Taking the Kingdom by Force: The Spiritual is political

David Townsend is Professor of Medieval Studies and English and served as the first director of the Sexual Diversity Studies Program. While on research leave from the University, he’s pursuing a Certificate of Sexuality and Religion at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. He keeps a blog on gay and bisexual men’s spirituality on this website.

Longer ago than I want to admit, I published in Toronto’s radical gay journal The Body Politic an article profiling gay men and lesbians who chose to claim their spiritual homes in mainstream Christian churches. In 1983, it wasn’t easy to make sense of such a choice to a readership of progressive queers.

The Moral Majority was still a fresh and very scary force in American politics, with well-publicized branch plants among Canadian evangelicals. Voices for sexual diversity in the major denominations were few. The United Church of Canada was still five years from its courageous (and divisive) decision to accept out gays and lesbians as candidates for ordination. A few classics of gay spirituality and theology had already appeared, including John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual (1976) and John Fortunato’s Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay and Lesbian Christians (1982).

John Boswell’s impressively erudite Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) had come out to surprising success for such a densely academic study: the University of Chicago Press had trouble matching print runs to demand for some time. But it also aroused almost immediate controversy. From one side, conservative scholars and Roman Catholic authorities attacked its argument that medieval Christianity had in fact shown considerable tolerance toward sexual diversity and offered space for flourishing homoerotic identities and subcultures, at least until the twelfth century. From the left, gay activists condemned what they saw as Boswell’s specious attempt to rehabilitate an irredeemably repressive institution. To their accusations of such recidivist leanings they added a resounding critique of what they claimed was Boswell’s naive assumption of a transhistorical homosexual identity.

I recall members of the collective that published The Body Politic expressing some skepticism about printing an article like the one I’d proposed, which might well prove irrelevant to a readership of out queers who, by definition, had sloughed off the false consciousness of religion with their emergence from the closet. Others argued that the coverage of less enlightened life choices within the emerging community was part of the journal’s mandate. That the issue sold a record number of non-subscription copies elicited some surprise.

For better and for worse, the triangulation of queer life, mainstream culture, and issues of spirituality has shifted radically over the quarter century since that article, and more so in Canada perhaps than in the United States. Legal shifts that were nearly as unthinkable here as south of the border in the early 1980’s now offer alluring–and deeply problematic–possibilities of assimilation. The political clout of the religious right here has never matched the force and influence of its vitriol in the U.S.–though even there, the Constitutional fundamentalism of the Tea Party seems, for the moment at least, to have eclipsed the Biblical fundamentalism of right-wing evangelicals.

Interestingly, as queer spirituality has emerged independently of special interest groups in specific denominations (such as Dignity, Integrity, and Lutherans Concerned), and especially as gay men’s non-sectarian spiritual movements have come of age, they’ve offered something of a counterweight to the more assimilationist tendencies of the denominationally-based organizations–and of secular centrist rights advocacy. The workshops of the Body Electric School (founded in 1984 by a former Jesuit at Berkeley) use scripted group erotic exploration to create tightly bonded experiences of community. These events afford participants rich material for the articulation of a spirituality uncompromisingly inclusive of embodied same-sex desire. Gay retreat centres and faerie sanctuaries offer sites in real time and space for the aspiration to live out values of homoerotic social organization. In such contexts, those aspirations at least briefly seem less utopian and closer to imminent realization.

In the cultural sphere, queer men’s appropriation of the vocabulary and grammar of mainstream devotion remakes discourses that were long laid at the service of homophobic repression. Conrad Alexandrowicz’s elegiac play, The Wines of Tuscany (1994), opens with an extraordinary sexualization of devotion to the crucified Christ as moving in the context of an AIDS memoir as it would be shocking to more conventional Christian piety. Terence McNally’s play Corpus Christi (1998) retells the life of Jesus as the career of a charismatic and promiscuous working-class gay man in Texas. The play’s performance history suggests the explosive potential of its intervention: threats of violence by right-wing Christians led to the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to the theatre during its Broadway premiere.

Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies (1987) is a post-modernist fantasy on the repression, and the incitement, of homoerotic desire in the Church-dominated culture of early-twentieth-century Quebec. It’s as scathing in its denunciation of the former as it is celebratory of the latter. The play’s social rage is inseparable from its portrayal of a deeply queer longing for a theatrically expressed transcendence–a rage and a longing brilliantly translated into cinematic idiom in John Greyson’s sumptuous adaptation of 1996.

American photographer John Dugdale’s lyrically nostalgic cyanotype photographs synthesize the technical processes and aesthetic values of Victorian art photography with a pervasive homoeroticism. The strong thread of Christian devotion that runs through Dugdale’s work is at once camp and utterly sincere in its integration of the photographer’s own life experience as a long-term PLWA pursuing his art despite an almost total loss of vision.

The late, deeply gifted Toronto photographer Oscar Wolfman’s oeuvre bears comparison to Dugdale’s in its queer appropriation of a mainstream religious tradition and iconography and of a canonical moment in art history. His lush evocations of Italian mannerist painting are laid at the service of an adamantly queer appropriation of Torah and rabbinic scholarship.

These and other expressions of queer men’s spirituality fall between the cracks: too gay for a mainstream religious audience, often too religious for a more general queer audience, they stand poised in a liminal zone, laying forceful claim to discourses of interior life too often surrendered without contest to forces of homophobic oppression–and in the process unlocking their liberatory potential for social and cultural engagement.


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