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.

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