January Links Roundup: Writing Magic

Happy new decade, readers! Many links have been collected over winter break for your enjoyment. I have only two resolutions: do my tiny part to roll back fascism in America, and finish the f*%$ing novel.

Writing for West Branch, the literary journal of Bucknell University, Kathryn Nuernberger reviews five recent poetry books under the heading “The Poetics (and Politics) of Spells”. Among them is the new collection A Sand Book from one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ariana Reines. Nuernberger examines how these books use techniques of ritual and magic, such as litanies and astrological concepts, to create poems that are a written artifact of a transcendent spiritual experience. Poems drawing on marginalized traditions like Vodou can also function as protection spells against racist oppression.

Fashion is another type of embodied ritual with a political dimension. At the literary journal ANMLY, the Issue #29 feature “Queering in Plain Sight: a folio of queer fashion” gathers creative writing and artwork that explores the frontiers of self-presentation. From editor Addie Tsai’s introduction:

These delightful, fierce, inimitable, and unapologetic contributions transcend the lines between genre just as we transcend the lines between gender, sexuality, aesthetic, and style. What we queers make of our bodies and community is how we insist on our own existence, then and now, especially in a world that works tirelessly to erase us, in small and large ways. The marvelous work included in this folio embraces all the layers of hybridity, just as we do. We are collages of our own making, in cut and line and color and seam and material and shade and skin and body. Sometimes, stitching ourselves to one another through the patterns our bodies make is all we have to get us through each year, each day, each moment.

I’m still reading this folio, but so far, I was especially struck by Miriam Bird Greenberg’s creative use of punctuation and line breaks to surprise the reader with multiple meanings, and Antonius-Tin Bui’s intimate yet glamorous genderqueer photo portraits.

It often seems like the mainstream image of queer style is a slender, tomboyish, young, white assigned-female-at birth person. Those folks are very handsome, no doubt, but the rest of us who don’t fit that body type can feel at a loss for personal style options. On the blog of clothing brand Qwear, founder Sonny Oram’s feature “9 Plus Size Cuties Share Tips for Androgynous Style” showcases larger butch and femme folks of different races who put together eye-catching looks from a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” pieces. Ree Melanen has inspired me to hunt down some vintage sweater clips as an alternative to my bowties and bolo ties. Personal shopper and stylist William “Beave” Brooks shows that you don’t have to give up pinks and florals to be a fine-looking dude. Check out Anastasia’s vintage clothing shop Androgynous God on Etsy, too.

The beleaguered Left in the age of Tan Dumplord is doing what it does best, blaming the most vulnerable members of its constituency for distracting the electorate from issues with supposedly broader appeal. Yes, I’m talking about the dangerous nonsense that is “gender critical feminism”, a cosmetic re-branding of transgender-exclusive radical feminism (TERF-ism), which is especially on the upswing in the U.K. In a still-timely 2018 piece at Tits and Sass, a journalism site written by and for sex workers, Juniper Fitzgerald lays out why “Gender Critical Feminism Is Fascism”. Both movements divide society into “us and them”, and evoke a mythical past characterized by a purity that we have lost.

The alliance between “gender critical feminists” and the alt-right has been forged on mutual bigotry: hatred for trans people and sex workers. “Gender critical feminists” are willing to sacrifice access to medical care, abortion, and self-determination in their alliance with the alt-right for the sole purpose of harassing, doxing, and generally inciting violence against trans people and sex workers.

Historically, factions of white feminism have flirted with fascism, from the overt racism of the Suffragists in the US to the Christian Temperance Movement here and abroad…

…While the alt-right conjures up mythic pasts that are entirely race-based and, of course, racist, gender critical feminists rely on myths about their own oppression. This is where their hatred for trans women and their hatred for sex workers intersect—in order to maintain the illusion that patriarchal oppression is solely rooted in genitals, secondary sex characteristics, and reproduction, gender critical feminists must create fantasies of “real” women and “unreal” women. According to gender critical feminists, trans women are not “real” because of secondary sex characteristics,while sex workers are likewise “unreal” because we complicate the notion that sex and reproduction are patriarchal tools for controlling women.

Certainly, the fact that we live under a heteropatriarchy is undeniable. And of course the sex industry, like all industries under heteropatriarchy, operates in specific ways on account of existing under oppressive social systems. But gender critical feminists argue that sex industry workers perpetuates these oppressive social systems, which is akin to blaming low-wage laborers for capitalism.

Moreover, this purposeful scapegoating of the sex industry makes sex workers the barometer by which “respectable” feminists measure their own “purity”: real women don’t hurt other women, gender critical feminists imply. Real women, real feminists, should starve to death before giving a commodified blowjob. For the cause!

Looking back at another period of crisis, Lambda Literary’s article “Will We Survive the 1980s?” excerpts an essay by Bay Area writer and critic Steve Abbott (1943–1992), one of many talented artists of his generation lost to AIDS. In this piece, Abbott surveyed the tremendous progress in gay rights and visibility since Stonewall, but worried that his community would be nearly erased by the twin forces of the epidemic and consumerist assimilation. Was autoimmune disease the symbolic fruit of generations of internalized homophobia, the self turned against itself? The cure is not only medical or political, but spiritual and ethical:

To fight AIDS and the conditions that threaten us, we need more than scientific research, more than money, more than leadership. We need to rethink America’s spiritual, political, social, and cultural systems at the most fundamental root level. How do we use power? How do we use language? It is clear that what we are doing now—as bosses and workers, as men and women, as gays and straights, as whites and non- whites—is killing us all. And as we project these attitudes onto other species and towards the Earth’s ecological system, we are jeopardizing our very planet. I would argue that today we can no longer afford to see anything—not even “gay liberation” or our survival—as a separate issue needing a separate cultural, political or spiritual agenda.

This does not mean I intend to renounce my sexual orientation, far from it. Even in times of sadness or loneliness, it remains my greatest source of strength and joy. But if my sexuality is a social construct, I can change how I think about and act on it.

“Gay is good” doesn’t have to mean what I used to think—that I need a lot of sex or a lover to be happy. Nor need it mean the opposite—stoic celibacy. It can also apply to how I center and balance myself, how I choose and nurture friendships, how I support my community. And when I consider or have sex, can I change how I think about it—to admire, share, and enjoy beauty without trying to use, own, or consume it? Pleasure is good but we are not objects. And contrary to what fashion, ads and some songs suggest, neither are we just images or toys.

In work and play, how can I free myself from the hype of competitive stress? Can I learn to accept and find joy in the present moment, even when it’s not what I might prefer? Can I continue to take risks, to redefine myself? Can I wake up from sexism, racism, ageism, and careerism without becoming obsessed about being “politically correct?” Can I set and fulfill goals, while still allowing spontaneity? In short, can I take my energy glue out of the worry/fear/consumer trap?

What is the right amount of hedonism in response to oppression–enough to affirm that you have worth and deserve joy, but not so much that it becomes the opiate of the masses? One of the many things that jerks my chain, when Mother’s Day comes around, is the proliferation of “wine mom” gifts and cards in the supermarkets. One of our family members died of cirrhosis this year, so I have an extra reason to fume at the suggestion that a bottle of Merlot is your reward for another year of selfless emotional labor.

In this 2016 article at Quartz, Kristi Coulter observed that “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink”. She details the places that have been invaded by compulsory boozing: the farmer’s market, the mandatory workplace mixer, the movie theater, the yoga studio. It’s absurd but infuriating too.

I’m newly sober and dog-paddling through the booze all around me. It’s summer, and Whole Foods has planted rosé throughout the store. Rosé is great with fish! And strawberries! And vegan protein powder! (Okay, I made that last one up.) At the office, every desk near mine has a bottle of wine or liquor on it in case people are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to one of the well-stocked communal bars we’ve built on our floor. Driving home from work, I pass billboard ads for Fluffed Marshmallow Smirnoff and Iced Cake Smirnoff and not just Cinnamon, but Cinnamon Churros Smirnoff. A local pharmacy, the same one that fucks up my prescription three months in a row, installs self-service beer taps and young men line up with their empty growlers all the way back to Eye & Ear Care…

…The longer I am sober, the less patience I have with being a 24-hour woman. The stranger who tells me to smile. The janitor who stares at my legs. The men on TV who want to annex my uterus. Even the other TV men, who say that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” What the fuck business is it of yours whether it’s rare or not? I think.

The magazines telling me strong is the new sexy and smart is the new beautiful, as though strong and smart are just paths to hot. The Facebook memes: muscles are beautiful. No, wait: fat is beautiful. No, wait: thin is beautiful, too, as long as you don’t work for it. No, wait: All women are beautiful! As though we are toddlers who must be given exactly equal shares of princess dust, or we’ll lose our shit.

And then I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. But for being so easily mollified by a bottle. For thinking that the right to get as trashed as a man means anything but the right to be as useless.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about my family of origin, but they deserve props for not having a culture of alcohol use to distract from their problems. My bio mom only used liqueur to flavor baked goods. Those Calvados pancakes were top shelf.

Ah, Vandermint… why did they discontinue you?

Chapbook Reviews in Brief: Holmes, Lisowski, and More

Have you ever entered a contest you didn’t win, received the winning book from the sponsor, and said to yourself, “Yeah, they’re right, I have to up my game”? That’s how I feel about Dead Year by Anne Cecelia Holmes, which was my reward for entering the Sixth Finch poetry chapbook prize. (Dead Year was published in 2016, so technically we weren’t competing head-to-head; grab your copy before it goes out of print, since it’s not listed on Amazon and the “excerpt” link goes to an error page.)

Every poem in this chapbook is also titled “Dead Year”, demonstrating how grief seems to stop time, trapping you in endless ruminations or numbness. This is confessional poetry without a confession: the trauma that has unmade the speaker is never specified. Early on, perhaps reading myself into the text, I thought of infertility or miscarriage (“Unbelievable how we stretch/in our skin day after day.//How I never say when I am/a mother into the mirror”).

However, the point of the book is not literal autobiography, which would enable us to distance ourselves from the agony by pretending it doesn’t apply to us. Holmes aims to dissect the process of unbecoming and remaking the self after any event that calls into question our whole way of living as a body among bodies–specifically, as a woman:

Since I am female

I am like a pet
and try to swallow a man.

Perhaps this makes me
a villain but think of it

more an act of devotion.

But this is not, after all, merely a story of stagnation. The speaker’s immobility, her refusal to be prematurely reassembled into legible personhood, reveals itself as an act of furious resistance that burns brighter as the book progresses. (“Okay/hurricane, make me/a skinless girl…/I shape my mouth/into a poison halo/and rain.”) The later poems more directly address a “you” who (we infer) is somehow culpable for the indescribable event. In the last poem, this anger seems to be propelling the speaker up and out of her sojourn in the underworld.

It is the end. I hope
you know that.

When I stick my
full self inside

the year nothing
but my fire ring

blasts through.

It takes chutzpah to dedicate a poetry chapbook about Lizzie Borden to your father. Zefyr Lisowski went all-in with Blood Box (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), her unsettling re-creation of the much-debated murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother. The family home becomes a cursed jewel that the poet holds up to the light, examining each facet through different characters’ perspectives, but finding only distortions and sharp edges. It’s a claustrophobic setting worthy of Shirley Jackson, where the menacing tension mounts but is never resolved by exposure of its true source. Lisowski is less interested in solving the mystery (the book is bracketed by the poems “If I Did” and “If I Didn’t”) than in limning the many influences that press down on the characters like a coffin lid in Mr. Borden’s funeral home. As Lizzie’s sister Emma says bitterly, “I’m in constant//pain. The minister says, ‘God is all around us.’/Tell me. Who could require more proof than that.”

We subscribe to the monthly mini-magazine True Story from the journal Creative Nonfiction, and if you’re an aspiring essayist, I recommend that you do too. Each chapbook-sized issue features one narrative essay, fact-checked by the editors. The pieces generally braid autobiographical reflections with larger cultural themes and a thumbnail history of a special topic suggested by the personal anecdote. This format would scale up quite well to a book-length memoir: a subscription to True Story gives you a useful series of case studies in nonfiction narrative structure.

Some of my favorite recent entries in the series:

Heather Sellers, Where Am I? (Issue 27) draws connections between her face blindness, “place blindness” (difficulty navigating even familiar locations), and growing up with a mentally ill mother. I saw so much of myself in this essay. It was validating to see common patterns and have a role model for struggles that my mother and I both faced. (My mother would need help getting back from the restroom to our table in a restaurant we visited every month, and the last time she drove a car was the day she got her license, sometime during the Nixon administration!)

Renata Golden, Bought and Sold (Issue 30) is subtitled “A history of lies and broken promises”, as exemplified by the boondoggle housing subdivision in the New Mexico desert that her father bought into in the 1960s. She describes how the US government, real estate speculators, and railroad companies wrested Western lands from Mexicans and Native Americans, then cheated working-class Americans with promises of cheap “uninhabited” land. This chapbook would be a good addition to a high school American history curriculum.

Ander Monson, My Monument (Issue 33) is a humorous and wistful tribute to the 15-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that he installed on the lawn of his suburban Arizona home. Monson, the editor of the avant-garde online journal DIAGRAM, riffs on impermanence, neighborly ties, the seven wonders of the ancient world and the modern wonders of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

Reiter’s Block: DECADE in Review! 2009-2019

July 2009…

…November 2019.

Greetings, loyal readers! It’s been a decade to remember. As my 30s segued into my 40s, I changed my gender, pronouns, religion, and pants size; fired my abusive mother; adopted Lord Bunbury, the cutest boy to ever eat a quarter-pound of lox in one bite; and published five books of sad poetry and smutty fiction.

Julian says, “You just get better with age, darling.”

Biggest Decision of 2019: Starting HRT.

Since October I’ve been taking low-dose testosterone in gel form. (I know, I know, real men shouldn’t be afraid of needles…) Not much visible change yet, but I feel very handsome and full of creative ideas.

Speaking only for myself here–you don’t have to do anything medical to be a “real trans”!–bringing my subjective sense of masculinity into objective physical reality via HRT has felt like an act of magical manifestation. I grew up in a home dominated by gaslighting. Maintaining my inner truth against constant assaults was exhausting. Being trans sometimes feels that way too. If my womanhood falls in the forest but everyone still calls me “Ma’am,” does it make a sound? My little bottle of Love Potion Number 9 gel is something I can point to, a fact in the world, a self-affirming decision to be myself outwardly and not only in my fantasy life. It tells my younger psychological parts that we’re finally safe to come out of the closet (and give away those uncomfortable high heels).

Happiness Comes in a Pill: For the first time in my life as a congenitally anxious person, I’m also taking Effexor, a mild anti-anxiety drug. The main benefit is that I sleep more deeply and have vivid dreams that seem meaningful at the time. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I dreamed I was re-creating the Bloomsbury Group out of Lego. Thanks a lot, Carolyn Heilbrun.

Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf.

I Wrote Some Stuff: I participated in the Center for New Americans’ 30 Poems in November fundraiser again this year, writing more strange poetry for a new chapbook. It’s not too late to contribute to this great organization that provides literacy instruction, job training, and naturalization assistance for immigrants in Western Massachusetts. Visit my sponsorship page here.

In addition, my poem “psalm 55:21” won the local category of the 2019 Broadside Award and Glass Prize from Slate Roof Press. The award was $250 and publication as a limited-edition broadside. You can read the winners on their website.

Young Master Update: His Nibs earned an orange belt in Tae Kwon Do this year, switched his allegiance from Pokémon to Minecraft, and learned to read chapter books on his own. (Shout-out to the “Captain Underpants” book series for making one of its main characters gay in the last installment.)

Fractions, Mommy!

We undertook a perilous trip by plane (me) and car (Daddy and Shane) in an April snowstorm to visit Shane’s birth mother in Wisconsin, where she was hospitalized for liver failure. Sadly, Stephanie passed away this August at age 45. She lives on in his happy-go-lucky personality, mechanical skills, and love for the arts and animals.

Stef and the Bun in October 2012.

Highlights Reel: With some trepidation, I have combed the Reiter’s Block archives for posts from the past decade that I still agree with. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how passionately (and dickishly) I defended beliefs that let me down in the end. But as Julian would say, you can only wear the clothes you have. Some people grow up by learning from failed love affairs. My method was to throw myself fully into the best available worldview at the moment, searching for an ethical foundation and a compassionate space where I could discover myself. What if I’d known about FTM transition in 1983, or demisexuality in 1997, or trauma theory in 2006? Well…I didn’t. Here’s what I did instead.

2009: I was really preoccupied with how to be a Bible-believing yet gay-affirming Christian, because I still had faith that good theological arguments would make a difference. Sigh. If this is your jam, check out the posts “Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives” and “Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty”. Also, my most ambitiously insane chapbook, Swallow, was published by Amsterdam Press. Now out of print; email me for a copy.

Swallow

2010: More gay Christian angst. I noticed the questionable respectability politics of some gay-affirming theology in “The Biblical Problem of the Prostitute”. Seriously starting to wonder why writing as fictional “Julian” felt autobiographical: “Straight Women, Gay Romance”. Marched in Northampton Trans Pride as an ally. Didn’t blog much that year because secretly coping with failed-adoption trauma and abusive mom meltdown. Another chapbook published: read the title poem in the post “‘Barbie at 50’ Wins Cervena Barva Poetry Prize”. Also received Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship in poetry. Misery has never stopped me from being productive.

2011: I went no-contact with my mother, and shortly thereafter, mom-of-choice Roberta left her as well. I was still under the social workers’ microscope in the adoption process so I barely posted anything about my personal life on the blog. In September, Stef contacted us through our adoption website, and the rest is history. The series “Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 1: Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology” and “Part 2: Obeying Jesus Without Knowing Him?” is the culmination of 5 years wrestling with the gay Christian issue, and in retrospect, already shows the de-conversion that I would take several more years to admit to myself and others. I also gave myself this advice on my 39th birthday: “Every five years, you will completely change your mind about something important, so don’t be a butthole to people who disagree with you now.”

2012: Welcome, Bun!! I blogged about why “Adoptive Families Are Queer Families”. In other news, the title story of my eventual debut collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes won an award from Bayou Magazine. I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. I turned 40 and wrote a three-part roundup of the books that influenced my youth.

2013: Is it gender dysphoria or is it sexism? Less filling, tastes great! I battled cultural expectations of femininity and motherhood in “The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and ‘Selfishness'”. (Thanks to Bun for sleeping through the night at 6 months old, so I had the energy to string sentences together.) I self-identified publicly as a child abuse survivor for the first time in “National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Why It’s Personal”. In “Imitation of Christ, or Substitute Savior?” I questioned whether it’s possible to write a “Christian” novel without romanticizing codependence. In “Framing Suffering: Survivors, Victims, and Martyrs”, I began asking the church to consider liberation theology from an abuse-survivor standpoint–a project I’d ultimately drop after recognizing its basic incompatibility with mainstream Christianity.

2014: I dyed my hair red. Many boxes of books were given away, with “Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014” surveying how my beliefs had changed. I wrote a series on Survivors in Church: “Between Covenant and Choice”, “Our Spiritual Gifts”, and “Insights From Disability Theology”. But it became evident that I had to leave church altogether: see “The Priesthood of All Survivors”. After 6 turbulent years, I finally finished an acceptable draft of the Endless Novel a/k/a Two Natures. To celebrate, I got a tattoo.

2015: I began studying Tarot, as described in “The Spiritual Gift Shop: Or, Living in Syncretism”. My second full-length poetry collection, Bullies in Love, was published by Little Red Tree. In “The Hierophant or the Ink Blot Test”, I explored where accountability can be found in a self-directed spiritual practice. I met Elisabeth Moss, who played my favorite character on “Mad Men”! The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage equality. I won $1,000 from Wag’s Revue for a poem about buying a plastic dick. (No wonder that was their last issue.)

2016: Two Natures was published by Saddle Road Press! I blogged about why I write explicit sex in my fiction (“Sex God”), and the pros and cons of the radical feminist critique of Christianity (“Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: Cross Purposes”). I tentatively came out as genderqueer in “Nonbinary Femme Thoughts”. My story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”, a semi-autobiographical tale of painful setbacks on the road to adoptive parenthood, won the New Letters Prize for Fiction. However, the year ended badly for the planet with the election of Tan Dumplord.

2017: Our storage unit raised their prices, so we let the lease expire and brought back a truckload of memorabilia to Reiter’s Block HQ. Some of my archeological finds are described in “Killing You in My Mind: My Early Notebooks”. I self-diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. The Aspie community’s acceptance of finding emotional qualities in “inanimate” objects (“Autistic Pride Day: Everything is Alive”) paved the way for me to study Magick. I took charge of the Young Master’s religious education with a family trip to NecronomiCon Providence (“The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus”). I killed off my menstrual cycle with the Mirena IUD, ending three decades of disabling chronic pain from endometriosis (and, as it turned out, gender dysphoria). Our high school had a collective reckoning with the #MeToo Movement on our alumni Facebook page.

2018: My debut story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes was published by Sunshot Press, an imprint of the journal New Millennium Writings. Adam and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I took an online course from anti-racist group White Awake about decolonizing our New Age spirituality (“Problems of Lineage and Magic”). Christian feminist author Emily Joy’s Lenten journaling workbook Everything Must Burn helped me process my spiritual trauma. I regret that I didn’t write to Dr. James Cone before he passed away, because our church small group was passionately inspired and challenged by his book Black Theology and Black Power. (I was embarrassed to imagine that he’d say, “Well, light dawns over Marblehead, white ladies!” Centering my own feelings like a typical whitey…) For the same class, I did a 40-day Bible journal (“Daily Bible Study Is My Problematic Fave”) and tried not to laugh at evangelical prayers like “invade me with your burning fire”. (Okay, I didn’t really try.) But it helped me get through losing one of my best friends. “Drawn That Way: Finding Queer Community at Flame Con” recounts my trip to an LGBTQ comics convention for research on the Endless Sequel.

2019: I did another purge of books and clothes that didn’t spark genderqueer pagan joy (“Facing Literary Impermanence with Marie Kondo”). As more research for the Endless Sequel, and let’s face it, to buy gay erotica, I attended Queers & Comics at the School of Visual Arts (“Mama Tits, Pregnant Butch, and More”). I considered the symbolic appeal of Satan and Cthulhu for spiritual-abuse survivors in “Two Varieties of Post-Christian Experience”.

In the year ahead, I hope we can elect a Democratic president and reverse course on the imminent destruction of democracy and the planet. Beyond that, my goals are the same as before: Be more trans, do more magic, lift more weights, write more words! Thanks for traveling with me.

December Links Roundup: If You Loved the Three Musketeers, You’re Gay Now

As the wishy-washy, late-blooming trans boi that I am, I’m always looking to retcon my queerness to bolster my self-belief. Remember that time I cried at “The Student Prince”? Yeah, that totally predicted that one day I would wear a lot of leather vests.

Intense crushes on swashbuckling, flamboyant, imaginary men were a defining feature of my childhood. Decades before teen girls aligned themselves as Team Edward or Team Jacob, I was dramatically undecided between Gene Kelly’s D’Artagnan and Errol Flynn’s Earl of Essex.

Transition goals.

Get you a man who can rock these Renaissance booty shorts.

So I was delighted by Sylas K. Barrett’s recent piece for fantasy fiction press Tor.com on “Queer Heroism in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Without insisting this is the only or intended interpretation of the famous tale of male bonding, Barrett revisits the text to discover appealing transmasculine and gay role models in Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their headstrong young friend from Gascony.

As a result, it’s easy for a reader to sort of slip into the role of d’Artagnan; he’s a blank-slate hero for you to graft onto yourself. As someone who was assigned female at birth, I found particular freedom in imaging myself as d’Artagnan, because I could never let my emotions fly the way he does, and act as rashly he does. Not only does d’Artagnan get away with all his daring, impulsive moves, he always ends up doing something amazing, and getting praised for it…

I wanted to be recognized as a boy, to be mentored by the male teachers I looked up to. I never had that belonging in my real life, but through d’Artagnan, I had a way to imagine that I did, a young man living fearlessly in a world of men, striding through life and swinging my, erm, sword around at anyone who dared look at me sideways.

D’Artagnan has a ridiculous amount of personal and professional success, starting the book as an unemployed nobody and ending it as lieutenant in the Musketeers. But more than that, he finds male companions who accept him, support him, and laud him as the best of all of them. He had friends, and very manly ones at that.

Comments below the article were contentious, though respectful. Of special interest was this comment about the story’s glamorous villainess, Milady de Winter (memorably played by Lana Turner in the 1948 film):

From the Wikipedia entry on Milady de Winter:  “In the introduction to his 1952 English translation of The Three MusketeersLord Sudley posits the following:

‘The fleur-de-lis on Milady’s shoulder with which she was branded for having committed a felony in her extreme youth would certainly come as a shock to anyone discovering it, but it does not fully account for the terror and horror which she evoked in every man who had ever known her intimately. Only her husbands (she had two) and her lovers find out her ‘secret,’ and for that, she declares, they must die. And why was the Cardinal, who employed her as his chief secret agent, who had spies all over the country and who knew everything about everyone of importance in France, himself unaware of her criminal record? At the end of the story, d’Artagnan discloses this to [Richelieu], who then declares that he and his friends were perfectly justified in taking the law into their own hands and beheading her. Might not Dumas, in creating such a character, have intended to convey that Milady had that particular form of physical malformation which was regarded even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a terrifying token of divine displeasure, punishable by death – a malformation of which the fleur-de-lis was merely a symbol?‘

“Sudley goes on to suggest that Dumas might have found inspiration for Milady from the Chevalier d’Éon, a transgender spy who acted as Louis XV‘s secret envoy to Russia and England. D’Éon spent half of his life as a man and half as a woman, and was accused of actual physical hermaphroditism during their lifetime.”

“The category is… Live! Work! POSE!”

Meanwhile, queers with more modern tastes continue to mine Disney films for subtextual representation, while the company teases us with storylines and symbols that fall short of genuine equality. Looking on the bright side nonetheless, my old college classmate, poet and critic Stephanie Burt, blogged at Pangyrus that “Frozen 2 Is Even More Trans Than the First One”. For Burt, the original movie was:

…a film about growing up different, playing with girls–or with one girl in particular–until you realize that your difference could hurt them, and then isolating yourself till you ache (the song alluding to this is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”).  It’s a movie about the strenuous, artificial, beautiful visual worlds made by trans girls, first in our heads and then where other people might see them; it’s a movie about trans girls’ fears that we could make monsters, or become monsters, if we reveal who we are. As every parent who has seen a kid shocked at Prince Hans’s heel turn might attest, it’s a movie about how heterosexual, cisgender, romantic, monogamous love, the kind that leads to marriage, cannot be the only kind. It’s a movie where trans girls may see that once we come out—if we learn not to lash out, but to reach out—we might renew the love and friendship we need…

Frozen 2 is about finding trans and queer community: it shows what happens after you come out, if your life and work as you knew them aren’t enough.  How did I get to be the way I am? How can I find others like me? Why do I feel like they—we—must exist, even though I haven’t seen them yet, as if I were hearing a voice nobody else heard?

On a more serious note, Diana Tourjée writes in Vice that “Straight Men Are Part of the Trans Community” because they regularly have sexual and romantic relationships with trans women–yet often refuse to acknowledge them openly as partners. Tourjée wants to break the silence and stigma around loving trans women, an internalized queerphobia that can fuel their male partners’ violence against them. She argues that it’s time for these men to adopt the trans community’s struggles as their problem too.

I’m reminded of the storyline about Harlem sex worker Angel and her white yuppie lover in the first season of the TV series “Pose”. He does seem to love her, in his immature and privilege-blind way, yet he can only imagine expressing it by “rescuing” her from a community populated by women like herself. But Angel comes to see that her coveted “realness” is not conferred by a Cinderella happy ending, but already present in her sisterhood.

Julian K. Jarboe’s new story “Self Care” in Nat. Brut is a wickedly funny and sad tale of queer solidarity and rage, set in a plausible near-future dystopia where “‘some’ neighborhoods get sunk forever as an ‘unfortunate side effect of coastal flooding’ while others become the sexy hip cool new ‘seafloor village’.” Our trans sex worker hero fights to survive while dodging an unctuous priest, a therapy group where “everyone talked like they’d invented feelings”, and flammable polluted raindrops. Find more of Jarboe’s award-winning work on their website.

Two Poems from Jeff Walt’s “Leave Smoke”

Gival Press, an established independent publisher with an interest in LGBTQ literature, has just released award-winning poet Jeff Walt‘s new full-length collection, Leave Smoke. Born into a rural Pennsylvania community of coal miners and bricklayers, Jeff is an editor for the San Diego Poetry Annual, with literary honors that include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a musical setting of his poems in concert at Carnegie Hall. Leave Smoke relentlessly probes the scars and longings of a life between two worlds, where midlife resembles Dante’s dark wood in the middle of the journey, and the family legacy of addiction and work-weariness pursues the narrator into his liberated middle-class gay life. Having too many choices is almost as bad as having too few, when one hasn’t had role models for choosing wisely. In this collection, moments of hope and tenderness–a brother’s latest stab at sobriety, breathing lessons with a Zen-like poetry instructor–are rare and shine like diamonds in coal.

Jeff has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below. It takes a talented poet to come up with a new metaphor for stars, let alone two as surprising and piercing as these.

Stars from My Bed

On the ceiling glow-
in-the-dark & behind my eyes
gnarling sparks. No, no wishes.
These stars are sharp
like a tin can lid’s slit throat.
They write blues songs
but not about me. I love you
back then
where I am
mostly. I give the stars juicy details.
Sometimes just to piss me off
they go on and on
with stupid jokes about my old
jittery friends looking to score dime bags
while their constant need scuffed
down the once
white carpet
to a mottled circle
round my coffee table.
The needle made us
happy. The stars spread
like disease.

****

The Magician

Sundays in the living room, before Disney
and our baths, he made our mother vanish
right before our eyes. His long, black cape shiny

as water pouring through the hands of summer.
I swaddled my sister
tight in my eight-year-old arms that trembled

with frightened joy. We held our breath and bit
our nails as he sawed her in half, pulled nickels
from her ears, instructed her to bark

with a quick snap of his fingers. Then
they left us for the Windmill Tavern. Alone together,
we sang and danced in her pink pumps.

Draped in his silky cape, we saved lives and killed
off all the villains using the gagdets
that possessed the glittery magic

until the dark, late hours–our games behind us–
when the shadows became spirits our magic sprouted:
falling ice the footsteps of men

surrounding the house; winter’s spiraling whine
moaned up from the gut of the furnace.
When he asked if he could be my father,

I said, yes, wanting whatever that meant. We fled to closets
when they fought, afraid a clap of his hands
might reduce us to dust. The day he packed his bag

of magic, she begged him to stay. I hid
his wand in my sock–because,
in the dark, on his lap, he had pulled me tight, whispered

that he had the power to turn rocks into chocolate,
little boys into goats.
The black stick held all his tricks.

I Take the Necronomicon Literally But Not Seriously

The spooky season of October seems like a good time to post my reflections on NecronomiCon 2019, the H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror fan convention we attended this August in Providence. Offered in odd-numbered years, this con delves into scholarly and popular media in the Lovecraftian tradition, while critiquing the xenophobic views of its progenitor. While the Young Master and Daddy explored Rhode Island’s beaches, I attended panels on such edifying subjects as the history of insane asylums and pop-culture depictions of shrunken heads. However, nothing I saw was quite as grotesque and unsettling as the SpongeBob cartoons that Shane made me binge-watch in our hotel room.

The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir served up some new parodies of deep cuts from the Protestant hymnal, which unfortunately were unfamiliar to most of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast cultists. I for one am glad they recognized the ghoulish potential in “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Presiding over the breakfast, Cody Goodfellow, Anthony Teth, and Scott Jones opened with a rap battle about the relative merits of Dagon, Mother Hydra, and Shub-Niggurath, followed by sermons warning against blind faith and oversimplified ideologies. Like queer “camp”, which paradoxically employs the excesses of self-parody as a vehicle for intense and genuine emotions, modern Cthulhu-ism inhabits a liminal space, refusing to resolve itself into either mere satire or alternative religion.

The sermons made me wonder: What really is the difference between NecronomiCon and the Episcopal Church? (Not the outfits, certainly!) Minus the references to “Great Dragons Nug and Yeb,” I expect my fellow mainline parishioners would nod enthusiastically at the paeans to liberal open-mindedness. The Innsmouth Choir is merely more explicit about the same story we tell in the Bible readings and 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: the end times are coming, we’re all going to die, the earth will be destroyed, and we may go on to a strange new afterlife in transformed bodies if we appease the right wrathful deity.

In this apocalyptic political moment in America, the cultists’ honest acknowledgment of evil and impermanence was oddly reassuring. Refreshingly, Cthulhu-ism has a sense of humor about the absurdity of all human social structures–even the most powerful dictator or Pope is puny in cosmic terms–whereas the liberal church wants you to take its performances seriously even as it concedes that it has no divine authority over you.

I also wondered how many attendees were sincere believers in magic and monstrous gods, and how many were like me, dancing on that line between genuine faith and the defensive retreat into “just kidding!” when we fear that someone will try to exploit our new belief system as a tool of social control. One of the speakers on the Edward Gorey panel observed that the eccentric artist had a reputation as a difficult interview subject because he dodged any questions that tried to pin down the meaning of his enigmatic books. His work gains its power and lasting relevance from tension that is never resolved by a revelation. That could be one way I would define the queer aesthetic–allowing subtext to remain subtext, so that it can’t be stolen from you by reductionist interpreters. Indefinability as resistance to hegemony, perhaps?

The Poet Spiel: “birdchild” and “witness”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a/ the visual artist Tom Taylor, has had a long career of creating work that celebrates nature and sexuality while mocking militarism, conformity, and commercialism. His poetry often delves into sensitive topics like child abuse and homophobia. His most recent book is the illustrated retrospective Revealing Self in Pictures and Words (2018). In his author bio, he writes, “Amidst his 8th decade on earth, coping with losses associated with vascular dementia, art is the friend which has withstood the petty and the foolish, the graceful, the garish and the grand of a diverse career in the arts.”

Spiel says “birdchild”, below, is his favorite poem in his vast body of work. Out of the other strong poems he recently shared with me, I chose “witness”, which speaks of the wounds of mother-son abuse–a phenomenon too long denied or ignored even by early feminist writers who broached the taboo subject of incest.

birdchild

this child before you cannot
say a single word; he seems
as silent as a fallen bird.
his sad eyes follow you.
he is here but shows no sense
of knowing he has a right
to declare his presence—
as in making a sound—any sound.

you recall those few kind men
in your own childhood who,
when they called you by name,
touched your shoulders
or patted you on your head.
oh how you hugged their trousered legs
in gratitude, their warmth, the decency
of their hearts lifted you. even now
though most of them have passed
you hear their voices;
you still feel the touch of their hands.

those men were not poison
but you find yourself
living in a culture
where you are forbidden
to comfort such a child,
a child you do not know,
who does not know you—
as if your touch would be poison.

you find the films you watch
more than once are those where
a father re-unites with his son,
at last unashamed to embrace him,
or where a tearful child is comforted
by the seasoned hands of his grandfather.
you are especially moved by scenes of war
where a grief-stricken soldier softens
and sobs onto another’s shoulders.
and too, those films where two men
follow their hearts in caring,
touching, holding, supporting each other
for a lifetime—against the odds.

so you tempt the odds,
this time with the child
who is like a fallen bird.
you touch his hand, feel him
squeeze your thumb.
you say hello.

he draws your thumb down to his shoe;
he says can you untie me.
and when you hear him speak
you hear your own voice.
and as you stoop
to untie his knotted shoe
it is you who becomes the bird.
it is you who becomes whole again.

****

witness

in innocence
as you crayoned
on the floor
she emerged
from her dark closet
to reveal
what she knew were forbidden—
her petals of flesh

she planted a wanton glance
with nowhere else to settle
but upon you
her first born son
then your bewildered face
between her space
for her you were
a lily in her valley

your eyes aghast
replete with games repeated
over time
in a shame
you could not name
in crayon-speak
and your crayon days
were early done

now after all these years
you wonder
which hurts
the most

perhaps those vital tidbits
you can’t recall to reassemble
nor recant
or is it the reverberating odor
of the absolute volumes
you cannot forget

Two Poems from Garret Keizer’s “The World Pushes Back”

Garret Keizer is a widely published essayist, former Episcopal priest and English teacher, and the author of eight books. His nonfiction works Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperOne, 2004) and The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2004) were both transformative and comforting for me during a fraught period in my life. His nuanced meditations on what we owe each other gave me permission to feel all my feelings about a family situation that in the end, I could not resolve, only walk away from. Now, at age 65, he has released his debut poetry collection, The World Pushes Back (Texas Review Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Award.

Critics often compliment a book by calling it “ambitious”, but such an ego-driven word would be untrue to the spirit of this collection–audacious as it is to be a progressive Christian moralist in a culture where hard-hearted reactionaries claim a monopoly on faith. As he says in the closing poem, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything”:

In the best world every man
would know everything
that was worth knowing
and would know that others knew
as well as he, and would also know
that things worth knowing are few.

Keizer gently but pointedly warns his fellow American bourgeoisie not to mistake the contentment of privilege for true happiness, the latter requiring the soul-searching and pain of being born again into a humbler interconnectedness to others. This vision is embodied in “Cousin Rick”, a real-life example of Henri Nouwen’s ideal of “downward mobility”. Not spoiling the tale with any heavy-handed “Go and do likewise,” Keizer recounts the bare facts of his cousin’s life and death as a missionary in New Guinea, with affection and quiet bewilderment at the saints hidden among us.

Since reading this book, I’ve been conducting an argument in my mind with the poem “For Those Who Talk of Growth”. The speaker, at the start of spring, is clearing his lawn of the sand that the snowplow threw there in the winter, and a perhaps-too-facile metaphor comes to him:

The sand is what served me
for a time, some friend, some
creed that gave me traction
once, but now only burdens
the life I must rake free of it.

However, he immediately corrects himself. Snow will inevitably come again “and I shall go/nowhere without the sand.”

Certainly there are many who worship modernity for its own sake and think themselves clever for upgrading their creeds like new iPhones. I’ve confronted this bias in liberal Christians’ dismissal of the supernatural. But this poem rubbed me the wrong way, because it echoes a common threat leveled against us former Christians: “just you wait, when things get tough, you’ll come crawling back.” For some of us, the sand became quicksand. We didn’t leave because we thought life was easy, we left (or were kicked out) because the old answers were inadequate to meet the revelatory crisis that split our lives into before and after. It actually takes a lot of maturity to look back and admit that the sand did serve us for a time, and be grateful rather than bitter as we say goodbye.

The rabbis say that a person should carry two notes in their pockets: one, “The world was created for me,” and the other, “I am dust and ashes.” A similar balance is at play in the poem “Divine Comedy” (below), which expresses the exquisite difficulty of creating art with a mindset of gratitude rather than scarcity. Transcending praise and blame is a daily spiritual discipline where I often fall short.

The poems below are reproduced with permission from Texas Review Press (Huntsville, TX), copyright Garret Keizer.

THE STARS ARE NEAR

The stars are near,
and it struck me how near
tonight, how superstitious I have been
to take their exponential distances on faith,
like a man dubious about driving a nail
because he’s heard of empty space
between the molecules
in the hammer’s head.
They are near, the stars.
They will always be
near. I have neighbors
whose porch lights are more distant.
A man who believes himself estranged
from his father, because they quarreled
when he was young,
sees the day when he is no longer
young, and no longer estranged,
and no more distant from the nearest star
than from his final breath.
He vows, as I do,
that he will not have his distances
dictated to him any more.

****

DIVINE COMEDY

1.

Hell is eternal publication.
The damned never write a word
except their names at book signings,
never read anything but reviews
of books they can’t remember writing.

They are stuck on the radio for ages,
talking about their goddamn books—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
They call themselves on the call-in line
and ask, “So how did you get published?”

2.

Heaven is eternal publication.
The redeemed never write a word
not quickened by their inscribing:
“For Jane Doe, who graced this event,
and is the truth I sought by writing.”

They are guests on the radio for ages,
talking to God, who just loved the book—
so long they forget they’re on the air.
Again they drift to ground and find
their first acceptance, too good to be true.

Graphic Novels and Comics Roundup: Witches, Gods, and Ducks

The Young Master (soon to turn 7) and I have become regulars at Forbes Library’s kids’ department on Saturday mornings, listening to the ukelele band rehearse in the community room while we work our way through their extensive comics and graphic novels collection. Big-name superhero comics are the junk food of literature, stimulating but nutritionally questionable, though they’re good for his reading practice. To me, it all looks like a bunch of over-muscled white guys punching each other.

The purple melodrama of “Batman” suits my camp aesthetic, but at read-aloud time, I try to point out the mental-health ableism and inaccuracy of Arkham Asylum as a revolving door of grotesque villains. Batman and the Joker seem like two sides of self-hating homosexuality–the flamboyant predator and the Übermensch of the police state. I can’t help seeing Gotham through the lens of the other book I’m currently reading, French journalist Frédéric Martel’s new exposé In the Closet of the Vatican, which details how the Catholic Church’s most powerful and homophobic cardinals were in bed with fascist dictatorships during the day and with undocumented rent boys during the night.

But fear not, more wholesome fare is in our rotation. We’re delighted with Molly Knox Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novel The Witch Boy, a coming-of-age story about a youth whose magical skills transgress the gender roles of his community. All the girls in Aster’s extended family are supposed to become witches, and the boys, animal shapeshifters who defend them from evil spirits. However, Aster’s passion is for witchery. With the help of Charlie, a non-magical girl from the neighboring suburb, he uses his forbidden talent to fight a monster in a way that only he can. Charlie, who has two (off-page) dads, is uniquely sympathetic to Aster’s dilemma because she’s a female athlete struggling for equal opportunities at her school. Both children are people of color, and Aster’s extended family includes a variety of ethnicities. The artwork, in cozy earth tones, is clear and expressive, and not too scary for younger readers. I promised Shane I’d pick up the sequel, The Hidden Witch, at Flame Con this summer. Book three, The Midwinter Witch, will come out in November.

We discovered George O’Connor’s Greek myth cartoons in the anthology Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. (The Fairy Tale Comics and Nursery Rhyme Comics anthologies in this series are fun too.) O’Connor’s Olympians graphic novel series is a playful, stylish retelling of the tales that my generation first read in the classic D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. (Adam and I each still have our original copy of that bright orange hardcover.) Each Olympians book is about a different god or goddess. We began with O’Connor’s Hermes: Tales of the Trickster because the messenger god and his chaotically playful son Pan suit Shane’s personality 100%. This book is both a great adventure comic and a painless introduction to classic literature. For those wishing to dig deeper, there are humorous endnotes, discussion questions, and a bibliography.

When I was a kid, I had two anthologies that I re-read countless times: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and The Smithsonian Collection of Comic-Book Comics. (Good thing I still own them because they seem to be out of print.) I pored over the noir adventures of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, the proto-feminist antics of Little Lulu, and the folksy satire of Pogo. Now, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly (Abrams ComicArts, 2009), brings that experience to a new generation with 300+ pages of toons from the 1940s-50s. It looks like the editors worked hard to weed out stereotypes that wouldn’t pass muster in modern times. Check it out for such wacky gems as “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism” and Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to Tralla La, a remote civilization without money, where he hopes for relief from the pressures of being a gazillionaire. Of course, human (or duck) nature is not so easy to escape…

March Links Roundup: Sacred Arts, Imperfect Mediators

Just as today we debate “separating the art from the artist” when an influential creator’s bad behavior comes to light, the early Christians were split over the standards for mediating their own sacred inspiration. A purist breakaway group in North Africa in the fourth century contended that clergy had to be morally blameless, or else their ministry, prayers, and administration of the sacraments were not effective. Because church authorities (rather conveniently) rejected this position, we know it as the “Donatist heresy”.

The official line has pragmatism to commend it: it’s bad enough when “all your faves are problematic”, but if you have to start worrying that your baptism or absolution is invalid, your eternal fate might depend on the unknown misdeeds of your priest. That’s too much stress and uncertainty for the flock. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing nowadays that the clergy abuse crisis is retroactively undermining many Christians’ experiences of God in church. The truths they thought they knew, the love they felt in the worship and sacraments–was it all a lie? When someone or something formative for us is exposed as predatory, we may even doubt the goals, beliefs, and affections that once seemed synonymous with our “self”.

In this October 2018 article from Vox, Constance Grady asks some literary critics to weigh in on “What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?” On social media, there’s a predictable cycle of declaring that some creator is “cancelled” because of anything from an unfortunate remark to serial predation, followed by a flurry of equally simplistic rants against political correctness. Separating art from artist was the premise of early 20th century New Criticism, which has stuck with us because it makes English-class papers easier to write without historical background. Postmodern “death of the author” theory, meanwhile, can empower readers to reclaim the text from its problematic origins. I see a similarity to the way that progressive Christians claim personal authority to talk back to oppressive Bible passages and carve out a place for marginalized people in the tradition. On the other hand, New Historicists warn that the reader is also embedded in a context that may include the same vices that plagued the creator, like racism and rape culture. We need to look at ourselves as critically as the text.

The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments…says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist… The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little…

The issue here is not just “Is this artist monstrous?” but “Is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.

I agree with Grady’s conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that’ll determine when to disengage from questionable art or artists. Like a dysfunctional family where love is also possible, or a church that can be both oppressive and liberating, staying or going is a very individual decision.

Over at Into Account, a new blog for lifting up the voices of abuse survivors in church, Stephanie Krehbiel has a message for anyone who’d override that discernment process: “Godly Men, Be Quiet”. Conservative church leaders lately have been making noise about #MeToo because they can’t ignore it, but their pronouncements aren’t followed by structural change or repentance. Survivor-led reform isn’t happening. Too bad:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.

FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothingParticularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition…

I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do.

Which, you know, sounds a lot like what Jesus told us to do…

In the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Dias’ investigative feature on gay Catholic priests, “It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage,” is a heartbreaking look at scores of mostly-anonymous clergy trying to live their vocation while crushed by hypocrisy, secrecy, and loneliness. Being sexually active, apparently, is less scandalous than being honest about one’s orientation while celibate. The atmosphere is even more stifling now because church leadership is erroneously scapegoating gay clergy for the sexual abuse crisis.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent…

…The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

This topic is in the news again because of the new book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, an exposé by French journalist Frédéric Martel. On the Nonviolent Atonement blog, gay Catholic theologian James Alison offers a sensitive and well-thought-out analysis of the problem and the way forward. Alison’s work helped me tremendously a decade ago when I was tormented by the gay/Christian question.

Alison describes the book, for which he was interviewed, as “the first attempt of which I am aware at a properly researched answer to the question: ‘How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?'” This is not a book about the child abuse crisis per se, but rather, about how a culture of duplicity and blackmail is conducive to all sorts of abuses and cover-ups. Most people in the system are not even aware of the big picture:

We’re not talking about one single big lie, where all these men butch it up in public until they get back behind the Vatican walls ― at which point all can relax together in a theatrical green room, let down their hair and call each other Monica, Morgana or Mechthilde while swapping hot takes about their respective beaux. Rather we are talking about endless small lies, defensive manoeuvres, acts of hiding of self, adoptions of positions, fear of loss of livelihood, betrayals of friends, disguises of love, hints of blackmail, bizarre alliances, coded exchanges and resilient creations of habitable bubbles. We are also talking about the ways this system of mendacity reproduces itself through newcomers joining in playing the game. All involved are lying to and about themselves and each other; and yet, at the same time, they both know and don’t know what each other knows.

Furthermore, many are tortured by their own duplicity, not yet having achieved the perfection of polished cognitive dissonance at which some of those whom Martel interviews have obviously arrived. This matches what I have myself observed: the most venomous anti-clericalism and hatred of the Vatican comes from the mouths of its own clerical employees.

Meanwhile, the cognitive dissonance is amplified as sexual diversity has become mainstream in the outside world. Honest discussion of sexuality is the norm–except in the Church. Alison notes (a point that also emerged in the New York Times article) that unlike heterosexual men, many of the gay priests took their vows of celibacy without real understanding of their sexuality or options for healthy romantic partnership.

Church authority still teaches that a young gay person cannot appropriately be socialised into the humanisation of their emotional and sexual urges while dreaming of being married to someone they love. Indeed, far too many Catholic high schools, especially in the United States, are viciously legalistic in their attempts to apply these teachings to their employees and young charges. Further the authorities teach that such a young gay person does not have freedom of choice concerning whether to opt for marriage or a single life. They have a solemn obligation to singleness, with the threat of Hell a powerful enforcer….

Yes, the authorities really do deny there to be such a thing as an emotionally and psychologically balanced openly gay person who, therefore, might make a free choice between marriage or celibacy and so become a straightforward, honest candidate for seminary.

Now, that the official position is a lie is obvious to everyone, and scarcely applied anywhere. Even hard-line Bishops claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but instead on the basis of something they call “emotional and affective maturity.” But that effectively means that they do not believe their own teaching, for they are admitting people who their own official teaching claims not to exist. Such candidates are automatically implicated in the dishonesty of their superiors simply by being there. Furthermore, any gay candidate need only learn how to pretend not to be gay, for which many of them have had a whole adolescence-worth of training, and they will certainly find enough seminary officials who will induct them into playing “wink wink, nudge nudge,” having themselves become masters at the same game.

In short, long before any issue of a candidate’s sexual practice comes up, whether in the past, the present or the future, he finds that the one thing that is impossible is straightforward, first-person narrative honesty.

…Imitation is a much stronger force than instruction, and any gay candidate for seminary will see many others like himself already in the seminary, and will be interviewed by others like himself on the seminary staff. If in the midst of this he is presented with the instruction “You are required to be honest about being gay, and if you are gay and honest, your vocations counsellor is required to tell you that you cannot join,” he is not really being presented with a straightforward moral choice. In context, he is being presented with a hurdle, and his capacity to jump it will show whether or not he will be a suitable game player like all the others. Just in case the hurdle seems a little high, and if the vocations director likes the candidate, he may suggest that the kid is not really gay, just suffering from a transitory form of “same-sex attraction” or some other ecclesiastically convenient fiction. If the vocations director doesn’t like him, then, indeed, the fact that he is gay can be used to keep him out.

A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received.

Alison concludes with a call for the Church to be honest with its children about God’s love for them regardless of orientation, and to bring its doctrines in line with the current evidence of science and psychology that queerness is a “regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”

I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. But if Christianity survives as anything worthwhile, it’ll be because of folks like Alison.