Monday, May 23, 2011

Boys Like Us

As surely in our spiritual lives as in everything else, we’re social creatures. We don’t live in isolation from each other, but in community. This is true even for hermits in the remotest retreats: the solitude they’ve chosen is meaningful only in relation to a spiritual tradition they’ve absorbed and embraced.

Imagine any ritual you might adopt to enrich your inner life–even the simplest one you create and perform alone as part of a personal practice. It’s grounded in a community you’ve experienced. Go into a shrine alone and light a candle. You expect it to be seen by those who arrive while it’s still burning. Maybe no one will show up in time, but they might, and you have faith that, if they come, they’ll get it. Light the candle at home where no one else will see it. The community is still there, because you carry it around inside you.

Ritual involves the “I” that chooses to express itself in action, but it makes no sense if it doesn’t also involve a “You”: I do this thing because it makes sense to you as well. If you’re absent, then I imagine you there. Perhaps you participate; perhaps you just stand in witness. Or maybe you’re a little puzzled and I have to explain it to you–but with as few words as possible. Nothing kills ritual like too much abstract talk. Better I should invite you to join me, with some faith that we share enough in common that you’ll get it.

So what knits queer men into a community? Can we envision a practice of ritual that grows out of what we share, expresses it, deepens it–and brings us a richer life as individuals as well?

We spend big chunks of our lives out of touch with each other: in the closet before we come out; at times when we choose to “pass” (or maybe have no other choice) in heterosexist workplaces, social gatherings, public events, family reunions, and less-than-welcoming religious institutions. Plenty about our own individual identities separates us from each other, too: race, class, looks, language, age, physical ability.

We seek each other out, in the first place, because of the sheer power of desire. I don’t know of any better illustration of that than Peter McGehee’s wonderful, funny novella Boys Like Us, set in Toronto during the late 1980's. The main character Zero and his friends live lives of rich, flexible connection as they struggle to support one another through the burgeoning of the AIDS crisis. And the novel is unapologetic in celebrating a core fact of the history that holds them together: that nearly everyone in their circle has at some point slept with almost everybody else.

We don’t all experience oppression in the same ways, or to the same extent. But it’s safe to say that all of us experience it, and we’re kidding ourselves, despite any advances of the last decades, to say that we don’t. So we gather to create a space where we’re not the shunned outsiders. We don’t always do such a great job of respecting one another’s diversity within it. But my sense is that we’re getting better and more sensitive about acknowledging and celebrating how we’re different from each other as well as what we have in common.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to take these basic facts for granted about how we come together in sometimes patchy, intermittent experiences of community. If we’re searching for ways to express who we are, as individuals in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t community of queer men, we’d better keep erotic desire front and center in the rituals we adopt, adapt, or invent. We’d better pay attention to the experience of oppression and stay sensitive to how one man’s experience of living on the outside is the same as another’s, but how it’s different as well.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to focus on a third aspect of what we share: our ability as members of overlapping sexual minorities to offer each other support, affirmation, dignity, and hope in and through our flirtations and our sexual encounters, sometimes in circumstances that you’d think would more likely lead to mutual exploitation. Michael Rumaker captured this vividly in his experimental chronicle of 1979, A Day and a Night at the Baths.

I’m not suggesting (alas) that this means queer men’s ritual community ought to be a non-stop festival of erotic interaction. I’m saying we need to make sure the rituals we adopt and create don’t lose track of how eros draws us together; of how our resistance to oppression gives us common ground, amidst our differences; of how the desire we share with one another has potential to become a channel for deep grace, to remake our lives for the better.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fucking Miraculous

This weekend, I’ve been writing a paper about the nature of community among queer men; about how it shapes what kinds of authentic, meaningful ritual we can devise for ourselves and one another. I wanted to talk about gay camp: about how we simultaneously throw ourselves into an experience and stand back to evaluate, lampoon, and critique the very values we seem to embrace. So I reached for my copy of Tony Kushner’s ever-astonishing Angels in America.

You can find a YouTube clip of one of the play’s most moving scenes, in the HBO version for television that stars Al Pacino as Roy Cohn and Meryl Streep as nearly everyone else, at

During Part Two, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg has been keeping vigil by Cohn’s hospital bed during the last hours of his life: she’s haunting him in revenge for his role in her execution during the McCarthy witch hunt. Immediately after Cohn’s death, the drag queen/nurse Belize charged with his care at the hospital summons Louis, a disaffected gay Jewish leftist, to say Kaddish over the body--ostensibly to give Belize an opportunity to smuggle Cohn’s private stash of experimental AZT (the year is 1985) out of the room for distribution to PWAs with no access to treatment.

Louis protests, in keeping with his leftist principles, that he will not recite the commemoration of the dead for Cohn; he then adds that in any case he can’t remember the prayer. Giving in, he stumbles through the first phrases, halts, then begins limping through half-remembered tags from the Shabbat blessings, from the Sh'ma.

Ethel’s ghost rises from her chair in the corner of the room to coach Louis phrase by phrase through the long Aramaic text. At the last "Amen," Ethel adds, and Louis repeats, "Yousonofabitch." Loading the stolen drugs into Louis's backpack, Belize responds, “Thank you Louis. You did fine.” Louis responds, “Fine? What are you talking about, fine? That was fucking miraculous.”

The line brought down the house both times I saw the play. And it’s as good an example as I know to illustrate something said by Ronald Grimes, a leading scholar of contemporary ritual theory. “Ritualizing” Grimes observes, “is not incompatible with criticism, nor a sense of mystery with iconoclasm, provided self-critical actions are embedded in ritual itself.”

What’s more, the scene from Angels is a wonderful example of the astonishing ways that gay camp builds up layer upon layer of meaning. When Louis delivers his astonished quip, “What are you talking about, fine? That was fucking miraculous,” the miracle is revealed to the audience as unmiraculous because we see Ethel’s ghost coaching Louis as neither of the characters onstage sees her. Yet on another level, it remains a surreal marvel, if not miraculous in any theological sense, by the sheer fact of Ethel’s ghostly presence.

But most importantly, it’s truly miraculous not because it’s a paranormal marvel, but because of the profound recognition of common humanity that Ethel in this moment of closure manifests towards the man responsible for her execution decades before. In this act of forgiveness, in which the evil that Cohn did is not ignored but transcended, the scene thus offers a powerful foreshadowing of the protagonist Prior’s direct address to the audience in the last scene of the play: “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you.”

And finally, the transgressive edge of queer experience is aggressively foregrounded. Louis’s prayer isn’t just miraculous, but fucking miraculous, at the deathbed of a demonically powerful, hypocritical bully fallen victim to a disease transmitted by fucking and being fucked.

Camp isn’t just a touchstone of our culture as queer men. It’s an extraordinary resource as we grope for symbols, actions, and words that speak to the deepest Truth of our lives that lies beyond all capacity to express.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Love Upside Down

In 2004, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia did what Anglican church meetings do interminably, all over this sorry-ass world: it debated "the problem of homosexuality" as a matter of principle. The usual bland, specious forbearance and fake charity of the discussion depended on the usual shameful fiction: namely, that delegates were arguing about abstract beliefs, not about the treatment of a sizeable minority of people within, or shut out from, the Church–and surely, especially given the fact that this was, hello, a gathering of Anglican priests, within the ranks of the delegates themselves.

Then the Rev. Dr. Steven Ogden, at the time Dean of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide, got up to make from the floor a motion he thought surely everyone could countenance, for a resolution that gay and lesbian people were fully welcome in Anglican congregations. He was jeered down by hecklers, while the majority of delegates sat spinelessly silent.

As he talks about it in a new book, Love Upside Down: Life, Love, and the Subversive Jesus, the experience clearly became a defining moment in his personal journey from an ethics of abstraction to an ethics based on love for the irreplaceable worth of others–and a journey to the radical left of the Australian Church. He writes as a fellow traveller who gets it: that sometimes the Church is the people of Israel on their way out of Egypt; but sometimes it’s Pharoah’s army; and sometimes it’s just the Red Sea that you’ve got to get across.