White Crane Journal #54 Fall 2002
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Changing the World from the Margins David Nimmons Floating off the Page Ponderiver Already There Ralph Walker Wherefore Gay Spirituality or How Queer Can the Sacred Be?
Donald L. Boisvert, Ph.D.
Outside Looking In Edward J. Ingebretsen Faith Gary T. Boswell The Lone Rangers Among Us Schu Montgomery Gender at the Margins Ted Senecal
Editor's Note: Walkers of the World's Weird Wall
In his Asian Journal, Trappist monk, activist, mystic, modern day holy man, Thomas Merton spoke of the monk, the hippie and the poet as deriving their vocation precisely from the irrelevance of their role in society.
They are marginal persons who, because they have no useful, constructive place, give witness to the presence of death, the presence of meaninglessness which belies all the efforts of mainstream society to prop itself up with matters of consequence and pretense that its values and aims are so important. Death reminds us all that all the striving for riches and fame and stability and security that obsess most of us most of the time are all ultimately doomed.
Gay people fit into that same category. After all, one of the major objections to our lives is that we don't produce anything--meaning, of course, produce offspring. We too live in the margins of society. We remind them of death.
Such an acquaintance with death and meaninglessness is a major source of the spiritual life. People who protect themselves from the realities of life by accepting unquestioningly the values of their society don't exactly have a need for spirituality; they often satisfy themselves simply with religion. For religion is one of the major tools for hiding from the truth. (Though it's noteworthy that the discussion of our marginaity that follows is surprisingly religiousbut always with a twist and a critique, as though somehow gay perspective gives us a vision of what religion really is.)
That mainstream society that is so concerned with protecting itself from the reality of death marginalizes those who bring this reminder, who challenge the status quo. The society imagines that nothing in the margins matters and that those people have no influence or effect. The truth is almost the opposite.
It is often only fom the margins that change comes. It is the people in the marginsthe monks, hippies, poets, and queerswho have the perspective to see the need for change and whose lives force change in society.
Though, of course, it's only a metaphor--and even a slightly strained one at that--but there's a telling example in the typographical use of the term "margin," especially in the computer assisted desktop publishing so many of us have come to experience almost daily. The margins are the blank space around the text on a page. There's "nothing" in the margins, but changing the margins even just a little can have dramatic effect on how the text is formatted, how the words fit on the page, and how the whole page ends up looking.
One of the functions, it seems, of gay people in the margins is to help reformat all of society. And we do, even when our contribution isn't recognized.
When you enlarge the margins around your text, the text gets squeezed and compressed. When you loosen the margins, the text opens up and looks more relaxed. Just so, when the acceptance of gay people relaxes the tightness of the margins on society, everything changes. From out in the margins we change things by indirectly helping to determine what's allowed and what's not.
Acceptance in culture of queer people of all sorts desensitizes everybody to traditional gender role conventions and eases all the stress (especially on straight men) that adds to conflict and violence in society.
When men don't have to act "manly," they can act gently and humanely. They can set aside competition and struggle.
Our gay lives demonstrate that people don't have to have children to live worthwhile, happy, contributing, successful lives. Our development of friendship circles deeper and wider than the blood-based bonds of nuclear families demonstrates alternative, more satisfying, less constricting ways of living. Our lives, remarkably free of violence, witness to the possibility of peace, love and compassion. And our spirituality, cultivated out here in the margins, demonstrates a progressive, evolutionary vision of human consciousness. We show up the failure and hypocrisy of religion that cannot seem to cope with the margins.
We are the earth rim-roamers, shadow-shooters, walkers of the world's weird wall (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful novel, Grendel, by the late John Gardener, which tells the Beowulf story from the side of the marginal "monster" who so threatens the status quo). Because we live outside the values and conventions of the mainstream, we are free to discover deeper meaningspiritual meaning. We witness to a greater reality in which our lives have a place. We witness to life lived in the present moment, in the Now, in the eternity of God.
(Wil Biggers has beautifully captured that wierd wall in his illustration, a detail of which adorns the cover. See FYI for info about ordering a full size version of this illustration.)
Interestingly, as submissions have come in for this issue, the philosphical, abstract idea of Marginality has blurred with the personal, warm experience of Friendship. That's what our marginality teaches us, perhaps, that since we live in a world apart, we can and must support one another, we must be friends. It's through our personal and affective relationships with one anotherand the worldthat we save the world.
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Changing the World from the Margins
It may well be that gay liberation's pioneering a new model of intimate relationship on the margins of society, which will eventually resolve the problems of larger society. "The love which has no name" may give new names for love, new love styles to all humanity. -- John Lee
Editor's Note: This article in based on material excerpted from David Nimmons' remarkable book The Soul Beneath the Skin: The unseen hearts and habits of gay men recently published by St. Martin's. White Crane is proud to enthusiastically recommend this book to its readership.
For forty years, gay men have conceived and defined our primary cultural work to cleave out social space for our erotic selves. In that time, we built what is without question the richest sexual culture the planet has ever seen. Yet the possibility that such innovations may hold anything important, humane, or liberating goes largely unaddressed in majority culture and media. At best, our practices are viewed with studied silence; at worst, media view and dissect our customs with wide-eyed alarm and ferocious distrust.
We see that our culture is everywhere misrepresented, even to ourselves, always presented in the dimmest light. Consider: the alarming, sensationalized statistics that a third of gay men fail to practice safer sex, equally suggest that two thirds of gay men in those studies do consistently practice it. When, in that light, we look at the motives for such behavior, we discover it is often based in altruism, compassion and concern for other gay men as brothers, not out of fear or avoidance of sex and intimacy. Perhaps we practice safe sex not because we're those promiscuous, uncaring sluts recklessly endangering our own and others' lives but because we are caring and compassionate comrades who seek to bravely reach out to one another, with a new vision of sexual connection.
Consider: the early headlines about HIV being spread by gay men donating blood or about the prevalence of homosexuals joining the priesthood or wanting to be Scout Masters, soldiers or teachers. All might be read to suggest that gay men have notable tendencies to volunteer, to be caretakers and social servants. Yet when do we hear about our uncontrollable urges... to volunteer?
Consider: scary headlines that domestic violence is a scourge in gay communities mask the reality that, in every other situation, we demonstrate a remarkable absence of public violence. To be sure, any domestic violence is too much, and for those involved, the human cost is as real and hard as a clenched fist. Yet two facts ring with absolute clarity. First, that it is hard to make the case that gay men's domestic violence levels are any higher, and they may in fact be lower than in the dominant society. But second, and far more important, when one expands the analytic lens to include the full range of violent assault behaviors--not just domestic violence but public violence, bar brawling, street violence, mass gatherings, and bias violence--one conclusion emerges clearly. We have created one of the most peaceable populations of males on the planet.
As Australian sociologist Gary Dowsett has written, the gay world of Adelaide, Australia, can best be described as a "tartan rug," a complex patchwork shaded with different colors and hues, intersecting stripes, as interwoven as they are distinct. It is not, as the media--mainstream and our own--present, all white, all pumped, all employed, and all in the same Castro zip code. As we gaze deeper into this rich male mandala, read the studies, sift the weight of factual evidence accumulating in sociology, criminology, anthropology, public health and epidemiology, hear men's stories and dreams, hang out in the watering holes and the Lofts of the world, one cannot help but be struck by the variety of uncommon practices in the lives of these men.
If gay men were simply finding new ways to be with each other, it would hold some descriptive sociological interest, like a treatise on Mennonite or Hopi Indian customs. But upon examination it becomes clear that the breadth and scope of gay male social innovations have no clear parallel in contemporary culture. Males just do not relate to other males in the ways we do. Yet the virtues and strengths of our connections with one another are often dismissed as marginal and insignificant.
To put this into relief, imagine that another group of men, say a previously little-known order of devout monks, has been discovered living scattered among the populace in our major cities and countryside. Social scientists document that these brothers are characterized by a virtual absence of public violence, high levels of service and volunteerism, and novel forms of caretaking with strangers and each other. Researchers further note that they manifest an uncommon amity across gender lines, enjoy distinctive rituals of bliss, worship, spectacle, and public play. Their patterns of friendships are distinctly powerful, with wide-ranging networks of intimate and intertwined social relations, whose members often live in closely woven networks of intentional communities.
If such a hypothetical band were indeed found, its discovery would arouse keen excitement. The brotherhood and its members would be lauded, lionized, if not canonized. They would be hailed as role models. The President might cite them in his State of the Union address; the Pope would praise them as moral exemplars. Before you know it, Time magazine would put them on its cover and they would be trooping onto Oprah for their fifteen minutes of media spotlight.
Yet although every one of those attributes has been well documented in the cultures created among gay men, no such attention has materialized. We've gotten no calls from Time, no invites to the White House, not a peep from the Vatican. Not even a message from our pal Oprah. The wider culture seems to have missed the story that these homosocial laboratories are brewing a set of values experiments without modern precedent.
Objectively, we are innovating in areas of male care and nurture, altruism and service, brotherhood and peacefulness. We are crafting powerful changes around bliss and ecstasy; gender roles and sexuality; intimacy, friendship, and communalism. Yet because it is gay men who are both the innovators and subjects in these experiments, their dimensions have gone largely unremarked, their meaning virtually unseen. We have paid little heed to the most interesting implications of it all.
The metaphor of the monks is closer to truth than it might first appear, for one would have to examine highly determined male cultures--religious orders, intentional spiritual brotherhoods, fraternal organizations, places where rules and codes are formalized and enforced--in order to observe such similar male patterns. These habits, customs, and practices in our communities, this gay culture of male care, pacifism, intimacy, and service, recall a range of spiritual teachings. Yet in gay neighborhoods from San Diego to San Antonio to Seattle, one sees these habits arising natively as everyday social practice, the indigenous manifestations of chosen social norms.
It would be easy, and wrong, to read this observations as a smug brief for gay men's superiority. Instead, we can put forth a more nuanced set of claims. First, that the lives that many gay men have been building do indeed hold demonstrable, culture-changing implications both for ourselves and for the larger society. Second, that we have long overlooked them in part because the accustomed stories offered to, told among, and accepted by gay men dangerously obscure central truths about the values evolution we are engaged in. Third, that viewed together, these queer cultural experiments can best be understood as a new, evolving public ethic. They are complex and contested, they do not happen everywhere nor uniformly, and not all of us are included in them. But throughout, they have a rich ethical basis in thought and theory, in action and relation. At its core, we are witnessing the birth of a new set of male possibilities, outlined in lavender.
The fourth implication may be, to some, the most provocative of all. Far from describing some latter-day Sodom, a society of sluts and sybarites, many of the customs of gay enclave cultures echo traditions of Judeo-Christian brotherhoods and intentional communities. Stroll down Eighth Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard, or Halstead Street, and you can just hear echoes of utopian philosophic traditions of caritas and beloved community. Wipe your eyes in the sweaty and smiling crowd at 2:00 A.M. at New York's Roxy or South Beach's 1771 or Los Angeles's Factory, and you may well feel you've stumbled into a postmodern rendering of Whitman's "dear love of comrades." One might almost imagine that we were a society of friends, if only we knew it.
Queer-inspired practices, from Radical Faerie gatherings to AIDS volunteer buddy teams, shimmer with notions of communal caretaking and altruism. At their best, they recall nothing so much as New Testament teachings of agape and caritas, male embodiments of service and nurture, nonviolence and gender peace, brotherhood and friendship, all spiced with equal dollops of sexuality and spectacle. Only in this case, the apostles are wearing Calvins or Abercrombie and Fitch . . . and sometimes not even that. Yet look at the soul beneath the skin, and you see we are rewriting the defaults of what a culture of men can be with and for each other.
The time has come to note the experiments of heart and habit now arising in gay worlds, to discern what they mean for gay men ourselves and for the shared world culture. Because our cultural practices don't just differ from those of the dominant society, they shape them. America is a synthetic culture, with a long history of cultural borrowing. In that light, this people--public, self-identified gay men, gathered in communities--are just a few short decades off the boat. But ours is an odd niche, for we are emigrants and immigrants both, all without ever having left our own shores. Perhaps we are more accurately understood not as immigrants at all, but as a recently emerging indigenous American culture. We are still in the process of becoming, the ink still wet on our ways and practices. But we have already proven ourselves a prolific source of societal change.
Obviously, the conventional wisdom that gay men are narcissistic sex addicts and sinners living in a marginalized demi-monde of drugs and disease, creating nothing but problems for police and public health authorities (a set of opinions diameterically opposed to the facts) makes sense only if one believes that our larger culture gained nothing of value whatever from explorations of sex and gender in the 1960s. Or that, even if it did back then, that America has nothing further to learn about sexuality. But if either of those isn't true--if we're not in sexual Jerusalem yet--then small wonder gay men's sexuality frightens the culture's horses in such a big way. For we embody a far more subtle and unsettling truth.
Perhaps sexual explorations bring not just costs, but unsuspected collective and individual benefits. At this historical moment, gay men are so troubling precisely as living, breathing proof that a subculture can play by different rules. We bring erotic tidings that many would prefer stay unheard: that humans are blessed with open hearts and willing bodies, the better to enjoy a robust erotic communion with each other. In a larger society that has resolutely held its erotic fantasies and desires at bay, we are a reminder that one could instead invite them in to sup--and have them stay the night. Even more disquieting, that maybe, just maybe, we could all awake in the morning to find our humanity not only intact, but vastly enriched. What then.?
Our queer sex narrative is less a mere morality play of wanton hedonism than a stunning cultural accomplishment. It presents a systematic cultural elevation and recognition of the power of the erotic, a celebration of collective carnality. At its best, it is bounded by ethics and informed by care, and nurturant of relationships. It can open doors, personal, dyadic, and collective--although we have work to do to fully realize those promises.
Millions of gay men have built the planet's most unabashedly sex-affirming culture. We have done it in a few short years, in a nation moving away from erotic pleasure, conflicted about sex, ashamed of bodies, and increasingly vocal about our suppression. Yay for our side. But what if it turns out that sex is just a proxy? We built such unparalleled sexual cultures when we imagined that sex was what made us unique. Our sex and bodies were how the larger society saw to name us as different, and for years, they were how we ourselves grasped our prime difference. So we manifested that into being, big time. But our sex may be just the most visible marker of our cultural invention. The sex is the part the world has most easily seen. But what if it blinded us to something else all these years?
Maybe our key difference doesn't lie in our erotic after all. What if it's just our opening act, a way of learning what we can do together? What if all that sex--that lovely, magnificent, sticky, daring, tender, piggy, bold, sweated sex--is just a dry run for the glorious trouble we can make when we put our will to it? At this millennial moment, our deepest cultural impulses may be less about male bodies than about male hearts. Given our unnamed habits of nonviolence, service, caretaking and altruism, intimacy, the hundred ways that we rewrite the rules on men, sex may turn out to be the least radical of our differences.
It's time to ponder the F-word at the center of gay lives. No, not that one. I'm talking about friendship, silly. But you went there, didn't you? Of course you did; our sexual exploits usually steal the headlines. Yet when we cast an eye beyond the bedrooms, backrooms, and baths, a far more profound set of gay affectional innovations comes into view. For we are rewriting the rules and habits of intimacy. The very practice of friendship is being reinvented in gay worlds.
In a remarkable essay, "Friendship as a Way of Life," French philosopher Michel Foucault defined friendship as the core philosophical issue at play in queer men's lives: "Affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship. Things which our rather sanitized society can't allow a place for. . . That's what makes homosexuality so 'disturbing': The homosexual mode of life much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act . . . is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another--there's the problem."
Foucault argued that openly gay worlds offered "unique historic opportunities for an elaboration of personal and ethical creativity analogous to that practiced by certain moral athletes in classical antiquity. Only now such creativity need not be restricted to a social elite or a single, privileged gender, but could become the common property of an entire subculture."
Understanding how we do that, to more fully recognize the values we demonstrate in our actions, has to be the goal of our collective effort. The first step is to name those special parts of being gay that we don't usually talk about. This does not imply an uncritical or simplistic queer rah-rah boosterism. Nothing in this discussion is intended to "build esteem" or "create" pride or "show our best face to the world." The goal is simply to tell the whole truth we know in our lives, and what we may feel in our gut. That is, to widen the analytic lens to view more of ourselves and our practices. We need to recount our wisdoms as well as we do our warts, or we're telling only half a truth. Yet all that truth-telling is just preparation for work in the real world. Because it turns out that if we seek to feel love manifest with those in your life, you need to manifest love.
I really do believe that we as gay people have an involved role in the world. I see gays as a kind of perpetual Peace Corps.
We are meant for something far beyond ourselves and our own selfish concerns.
This is a part of the meaning of being gay.
--Reverend Malcolm Boyd
The national project by that name, Manifest Love, is a whole new kind of project for gay/queer men. It exists to help gay men find new ways to be with and for each other. Men who take part get a chance to explore our shared patterns, look at our values around community, nurturance, and affection. We offer concrete new ways to experience ourselves and conduct our relationships. By helping frame more nurturant patterns with each other, we envision and create the more sustaining queer world we want to live in.
There is no simple box for what we do. It is part social movement, part applied spirituality. Our gatherings are not encounter weekends, human potential groups, some dating service or sect. Nobody will ask you to loan your life's savings or tell you how to vote. You can go to the bathroom as often as you want and do whatever you want, when you're there.
The Manifest Love movement invites a range of queer men to create a new kind of world together, one that better reflects our best values and aspirations. Our focus is to craft the lives--social, intimate, sexual, communal, voluntary, moral--that we want to experience with each other. Call it a great gay experiment in applied affection. To date, about 1,800 of us have taken part in these events from San Francisco to Providence; from Ukiah, California, to Ellsworth, Maine. You may have heard something of the discussions of these ideas now bubbling at gay gatherings and conferences. If so, you may already be familiar with the basic thrust of this work. Men come because they are hungry for some changes in how we are with each other and what we can be for each other.
This work tries to link ethical analysis to action, to more mindfully foster creative forms of beloved community. Local chapters work to promote critical understanding of our cultural innovations and to find concrete ways to manifest sustaining values in our communities. A key focus is on creating individual and collective acts to help us reflect, experience, and practice values of care and nurture in new ways. We call them Loving Disturbances.
Loving Disturbances are just that: innovations and experiments in applied affection. They are concrete real-world experiments devised to nudge the patterns and practices of gay lives in more affirming and humane directions. They are social actions that bring values into being, and are the action core of Manifest Love's local work. They may happen at a bar, on the street, or in a meeting, between friends or tricks or neighbors. They may happen alone or with others. The point is to broaden the habitual patterns of queer men's cultures to help us meet and interact in new ways, and have fun doing it. A Loving Disturbance aims to leave a corner of queer world just a little better off--a tad more affectionate or less defended, slightly more in line with the values discussed here, a moment aglow with an aura of promise fulfilled.
In local groups, we devote much time to helping men brainstorm all manner of new institutions and practices we could create with each other, to enlarge the possibilities of our interactions. In Providence, a group decided to do a "gang affection bang" when a gaggle of friends teamed up on one of their own to cook him a meal, bake him cookies, clean his house, give him massage, walk his dog, sing him a serenade, take him to a movie, and generally celebrate his presence in their lives. The Minneapolis troop invented the idea of a "group date." Troops in Boulder and Atlanta have experimented with creating various events for voluntary, nonsexual, touch that are free and available to all. In San Francisco, men experimented with using their eyes differently to cruise for affection, not just sex. (If you want some more examples, take a look at our webpage: www.manifestlove.org) Each Loving Disturbance is an example of that shameless kind of love Plato talked about.
If we could somewise contrive to have a city or an army composed of lovers and those they loved. . . when fighting side by side, one might almost consider them able to make even a little band victorious over all the world. -- Plato, Symposium
Work in local troops affords a chance to reflect on yourself and the givens of your gay world, why you sought it out in the first place, and how it's working for you. Most important, it is a chance to reflect on what all of us are doing here together, at a deeper level than we usually think about it. If the ideas here have struck a chord with you, you are invited to join the ongoing conversations of men talking with each other, seeking new ways of being for and with each other.
In an interview with a French gay magazine, Foucault once made this observation: [Homosexuality] would make us work on ourselves and invent, I do not say discover, a manner of being that is still improbable.
It is to the invention of improbability we are now called. Its exact shapes and forms depend on us. But basically, it comes down to this: If we want to rewrite the code of conduct in this Queer Kingdom, everybody has to grab a pen. The only way to get a more trusting and affectionate queer men's world is to make it. Because, it turns out, when we're all being that way with each other, the next thing you know . . that's what we are to each other.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. -- Mahatma Gandhi
We cannot yet know what will happen when this confederacy of beloved men unabashedly claims our values before the world. If we better understood and celebrated our best practices, gay lives would never look the same. Then, of course, all hell might break lose. In a world beset by violence, with male nurturance and caretaking in short supply, for a society confused and guilty in its sexuality, where practices of intimacy and the pursuit of pleasure are viewed with suspicion, where relations between the sexes are fraught with risk and confusion--in such a straining world, might not the lessons of such men help us all? As our distinct habits diffuse, how might that change the life of our larger culture?
Who knows what it could look like if our gender were less prone to violent solutions; if new varieties of communalism and caretaking now seen in many of our lives were a broader norm; if celebratory sexual exploration were a more accepted feature of our culture, enjoyed and explored, not hidden and lied about; if we structured our intimate communities in more inclusive ways; if our national life included more freely loving, publicly altruistic men; if we could find new understandings across gender lines. In a dozen demonstrable ways, our habits have the potential to shift the most deeply held values of the majority culture. How might that transform the experiences and fears of women, of children, and of men? What promise does it hold to sweeten the shared life of our planet?
If, as facts suggest, society harbors a hidden army of lovers in its midst, the challenge is to celebrate and nurture these gifts, this genius, It is a cultural patrimony we can offer to our shared life as a nation. Equally important, it is a gift to ourselves that will transform our own experience with and for each other. For now we know only this. A resolute community of fiercely loving males can only heal the world. We, whom Plato called the best of boys, the bravest of men, can compose his army of lovers. When we more fully manifest love in word and deed and we live out the values of our hidden hearts, the larger culture can only follow. It always has.
David Nimmons, formerly President of New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, is founder of Manifest Love, a national project helping gay men find new ways to be with, and for, each other. This text was excerpted by the author from his recent St. Martin's Press book The Soul Beneath the Skin.
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Floating off the Page
Looking back at my high school education, I don't remember much, but I've always held on to some recollection of the Transcendentalists of American literature epitomized by Emerson's Self Reliance and Thoreau's Walden. When I read these guys I always gained reprieve from my sometimes overwhelming feelings of not fitting in. It was not only okay to think and live in the margins but it was embraced and encouraged. Yet these moments were often short-lived fantasies between the pages of books. In the real world I longed to belong, at once working at it and rebelling against it in an unending whirlwind of paradox.
The one thing I've found most in common with other gay men is that sense of not fitting in. It's pervasive and deep in us like a starless, moonless, dark night sky. Where to go with this? What to do? So many questions. So many options. Do I kill myself or become an activist? Do I hide out or come out? Do I compensate through anger and hypermasculinity or shudder with fear and sensitivity? How to accept myself? How to love myself? How to love others?
Growing up in small town religious, rural America in the 50s and 60s, I had no frame of reference for sexuality let alone homosex. All I really wanted to do was dance and sing. Instead I became the captain of the football team (anger and compensation), shunned my sissy friend (who later committed suicide), dated women (wishing they were men), and eventually entered the Jesuits. Sports and religion. FEAR. That's how I opted to cop out and fit in. Bandaids. The anger only swelled in me as I began to channel my inner consciousness of oppression into the energy of the civil rights movement and the struggle for equality and social justice, not in the gay community, but in the world of ethnic minorities where I fit in even less as a white man.
What to do? Got married and had a family. That didn't do it either. The margins crept closer. Could I ever step over that line? Yes. I did, at the age of 38. Out of the closet, I stopped coloring between the lines, my brush now stroking beauty onto surfaces never before touched--at least by me. So many men, beautiful, alluring, mesmerizing, Jesus Christ! Down from the cross, out of the tabernacle he came; and came; and came again. Oh how I remembered even as a little boy, in my loneliest moments on the fringe, kneeling solitary before the sexy, handsome, life-size wooden Jesus on the cross high above the sanctuary, wishing I could crawl up into his arms holding on for dear life.
Now in the margins, out and about, I still longed to belong, thinking for sure I would now. Not. Gay bars, gay pride, marching, volunteering, cruising. Boyfriends, lovers, even a partner or two, everywhere after the orgasms the beautiful men fell like wounded soldiers. Blinded, they never recognized me the next day. Where to go from here? What to do?
A couple tablespoons of choice in a large glass of destiny. Becoming literally allergic to much of the world with multiple chemical sensitivities, then cancer, my own private form of HIV not HIV, further into the margins, my health compromised, career caved, I went into the forest to ponder a river. Thoreau says it best: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach so that not when I came to die discover I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear. I wanted to live deep. To suck out all the marrow of life. To live so sturdily and spartan-like so as to put to route all that was not life."
Siddhartha, and his creator Herman Hesse, who spent the last 25 years of his life in seclusion, unwittingly became my allies, their lives inextricably intertwined with my own.
I first read Siddhartha when I was a young college student 30 years ago. The resonance was stark even back then. What stood out the most was the river which ultimately became Siddhartha's greatest teacher. Mine too. But first he had alot of journeying to do. Leaving his home at an early age to become a "Samana," he wandered as an ascetic and beggar with his friend, Govinda. They meet the Buddha. Govinda follows him but Siddhartha cannot. He can only follow his own heart, not someone else's. This heart, full of desire, goes off now into the city to discover the world of lust and money. On his way he meets Vasudeva, the ferryman who's spent his life transporting wayfarers from one side of the river to the other. In the city Siddhartha meets the courtesan, Kamala, who introduces him to the world of eroticism and the quest for financial gain. He becomes unhappily a successful businessman only to leave it all behind and return to Vasudeva and the river. Unknown to him, Kamala bore his son who years later rejects him upon their meeting at the river and returns to the city never to be seen again. Vasudeva dies an old man, leaving Siddhartha to become the solitary ferryman, no longer crippled by his conflicted desires, now at peace, with the oneness of all.
Siddhartha was bent on living his life in the margins, a fierce individualist who finally learns from the river that you can only achieve wholeness when you can see yourself in everyone else and everyone else in yourself. The paradox was that he came to realize this only through solitude.
So here now I have become the ferryman, alone on my river, my solitude ferrying fruit in the souls of men I will never see on earth. I recently wrote a friend that I feel pretty much utterly alone, whether I am or not. I don't even feel in the margins. It's like I'm completely off the page, floating out there somewhere in what, at times, feels like complete nothingness. Her response was: "Some people spend an awful lot of money or steal to get the drugs to make them feel the way that you are describing right now. Especially the floating around part."
Sometimes it's hard to see the purpose or meaning in nothingness, the unknown, nada. It is a surrender to silence and the thousand voices and faces of the river ever constant never the same. Altered states and trance become common where even the ever present beauty of the forest, the wildlife, the wildflowers, the snow capped peaks go unnoticed shadowed by the inner journey to night. The search for the beloved in the bright city lights and dark alleys ceases, seized now by the realization that in all my longings to know the place of my beloved, I discover I am the home wherein he dwells.
The difference I am making now in the world is hidden like a secret garden. Obscurity and oblivion are not only the trademarks of contemplative monks but also of gay men who no longer find in their destiny the push to belong in any world but rather a sense of oneness found in the interior journey. The journey into self, found in solitude, is like no other if not equal to climbing the heights of the highest mountains or diving to the depth of the seas. It is sheer challenge, exhaustion, endurance, ecstasy.
Here in this place I now find myself, on the banks of this river, surrounded by forest and the glacier peaks of volcanoes and crystalline formations of rock, I can now begin to write not from surface but from hidden chasms deep and unexplored. This is the journey into self; the journey into the nothingness of night now no longer fettered by conflict of desire but surrendered to destiny and the unity of all things.
Here in this place, in the self-made hermitage of my destiny, in the emptying spaces flowing now from my own soul, I can welcome the stranger and the enemy, the friend and lover who also wish, if only for a moment's glimpse, to experience in solitude the purging of attachment and a surging stabilization that ensues from tuning into the seasons, the phases of the moon, and the ever changing light and dark that comes from the tilting of the earth.
In my emptiness I will fashion me a song filled with harmony by the river. Whoever comes to sing it with us, we will sing it together.
Ponderiver lives as a hermit writer in the south central Cascade Mountains of Washington state. You can email him at email@example.com
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...it seems to me that everything that exists is good--death as well as life; sin a well as holiness; wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary; everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
I'm reasonably certain that you've heard that all that is necessary to enlightenment is to renounce all your desires. And, that may indeed seem impossible or certainly almost impossible.
No more chocolate chip ice cream! No more TV! No more sex! No more books on Enlightenment!
Well, no, not quite that; you are required to release your attachment to those desires.
Indeed, along with me, you may be moved toward renunciation or release of some of the "hold" that these earthly pleasures may have or may have had for you. You may indeed even gone so far as to become a true ascetic, and now live an almost monk-like existence.
And yet, somehow you are still plagued; you are definitely "not there" yet, and all that renunciation may have even given rise to more fears, more insecurities, even physical ailments that plague your body.What of all these?
Well, renounce them. Let them go. Release them. Melt your "attachment" to your problems, your issues, you physical ailments and problems. For, in truth, they are with you only so long as you continue to be "attached," for you are attached to them; they are only secondarily "attached" to you.
This, you see, is where "the rubber hits the road" in this enlightenment process. This is where you find you are really attached.
A cry goes up from most of us: "But that's who I am!"
No, in truth it is not who you are; it is whom you have become through your life-long attachment to the notion of your fragility, your incapacity and inability, and even that "bad heart," arthritis, or nervous stomach.
Behind those... and behind those other desires and attachments, the real, shining, limitless Self is still alive, truly eager to shine out.
That's what life is about freeing oneself from all the traps of the ego--both the desired and the detested--and moving into the fullness of light! How?
Open your eyes! Open your heart! Begin to allow that core of total love which you are begin to blossom.. not by what you "do" but more by what you don't do, or what you stop doing:
The lusting and the loathing which prevent you from freeing yourself into unconditional love of all that is!
Renounce all desire and become the desired Self!
Simply notice all of that "stuff"--observe it and know that that is not you. It's simply the "fear body" that we've all accumulated through a lifetime of "believing" the worst about ourselves and others. From the posture of "divine indifference," learn to let go of the "story," and recognize that your "story," or all of the "shit" that you so carefully "got together" is not who you are!
No, you are the "observer," and as observer, you are able to know the unimportance of "all of that" and come gradually to experience the central identity of your god-like neutrality.
Then you see that there is nothing that you need to "get," for who and what and how you are, is already it, already there, already enlightened.
As Walter Starcke says "It's All God!" There is nothing to find, so seeking is pointless, and can even obscure the obvious. We each are god--the immediate manifestation of Self, god-in-a-body, fulfilling our unique god-ed spot in the Universe--and the only thing holding us back from the experience of that is all the "stuff" we are trapped in and in thrall to.
Ralph Walker manages The Loving Brotherhood.
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Wherefore Gay Spirituality
or How Queer Can the Sacred Be?
Donald L. Boisvert, Ph.D.
The great Karl Marx is sadly neglected these days. I don't necessarily mean in his capacity as an economic or philosophical thinker, though that is regrettable, but more as a religious one. We don't readily associate the thought of Marx with religion, but he is one of the classic figures in the sociology of religion. We all know his famous dictum about religion as "the opiate of the masses," but we often fail to acknowledge his equally perceptive view of religion as "the heart of a heartless world," to say nothing of his vibrant challenge about the need to surpass and destroy religion. Marx, though certainly very Jewish in his outlook, was, at heart, a bitter atheist. It probably helps explain why he was so creatively lucid.
I often think of Marx's challenge when I reflect on my work in gay spirituality. I guess I do this for several reasons. First, he keeps me honest. He forces me to ask myself the fundamental questions about the real nature of religion in our world. Second, he nags at me. He insists on reminding me that you can't really appropriate the discourse and worldview of the oppressor without tainting yourself in some way. For me as a gay man, that oppressor is most assuredly heterosexual, male, and, in the matter at hand, clerical. Finally, Marx compels me to move beyond my own comfortable engagement with gay spirituality to some sense of the dangers that lurk within. Hence the reason for my title. It strikes me that this is really a Karl-Marx-kind-of-question, though perhaps he might have cringed a bit at the mention of the word "queer," as others in our own day and age also do. It only goes to show, I would suggest, how truly lasting and pernicious self-oppression can, in fact, be.
In my book, Out on Holy Ground (Pilgrim Press, 2000), I provide a sociological "take" on gay spirituality by advocating quite explicitly for understanding and appreciating the lives and experiences of gay men in religious, or at least spiritual, terms. I argue that our sexuality, and the ways we express it, provide us with a distinctive way of apprehending the sacred, and responding to it. I try to move beyond traditionally problematic and ultimately sterile religious condemnations of homosexuality to a far more empowering vision of the meaning of "the holy" in gay lives today. What I say and write is part of the larger movement of re-appropriation of religious discourse by traditionally marginalized and excluded social groups. It is the expression of a sociological phenomenon in its own right, one that is unapologetically postmodern in its claims to a multiplicity of discursive sites about the so-called religious.
But re-appropriation carries a price, and that is the hard bargain whose meaning and dangers I wish to explore in this text. My title really carries two questions. First, "Wherefore gay spirituality?" This asks about the purpose, the meaning, and the raison d'être of gay spirituality. It is a fundamental question, one that forces us to look at our own position in relation to the specific value or worth of a spirituality we may choose to call "gay." Why do we need this sort of spirituality, and what does it do for gay men that other, more traditional forms of religious expression do not? Implicit in this question is the sense that gay spirituality is a worthwhile thing, that it is something we need, care about, and, ultimately, that it is an integral part of our lives and communities--in sum, a reflection of our place in the world.
The second half of my question is somewhat more problematic, and therefore a bit more critical in outlook: "How queer can the sacred be?" This raises all sorts of difficult and interesting issues. It asks if the sacred can ever be "queer," that is, can it ever really include and honestly reflect the gay experience? After all, most forms of institutionalized religion are notoriously homophobic. Why should one of the key concepts of such religious traditions--that of the sacred--not be equally tainted and discredited, illegitimate in terms of its applicability to gay men, including its relevance in the context of a distinctively gay spirituality? More fundamentally, why should we even care about whether the sacred can be "queered?" Why not just do it, and thereby have it done with? This is exactly what some feminist scholars have done. "Why worry about a patriarchal god?" they ask. "Why not simply give the mother goddess her due?" Why not indeed? And so, I ask: Why not therefore give ourselves, as gay men, a queer god; a faggot god who resonates to our energy; a homoerotic god who turns us on? If we even need a god at all.
A note on my use of the term "sacred" might be in order. I see it in two ways. At a theoretical level, it refers to a construct found in most forms of religious thought. It is a category meant to help define and understand what religion is, precisely because religion itself uses it so extensively and frequently. This sacred gets translated into any number and types of beliefs, rituals, stories, and divine figures or images. This is the material that, as a sociologist of religion, I work with. A version of this sacred might be "the god without and above," as is found in the Christian tradition for example. In another sense, however, "sacred" can be much more amorphous and internalized. In this perspective, it becomes a form of consciousness, a way of looking at and understanding reality, whether personal or collective. Thus, "the queer sacred" really refers to the multiple ways in which we, as gay men, can learn to discern our experience, including our sexuality, as potentially spiritually meaningful and illuminating. This does not deny the compelling need some of us may have, however, for a sacred which is more traditional in its engagement with creator gods and the like.
When my book was published, a well-known closeted theologian had a highly unusual reaction to it. When I asked him what he thought, he refused to answer. Upon being pressed, he mentioned, somewhat angrily and to my surprise and subsequent chagrin, that he thought a fascist could write the same thing. It took me a while to understand what he was saying, once I got over the initial shock. What he was saying, I believe, was that he rejected totally my positive, proud, and defiant portrayal of gay life today, particularly the case I was making for gay culture as the manifestation of some religious impulse. For him, this was the same thing the fascists had done in glorifying their own discredited racial or political ideology. For this theologian, homosexuality (he would shy away from the term "gay") is above all a moral or ethical issue, because he fundamentally believes, as the Catholic Church does, that there is something inherently problematic about it. If it's a problem, then it needs correcting. It certainly isn't cause for celebration. Isn't it strange how heterosexuality is never spoken of as a moral problem in theology, though it is the source of a great many ethical concerns in our culture? That's what happens when you're the norm. You get to decide who and what the problem is. That's what happens when you're a famous closeted theologian. You can't really see how your being gay can be a source of joy and, most distressing of all, divine grace. Otherwise, you might have to make some rather uncomfortable choices.
I mention this theologian because, sad to say, his reaction is much like that of the Christian institutions of which he claims to be a part. I totally reject the discourse of "homosexuality-as-ethical-problem" so typical of most theological thinking. It is ultimately degrading, and any self-respecting gay man, especially if he considers himself a man of faith, must acknowledge this and refuse to buy into it. It also confirms what we already know about most religious groups, and not only the Christian ones: that the vast majority of them are both anti-erotic and homophobic. This is the real and persistent problem, particularly for minorities who choose to define themselves in sexual terms. If the language of these religious groups is so negative and condemning in terms of their perspectives on human sexuality, what can one possibly say about what, or who, they choose to call "sacred" or "divine." Isn't it equally tainted and biased? If Marx is right in his assertion that our gods are merely projections of ourselves and our interactions with each other, then these gods are problematic in the extreme, full of prejudice and hatred toward us.
This may seem dramatic, but as I tell my class in religion and sexuality: whether and how we choose to define our gods and goddesses as erotic beings has a great deal to say about us as a culture. Moreover, if these divine beings, or this sacred power, are seen as asexual, then there isn't much there that resonates in any real and tangible way with our own life experience, whether we be hetero-, homo-, bi-, or trans-.
The fundamental assumption of most forms of gay spirituality is that they provide positive and beneficial sources of healing, identity, and vision for gay men, and that they also act as powerful antidotes to religious oppression, at both the personal and collective levels. Within this paradigm, the erotic plays a critical and determinant role. It becomes "sacred," almost divine by nature. Because we are fundamentally distinguished from others by virtue of the object of our sexual attraction and desire, as gay men we possess a special understanding of the erotic. Above all, it is based on the salutary and defining power of sameness; it is defiantly masculine; and it includes the significant element of active receptivity, which is, I would argue, a fundamentally spiritual attitude toward life. Gay spirituality is about men who love men, and about how these men make sense of such desire, and celebrate it, in ways that are humanly liberating.
Gay spirituality consists of three inter-related elements. First, it acts as critical religious discourse. By this I mean that it provides a positive, and ultimately subversive, counter-interpretation to traditionally homophobic forms of religious language and belief by valuing the person and experience of the oppressed homosexual. Call it a form of liberation theology. Second, gay spirituality is grounded in, and should also give rise to, political analysis and engagement. In other words, it is an important part of the larger struggle for gay rights, a way of reclaiming our own past and our future equality with the majority. In this particular situation, religious institutions are the political battlefield. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, gay spirituality is proudly and brashly affirmative of gender and the erotic. It is an essential means of reclaiming, in the face of persistently puritanical and anti-erotic public posturing, the centrality of sexuality--in this case homoeroticism--to the human experience. Gay spirituality, in other words, likes to talk dirty, and it does so out loud.
There is a further dimension of gay spirituality that warrants highlighting. It can be argued that the sum of our experience as gay men, both individually and collectively, can and should be read as part of a spiritual phenomenon. Many believe that there is something transcendent, and in fact "holy" or "sacred," about who we are and what we do, and that we have a privileged role to play in the world and in history. Contemporary gay spiritual writers and historians have remarked on this. Much about us as gay men can give rise to a sense of "the religious" in our lives. Our struggles with oppression, our unique life journeys, our sad and funny coming out stories, our losses, our friendships, our sexual encounters and rituals, our so-called ghettos, our redefined sense of family, our political activism, our loud and proud celebrations, our marginal and defiant history, our dreadful encounter with the horror of AIDS: all these, and so much more, seem to summon us to a broader and richer appreciation of what can perhaps be called our vocation in the world, to a sense of wonder and gratitude about where we stand as individuals and as a community. It is precisely in this standing that one encounters what can ultimately be understood, and hopefully appropriated, as the sacred. Gay spirituality is, at heart, very much an existential necessity, a fragile question of survival. Other forms of marginal and marginalized spirituality are really no different in this regard. They all have to do with valuing and defending one's precious experience in the face of persistent negation and denial.
Gay spirituality, or choosing to see gay culture and experience as manifestations of the religious or spiritual impulse, therefore calls into question, in a very tangible and direct way, the monopoly of religious institutions over what is seen as sacred or holy. It places the sacred squarely on the margins, at the ever-shifting and fluid intersections between sexuality and identity, or between the erotic and the social. Most obviously, gay spirituality is a dual process of re-appropriation and re-affirmation: the former, because it is a deliberate strategy designed to counter religious and moral condemnation; the latter, because it is a discourse spoken from a position of self-acceptance and pride. Not all out gay men are religious, of course. But perhaps all out gay men could be seen to be carriers of the spirit in some oddly perverse theological way--"spiritual vessels," to re-frame and re-claim the old church language applied so negatively to women down through the centuries. Oppression, particularly when directed toward sexual difference, knows no frontiers.
The "How Queer"
The second half of my equation, or rather of my question, asks "how queer?" The first observation one should make is how contested the concept of "the sacred" is in the study of religion. The term is inherently problematic for a variety of reasons: because it still reeks of a certain Judeo-Christian flavor; because it denotes a subtle lingering theism; because it implies a duality distinguishing it from the so-called profane. While these may indeed be serious theoretical objections, the fact remains that the concept has passed into common parlance. Its value as a common frame of reference is therefore assured. When I ask the question "How queer can the sacred be?" what I am really asking is: "How far can we go in re-claiming our experience as gay men in religious terms?" In other words, is there, and should there be, anything preventing us, as gay men, from staking a claim on the ineffably holy?
One should not necessarily accept an independent existence to the presumably "sacred," since to do so would be to deny the very premise of any analysis of religion as first and foremost a human enterprise, a cultural activity created by women and men in interaction with each other. Because human beings traffic in the symbolic and the mythical on a daily basis however, as scholars we must contend with these realities, precisely because they make sense to human beings, and human beings use them to explain themselves and their place in the world. This is how we create meaning. This does not mean that we should locate this meaning outside ourselves, as though it had an autonomous, self-contained existence. We must adopt a critical stance of methodological atheism, as we should whenever we engage in any process of serious self-reflection.
The facile answer to my question is that, as gay men, we can really go as far as we want in re-appropriating the sacred. I say this for several reasons. First, anyone can lay a claim on the so-called sacred, except, of course, when religious institutions have already staked it out for themselves. Herein lies the crux of the problem. It is precisely when two conflicting approaches to the holy clash--one institutionalized; the other very much marginalized--that conflicts emerge and, more seriously, heretical condemnations are issued. The question then becomes how far one is willing to go in asserting one's right, and whether this includes, ultimately and hopefully quite symbolically, the enflamed stake.
Secondly, and this was raised earlier, we must ask ourselves quite honestly whether we even need such a contested theological category and artifact as the sacred. Increasingly, the loci of what is holy or sacred for gay men is being fixed within gay culture itself. In other words, it is what we create that is the source of our transcendence. Who therefore really needs something standing outside us, especially when this something, or, even worse, someone, is so intent on condemning us to perdition? Finally, I am concerned about the process of co-option. It is much the same argument I have with respect to the issue of gay marriage. When you want to be like them and play by their rules, then you permit them a judgmental gaze on you and your life choices, and that of others who are like you, "outcasts" all. Their power of normalcy now claims you. I'm not really sure gay men should or want to give up their marginal status as cultural and sexual gadflies, as religious outsiders and critics. There is a certain measure of self-protection in standing outside the circle, as much as it may irritate them and the gods and states they create in their image. This distance can be both a physical and a psychological bonus--a safe space--but it also carries an element of defiance and subversion, which is, I would suggest, what we should never, ever give up.
We need to turn the old sacred-profane dichotomy on its head, with all due respect to Mircea Eliade. It is really in the so-called profanity of our lives as gay men that our sacred is molded and lived out. We can call it sacred, that is, something standing outside us, but it is really our collective experience, our gay culture which is holy, and sacred, and transcendent, and the ultimate source of the numinous power and energy we feel when we celebrate ourselves as a community. It is precisely this that we must cherish and hold on to. Since the sacred is the mirror of how we claim our lives and places in the world as an empowered sexual minority, then it really stands inside us. It is really the gay experience, trans-historical and trans-personal, writ large, projected onto the heavens. The sacred is, in its very essence, us. I think Marx might agree, though he would no doubt cringe at the mention of the word "heaven." Let's just say that it's heaven on earth.
In sum, the sacred can be as queer as we say it is or want it to be. The adjunct, however, is that we must reject other, more traditional definitions of what is considered sacred. This means that we must deny, dispute, disparage, and decry all institutionalized forms of religiosity. They are all hypocritical, anti-erotic, and homophobic, because they all use us as convenient moral or ethical targets. The other equally important thing we must do is learn to see ourselves, our history, and our communities as truly sacred and holy, not in any explicitly religious way, but as manifestations of something larger and more meaningful than our disparate isolated lives. This may be seen as a fundamentally religious attitude toward life, but it is the only one that makes sense in the face of all that we have undergone, and no doubt still will.
I return, in closing, to my friend, the closeted theologian. I guess I was confused, if also a little angry, when he dismissed so readily what I had written. But I also felt pity for his self-imposed doctrinal closet, and sad that he was so intensely caught up with what is most assuredly a dying paradigm. That, I think, is what ultimately saves us as gay men, as sacred fags: this refusal to bend knee before false idols. The great Karl Marx would most assuredly agree.
Donald Boisvert lives in Montreal.
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Outside Looking In
Edward J. Ingebretsen
Forced to combat nature or the social institutions, one must choose between making a man or a citizen, for one cannot make both at the same time.
The strident tone in church pronouncements about homosexuality since the mid 80s (Catholic, but not exclusively so) indicates the extent to which previously accepted dicta on this topic are not, any longer, being listened to. Indeed, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston found himself in an extraordinary position (again) when he was asked to explain why Catholics shouldn't attend Gay commitment ceremonies. Afterward one young Boston Catholic remarked that the prelate was treated with respect because of his status, "It's not because many of us support him&endash;because we don't." That the cardinal found it necessary to address, at length and in public, something that has no legal nor canonical existence, is remarkable; likewise the student's comments are typical of a wide range of Christian resistance to previously unchallenged church authority on matters of sex and intimacy.
Homosexuality, in particular, is so central a crisis in modern Catholicism (indeed in Christianity more generally, as well)--that in some circles what one believes about homosexuality supersedes, in practice, what one thinks of Jesus, the crucifix, or other "Catholic" things. Cardinal James Hickey, formerly of Washington DC, made this precise point in 1997 when he criticized Georgetown University for permitting a theological discussion on homosexuality to be held on campus. Condemning the "too visible" homosexual presence at Georgetown, Hickey took the occasion to inveigh, at the same time, against the shortage of visible crucifixes on the campus. Hickey's remarks and Law's plaintive insistence that "anything else that calls itself a marriage isn't a marriage, from our perspective" underscore how significantly "the homosexual question" has become the loyalty test of the contemporary Catholic.
Even the Pope weighs in. Speaking from his Vatican balcony on the eve of the millennial year John Paul II decried what he termed the "offense" of homosexuality "to Christian values."' No surprise, then, that other ranking church authorities can speak intemperately about Gays. Knowing that they are backed by Rome, prelates can lash out at homosexuals in the clergy and decry the "homosexual-type Problem" that, they maintain, is the source of all church woe. Like baseball player John Rocker their violent rhetoric is guaranteed by a system of homophobia that sanctions such speech, even though it may not wish to seem complicit in it. The deflections fool very few.
Such public visibility has its consequences. A generally liberal American media have clearly enjoyed, and profited from, the public whipping of homosexuals by Catholic authorities--understanding such whipping to be high irony, coming from an organization that is popularly thought to be even more a bastion of homosocial life than the military. Both institutions come by their homophobia naturally, in other words, and in both the symbolic homosexual body, although tossed to the margins, is crucial to authority that has the most invested, it seems, in repudiating it.
Rethinking the margin
Marginal notes are often more interesting than the texts themselves. For one thing only on the margin can readers argue back against the text. A similar dynamic is at work in society. Margins--and the social boundaries they represent--are never secure. Indeed, the continuing loud rhetoric about the naturalness of gender (or sexual expression, or the characteristics of race--to name only three "set" borders) --demonstrates not their strength, but, to the contrary, how weak the borders are, and how they must be propped up at every possible occasion. Take one example: The perceived (feared?) collapse of gender and sex roles in the US during the last quarter of the 20th century partly explains why the shape and content of public intimacies are, through law as well as drive-by media, policed with such ceaseless vigilance.
Things we throw away or repudiate are as symbolically important as the things we keep and cherish. Margins, that is, are connected to centers --indeed, are necessary to defining the center. Contests for power rarely take place at the centers, there where no movement is possible. To the contrary, margins are the places of contest and challenge. Where boundaries can be approached from both sides, access to power is up for grabs and therefore the place of pitched and sometimes violent battle. For this reason the periodic redistricting of political wards causes such a stir.
Symbolic redistricting happens, too. The homosexual may indeed be "marginal" but no one should mistake this marginality as being unimportant. Margins never are. On the margins, old maps say, monsters lie. Indeed. Holding that boundary secure, staking the monster outside the civilized by policing approved social boundaries of gender or race or class is a fulltime civic task. Citizens are asked to perform this work every day. Read any newspaper. Listen to any sermon. Watch any news broadcast. "Uppity persons" or those who contest the socially-approved lines meet unpleasant social fates. Lynchings do not just occur down south, nor are guns and ropes the only weapons that can be used.
What is therefore so interesting about the intensity of church rhetoric about homosexuality is the way Christianity seems to be talking to itself about its own, historically verifiable marginality. Even John Paul's charge of "offense" was first used about the early Christians--whose marginality defined them as a community. Early believers were dismissed from the Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem on charges of blasphemy. Adherents to the sect were deemed so offensive that they were offered up to civil authority by Jewish leaders, who were eager to deflect Roman attention from themselves. With this precedent sent, for years the Christians would become the socially sanctioned, convenient victims of Roman civilization's imperial lust for violence. These "quintessential outsiders," as one critic calls them, provided the state with fodder to support a constant need to engage in social lynching; defending borders, defining and constructing imperial identity, then as now, is never completely finished.
If this sounds familiar to the social contests enacted around the homosexual in church and state, it should. Indeed, interesting comparisons can be made between gay persons and the early Christians: The first Christians were thought to be sexually promiscuous, subverting the society from within, dangerous and abusive to children. Read the Testaments, or the Roman historian Josephus. Such charges, commonplaces of the New Right, were already stale two millennia ago.
And if Christians were an offense, the founder of the sect was even more so. John Meier's titles his biography Jesus, a Marginal Jew. The argument can be made that Jesus's marginality was calculated, intentional. Jesus knew that there is no movement at the center, that one can only write back to established authority on the margins. Accordingly, the gospels repeatedly note how Jesus "called his disciples away" from the centers and towns, taking them alone into the desert; only there could they find spiritual freedom. Likewise Jesus directly confronted the Pharisees. Whited-sepulchers he called his religious leaders, dried bones. They were tombs, painted, showing where life had been, but no longer was.
Jesus's offense was self-chosen, a strategy not unlike Act Up politics. Offense was a teaching moment, and Jesus was, above all, Teacher. He let others claim the religious titles. The Scriptures portray Jesus as constantly giving scandal--evidenced in things he did and the people with whom he associated-- but doing so with ironic forethought. Blessed are they who are not offended in me, Jesus said--knowing full-well that he intended offense and that only the obtuse missed the point. Epiphany--what Christians would later call "grace"--is only possible when one is forced out of old habits, forced to review, revise, resee. Blind guides, he dismissed the Pharisees, for their resolute and systematic refusal to see, or accept, the scandal of the mercy politics to which he invited them.
"Blessed are you when they heap scorn upon you for my sake," Jesus told his disciples &endash; this time no irony intended. Jesus had reason to speak. Despite a Eurochristian sentimental whitewash, the historical Jesus was at best a religious renegade and at worst civilly lawless and criminal. The gospels tell us this if we read them right: Jesus was born out of wedlock, in scandal (Joseph thought to put Miriam away for the illegitimate child she was carrying); he lived a short life in public forcing provocation and causing offense. Jesus may not have died for our sins, as sentimentally we have it; on the other hand he surely died for his public affronts to Jewish religious authority.
If anything, the means of his dying compounded the scandal of Jesus. His death, was mors turpissiima, the most shameful of deaths, reserved only to the lowliest of slaves. (Nero used the cross --and Christians--to great effect, lining the roads to Rome with their burning bodies, blaming them for the great fire that devastated Rome in 64 CE.) So great a scandal was the cross that Paul, the Jewish convert, made it his first task as Christianity's front-man to smooth over Jesus's offensive reputation among the Jews. They were Jesus's own people, after all.
The Pope's remark about offense, then, tells as much about the church's own uneasy life on the margins of society as it does about the homosexual. So perhaps here, too, margins might teach the center: Perhaps there is something homosexual persons can tell Christianity about its own roots in scandal and offense--and thus about its potential for epiphany and grace. Statements of Vatican documents, inflamed pronouncements by church leaders, demonization by left and right in the Christian tradition: for something so unspeakable, homosexuality produces nonstop talk, polemic, shock, outrage, dismissal, repudiation. Why all this energy, one thinks, for something that isn't supposed to exist in the first place? Clearly the symbolic homosexual body--so deviant, so marginal, so, well, offensive--speaks to something deeply part of Christianity, and which domesticized Christianity has long forgotten.
And not only church. Homosexuality, despite its constant demonization by church and so much culture, is nonetheless crucial to the way each sets the boundaries of the "normal." Not only is it centrally important to Christian practice, as many critics point out; it also makes possible various civic fantasies as well. That is, the homosexual becomes a civic object lesson, or sex for sale, or even can be used to drive the lubricious pleasures of public deviancies (some one else's). Last but not least, where moralizing substitutes for morality, the homosexual fantasy body, in a kind of public show, makes money; homosexual persons, as object of straight gazes, in effect perform sex for a culture so in denial about its own sexual addiction.
More importantly, however, perhaps our offense is something deeper than cheap moralism or media voyeurism. Perhaps homosexual persons threaten because we ask churches and other institutions of higher morality--including political institutions--to divest themselves of ceremonial entombment and dead spirituality; we ask that they abandon an enervated, lifeless pursuit of power and teach, again, an interior life of freedom and grace. The truth, Jesus remarked, will set you free, even if it does offend your neighbors, your families, your state.
Perhaps, being outsiders so long, we know exactly what needs to be done. Spirituality has got to start here, on the margins, where the wind blows free and movement across boundaries is still possible. Come to where the freedom is. Make the margin, that place of trouble and offense, a place to begin. The original text of the Jewish-Christian testament begins: In the beginning the spirit of god "troubled" the waters. God saw the troubling was Good. Homosexual persons must take charge of troubling the waters again.
Rev Edward J. Ingebretsen teaches at Georgetown University. He was recently featured in an article in The Advocate.
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Gary T. Boswell
Faith is not belief. Belief has an intellectual certainty that is suffocating to faith. With belief we can know all, we can anticipate the Mind of God, we will know exactly what is required of us to reach a salvation, there is formula and resolution. Belief is limiting and stagnant. With belief our experiences are predictable, our very belief will stop us experiencing the mysterious. Faith is dynamic, playful, and mysterious. We are taught that the two are interchangeable, that the one leads to the other, that with faith we can have belief. Yes, belief will give us comfort, it will elucidate the meaning of life, and in it we will know from where we came, and the destination of this journey. It is much easier to live a life of belief than a life of faith. It's convenient because all our conditioning, our programming, has prepared us to relate to this life as a problem that needs solutions. It is intrinsic in belief to offer solutions. We want to fix it, and fix it now. I see people looking for the magic word, or phrase, that will answer questions that have no business being answered; what is the point of all this, why am I here, what is there to be achieved when death is certain? The expectation is that the answers to these questions will end the suffering, the uncertainty. Well they won't. They won't because the questions originate from an essential, instinctive unconscious. To ask these questions is essential, they are expressions of our ancient spiritual selves, but they must never be answered. They beckon and flirt with us, inviting us to take a peek over the wall, at infinity, at the incomprehensible. The questions are the relationship with the mystery; they require no answers, only our embrace. This inclusion brings a certainty that is not born of thoughts. This certainty is faith. This life ceaselessly reveals its mystery to us, and consistently we try to capture it, understand it, and define it. In doing this we kill it. Relationships are murdered in the pursuit to define love. Love is sibling to faith, as they are both natural responses to a mystery. We have captured love and now we can buy and sell it, we can withhold it to be punitive; we even write books instructing us how to feel it. It is no more enough just to love; now people want this love to give them something. To validate themselves, to give a sense of worth to their lives, in this way love becomes currency, we barter with this love, that began as an inspiration; and all to often becomes a means to manipulate a price from another, I love you therefore you owe me this... .
Faith is suffering a similar exploitation, as is love.
Faith and love can only exist when our need for resolution is absent. Our desires are the vehicle to faith. Here I mean the desire to be connected to this mystery of creation, we all have a need to celebrate, to dance. Even the most sceptic and cynical among us will take joy in the beauty of nature, a Magnolia tree in full bloom, or the way an angle of the sun's light in Autumn, illuminates our world with different shades of light, making the familiar seem new to our eyes. Here we can dance, here we celebrate, and we can take a moment to be in awe of the magnificence surrounding us. This is faith, this is love and yearning... this is mystery.
Our yearning, our longing for the mysterious experience-- is that very experience, now we fill it, and the yearning is gone, the opportunity is lost. We have come to learn that is the only way to accommodate the hunger; the only way is to sate the desire.
It is taught that desire is the root of all pain, but I think it is the pursuit to fulfill that desire, which is the cause of so much pain and disappointment. The need to be part of this inexplicable experience of life is beautiful and clean, when we can just be with it. Yearning, filled, has little value to the spiritual life, and much value to the intellect. With all the things I have accumulated to conceal my soul, I can use them to show the world my salubrity, I can teach these things, run courses, and my beliefs will define me, and they will be most of what I experience. When this happens, so much can be threatened, I can be in danger of losing something. If you do not agree with me I will need to protect, to defend myself against a type of annihilation. Wars are fought to protect beliefs; faith needs no protection. It is easy for us to confuse what we do with what we are. If we know we are not what we do, then we can learn, evolve into better ways of being. The surest way to lose something is to lay claim to it. So--don't fill the yearning. If we don't seek resolution to the longing what is left to do? Only to dance, celebrate and rejoice.
It is possible to love without attaching an object to love, to yearn without needing to justify the longing with substance.
Yearning is akin to faith. They are always leading us into different experiences. Faith in something is dead; yearning fulfilled, has nowhere to go. Faith is always with us, it cannot be enhanced nor encouraged, only accepted, it will knock on the door and we only have to let it in.
Many of us know the experience of looking at the newborn child, and feeling an overwhelming certainty in the trust with our regard for this wonderful creation of life, this is faith. Not that we have faith in this child, nor do we believe in our selves at that moment, we just know something of the mystery, it's indisputable, and just for a moment... this feeling is about nothing, and yet all of life has meaning, not a meaning we can articulate, just a certainty about nothing, but the purity of the moment.
When we are most intimate with our lover, just for a moment, before thought takes over, we fly with our yearning, a part of us never wanting to satisfy the hunger because this will portent an ending, but in that moment, before satisfaction, we are free and can truly dance. This moment we experience faith; there is no imposed belief, no expectation, just a certainty of the propinquity we have with all creation. So here we see that nothing can be imposed onto faith, it is that sacred moment that comes, uninvited, to remind us that we are children if this universe, and just for an instant, we sing with the angels, and we sing because we can do nothing else. Thus, faith is a spontaneous response to our unity with all of creation.
I understand that it is difficult for us to remain with this experience, which is like a type of ecstasy. Our intellect comes to the rescue, saying, "what does this mean, how can I use this, whom should I tell... " Here religions are formed, cults are created and systems of spiritual thought are fashioned. Our rational mind needs to harness this wonderful experience, to make meaning from something, that is essentially meaningless. I can anticipate your thoughts rebelling at the concept of this meaninglessness. I do not say it is insignificant or empty; it is not without value. Just, it is not an experience for the intellect; it is an experience from the most ancient part of us. This part responds to the beat of the drum and loses itself in the rhythm of the dance, this ancient inclination to transcend knowledge of the corporeal, and through our art we can taste paradise.
We are surrounded by systems of thought that have translated an original spark, into exoteric schools, theologies and methods of spiritual contemplation. Many become big organisations, directing their followers into ridged expectations and compliances. A type of spiritual elitism evolves. Now there are rules, regulations and dogmas. Where do we dance here? Even the words we sing must be approved; the method of rejoicing must conform to guidelines, now we must not offend the God. Where is faith here? Now faith becomes quantifiable, justifiable. There are methods to commune with the mysterious; rituals to perform that guarantee us union with the Godhead, now we can have belief in a system... and call it faith.
In fact, faith is obsolescent when we have formulas that promise enlightenment. Religious organisations cannot exist when the followers have faith. Many gurus would not be able to make a living if they allow their disciples to have faith. Faith, being spontaneous and natural, doesn't need direction or containment. It will find little expression in the inflexibility of religiosity. The first thing these gurus do is to destroy faith, and replace it with a belief in the guru, a belief in the guru's ability to transport the disciple to salvation, to enlightenment; faith is not necessary, just do what the teacher tells you.
The New Age Movement has come as a great disappointment to me. Instead of freeing us, it has just created new prisons, and regurgitated old methods and thoughts, with less style than the original. It's a selective regurgitation, ignoring the teachings of great masters. A new elite is created, and these practitioners know all about Karma; how it works and for what reasons. All past incarnations can be known, even as far back as antediluvian days. The experience of faith is not necessary here, too many auras to clean, charkas to balance, and friends and family to meet from China some hundreds of years ago. A common teaching of this new spirituality is that we create our own reality; I have heard this philosophy used to explain the most facile of occurrences to the most mysterious of experiences. A belief in this viewpoint will never create faith.
Faith, love and yearning are the most intuitive of experiences and cannot be created. They are gifts freely given, as fundamental to us as our sense of self. The simple and beautiful ideal of a faith, that is a response to the miracle of existence, cannot breathe with all this imposition, knowledge and expectation bearing down on it, stifling the beautiful into obscurity. Faith becomes passé, not neon enough for this new spirituality.
It is possible to have faith and intellect, within this one experience of life. The search for wholeness is a fallacy. It is impossible for all parts of us to be in integrity with each other all the time. How boring and tedious would we be, without the complementary existence of opposites within us? You know--we can feel one thing, think another, and action a result incongruent to both. The intellect is important, no less than the emotions, or the intuitive inclinations. In fact, much of what I write about faith can apply as well to the intellect. Without the intellect I would not be able to type this essay, drive a car, or communicate with my peers. The trick is to allow them equal status within us. This requires us to have a more accepting relationship with ourselves, and to be tolerant of the diversities that makeup who we are. Faith can coexist, uncontaminated, with an intellect that needs to question and define. We need to know that the one has not, necessarily, got anything to do with the other. They can both dance in us. It is when we give one inclination elevated status over the other, that there will be casualties. When we stop the search for wholeness, and enjoy the rich diversity that we are, the compulsion to impose intellectual definition and explanation onto the mysterious, will cease.
Gary T. Boswell, a former Catholic seminarian, is now a psychotherapist in private practice in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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The Lone Rangers Among Us
Hi-yo Silver--away!" Hardly the last gasp of a celebrated celluloid cowboy. Yet, John Reid, the masked rider in TV's "The Lone Ranger," came within inches of losing not only his life, but his spirit as well.
It was Tonto, Reid's Good Samaritan, who nursed the Texas Ranger back to health following a desperado-led ambush that left all five of Reid's ranger buddies dead.
A selfless act of heroism by one man produced an unshakeable alliance. As Scripture tells us, "Two are better than one... If the one falls, the other will lift up his companion. Woe to the solitary man!" (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10) The trusty Tonto pointed the way to a transformed Texas Ranger. Reid's nickname no longer fit. The "loner, do as you please, I like it that way" persona faded in the sunset. We can imagine Reid was all the better for it--emotionally, spiritually, and personally. Reid now had a definite purpose in life--avenging the deaths of his posse buddies and righting wrongs throughout the Old West. Could he have accomplished those feats without the support of another?
It's been my experience that men do need other men--and not merely to weather a crisis or satisfy some professional self-interest. Men need other men to serve as mentors and comrades in life. They crave the camaraderie and vital connection, and yes, acceptance that males--and only males, are able to give. Yet our impersonal, profit-driven, dog-eat-dog world undervalues, even outright dismisses this innate human need deep within men's souls. As a result, many of America's Joes, Jims, and Jasons have become the archetypal "lone" rangers feeling alone, frustrated, frequently friendless, and figuring "That's just the way things are"--but, do they have to be?
The absence of male support has made it especially tough for single guys struggling to maintain moral integrity, personal responsibility, and purity in their lives. The pitfalls of loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, not being special to someone else--all of these can, and often do, drain men of purpose in life. They can even cause inner conflicts over masculine identity, self-image, and self-worth. Many guys discover their interminable ache of unconnectedness with other men triggers bouts of sexual compulsion, narcissism, depression, and even unhealthy anger.
Yet, in all of this, our institutional structures, the places we would think would be most adept at pulling men together in ongoing fellowship--our churches--have either failed or not gone the necessary distance to bolster men's connectedness. There's been benign neglect within the Church to create genuine, relational revelry, or just plain flin, among our male memberships. Consequently, men are left to their own devices, to be their own cheerleaders in fighting the fires of isolation and alienation so common today.
Scripture tells us to assist our neighbor and to embolden him to "be of good courage," in every way possible. (Isaiah 41: 6) Yet, the culture teaches men in subliminal, sometimes overt ways, to white knuckle it, not to reach out and, if anything, to look out for number one--and never, never telegraph the need for male companionship and long-term friendship.
This independent streak men are told to adopt flies in the face of God's creative intent for our lives--to be social, to be compassionate, to "love one another" in tangible ways. St. Paul insisted that to flilfill the law of Christ, brothers had to "help carry one another's burdens." (Galatians 6:2) However, men are lulled into thinking that intimate relationships are simply a female frontier, that men just don't nurture intimacy amongst themselves--and if they do, it undermines their masculine identity, and even invites undesirable homoerotic feelings.
Is there any wonder, then, that some therapists have claimed a major cause for men's empty, wounded feelings has been the absence of praise and physical affection from dads and/or the lack of affirmation from peers while growing up? These male personality deficits coupled with the realities of a disintegrating nuclear family (more kids living apart from their fathers) have only compounded the problem. What remains is more loneliness and sadness among youth. For single guys, the sting of perpetual boredom weekend after weekend while living life on the periphery of the family culture, causes further desolation and hopelessness
Yet families--including the married men within them--stand to gain greatly by opening their homes and hearts to male single adults, a new extended family. The sporadic, but blessed moments when I have been invited into a family's inner circle, great joy and mutuality have resulted. Couples witness first-hand the benefits singles can offer them and their children--as surrogate cousins, uncles, even grandparents to kids in need of healthy male role models, as people offering varied interests and perspectives for teachable moments, and as people with more flexible schedules that can help out in a pinch.
In return, singles can achieve a greater sense of belonging; possibly, a family to spend holidays with, a restored zest for life, and reassurance that they do count and are appreciated. These kinds of arrangements have potential for enriching families and singles alike.
However, including singles in the ordinary events of families isn't the only way in which men can connect in wholesome ways. Simply encouraging men to get together, to be together--on a regular basis, with no strings attached--can strengthen the spirits and lives of married and single alike. These get-togethers needn't be formal, nor task-oriented as in a club or Bible-study (in fact, those types of groups rarely promote male relationships with any substance or longevity). The best get-togethers are simple ones, such as eating a meal, celebrating a birthday, playing cards, or organizing spontaneous sporting activities among men. The goal is to have fun. To play. To enjoy the sheer pleasure of wholesome male bonding. No heavy issues to discuss. No agendas. Just plain old-fashioned fraternity. Men in the company of other men. I've tasted some of this delightful camaradery in the past, and there is nothing more affirming, emotionally stabilizing, and freeing then men being real to other men and interacting in healthy, supportive ways.
Again, our churches could be the catalysts for transforming many lives for the better through these healthy partnerships. It's not an easy task, but a crucial one for men who feel alienated, and who seek relief from their "developmental deficits," mistrust, and disappointments with some males. Many guys will have to learn and relearn the skills necessary to maintain reliable, steadfast, and mutually interdependent relationships with other men. They may even have to reorient their thinking--be less defensive and more open-minded, and more self-giving--for the phantoms of unfounded fears, easy excuses, natural tendencies to resist change and, last but not least, the "coach potato" syndrome ("I'd rather veg out in front of the television") all pose formidable challenges to the quest for legitimate male bonding.
As a friend of mine so aptly put it in one of my exasperated moments, "Guys play it pretty close to the vest. We're not gushingly emotional; we move slowly... You make friends by becoming a man who isn't concerned about what he needs, but what he can do for others." Coincidentally, the original TV lone ranger, Clayton Moore, had as his #1 tenet in his Lone Ranger Creed, the maxim "To have a friend, a man must be one."
The ultimate exemplar of male friendship is Jesus Christ. He lived the solitary life-- celibate, but sociable; sensitive and undeniably loyal to those around Him. Wherever He went He radiated love--unconditional love--like no other human being. Many of Jesus' own disciples were single men who learned the importance of brotherhood and the vital need for interdependence and staying connected--and for more than just a season. These men were friends of Jesus. Jesus was their friend. He's our friend always. Christ proved this by submitting to the cruelest of deaths--agony on the Cross. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses the importance of being there for our brothers: "Encourage one another daily while it is still today, so that no one grows hardened by the deceit of sin." (Hebrews 3:13)
The story of David and Jonathan in the Book of Samuel is another striking example of genuine fidelity and brotherly love. In his treatise on Spiritual Friendship, medieval monk Aelred of Rievaulx describes the outcome when David comes under attack from Jonathan's father, Saul, who was king of Israel. Jonathan didn't shrink from his moral obligations. Aelred writes, "Putting himself at the service of his friend, [Jonathan] offered help and advice in his time of need... In his great love, this young man kept faith with his friend. He was steadfast in the face of threats, unmoved by insults; forgetting renown, he thought only of service. He spurned a kingdom for the sake of friendship."
Lone rangers have learned to be realists. We don't expect "perfect" friendship in life. We do expect men to look beyond themselves, to consider the needs of another--to widen the company of men for the benefit of all.
Schu Montgomery lives in Kentucky. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Gender at the Margins
I am a man. My body and those who've interacted with it tell me so. History, myth and popular culture tell me so. My lover tells me so. But I did not always have such clear and accomplished supporters to reassure me. From the start it was really only my penis that made the doctor and my parents know. I was a male. But at my second birthday party something happened that made my mother's heart leap, first in joy and then again in fear. My Father, even before he could recognize or make sense of the feeling, began his deep grieving for the chip-off-the-ol'-block, the little man, the fishing buddy, quarterback-to-cheer-for and follower-in-his-footsteps that he knew would never be.
Mother had assembled a number of adoring relatives as well as a few uncomfortably dressed-up neighbor kids and their mothers to revel in the second celebration of my birth. I actually remember it. I wore a pale blue-and-white striped seersucker sunsuit with white sandals. The night before, mother had tied the ringlets into my hair with my own little white socks. I remember how sometimes they were too tight and pulled my honey-colored locks as I lay down to sleep. My father joked that I resembled a dustmop and silently hated how I looked like Shirley Temple when they were unfurled in the morning. The day he took my hand and walked me to the barber for a "man's haircut" he was branded as the enemy and probably never triumphed in a skirmish over me again. The female militia that was charged with my protection and guidance was ever more attentive and determined to prevail. I was my mother's child and all the family's angel and promise for the future. I was pampered and fussed over and made beautiful, even as my father (the least likely, according to his father, to produce an heir) sat handsomely aside and drank and brooded. Still, on that sunny June day, he brought me outside and lifted me onto a stool at the head of a long table. Huge and beautiful gifts, balloons, streamers, party hats, and pretty paper plates sprawled before me like fallout from the most spectacular cake ever. It had a carousel on top with horses and two big candles for me to blow out after the assemblage sang the song to me. But, as they began, so did the heat in my throat and eyes, the heat that happens still, even at the recent 50th singing of the song. I backed into my father's strong arms as the song progressed and the tears spilled over, hot & silent. "Happy BIRTHday dear..." and they sang my little name! I convulsed and began to sob and could not blow out the candles. My father picked me up and tried to hold me closer to them but I could not blow and clutched at him to save me from this infamy. The aunts and mothers ! said, "Awww" and thought it was cute that I should cry as all eyes and affections were on me. Probably, only my mother knew what it meant. Fourteen years later she wrote me a letter for my "Sweet 16." It says, " I hope you don't choke and cry any more at the cake, candles and "Happy Birthday" like you did right from your second birthday. I take that back, my sweet boy. Don't ever lose your sensitivity and tenderness, but don't let it rule you either, because then you not only hurt yourself but everyone you love and more important, everyone that loves you." That is what she said and how she said it. That was the last I ever heard from her.
I do not mistake that her strong affections and the dominant women who slandered my father's hopes are somehow at the root of my sexuality. I believe that some very female part of them simply recognized a "sister" the moment I was born and because of the unfortunate presence of that penis they knew they would have to protect me from how hard all of life was going to be for me from then on. Years later both my birth father and the uncle who raised me (with his wife and his own three daughters) made show of their pride in their son for company. Still all the while they ached to have me choose guns and toy trucks, not dolls and decorations; to play baseball, not jumprope; to discover a natural gift for auto mechanics or carpentry, not the theater and dance. Their "boy" would not sustain the requisite gender identifiers that had served them throughout life.
There were things of maleness I naturally enjoyed. Ironically, the Boy Scouts taught me self-sufficiency, survival, strength, decisiveness, linear thinking, responsibility to self, the community, and the earth. I loved and learned well the lessons that came from rivers and forests, patient and fatherly scoutmasters and even boyscout peers. This was not always true in the classrooms, the playground, gym class, my neighborhood and home. But now and then Ms.Nature made sure that that penis was not a mistake. I love to drive a truck with a 5-speed transmission and use power tools whenever I can. She still does.
I made two beloved male friends in High School. They were both heterosexuals. One shunned me forcefully and broke my heart when I offered to join the Navy with him because I loved him. The other remains my most trusted and forgiving friend thirty-some years later. He has forgiven me when I couldn't. He has saved my life with his caring heart. He has been my link and role model for masculinity. His often harsh, linear, sometimes mysoginistic, caring and always manly ways have taught me to have sympathy for the poor straight man who must blunder through the enigma of the opposite gender. With her he must date and mate, partner and then create and solve the problem of living as one. He taught me too to love him as just another human, no better or worse, who must face what he is given with only what he has been given.
He and I built a small cedar house, well... shed shortly after his carpenter-father died. We used the old man's tools and spent several August weekends hammering into the night and proceeding on a path we'd shunned in our fathers' lifetimes. We found knowledge we'd absorbed from them despite our youthful rebellion and a profound pride in what we'd built and how hard we'd worked. We stood back with our arms around each other's shoulders when it was finished. With sawdust in our hair and tears for our fathers' sakes creeping out of manly eyes we knew we'd honored them with the temple of cedar that stood before us. We were good sons and brothers and as if to belie our sexualities, we were two men, and partners in love.
My first gay lover, whose name and occupation were the same as mine, taught me how to surrender to love and be a man on my back. I learned to use my penis as proof of my love for him and, at last, my entire masculine prowess, my gender, my love and my sexuality shared time and space with one kindred soul. After that affair ended and many years later when he died and had remained a soulmate of mine throughout, I rested in some faith that there was a good reason for life and that real love could not be tainted by any combined sampling of genders.
It was heterosexual men again who rescued me when AIDS decimated my peers and left me in New York City with a deflated career and a community made of lust and fear, brittle facades and desperate grief. My blessed gift as an actor had been humiliated by shallow sissies and insulted by mouth-breathing public masturbators who peopled the front row. I hated and feared all things gay and for the first time hated that I was gay as well. I could only set my sights away from that festering city. I headed for home and prayed that I could nest in some new idea of what sort of being my gender made me. I became marginally active in the "mythopoetic men's movement." I made myself available to strangers once a month where I met with a majority of non-gay men in a non-competitive environment where every man was free to talk as all the others listened. I learned about the Native American "Berdache" archetype and read Walter L. Williams and Randy Connor's scholarly texts. I spoke to that listening majority and told them of the love between men I'd known. I spoke from my heart and was humbled by their attention. They came to me afterward and in small councils to talk with a "faggot." Some knew no other term nor had ever known they might have crossed paths with one. Face-to-face with me and with other gay men they risked opening themselves. I talked to them about the women in their lives. They were confused and curious because it was the image of a man that told them to listen to what the women are saying. "Hopefully, somehow it is, 'I love you.' When was the last time you told her that? She is a different gender, a different animal. She may truly need to hear it from you. You may need to say it. Maybe often. How much does it cost you to say it?," I'd say. Soon truckers and cowboys and accountants who'd never touched more of another man than was required to shake his hand were hugging me, pelvis and all, some with tears of thanks. One man came out in a small council and thanked me for mirroring the truth of ! him. One man fell in love with his wife all over again when he listened to her for a month. The straight men taught me my purpose as a gay man. To stand between and serve both genders with knowledge of each and the other.
I am an instinctual homemaker. I know the smell of baking food at its peak of perfection. I swoon when the timer rings, the oven opens and I breathe in hot cookies or banana bread. Drapes possess me. I bond with fabric and revel in every shadow in velvet or highlight in silk as it drapes or pools or lies near the windowlight or across my thigh. I bathe with oils and rosepetals taken from a special covered dish by the "Cleopatra" tub. I crochet by the fire in my floor-length velour robe and shed tears over the beauty of my mother's teacups in the china cabinet in the afternoon sun. I still laugh at Lucy until I cry. I glean ideas from Martha and Christopher and entertain at the drop of a hostess gift. I dish with my sisters and the men I know in town. I use baby powder liberally on my shoulders. I own a skirt and wear it at secret times. I want to heal and nurture and sometimes surrender to a higher power, be the weaker one but never surrender my will or freedom. Sometimes I give my partner precisely what he wants. He tells me he's never seen such a balance of genders in one man. Sometimes I bend and feel no need to be stronger than the storm.
There cannot be more proof to me that humans are of three or even four genders. Lesbians too possess another rare and distinct balance factor as a group. Or if by degree, how many millions of genders could exist from transvestite to transgender, hermaphrodite to amazon woman or bimbo to Cro-Magnon man? How many shades of androgony are there?
Now I know that I belong to at least one gender grouping. We are sexually identified and express to varying degrees the balance of the genders that bred us. With a vision of both sides we hold a place in culture and civilization that is rare and elevated, as are diamonds and the instants stars are born. We pay for that. We are, some of us, blessed with different puzzles than a non-gay man faces with his women. (Some believe it is the way God meant men to be). I am a physically strong man. I know my job in the world as a strong man. I smile or wink and remain mysterious to flirting women. I spin kids around like an airplane when they ask or give them a push on the swing. I am boyish and "helpless" for mother-types. I help ladies change tires and carry groceries, let them go first and call their handyman when their washer goes out. I know my job as a man. I provide an old lady an arm so she can get closer to the big band at the USO hall. She wants to dance with me... the young man of her dreams. I hold her as she might have been held back then and sway in the timeless light that shines from the bandstand. And another time a sixteen-year-old boy is exploring his sexuality with me. He asks so many questions. I tell him what happened with me when I was his age and that he must love whatever is really himself very well before he can love anybody else, truly, at all. I send him off to find another sixteen-year-old to play with and I smile. Soon he'll be his own man. He may always need a dad. But he's already free enough to make his own choices. He won't need to ask dad questions much anymore. He is a male. He will be a man.
Ted Senecal lives in Washington. Email: email@example.com
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