[This is the second introduction (oops) to a series of occasional essays I’m calling The Church and Gay Literature (CGL). For my first introduction to the series, look here.]
Before discussing the first text for CGL (which will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—read it if you haven’t yet!) I’d like to talk a little bit more about the purpose of the series and to define some terms. Whereas the following posts will focus on readings of specific texts, here I explain in part how I understand the word “gay”—the understanding I will bring to future posts. It is possible that it will change over the course of the project, but this is where I currently am. I have surely said some of this before, so please forgive me.
I’ve begun an honors thesis at Seattle Pacific University about homosexuality and Christianity in modern literature largely because I crave narratives—I need narratives to wrap myself in, sit in, try on, appreciate, savor, or react violently against to understand who I am and to inform my imagination about what life could be like. As far as I currently understand, identity, in all of its elusiveness, is about the narratives we inhabit. For example, take what I consider to be the most important and most involving narrative I belong to: when I say that I am a Christian, and when, with my church, I recite the creeds of the Christian faith, I am not only saying what I believe, I am claiming my place in a long tradition of imperfect people seeking to know God and to reflect Christ’s love to the world, being transformed ourselves in the process.
When I say I am gay, I could mean a number of things. Like most of my generation, I use the word as a substitute for “exclusively sexually/physically attracted to persons of the same sex as myself.” One syllable versus twenty-four. There has been much discussion about the definitions of words like “gay” and “homosexual” in the past few decades generally and, specifically, within recent months and years in the Church. One common question: Does “gay” merely refer to same-sex attraction or is it also a cultural identification?
I won’t try to answer this question fully here, but for my purposes it is worth some exploration, beginning with the simple admission that the word is certainly used both ways. Both meanings (attraction and cultural identification) are correct at different times, and I don’t believe that they are entirely separable. If someone with same-sex attractions is raised in a society that is dominated by and whose culture is catered to people with opposite-sex attractions in its movies, television shows, books, advertisements, matching towel sets, and religions, chances are that the same-sex attracted person will feel disconnected from the culture at some level. In response, they might remain closeted in order to maintain a façade that allows them to participate in their society’s culture like everyone else. They could possibly gain an affinity for certain films that convey—through the lives and struggles of even heterosexual characters—the sadness and anger of not being understood by others, the alienation they experience within their families, or the crushing weight of expectations society has for someone of their sex and gender. It makes sense that they would relate to Broadway musicals in which a character desires to transcend the drudgery of day-to-day life and by golly does just that, if only for four minute intervals, by bursting forth in joyous, uninhibited song.1 Or if they decide to find a partner, they might choose to move to a place where they can find a partner, live together with a lesser amount of daily harassment and hatred, and be surrounded by people who understand the difficulties they theretofore have experienced (family life, small towns, and, possibly, religious upbringings). They open businesses, form communities, and, like any community, begin to use the same words and develop a particular aesthetic.
Although its particulars vary from place to place and between generations, gay culture is a real thing. But by no means do all gay (same-sex attracted) people participate. It might just not appeal to them or be accessible to them. Or they might define themselves by actively not participating in gay culture. The “straight-acting gay man” is a type, literary and otherwise.2 But even then, it is a type made possible only by the existence of gay culture. Besides an inexplicable fascination with Meryl Streep and the occasional Beyonce binge, I’m not so great at gay culture myself, although I know some straight people who are. Kiki, anyone?
In the Church, the already difficult task of agreeing on terminology is often further complicated by sin, or rather the question of how much of this whole “same-sex attraction” business we can call sinful. Calling someone a homosexual within certain Christian contexts carries with it an assessment, judgment, or condemnation of that person as a pervert or abomination—sometimes this is implied by the speaker, sometimes it is merely inferred by the listener. In this series it is not my objective to cast moral judgment on fictional characters, whether they be guilty of sexual promiscuity or guilty of chasing God’s beloved out of the Church. I do reserve the right to express dismay, sadness, and anger about attitudes held and actions committed in the texts I read, because, even when it is fictional, literature is always an expression of some sort of truth; it reflects the lives of real people.
It is difficult for me to say how exactly I will use the terms “homosexual” and “gay” in reference to all of the texts I hope to cover. In most situations I will try not to use anachronisms. If I were to write about a text from before 1892, when the word “homosexual” was first brought into the English language via a translation of the writings of Austrian sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who appears to have borrowed the term from Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the word in 1868), I would not use the word “homosexual” without qualifying it.3 In the same way I wouldn’t call a gay man from the 21st century a catamite, minion, or mollie.4 I will definitely use the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” if the character self-identifies as such or if they are described by the author as such. But if it is unclear in the text, I will do my best to maintain the ambiguity in my discussion—I’m not in the business of claiming as “gay” someone or something that is not described as “gay.”
However, some texts that I will choose (like Brideshead Revisited, actually) are not obviously or intrinsically gay. That may be because they reference a specific variety of gay culture that a modern reader might not pick up on (i.e., Oxbridge aestheticism). Or, like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, some texts might not speak about gay sex or anything that obviously pertains to gay culture while still speaking uniquely to the experience of gay people. If I do write about literature of this variety, I will explain my reasons for including it in CGL.
Returning to the notion that literature reflects reality… While I started my thesis for fairly personal reasons, I share (some of) my findings here because there needs to be more of an understanding between the Church and sexual minorities. LGBTQ people leave the Church in droves because of how they are treated. Equally as important to me, I want to show in some way the value and beauty of Christian faith to those who have given up on it or who have never considered it. These Dated Clouds is partly intended to be an exercise in reconciliation. Following this intention, the CGL series is my attempt to approach the often acidic conversation between Christianity and homosexuality from a new angle and with a different tone.
Finally, I will be putting the vast majority of my time into my honors project these next few months, so time spent on my blog will be rare. Forgive my infrequent postings. When I do get to it, here are some of the texts I would like to write about, in not much of an order:
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Maurice by E. M. Forster
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (memoir)
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Darling by Richard Rodriguez (memoir/essays)
Selected poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Selected poems by Oscar Wilde
The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece (poems)
As always, I will invite your comments and thoughts.
1. See David M. Halperin’s discussion of D. A. Miller’s work on gay men and Broadway musicals: David M. Halperin. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012: 93-94. This whole section is heavily dependent on How to Be Gay, which is Halperin’s case for gay culture—not an instruction manual.
2. Halperin. How to Be Gay. 46-7.
3. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007: 4; David M. Halperin. “How to Do The History of Male Homosexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000): 87-124. Web. 109.
4. These are different varieties of the invert, which is one of Halperin’s categories of prehomosexual male sex and gender deviance. Each type arises from a specific historical period and location, respectively, medieval/early modern England, Renaissance France, and eighteenth-century London. David M. Halperin. “How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality.” 105-6.
Power to your elbow, Samuel. I will circulate this among my gay and other church friends. Our church (Scottish Episcopalian) is currently engaging in a sort of consultation/conversation exercise but sadly seems to be ducking the gay marriage issue.But we travel hopefully. And we do love a good novel. The two by Jeanette Winterson your list are absolutely fabulous in describing certain churches’ attitudes, especially a few decades back, to gay people. The idea of exorcism makes me sick. Will follow your posts with interest, take care.
Thank you very much, Miss Welsh. It’s good that conversations are at least beginning and even better that you’re part of them. Peace.