A quiet yearning

I sit at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, and I hear some hip hop music playing faintly in the background. Voices talking, yelling, laughing. On my screen there’s a headline that reads “North Korea warns ‘more gift packages’ are on the way as Donald Trump arms Japan, South Korea.”

I walk down the street on a Monday evening, and it is silent, save for the wind cruising through the trees in Jackie Robinson park (and my footsteps, of course). I see a child selling lemonade with the sign “For Houston.”

I slowly open my eyes as I lay in bed on a Sunday morning, and a muted sound of worship music reaches my ears. It is singing that rises high and rings. It feels far away. I look at my phone, and read an article written by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He signed the recent Nashville Statement and called it “an expression of love for same-sex attracted people.”

Sigh.

I don’t hear the word “yearning” thrown around too much these days. Yearning is a feeling of intense longing, a hunger, an ache. Do millennials yearn? (Sorry, the last thing we need is another article about what’s wrong with millennials…) A Marina and the Diamonds lyric feels particularly apt here: “TV taught me how to feel / Now real life has no appeal.”

I’m thinking of a specific kind of yearning. A yearning for something more than the day-to-day drudgery. The dating, the drinking, the social media, the news headlines, the seemingly impending doom of violence, war, and destruction that marks the average day in 2017. Something beyond the conservative, beyond the liberal.

Something true. Does it exist?

After several Sundays I realized the singing I heard from my room was coming from a church in the courtyard directly behind my apartment building. Definitely not as far away as I thought it was. Was that there the whole time?

st madalene
Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church – Flemington, NJ

The music is not as solemn as the hymns at St. Magdalen de Pazzi, the Roman Catholic Church I attended on Easter Sunday with my brother’s family in New Jersey. The sanctuary was large and hexagonal in shape. High red oak ceilings separated us from the morning sky. Hundreds of pews emanated from the central, circular platform that held the altar in the center and the pulpit to the left. Assortments of flowers and ferns flanked either side: yellow, white, pink, blue, orange, and violet. A cross hung above the altar, bearing a crucified Jesus and the lights that shone on Him created three distinct shadows on the white bricks behind. On the back wall, behind the altar and the pulpit, was the crowning jewel–a grand copper pipe organ that beautifully framed a circular spirit window that brought in light from the outside.

In the past eight years or so, I can count on one and a half hands how many times I’ve been to church. I’ve been twice in the past seven months, first at a collegiate church in Washington Heights and second at the aforementioned St. Magdalen. I attended the latter because it was Easter and I was with my family (my brother and sister-and-law are Catholic). I attended the former for less obvious reasons.

The church in WaHi (“Washington Heights” for the uninitiated), is called Fort Washington Collegiate Church. Like St. Madalen, it had wooden pews, but these pews were in a more traditional style: two main sections facing the front of the church. The sanctuary was rectangular, and again had high ceilings, but these ceilings had a distinctive gothic feel with dark, heavy wooden beams. Stained glass windows lined the walls on either side showing various scenes from Jesus’ life: the Passover, His baptism, as well as Him sitting and teaching among children (of many different colors.) A golden cross was centered behind the chorus on maroon panels. The blue Bibles on the back of the pews were NRSV–the translation I have.

Fort_Wash_Collegiate_Ch_jeh
Fort Washington Collegiate Church – New York, NY

Before the sermon, there was a “Passing of the Peace” where everybody in the congregation went around greeting one another. “The peace of Christ is with you!” “And also with you!” I was shy, but everybody was friendly. There were people of all types: gay, straight, black, white. Everybody was trying to greet everybody else in the small time they had, with some members trying to greet every single person. Towards the end of the time allotted the interactions simply became “Peace!” “Peace!”

The music was uplifting. There were hymns new and old, but they were not solemn. They were fun and alive. The choir wore bright red robes with white stoles. My favorite hymn was from South Africa called “Ewe Thina/We Walk His Way.” The first verse simply states: We walk for justice, kindness, love and peace: We walk His way. The chorus: Ewe Thina, Ewe Thina / We walk His way, We walk His way.

It’s hard to believe I stopped attending my family’s independent evangelical church eight years ago. I had been active in the junior high ministry, gone on two missions trips to Memphis, Tennessee to evangelize with Calvary Rescue Mission (and to sightsee). I had a “born again” experience on the first trip, in 7th grade. I re-affirmed my commitment to the Lord on the second trip in 8th grade. After coming out in high school, however, I stopped going with my parents on Sunday mornings. It’s the story of many LGBT individuals.

Despite feelings of isolation, shame, and anger in response to how my church views sexuality outside of one man and one woman, and despite the length of time I have spent away from its influence, I still have this feeling, this yearning. It’s been quietly with me every step to where I am today–in a committed relationship with a man and living in New York City.

It was a lightbulb in my head when my boyfriend told me he believes in God shortly after we first met. It was a nudge when one of my committed Christian friends in college affirmed my relationship and my sexuality. It was a bit of a slap in the face when I met an openly gay man attending seminary in the city.

It led me to take a step into St. Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, to shed a tear during the service at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, to fully “own” where I am today–straddling a desire to love myself and others unconditionally, but also to find truth.

It is a soft sung voice that seemed far away, but has really been with me all along. I hope it can guide me forward, still.

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Three/FINALE)

What if I told you gay people, impulses, sensibilities, what have you, were not only natural, but necessary to the progression of the human race, and the evolution of the universe?

Hint: That’s what I’m telling you. Or rather, suggesting to you.

In the past two posts, I’ve mostly talked (written?) about some thoughts on gay identity (as opposed to purpose), on what links us together. I brought that up, because I think identity is linked to purpose. When I bring up Nick Benton’s core gay identifying traits “gay sensibility,” an alternate perspective, and a constructive non-conformity, the “purpose” or I guess “benefits” of such traits on a just human society becomes clearer.

I realize I just kind of rattled off the three traits in the first post without really going into them, but essentially what they suggest, (in Benton’s words) is that gay or so-called “homosexual” passion “is directed toward a different [non-heterosexual] kind of procreation, one which advances the pursuit of beauty, justice, knowledge and truth” (127). Notably, the over-sexualized notion of gay culture is absent from this identity.

In my second post, I elaborated on gay identity more in terms of what it is not (or should not be) rather than what it is, because I think that distinction is important. So much of what outsiders perceive of gay identity is its sexual nature. Social conservatives would decry it as sexual “deviancy,” and they’d have numerous examples for that from the sexual liberation in the ’70s, and even in today’s age of Grindr and hook-up culture. Now, I’m not here to shame people for their sex lives, or to suggest that they’re doing something wrong, but overwhelmingly, the focus both inside and outside of the community has, since Stonewall, been focused on the sex aspect of gay lives. It is clear from the very name used to identify us—”homosexuals.” “Sex” is literally in the name. From that perspective, what differentiates us from everybody else is how we act in the bedroom, and that’s it. I disagree.

It is not sex alone that defines us, because in that view, living as a gay person is a new invention. Yes, anal intercourse has been documented since the Greeks, but the sole pursuit of same-sex relationships openly is rather new, and due to this newness (in the sex-focused view) it is easy to write off the gay “lifestyle” as a “fad,” as something that will “pass.” If we look at being gay as solely sexual it becomes easier to see it as a “deviance,” a “sin,” an “aberration.” However, that thinking ignores the many, many queer individuals who have lived and contributed greatly to human society for as long as that society has existed.

If we base our criteria on what constitutes a gay person (throughout history) by today’s open same-sex relationships, we erase a vital part of people’s identity and undermine today’s LGBT community. This is where Benton’s gay identifiers come into play, and how they are useful. While same-sex erotic passion is difficult to document in our forefathers’ time where there may not have been an outlet to act upon their desires (or discuss it explicitly), it is easier and more appropriate to look for notions of gay “sensibility,” which includes heightened empathy for the underdog and the historically disadvantaged (i.e. women, children, and people of different races/cultures). We can also look for evidence of men and women who did not conform to social standards and lifestyles, and those who brought alternative queer perspectives to social discourse as members of our tribe. Benton is quick to point out that these are not solely gay traits, of course, but the gay social position brings out these qualities more often than not (ESPECIALLY when a queer individual’s sexual nature is stifled to such an extreme degree, as has been the case for much of history).

With this more nuanced and socially-important gay identity, one of Benton’s core arguments becomes stronger: that “homosexuality” is not an “aberration or  chance of nature, but that it is built into the very fabric of the unfolding of the universe” (127). He describes our purpose as part of the universe’s “dissymmetry,” whose role “is to shatter an inertia derived of the simple, dominant binary male-female-reproduction-survival nature of things in favor of not merely survival, but the progress and advance of the species.” How transcendent and inspiring is that for the purpose of gay existence!

While it’s kind of a crazy proposition, he looks to the work of renowned atomic physicist Maurice Goldhaber to back up his idea of the universe’s “dissymmetry.” Goldhaber died at the age of 100 back in May 2011, and in Kenneth Chang’s obituary in the Times he describes the scientist’s most famous contribution as the discovery of “the ghostly, perplexing subatomic particles known as neutrinos.”

Neutrinos, produced in the fusion of the Sun, other stars and in the radioactive decay of elements, flood the universe; trillions of them zip through every person every second.

In the late 1950s, physicists discovered that neutrinos, unlike anything else in the universe known until then, appeared to violate mirror symmetry.

That was odd and unexpected, because looking in a mirror does not usually alter the rules of physics. For example, consider an archer shooting an arrow. As the arrow flies through the air, one could imagine the tail feathers rotating clockwise. In the mirror image of the arrow’s motion, the tail feathers would rotate counterclockwise. […]

But the mirror versions of neutrinos were found to behave differently compared with those that exist in the real world… By observing neutrino-producing transmutations between two carefully chosen elements, Dr. Goldhaber and his collaborators showed that neutrinos, unlike arrows, always rotate in one direction (counterclockwise, it turned out) and never the other.

So Benton attributes this mumbo-jumbo to a “fundamental ‘left-handed’ component to the elemental, sub-atomic structure of physical reality” (139). And this “dissymmetry” moves the universe away from “static equilibrium” to “negentropic” development, which manifests itself to us, in human society, through phenomena such as left-handedness, right-brain domination and homosexuality, among other things.

As RuPaul put it, LGBT individuals are “an extension of the power that created the universe.” No more, no less. Healthy, natural differences are “essential core components of the universe, not accidents, random deviations, corruptions or perversions” (Benton 139). They are by-products of the self-development of space and time. This concept of the universe’s unfolding can be applied to any theology, whether one believes in a Creator or not. Would not a Creator see the benefit in difference and variety? Why can’t LGBT people be one of God’s intended, beautiful, perfect Creations? Would He really make a person with a destiny to fail (i.e. their gay nature is a product of sin)?

We are poets, with an affinity towards more global perspectives, with idealizations of beauty and knowledge, and those of us with an erotic passion beyond the norm “are essential to help drive the development of the individual, civilization, and therefore the universe, forward,” in Benton’s words. How wild, preposterous even, are his claims? But somehow, they strike an inherent chord in me. I look around at what LGBT people contribute now and to what they’ve contributed in the past (of which I’ll be learning eternally), and I can see the alternative perspectives we bring to philosophy, current events, politics, art, and science.

What drives LGBT people to the arts, and to liberal ideologies that forward a social vision of equality, peace, and freedom, if not an overarching purpose to defy norms and convention in the pursuit of truth and progress? I know there are a million holes in the argument, and a million ways to write me off as too abstracted and too idealistic, but there’s also a million-and-one reasons that thinking of gay existence in this way can bring positive, inspiring, and effective change. Change that benefits the lives of LGBT youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as every human being on this Earth. Our differences bring us together and are to be celebrated, not denied. We should use our perspectives to add to the conversation, rather than hide. We are here, we are Queer, and we are not going anywhere.

And on that note—thanks, y’all, for dealing with this three-post arc, that I most certainly could extend to four, five, or probably ten parts, but for all of our sake I will keep at three. This is merely an initial exploration of the titular question, and it is a surfaced one at that. I want to continue to nitpick at these ideas and elaborate upon its tributaries in future posts. If you have any opinions or questions, be sure to comment, email me, or message me on social media.

Tata for now!

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]

What accounts for the existence of gay people? (Part Two)

“I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld… Did you know that it was an openly gay Englishman who was as responsible as any man for winning the Second World War? His name was Alan Turing and he cracked the German’s Enigma code so the Allies knew in advance what the Nazis were going to do—and when the war was over he committed suicide he was so hounded for being gay… The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there—all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organize ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?”

– Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing things all wrong. I’m 22 and I just moved to New York City; such a “hipster and artsy” move to make, no? I’m young, shouldn’t I make the most of it and “enjoy” it? I suppose this translates to: being generally noncommittal job-wise, trying crazy things, and dating/sleeping around. I mean, I’m down for the first two, but the third? This is where it breaks down, since I’ve been dating the same person for four years and moved in with him upon moving to the city. We have an IKEA bed together. There’s no turning back after that, right?

This anxiety is made worse because the gay community is especially noted for its promiscuity and noncommittal attitudes. I think, generally, we’re in a time where people, both gay and straight, are looking to settle down later in life and the general advice is to “go crazy” in your twenties. But the pressure definitely seems to be a bit harsher in a community that literally made open sexuality a political platform in the ’70s and ’80s.

If you asked a non-LGBT person what they thought were some of the dominant traits of gay people (and gay men, in particular), I’m sure promiscuity/unconventional sexual habits would come into play in the conversation at some point. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that trait, but what else do they mention? Do they mention empathy? Do they mention strength? Do they mention creativity?

By which one of those traits would you rather be defined?

For me, it comes down to focus. What do I want to focus on as my main “thing”? How do I want others to see me, or remember me? The “sex” in sexuality is definitely important (don’t I know it), but should it define us exclusively? Isn’t sexuality more than just “sex”?

That’s a lot of questions, I apologize, but I think they are questions worth raising. They are questions Larry Kramer has raised his whole life, especially in his play The Normal Heart, set amidst the hysteria and confusion of the onset of the AIDS crisis. Sex was the political imperative among the gay movement at the time (and it’s not a far reach for today’s, either), which became an issue for some as the reality of AIDS began to settle in, along with the realization that it was probably being transmitted sexually. The very act the gay movement aligned with its liberation and revolution, became the means by which its members were killed off in droves.

Nicholas Benton has a lot to say on this topic, and this is where he becomes particularly controversial in the dynamics of gay politics. He published one hundred columns under the title “Nick Benton’s Gay Science” as a reference to the 1882 book by Friedrich Nietzsche simply titled “The Gay Science.” Nietzsche’s title refers to the “science” of writing poetry (a common phrase at the time), while Benton’s covers topics of gay identity and history, repudiating the 1960’s “hedonistic” counterculture that influenced the burgeoning gay rights movement. Benton draws a clear line in the sand between his gay science and Nietzsche’s, contending that the philosopher’s anti-socialist, pro-individualist, “will to power” thought and policy first played a role in European fascism, and then gave way to modernism and post-modernism currents, mixing with the works of Ayn Rand, the Structuralists, and others to create anarchism and nihilism, which merged with libertarianism and radical hedonism to bring us the emerging 1960s counter-culture (confused yet?).

I’m not claiming to be a pro on the history of philosophy in the twentieth century; it’s very interesting to me and I want to learn more, but the nugget I wanted to grab from all this was Benton’s belief that these philosophical currents negatively influenced the young gay rights movement in the 1960s, leading to the influence of the Beats and French philosopher Michel Foucault (of whom he is not a fan). He believes these forces “hijacked and almost killed the LGBT movement in the earliest days of the post-Stonewall era… Tirelessly expounding a relentless demand for excess, for pushing beyond the limit against social convention, its proponents drove sex from romance to mechanical excess in the major urban centers, converting a happy, burgeoning LGBT community into a string of financially-lucrative businesses catering to what Foucault… and his kind pushed as the revolutionary nature of unbridled sexual excess” (Benton 44).

Okay WOAH that’s a lot. But, essentially, he sees the “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” movement of the ’60s, along with the politicized sexual excess called for by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Foucault, as forces that enabled urban centers to become hotbeds for exotic infectious diseases. Anybody who fought against the excess were “angrily decried as reactionary and homophobic by leaders of gay organizations who were often owners or friends of owners of these sex-related businesses” (44). Kramer’s works can attest to this, as well (The Normal Heart and his novel Faggots, too). These queer influencers put sex at the forefront of the movement, and while they certainly cannot be the sole blame of the AIDS epidemic, it’s hard to argue that they did not contribute to an unsafe environment through which such a horrible disease could spread with ease. And kill tens upon thousands of young, beautiful souls.

Which brings me back to Benton’s core gay identifiers, and the underlying belief in the ability and preciousness of gay souls. His three suggested aspects to help define gay identity are by no means an imposition, but rather, an attempt to “raise questions and propose hypotheses out of which a more universal sense of gay identity may emerge, if not immediately, perhaps over decades or longer” (Benton 133). We are unique, but not superior; we are different than straight people in our “non-dominant social-sexual position” that I mentioned in the previous post. Benton asks (as do I), “What is at the core of that? If it can be found, wouldn’t that help to define a positive identity for gay people, generally?”

A positive, purposeful, substantive identity for LGBT people—is it possible, or no? Must it forever be linked to mindless, mechanical sexual excess? Or are Benton’s ideas of gay identity—notions of sensibility, alternative perspective, and constructive non-conformity—a fuller lens through which to view ourselves? Our forefathers are the likes of Tennessee Williams and Aristotle; I wonder what they would think?

[Benton, Nicholas F. Extraordinary Hearts: Reclaiming Gay Sensibility’s Central Role in the Progress of Civilization. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2013. Print.]