… shortly, once I have met an emergency deadline. A few things I want to address as soon as time permits:
- That the vocabulary of American religious debates about same-sex eros hasn’t changed much since The Well of Loneliness
- The very different uses to which a couple of recent Protestant biblical scholars put Robin Scroggs’ The New Testament and Homosexuality
- My still-unwritten “About Me” page
In the meantime: Today in an enormous, famous bookstore on a high-energy campus with lots of theological savvy I noticed a couple of interesting shelving choices related to gay Christian writing: (1) there is a Black Theology section but no Queer Theology section, and books like The Queer Bible Commentary and What God Has Joined Together appear throughout the general Christian Theology section; (2) James Hannaham’s God Says No is shelved in Gay & Lesbian Studies – not in Fiction, where I would put it. I am interested in the fact that a bookstore in the basement of a seminary in the middle of a cosmopolitan university neighborhood treats black theology as a discrete category without creating an equivalent shelving unit for queer theology or, even better, a liberation theology section that might include both sub-divisions along with others.
Re: James Hannaham’s God Says No (and re: my ongoing project to mine sources from different disciplines and traditions and media for what they might have to say about a Christian ethic of same-sex sexual love):
Can anyone think of other English-language novels written in the past 50 or 60 years* that address gay Christian experiences?
*In other words, more recent than Brideshead Revisited. And also more centrally concerned with the intersection of faith and queerness.
OR, CRUISING V. CUDDLING
What does it mean when the über-edgy McSweeney’s publishes a disarmingly earnest and simple first-person narrative about a married black man from the South who has sex with men in bathrooms and pretends to die in a train wreck to spare his wife and daughter his secrets (which are “poisonous … like a bum appendix about to burst”)? What does it mean when a hipster press prints a novel about a man who believes God will make him straight? And what does it mean when the author makes up a genre-name like “horrorlarious” for his irony-free narrative (“something that is right on the line between being completely horrendous and very funny”)?
I just read James Hannaham’s God Says No, and I kind of hate it. Nothing about it strikes me as funny. When it’s not downright boring (e.g. bleak, vapid paeans to Disney World), it’s heartbreaking (protagonist Gary Gray doesn’t seem able to experience sexual love with anyone). And that Hannaham sees the story as “horrorlarious” convinces me his project is unethical. (For more on the concept of the “horrorlarious,” listen to a Studio 360 interview with Hannaham here. And notice that Kurt Andersen has to ask Hannaham how to pronounce “reparative.” The book and the publicity it has received underline the language barrier between bobos and Christians.) A reader could do worse than to quote Hannaham’s own main character against him: “He had come to mock me and my struggle. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had only been me, but he was also making fun of other people who had nothing to do with his life.” (Hannaham is neither religious nor Southern.) The novel is almost Gothic in its ridiculousness, so one could dismiss my charge that its mockery is unethical on the grounds that it’s really just risible – if it weren’t for the fact that being gay and Christian is actually a Gothically ridiculous situation (i.e. I can sort of see the appeal of the fake train-wreck death). And the book leaves open the question of what long-term answer to his sexual dilemma Gary will pursue (celibacy, rekindled marriage, gay relationships). Which brings me to my main question: who is this novel for? What is it for?
I can’t see it working for gay Christians. It’s unclear what content there is to Gary’s faith beyond an obsession with rules and plastic Jesus figurines. His inner life re: the big gay question comes across as robotic, a moral calculus:
The notion that acting on my secret lust wouldn’t bring any consequences was a bet against the reality of Hell. But no matter how much I believed I would burn, I couldn’t shake my desire. Like a demon with his claws in my shoulder, desire tore at my flesh, howling, trying to make me defy the Lord’s word and throw away eternal peace for earthly delight. I couldn’t get the Lord to respond to my prayers and make it stop no matter how hard I tried. If this problem had turned into a choice between my flesh probably being burned but not consumed in the hereafter and my body and mind definitely being consumed but not burned in this life, it had begun to feel like I should take my chances. Was this Satan’s influence corrupting me, or the voice of my true self? Was my secret sexuality my true self? More true than my wife and family? I didn’t have an answer – I was a walking question mark. I only knew what I wanted – and not even that specifically.
Hannaham doesn’t do a good job of depicting the anguish of spiritual struggle in the context of a lived relationship with God and a church community. Gary doesn’t seem to experience faith as relationship at all (either to community practices or to tradition or to Jesus). And on this point Hannaham really fails his (gay Christian) readers. When Gary fakes his death and lives as a gay man in Atlanta, he starts going to the apparently left-leaning Stop Suffering Church. Hannaham tells us exactly nothing about Gary’s time there. A (gay Christian) reader wants to know how that community affected Gary’s thinking about his sexuality. That it would have zero effect is implausible.
But neither can I see it working for non-Christians, gay or straight. My guess is that it would just be boring for a non-Christian reader: even the sex scenes suck (with two charming exceptions, they feature tragic and sometimes brutal anonysex).
So, who is this culture-war-bridging book for? A couple of interviews offer clues about why Hannaham undertook such a bizarre project:
- The character Gary Gray came about because Hannaham’s previous novel couldn’t find a publisher (see here).
- Hannaham was sick of novels “that make you think America is England.” He wanted to write “about the way life is actually lived in America” (see here).
Fascinating, but I wish Hannaham had better anticipated the motley crew of readers his subject will attract.
The one thing I like about the novel is its recognition of the fact that non-sexual intimacy is more sustaining than sex. Gary Gray can’t have fulfilling sex with his wife or with his boyfriend (he’s grossed out by “the famous thing” men do together). My two favorite moments in the book hint at the possibility of erotic but non-sexual love. In the first, Gary reflects on how meaningful snuggling with his wife feels: “Only a tiny tingle of delight shimmered in my pelvis when her warm body pressed against me, like hugging my mama. Even that small feeling, though, sometimes meant more to me than the animalistic frenzy people call normal sexuality.” And in the second, Gary makes it clear to his boyfriend that he doesn’t want to sleep with him anymore. The boyfriend responds,
“Wouldn’t it bother you when I brought other guys home?”
Miquel played with his hair, thinking of a response. I wanted to hug him, but I could see that he might have wanted to hit me in the face. “Wait a second. You want to be celibate and monogamous?” He snorted.
“Yes, Miquel. I want to be celibate with you.” That way of putting it came to me right then. It sounded so original and holy.
Lovely – a glimmer of Eve Tushnet’s idea of chaste Romoerotic partnerships. Again, though, I find myself disappointed that Hannaham doesn’t explore these experiences more extensively. I have no idea why Gray would choose anonysex or short-term hook-ups with acquaintances over “celibacy with you” or a sexual relationship. I want to see some self-reflection on this point.
In sum, I don’t recommend the book. It doesn’t succeed as a novel, and it doesn’t succeed as an ethical treatment of a gay Christian life.
Two reactions to the New York Times Magazine article on coming out in middle school:
(1) Re: the “how can you know for sure” question.
Is an eighth grader who says he’s gay just experimenting? Could he change his mind in a week, as 13-year-olds routinely do with other identities — skater, prep, goth, jock — they try on for a while and then shed for another? And if sexuality is so fluid, should he really box himself in with a gay identity?
These are good questions, but it isn’t fair to put them to the child – especially not in a tone that implies, “You are definitely just going through a phase.” This sort of questioning has the potential to damage a young person’s epistemological tools permanently. Rejecting another person’s sexual self-identity creates a special kind of wound: the split “I” always doubles back on itself, questioning its perceived reality. And this questioning looks much more like anxiety and insanity than critical thinking.
I’m all about epistemic humility, but not when it’s the product of another person’s epistemic violence.
(2) Re: the parallel gay universe, where middle schools have gay-straight alliances.
At G.S.A. meetings at Daniel Webster, gay and straight members spend two periods a week reading and discussing news stories about gay issues, organizing events like the Day of Silence and talking about navigating the outside world — which isn’t always as supportive as their campus. Lala, for example, said the backing of the G.S.A. was critical when she came out to her family.
“They’re a lot better now, but the first thing one of my relatives did when I told them I was bisexual was hit me on the head with a Bible,” she told me. “So while I was dealing with that insanity at home, I at least had a safe place at school to talk about what was happening.”
Man, if only there had been a gay-straight alliance at my high school, I might have been so much happier! I would have had the chance to process my experiences openly, in community – instead of furtively, in fits and starts, with individual friends. Think how integrated and articulate these kids will be!
It looks like this. One day Rudell comes out to his family, and the next day his mother burns all traces of his existence in the back yard. He never hears from her again. He visits her at her office and she looks right through him. His parents mail a funeral wreath to him (“In memory of our son who died”). Rudell ends the story here:
This thing they did – this unfathomable and many-layered thing they did – tore a hole in the middle of my life. I have spent years (and a lot of money) darning that hole while trying to keep the rest of my world from unraveling. And yet their influence on me is enduring. My parents loved me terribly. I have been courageous in the face of bullies. There is such a thing as too much patience, but no such thing as too much forgiveness. And love has seen me through every misfortune.
After the applause, the host of The Moth informs us that Rudell learned his mother died a few years ago. I turned into a parking lot and parked and fell apart.
The heartbreakingly domestic metaphors (darning, unraveling) point back to the story’s opening image: Rudell’s mother withdraws a cigarette from a hand-knit cigarette case, lights it, and tosses the match on a huge pile of her son’s furniture and books and photographs. But then somehow Rudell lapses into vague opining (patience, forgiveness, love). I wish he had given more concrete details of his survival. How could he live through this? Whose love – what kind of love, given and received where and when and how – empowered him to forgive?
I am not strong enough for that – at least now. Which is why I play my cards close to my chest.
My Lillian Faderman takedown leaves me thinking that it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between the girl crush and the romantic friendship. Nineteenth-century sexology killed romantic friendship, says Faderman: everybody suddenly worried people would think they were gay if they had an emotionally intimate friendship with someone of the same gender. So could the cultural acceptance and legal recognition of gay relationships – far from making same-sex friendship difficult for heterosexuals, as some conservative Christians argue – actually reinvigorate it? So that, when Anthony Esolen says same-sex eros has ruined the language of friendship, one might reply that not gay eros but rather Anthony Esolen’s anxiety about being associated with it has impoverished his ability to have satisfying friendships with other men?
OR, THIS IS NOT A GIRL CRUSH.
I picked up Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers at a used bookstore the other day. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I started leafing through Chloe Plus Olivia twelve years ago. So far it irks me. Faderman takes a social constructionist view of female homosexuality (lesbians are made, not born). The belief itself does not surprise me. What I bristle at is the simplicity and the insensitivity of her formulation of it. She rewrites the stories of several women she interviewed for the book:
Others told me they were born lesbians, but what they said in the interview suggested to me that what they saw as the earliest signs of “lesbian feeling,” erotic interest in other females, in most cases may not have been particularly different from the childhood crushes that even Freudians have described as being “normal” in the young.
As a general rule it’s a good idea to temper self-understanding with outside perspectives. But Faderman’s skepticism here strikes me as damaging, for two reasons.
1. Discounting early and exclusive erotic interest in other women as a girl crush participates in the unbearably common attitude that sees lesbian sex as an empty signifier. One can detect this attitude in people who aren’t in the business of theorizing about queer sexuality as well as in literary critics, who should be. I’ve had straight female friends tell me that they can’t see sex between women as real sex because there isn’t a dick involved. And their boyfriends make a distinction between girlfriend-sleeping-with-another-man (cheating) and girlfriend-sleeping-with-another-woman (not cheating, hot). Marilyn Hacker addresses literary critics’ perpetuation of this unfair distinction in her sonnet sequence “Taking Notice.” The sequence concerns two women lovers, one who plans to keep sleeping with men and one who no longer sleeps with men. The epigraph reads, “two women together is a work / nothing in civilization has made simple” (Adrienne Rich, XXI Love Poems). In the fifth sonnet the speaker (who no longer sleeps with men) compares her lover (who plans to keep sleeping with men) to critics who erase female lovers from the histories of their male and female bisexual subjects:
“I never will be only a Lesbian.”
Bare rubber, wedged beside its tube of cream
in the bookshelf near you bed, your diaphragm
lies on Jane Cooper’s poem and Gertrude Stein.
I’ve torn our warm cocoon again. I listen.
Our sweatered breasts nuzzle under the quilt.
(Yes, there’s one in my bathroom cabinet:
unused, now.) If a man sleeps with men, and women,
he’s queer: vide Wilde, Goodman, Gide, Verlaine.
A woman who does can be “passionately
heterosexual” (said Norman Pearson of H.D.).
Anyone’s love with women doesn’t count.
Rhetoric, this. You talk about your friend.
I hold you, wanting whatever I want.
2. Expressing skepticism about another person’s sexual desires (as Faderman does here) is crazy-making. The person who has articulated her desires starts to question her own take on reality. Faderman’s glib dismissal reminds me of the friends who told me “It’s just a phase” when I came out in high school. It makes me think of the people who, naively conflating gender presentation and sexuality, disbelieve me now when I tell them I long for a relationship with a woman. It’s crazy-making and invalidating to say, quickly and absolutely, without long careful patient exploration: “What you’re feeling isn’t what you think you’re feeling.”
And long careful patient exploration tells me my own life does not fit Faderman’s assumptions about early self-awareness of lesbian inclinations. I do not mean to insist that lesbianism is usually innate or even that I was “born lesbian.” I mean, rather, that I did not happen upon same-sex attraction after finding heterosexual relationships unsatisfying, nor did I survey the rhetorical landscape of possible sexual identities and then pick same-sex attraction: from a remarkably early age I felt it tug at me. I remember reading ghost stories like Wait Till Helen Comes (at ten) and Among the Shadows (at eleven) and feeling strangely drawn to these ethereal women. I remember watching Ann of Avonlea and wanting to hold Miss Brooke. I remember daydreaming about marrying my female teachers. I remember how my stomach burned when I held hands with my friend Jessica in the fifth grade. I remember reading A House Like a Lotus (at twelve) and anticipating Max’s revelation and seeing myself in it. I remember watching Personal Best (in secret, against my parents’ permission, at thirteen). It defined and affirmed all of my inchoate yearning. I remember that coming out felt like coming home.
These early experiences point – maybe not inevitably, but pretty freaking suggestively – toward lesbianism.