Managing Editor.  He lives in Washington, DC  His personal blog can be found at www.danvera.com

White Crane #69 – Ritch C. Savin-Williams’ The New Gay Teenager

Rvu69_savinwilliams The New Gay Teenager
By Ritch C. Savin-Williams
Harvard University Press
2005, 288 pages, $24.95  ISBN 0-674-01673-4

Reviewed by Bo Young

This is, when all the research is digested and filed away, a hopeful book…much more so than “post-Gay” assimilationists, this book examines the incremental, generational, time-changing success gay liberation has actually had by looking at our children. I am always reminding myself that we’ve only been doing this for 30 some years and black people have been at it for a century or more and look where they are. I am hopeful for a time when “gay” ceases to be an “issue” without having to undergo utter assimilation. Liberation has always had a political component to it. Savin-Williams reminds us that there is a huge psycho-social aspect to it, too: nothing less than the greatest perpetration of child sexual abuse by the hetero-dominant culture against our gay children.

Gay, straight, bisexual: how much does sexual orientation matter to a modern teenager’s mental health or sense of identity?

In this award-winning, down-to-earth book, filled with the voices of young people speaking for themselves, Professor Ritch Savin-Williams argues that the standard image of gay youth presented by mental health researchers—as depressed, isolated, drug-dependent, even suicidal—may have been exaggerated even twenty years ago, and is far from accurate today.

The New Gay Teenager gives us a refreshing and frequently controversial introduction to confident, competent, upbeat teenagers with same-sex desires, who worry more about the chemistry test or their curfew than they do about their sexuality.

What does “gay” mean, when some adolescents who have had sexual encounters with those of their own sex don’t consider themselves gay, when some who consider themselves gay have had sex with the opposite sex, and when many have never had sex at all? What counts as “having sex,” anyway? Teenagers (unlike social science researchers) are not especially interested in neatly categorizing their sexual orientation.

In fact, Savin-Williams learns, teenagers may think a lot about sex, but they don’t think that sexuality is the most important thing about them. And adults, he advises, shouldn’t think so either.

Boidyke. Stem.
Down low.

In this lively and broadly researched book, Cornell University psychologist Savin-Williams reveals that the words gay teenagers use to describe their sexual preferences have changed radically over the past 30 years, and so have attitudes towards same-sex relationships. In fact, many of them are reluctant to define their sexuality at all. “In some respects,” Savin-Williams explains, "these teenagers might relate better to their pre-labeled, pre-identified grandparents than they do with their gay-liberated parents or their gay-resigned older cousins.” “For them ‘gay’ carries too much baggage,” and apparently they get along just fine without it. Much of the volume is devoted to Savin-Williams’ detailed critique of the psychological models currently used to study gay adolescence, which were developed in the 1970s and have barely changed since. These old models, Savin-Williams argues, don’t reflect the diversity of the current gay adolescent experience and should be replaced with a “differential developmental trajectories perspective.”

His book is an excellent resource for professional psychologists with gay patients, but it also contains enough invigorating, real-world case studies to interest general readers. The book was awarded the 2005 Distinguished Book Award, from the American Psychological Association.

Bo Young is Publisher and Editorial Director of White Crane.

White Crane #69 – Bazhe’s Identities: Poetry

Rvu69_bazhe Identities: Poetry by Bazhe
iUniverse, 134 pages, $13.95
ISBN: 059532083X

Reviewed by Steven LaVigne

Three years ago, I had both the privilege of reviewing Bazhe’s memoir, Damages, and the pleasure of hosting him during book signing appearances in the Twin Cities. A native of Macedonia, he’s had a remarkable life that could have damaged a weaker soul beyond repair. A spirited free-thinker, talks with Bazhe offer fascinating insights into the ways of the world. His perspectives seldom follow the norms, especially for someone transplanted from another country, but Bazhe has thoughts and opinions that he’s not afraid to articulate.

We talked at length about the craft of writing, and he shared thoughts and ideas for a planned book of poetry. I was excited when this book came to fruition. Like its author, Identities is deeply passionate, with an energy and an emotional charge that’s unsurpassed. He’s chosen to analyze the manipulations of humanity: greed, ignorance, destruction, war, politics and much more in his poems. 

Bazhe’s work may, for the most part, lack iambic pentameter. That expected rhythm is found only rarely in this collection, as with Where is Freedom, Dove? that reads like the lyric for a 60s pop song. However, this prose poetry and the philosophical

observations they impart aren’t lacking in metaphors and imagery. He divides his work into eight sections. In Part I, "Whispering in Front of the Cosmic Altar," he acquaints readers who haven’t read Damages with the views of the world he’s encountered during his early years. In "My Life is My Damn Question," for example, his anger overflows, but he blames the quill of his pen. Bazhe often sees the world from the eyes of a poem’s principal character, be it Vampire, Cat, Secret Lover or energy itself. 

One particular poem, "The Zoo," is especially striking because, while Bazhe fears the worst and he suspects misunderstanding, he’s been seduced, so he’ll go along with his friend, no matter the outcome. While a somber melancholy is a recurring theme in Identities, sometimes, Bazhe’s writing takes on sexy undertones as in both "Without a Prospect" and "Self-Love." In the former, he comments about things going on in the world around him as he nonchalantly masturbates, while in the latter, he reflects on his reflection, captured in a half-dozen mirrors as he gleefully covers them with sperm.

Like his conversations, the poetry of Identities precisely captures Bazhe’s particular viewpoints. Identities is a crowning achievement from the writer whose Damages has impacted so many of us.

Steven LaVigne is a regular contributor to White Crane.  He lives in the Twin Cities.

White Crane #69 – Samuel D. Behrens’ Anti-Gay Equals Anti-God

Rvu69_behrens Anti-Gay Equals Anti-God
By Samuel D. Behrens

Alamo Square Press, 2006
ISBN188636012X, 133 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Daniel Helminiak

Samuel D. Behrens died of AIDS at age 49 in 2002. Throughout that agony, he poured out his heart—and bile—over his life’s preoccupation: God’s Word in the Bible and religion’s distortion of it. The result was a manuscript that he had his partner, Carlos Mata, promise to publish, Anti-Gay Equals Anti-God.

Behrens grew up in a Pentecostal family, struggled with attraction to other boys, attended Evangel (Bible) College, was ordained and served as associate pastor in the Assemblies of God, left the ministry over his homosexuality, dated women, got engaged but never married, and in 1992 became a Doctor of Jurisprudence. He came out in stereotypical gay promiscuity, which he pursued until he met Carlos and settled down.

He was ever a committed believer. In fact, as was foretold in a Pentecostal gathering, he heard the voice of God—in clear and distinct English. Three times it literally saved his life. Yet his major spiritual turning point occurred only in 1993.  His contact with Evangelicals Concerned brought answers to all his questions about homosexuality and the Bible. He heard a new message: Read closely and with attention to the original languages, the Bible actually says nothing negative about loving homosexual relationships. So strong was his “awe and respect of scripture” (p. 124) and so deep his willingness to understand and live by it that on that very day he was finally able to reconcile his sexuality and spirituality.

Behrens’s 133 pages tell his story of anguish and hope and share the lesson he learned in evangelical faith. At the same time, the book is a tirade against “The Terror of Ignorance” (Chapter Two) that the religious right foists upon LGBTI people. “Use this book,” he writes, “to fight the lies of the radical right from their own theology” (p. 10). “Remember,” Behrens insists, “this is a conservative interpretation of scripture. This is allowing ‘scripture to interpret scripture.’ This is not a ‘liberal’ looking at scripture. This is a Bible-believing Christian who speaks to you from his heart and from the Word of God” (p. 108).

Fully conversant with Bible Religion, Behrens turns its arguments and rhetoric back on itself. “One thing I know is this,” Behrens insists, “the good Lord wanted me to write this book” (p. 45). “The ignorant heterosexists and homophobes who have ‘sat in darkness’ about God’s gay and lesbian children, but who will be forced into the light of day, will sit in disbelief, bewilderment and wonder at all the hateful and harmful things they have said and done, all because of a lie….they are not true Christians” (p. 31). “If you are Christian and you are anti-gay, according to the Bible, you are also anti-God….if you do not repent and pray to Jesus Christ for forgiveness, you will find yourself in the fiery, burning pit of hell” (p. 9).

After three chapters that treat those personal struggles and religious conflicts, the book’s long fourth chapter discusses “eight fallacies” about the Bible and homosexuality. Here, sometimes relying on scholarly historical-critical interpretation and often applying his own creative analyses—the exact style of the biblical literalists—Behrens shows why none of the standardly cited texts is actually condemning.

Regarding “Adam and Steve,” for example, Behrens recalls how Genesis 2 actually reads. Since “it is not good for the man to be alone,” God formed the beasts and fowl for Adam and, only later, the woman. Behrens taunts: Wasn’t God proposing bestiality as the answer to Adam’s loneliness? Doesn’t woman actually rank below the animals? Is this the scheme of life that the literalists want to support?!

Chapter Five movingly tells of the sexual love of David and Jonathan and of Jesus’ approving cure of the Roman centurion’s lover. Chapter Six derides the dishonesty of the Ex-Gay Movement by appeal to Behrens’s own experience: “I told them what I felt [in that room] was a spirit of depression. It was straight out of hell. I had never met so many Christians in one place who were such depressed and lonely men” (p. 122). Again appealing to personal experience, Chapter Eight portrays “The Pain of Rejection” and the destruction of friendship and family that anti-gay religion effects. And from the Conclusion, after a list of “I’m tired of’s”—anti-gay exegesis, church gossip, “the bull-feces from these so-called Moral Majority people” (p. 130), gay suicides, and more—comes the Christian ending: “God, thank you for showing me love and for showing me forgiveness. Please God, forgive me my righteous anger….My brothers and sisters, do not let the opinions of others stop you from being your [God-given]self; be all you can be” (p. 133).

To anticipate discrediting nit-picking by the religious right, errors in this book must also be acknowledged. * The mix of critical and literal reading raises questions throughout. According to the scholars, Jesus certainly never claimed to be Messiah or God. On the other hand, the literal reading clearly suggests that Jesus did intend to found a religion: “I will build my church,” “tell it unto the church,” and “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them” (Matthew 16, 18, 28). * Similarly, Behrens’s interpretations of Leviticus 18, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 10 are a hodge-podge of different theories. Above all, the supposed role of homosexual intercourse in pagan rituals is not the reason that those texts are irrelevant to today’s discussions. Moreover, the pivotal term arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy comes from only two Greek words (arsen = male + koite = bed, sex, seminal emission). It is a simple plural noun. It means “men who bed”; it does not mean “‘the man having many sexual beds’” (p. 106). One hopes that people writing popularly about homosexuality in the Bible would finally get the historical facts right and stop citing early—and oftentimes frivolous—pro-gay attempts to discredit the biblical texts. The Fundamentalists delight to see such disarray within the religious gay-liberation movement. * God’s love and grace do not, indeed, depend on one’s changing one’s homosexuality (pp. 57, 60); nonetheless, whether one may act on it remains a valid, further question. * Stoicism had already crystallized the theory of natural law in the early Common Era; Thomas Aquinas is noted “merely” for his definitive summary of the theory (p. 78).* The logical fallacy of drawing a conclusion from the fact that nothing was said is argumentum ad ignorantiam, not argumentum ignoratum (p. 82).

In addition, common evangelical prejudices taint Behrens’s rhetoric. * Before the Protestant Reformation, there was only the Christian Church, so blaming Catholics for all the flaws inherited from the first 1500 years is dishonest (pp. 62, 70, 100). * Similarly, Jews and Muslims do not need to believe Jesus is God (pp. 58, 62). * The American founders were Enlightenment figures and often secularist Deists; it is simply untrue that “our society was founded upon the truths of the Word of God” (p. 131). * Behrens’s own insistence on the “Law of Love”—and the insistence of the Christian scriptures, e.g., Jesus’ own “By their fruits you will recognize them” (p. 87) or James 2:14: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” (p. 97-98)—contradicts his repeated insistence that, “to be saved,” one need only believe that Jesus is God (pp. 56-57, 62, 76). This appeal to faith alone and scripture alone comes from Martin Luther and John Calvin, not the scriptures. The inconsistency that results makes clear that the Evangelicals are not taking the Bible “as it reads” but see it through the lens of their own history and personal experience. If so, their all-controlling notion of salvation through faith is their own, not the Bible’s or God’s.

In the same vein, Behrens’s preoccupation about heaven and his threats of hell perpetuate the debilitating fear that drives most evangelical religion, the very fear he wrote his book to dispel. And his very self-assured condemnations—for example, to his aunt: “You were fornicators!” (p. 83)—mirror the arrogance and spiritual abuse of the religious right. Sadly, such traits seem to be inherent in that style of religion. In a global community where religion has become a key problem, the ultimate goal of any believer, gay or straight, must be to transcend particularist religion and achieve an all-encompassing spiritual vision. Their anti-gay agenda distracts the Bible religions from the important issues of our day and limits the spiritual growth of even the best intentioned believers—as Behrens’s case evinces.

All criticism aside, Behrens is right on target!  This book is a powerful tool for exposing the error and hate of anti-gay religion. As intended, it should provide freeing insight to faith-strapped LGBTI people and their families. Unfortunately, its challenging rhetoric will hardly reach the anti-gay leaders and convinced believers, whom the book also addresses. Still, this cogent, pro-gay, religious rhetoric turned against homophobia does afford perverse delight. Oh, to see in print in one small book all the diatribes, arguments, and condemnations that—God forgive us, too—so often rise from our hurt and color our private gay conversations!

Sam Behrens has given a valuable gift to the LGBTI liberation movement. Christian to the end, he transmuted his spiritual struggle into a liberating legacy.

Daniel Helminiak, PhD, PhD, LPC, is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of West Georgia. He is author of the seminal and award-winning What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality and, more recently, Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth and Meditation without Myth and is a member of the Advisory Board of White Crane Institute. Visit his web site at www.visionsofdaniel.net.

Building Connections & Community for Gay Men since 1989