Apologies for the lack of writing on here in the last six months. My honors project is partly responsible for this, but it has been done for a while now and is now online and downloadable, so you can see the fruit of my labor! If you are interested in what I still hope to write about in the Church and Gay Literature, this would be something that you might want to read. It interacts with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Disclaimer: it is long. And there are already some things that I have realized I would do differently. But I hope you enjoy it. Click.
[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.
Last week I turned in the thesis for my second term with BestSemester’s Oxford program. The title of the thesis had to be a question, and mine was, “In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, from what are Sebastian and Jeanette trying to escape?” The question I chose still seems a bit juvenile to me, but it allowed me to dig into some questions of the novels I’ve been wanting to explore, including “What happens to Jeanette’s faith?” and “To what extent is homosexuality at play in Brideshead?”
Some of the research I did for that thesis will get channeled into my next big paper, the SPU honors project. My tutor in Oxford emphasized the differences of gay history in England and the States, so in my Christianity and Gay Lit tutorial, I focused exclusively on English novelists, playwrights, and poets. In my honors thesis I hope to bring in some American writers like James Baldwin. The difficulty in such a project is that these writers are of different countries, sexes, social classes, denominations, and skin colors. Despite these differences, the books I am looking at share a gay character whose faith and relationship with their church community is colored by their sexuality. While I am not yet sure what the specific focus of my next thesis will be, I hope to look at liturgy in the various texts.
Part of the reason I began researching this topic is because, as mentioned in a previous post, gay Christians do not have much of a cultural history that specifically speaks to their experiences. I do not mean to say that we cannot relate to narratives that don’t explicitly speak to our unique circumstances (that would just be plain false) or that we cannot locate our own story in the narrative of God’s redemptive plan for the world as found in Christian Scripture (that would also just be plain false). I simply mean to acknowledge that humans look to stories to understand their own circumstances and to imagine ways that life could be lived differently, and that there appears to be a dearth of such stories that deal with the unique struggles of gay Christians. Texts I’ve been reading for the project express from different angles the formative and transformative power of stories. James K. A. Smith uses the concept of a “cultural liturgy” to describe how the narratives we interact with—not just in books, but in the rituals of everyday life—”shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”1
When one who is raised in the rituals of most strands of Christianity experiences attraction to someone of the same sex, they experience something which either has never been mentioned in their church (due to ignorance of, fear of, or embarrassment about the phenomenon) or it has been actively decried from the pulpit—and so, they find themselves standing outside of their tradition, and often thereafter, outside of the Church. To them, the faith community becomes a location of alienation (as is the case in Oranges). Many such people have sought refuge in the City amongst groups of others who have walked similar paths, together forming a new community with a cultural liturgy of its own (what has charmingly been referred to by some Christians as “the gay lifestyle”). The new community is not bound by creed or communion but by a shared orientation, similar stories of rejection, similar hopes and aspirations, and, in some instances, a lot of previously (almost) unimaginable sex.2
This account, which I have pieced together from books, articles, and the stories of friends, is, of course, one of many possible outcomes. For people in some denominations, the following was true in the past, but for many it still holds today that if the gay individual chooses to stay in their church, regardless of whether or not they adhere to a traditional view of sexuality, they find that silence is what guarantees a sense of inclusion or normalcy that would be jeopardized if certain things came to light. The Oxford Movement provided a home in the nineteenth century for men for whom the “need for conscientious avoidance of physical expression of one’s sexuality was a very real problem.”3 Half a century later, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain depicts one boy’s fit of religious experience in the presence of his black Pentecostal congregation, an experience he demands be remembered if ever one day his secret is discovered: “‘please remember—I was saved. I was there.'”4
The task of figuring out one’s sexuality is bound to the task of figuring out what one believes about God. If a believer is asked to leave her church—the only context in which she has lived and thus the only context in which she has understood God—her faith will change. Perhaps it won’t immediately shatter, but questions will be raised. This is not only a theme in gay literature. Roger Lundin writes, “more often than not in the literature of the past 150 years, the conflict between belief and unbelief has played itself out more readily within the private struggles of individuals than in public battles between the forces of progress and reaction.”5 While branches of the Church certainly are in a public battle over homosexuality, gay literature that interacts with Christianity tends to have a narrower focus: the individual and their beliefs.
As Norman W. Jones has helpfully pointed out, Christian literature and gay literature share three “common foundational commitments”:
identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.6
In a series of posts I hope to begin writing soon, I would like to introduce to you literature (mainly novels) that deal with both sides of Jones’ coin. I desire to do this for two reasons, both of which I will explain with quotes from Jeanette Winterson. The first reason: “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.”7 While I begin this essay by lamenting the lack of a cultural history that directly involves gay Christians, there is indeed something of a history there, meager though it may be. The characters I will write about reach varying conclusions about God and the Church, as do real-life gay people. While some readers of this blog might not have access to the wisdom of older people who have wrestled with faith and sexuality, they (presumably) have access to a library or AbeBooks.com. The literature is not a roadmap, but we can learn from the characters we encounter—the questions they ask, the difficulties they face, the mistakes they make, the conclusions they reach. If these things are uncomfortable, if we disagree with certain conclusions, the texts become a path towards a deeper interaction with our own beliefs when we ask ourselves “Why?” in response. The texts can become part of the stories we tell ourselves; they can jumpstart our imagination; they can piss us off; they can help us move forward.
The second reason: “Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience. The sub-groups are broken down.”8 If the first reason I provide for starting this series goes along the lines of discovering what it means to live within the walls of being a gay Christian, the second is the necessary work of tearing those walls down in the name of empathy and love. Not all who read my blog are gay and not all are Christian, so it is my hope that interacting with the nuances of books like Brideshead Revisited and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will help Christians understand why some gay people leave the Church and help atheists understand why other gay people stay in the Church. It seems to me that many middle-of-the-road Evangelical and Mainline churches are trying to figure out how to love gay people. This blog is, in a way, my attempt to facilitate the Church’s efforts to learn how to better love and care for their gay brothers, sisters, and parishioners. As Winterson writes, “More, not less, is the capacity of the heart. More not less is the capacity of art.”9
Thank you for reading.
1. James K. A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. Cultural Liturgies. 25.
2. The City is portrayed as a center of temptation in contexts Christian and non-Christian alike. See James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Vintage International, 2013. First published in 1952; see also Hanif Kureishi. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. This is due in part to the anonymity that is only possible amongst millions of other people. Gregory Woods writes, “Indeed, anonymity may be the main attraction. It allows for the conditions of self-reinvention, whereby one escapes the prohibitions and inhibitions of family life.” Gregory Woods. “Gay and Lesbian Urbanity.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature. Ed. Kevin R. McNamara. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 233-44. 234.
3. Diarmaid MacCulloch. Silence: A Christian History. London: Allen Lane, 2013. 189.
4. Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 225.
5. Roger Lundin. Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 168.
6. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. x. ProQuest. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
7. Jeanette Winterson. “Testimony against Gertrude Stein.” Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Vintage Books, 1996. 59.
8. Winterson. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Art Objects. 106.
9. Ibid. 108.