Thursday, February 23, 2012


At right, ash paintings by members of the Wellsprings collective, Church of the Redeemer, Toronto, March 2011

I hate Lent.

It’s a magnet for much of what’s worst about the Christian tradition: the individualistic moralism; the wallowing self-accusation, as though that were of itself a virtue; the willful refusal to acknowledge what’s good and right about our lives, and not in need of rescue. Virtually every time I’m asked to participate in a public litany of private wrongdoing, my heels dig in. I’m not unaware that I screw up, massively, in my personal life. But the platitudinous catalogues that usually get rattled off in penitential liturgies can’t possibly access the specific ways I’ve been less generous, less compassionate, less loving, less just, than I want to be (and that I believe I’m called to be).

At the same time, despite their public performance, these rites rarely get to the heart of what repentence at a systemic social level might mean. So get back to me when the Roman Catholic bishops go down without hesitation on their knees, every last mitred one of them, to beg forgiveness from the survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy; or when in a public liturgy Americans repent of standing by passively while our elected government has waged pointless, brutal, and unjust wars for a decade; or when Canadians confess our shameless exploitation of the environmental riches that national rapacity has proven all too finite.

My disaffection as a gay man is all the deeper because the language that gets used in these services inevitably conjures up too many years of hearing it used like a blunt instrument of homophobia. On the very fine website, Out in Scripture (, writing about the Bible readings for Ash Wednesday services, Dierdre Hinz observes, “We have to be very careful when we speak of repentance in relation to the LGBT community. Some have internalized the negative and oppressive views expressed in cultural, political and religious realms. Others may blame themselves for not being more vocal or outspoken in response to these views and their attendant policies.” Douglas Abbott adds, “Repentance for the LGBT community has historically been an indictment of sin. Being called to repent and then being denied an opportunity to experience forgiveness within a faith community is the reality many LGBT people endure.”

And yet, there I was this afternoon, kneeling in front of a woman who invited me to remember that I’m dust, that to dust I shall return, and pressed home her point with a smudge of black ash applied with her thumb to my forehead. She made the rounds of the twenty of us who were there: the cancer survivor, the toddler in the arms of her mother, the diagnosed cancer patients, the nine-year-old twins on either side of their father.

Paradoxically, I can embrace Ash Wednesday itself without deep reservation, precisely because it’s there to remind me, in community with everyone else present, that mortality is the most basic fact of our lives—that we aren’t here forever, that we aren’t self-sufficient, that everything we use to ward off the admission of our fragility in fact gets in the way of living the life we’re given.

Strangely, this gesture that might seem grim and relentless almost always feels to me like one of the most intimate and loving connections that people can make with one another through ritual, precisely because of its unflinchingly honest mutuality. This afternoon, the pressure of the officiant’s thumb above my eyes gave way to the warmth of her palm laid briefly and gently on the side of my head as she finished delivering her reminder that someday I’m going to die. Herself the last among us to receive the sign of ashes, she accepted them from her own daughter.

As for the next six weeks, I could easily give up church for Lent. Except that there’s no telling when something as simple as a pinch of ash may break through all the piously masochistic shlock and wake me up to embrace more fully the real nature of the life I’m called to live.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Servant of the Dance

Martin Luther King holds up his booking number. The bars of a cell in Birmingham jail are visible behind him—except where the nimbus blocks them out. The mug shot is an icon; the icon a mug shot.

A naked man sits cross-legged on the floor of a cave, beating a drum, flanked by Neolithic pictograms on the wall behind him. His moustache and tightly curled black hair suit him to a dance floor ca. 1980; the enormous horns protruding from his forehead do not. Nailholes are visible in his hands and feet. He is Lord of the Dance: the Christ transcending time, at once archaic Horned God and Castro Clone.

Two men embrace in Roman military garb, staring out toward the viewer with serious attitude, despite their lavender cloaks: the lovers Sergius and Bacchus, martyred in the fourth century in the hope of being reunited in heaven; another pair of early Christians in the Roman army, Polyeuct and Nearch, cling to one another more tenderly.

Harvey Milk holds a candle in darkness, and is also accorded the visual trappings of a saint’s veneration—as are Rumi, Mohandas Ghandi, and Albert Einstein.

These and dozens more images are the work of Robert Lentz, OFM (Order of Friars Minor, a.k.a. the Franciscans). The grandson of Russian immigrants to Colorado and reared in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Lentz trained as a painter of icons in the late 1970’s. Since then, his art has celebrated the presence of the Holy both within and far beyond the Christian tradition, among the poor and oppressed, among the socially despised and culturally marginalized, among the visionary and subversive.

Above left, Robert Lentz’s icons of Martin Luther King, Lord of the Dance, Polyeuct and Nearch, and Harvey Milk, all courtesy of the distributor of Lentz’s images,Trinity Stores,

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Songline of Albert Nobbs

“Each Ancestor, while singing his way across the country, was believed to have left a trail of ‘life-cells’ or ‘spirit-children’ along the line of his footprints…. What you had to visualize was an already pregnant woman strolling about on her daily foraging round. Suddenly, she steps on a couplet, the ‘spirit-child’ jumps up—through her toe-nail, up her vagina, or into an open callus on her foot—and works its way into her womb, and impregnates the foetus with song.”—Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, p. 60.

Whatever else happens at the Oscars this year, I’m praying that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for Albert Nobbs. Close in the title role carries a contained, inward energy that’s unlike anything else in her phenomenal career, playing a middle-aged woman who’s passed as a man in Victorian Dublin since her mid-teens in order to escape misogynistic violence and poverty. What the nomination doesn’t recognize is that it’s Close’s vision and persistence over many years that brought the picture, based on a short story by George Moore (d. 1933), to the screen at all.

What neither her nomination nor Janet McTeer’s clarifies is that the film blows apart the categories the Oscars use to pigeonhole performances in the first place. “Best Actress” almost inevitably implies a leading man; but that’s Close. Janet McTeer plays Hubert Page, who in befriending Albert opens up the possibility of a life s/he’s never dared dream of. One of the miracles of Close’s performance is the way the joy of that realization pours out of her even as she maintains the self-containment upon which her livelihood, and her very identity, depend. The miracle of McTeer’s performance is the amalgam of steel, cheek, and deep compassion with which Hubert meets Albert. McTeer is neither Actress nor merely Supporting: her performance as another woman passing as a man amidst the rigid sexual conventions of nineteenth-century Ireland deserves Best Actor.

The inadequacy of the Oscar categories points to the fact that, more fundamentally, the film also messes up any easy language we might use to describe these characters’ gender positions. To understand either of them simply as transsexual doesn’t adequately get at who they are. Albert is indeed the role he’s played for decades; and yet he remains very much a woman hiding her gender for practical more than for internal reasons, even as he flourishes in embracing the dream of taking a wife and setting up shop as a tobacconist with the savings he’s scrounged as a hotel waiter.

Hubert passes as a man after leaving a straight marriage to an abusive drunk and subsequently finding a wife of his own. It might be easier to label him transsexual; yet when he comes out to Albert, it’s by exposing his breasts, and he shares his “real” feminine name as an act of fuller disclosure. Hubert’s relationship is maybe closer to a classic lesbian butch/femme paradigm; except that here too, his choice of gender has in large part to do with social pressures as a force external to his core sense of himself.

“Our wedding,” Albert says to the young maid he courts, “will be a great wonder.” They never marry; she gets pregnant by another member of the hotel staff, who’s encouraged her to game Albert shamelessly. Her lover is a beautiful young wastrel and another abusive drunk in the making. In the end, both he and Albert disappear from her life. But months later when Hubert meets her again and lifts the baby out of her arms, she’s named the child Albert. As wrenchingly sad as the ending of the film is, it’s also filled with a fragile and luminous hope for the future, encapuslated in the fact that Albert is indeed, by a miracle of queer love, the ancestor of this child, the progenitor of the possibilities of his life.

Our ancestry as queers, the lineage we need to make sense of who we are in the world, is very rarely a matter of biology. We lay active claim to our ancestors by choosing to recognize a lineage less palpable than sperm meeting egg, but no less powerful in gifting us with the conditions that have allowed us to become ourselves. Among the many wonders of Albert Nobbs is its encouragement to look into our own stories for the songlines we’ve inherited, apart from the order of “nature,” from men and women whose traces are scattered over the landscape of the queer past.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

If Memory Serves

I’ve just finished reading a recently published, forcefully critical look at the progress of queer theory: If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, University of Minnesota Press, 2012). It questions the ways that some very influential work in the field has deemphasized history and memory in our understanding of gay culture. I won’t here get into an elaborate summary of its academic arguments.

But the key point of the book has really gotten under my skin: the authors’ claim that we’ve developed collective amnesia about the AIDS crisis, a post-traumatic refusal to remember. We not only fail to remember the crisis. We’ve forgotten along with the crisis the strength of the culture that an LGBTQ coalition built to respond to it. And even more profoundly, we’ve repudiated the sexual revolution that built post-Stonewall gay culture in the first place. But the authors aren’t just lamenting the loss of a past that’s over and done with. More importantly, in forgetting the past, we’ve also cut ourselves off from precious resources for imagining and living toward a queer future. In our amnesiac flight from mourning, we’ve also fled what they call “the promise of the queer past.”

Maybe their argument hit me so deeply because I’m 56 and just spent three weeks in San Francisco, my first extended stay there since a hip replacement told me forcefully a couple of years ago that my life’s not the same as it used to be. If you need cheering up, this post isn’t for you. I’m going to begin with grief. And I claim the right of the drama queen to take you on a tour of my lieux de mémoire.

This trip to San Francisco, I stayed in an apartment a five-minute walk from the bed-and-breakfast I settled into in September 1986. I took my first walk along Castro Street in the company of a younger friend with whom I’d flown up the coast from San Diego. The street was thick with the likes of us.

Ten minutes’ walk in the other direction, somewhere south of Market along Duboce stands the building where I first met the gentle, intelligent, gifted man my young friend had just fallen in love with, six months later when he was newly moved to the city.

Back around the corner from Castro on 19th, in a house whose address I've also forgotten, is the apartment into which they later moved, where from visit to visit I witnessed, as in time-lapse photography, the progressive deterioration of my friend’s lover, diagnosed very soon after they'd found each other. T. would stay with him to the end; he took to kissing his beloved’s KS lesions as they lay together evenings on the couch. Meanwhile, he’d find sexual recreation at Blow Buddies, reassured that everything he indulged in there fell within current safety guidelines; and would subsequently sero-convert as a result of those safe(r) excursions, an exception to the harm-reduction rule.

Just north of Market, across Church Street from the Safeway, stands St. Francis Lutheran, which I wrote about earlier this month. I’ll quote these lines from that post: “I first walked into St. Francis in 2000…. As the Gospel book was carried in a very short procession into the middle of the congregation, everyone turned to face the reader… and then crowded from the pews into the central aisle, hands laid on shoulders in a web that knit the whole assembly into a single body with a living voice at its center. And I lost it.”

Inbound on Market Street, for a scant decade beginning in the mid-80’s, a black door opened onto a safe-sex space known simply by its address as the 1808 Club. It offered clear rules of engagement (lips above hips, and not even the appearance of penetration) that headed off the awkwardness of negotiating limits with prospective partners; ample lube and paper towels everywhere one turned; a series of spaces that flowed easily and invitingly into one another, allowing for cordial connections and cordial disengagements, but giving little opportunity to hive off into pairs or groups impervious to others as they passed by.

Camaraderie prevailed; and sometimes blossomed into something for which camaraderie is an inadequate label: a liminal state in which mutual desire and the gifting of pleasure offered something more--a time and space for meeting the Other, a recognition of the Other’s intrinsic and irreplaceable worth, an affirmation of the self in relation to that Other—an opening into a relation of I/Thou; a performed faith that the transcendent dwelt in one’s own flesh and in the flesh of those one touched. (Here too, as at St Francis Lutheran, at the best of times, an assembly was knit together into a single body with a living voice at its center. And I lost it.)

Maybe I'm just letting advancing age get the better of me, but it’s hard for me not to say, as I wander through these sites of memory, it’s so over. We wanted an army of lovers, and we’re preparing to settle for the right to marry, seduced by the very opposition that still vociferously contests that self-evidently domesticated and hardly revolutionary goal. We wanted an army of lovers, and we settled for the right to bear arms in service of a country whose foreign policy has successfully combined brutal imperialism with spectacular fecklessness. We wanted a world of playful, positive, joyful, healing sexuality, and instead we got ManHunt and Grinder. We wanted ecstasy, and instead we got Ecstasy.

What I feel now isn’t the grief of a man who spent ten years watching his friends and lovers die around him, and sometimes in his arms: for the most part, I inhabited the hinterlands of the health crisis, and if anything, I carry a half-suppressed guilt for the fact that I remained so insulated from the depths of raw personal loss. Instead, I feel grief for the world that those who died longed to build—mixed with guilt that I failed to risk more, when I had the chance, to build it with them.

They were aiming for a world, as Judith Butler puts it in Undoing Gender, in which we’re undone by each other—and if not, as she goes on to ask, what’s the point? They sustained themselves on possibility, if we remember how partial and momentary that world's inbreaking remained—for, to paraphrase Butler once again, possibility isn’t a luxury, but as crucial as bread.

To move from abstracted and not very sexy language back to my places of memory, to be clearer about what I’m trying to work out here, these are a few moments of Grace: my friend Tom kissing the KS lesions of his dying beloved; the ashes of several dozen men who (whatever else one might or might not know of them) had probably lived lives to enrage the religious right, lovingly and reverently placed below inscribed paving stones in the garden of a small Lutheran church; the whimpering gratitude of a man surrounded by a knot of more or less anonymous jackoff enthusiasts. They’re moments of Grace not because they speak to some essential core of human nature, or somehow express a deep truth of what human sexuality is intended to be, but because they were a response to emergent possibility as we chose to be undone and remade in relation to one another.

If you share any part of this grief for your own fragments of the queer past, we share the recognition that we’ve lost a web of connections. Butler would also remind us that to grieve is to acknowledge that we’ve been touched, and in the experience of being touched been transformed and thrown off center by the presence of the other.

I long now for that decenteredness: for the sense that, whatever our lives meant, the promise they held out had to do with what they meant and might come to mean together--that we were, indeed, in Butler’s sense, undone by one another, thrown off center, left not the same and not complete within ourselves. I long for the crowding together of the whole congregation into a single body—whether to hear the Gospel in the midst of Mass, or to hear the equally good news of the sanctity of flesh proclaimed by half a dozen men sheltering a comrade through his experience of ecstasy. The memory of T.’s brave, edgy experimentation--supporting his lover through terminal illness and at the same time taking affirmative responsibility for the cultivation of his erotic self--seems a fragment of a world of vanished possibility, lost as we’ve rushed to reassure that most tyrannical of addressees, the Undecided Moderate, that we want nothing more and nothing other than what s/he would want—marriage, military service, ordination—if s/he hadn’t had it all the time.

And yet—I don’t view grief for that world as a negative experience. I wouldn’t anaesthetize myself if I could. Memory goes hand in hand with desire, and desire points not just toward the past, but (as Castiglia and Reed point out) toward a future we can only partly imagine. What I’m asking myself now, more than anything else, is, how do I, how do we, lay claim to a future that’s worthy of the brave, loopy, risk-embracing past, the past that includes Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter, includes Magnus Hirschfeld and Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin and Harry Hay and Thom Gunn and Keith Haring and Michael Callen?