Collect at the Bidding Prayers

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: we beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Five Quick Takes

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Readers may have noticed I’m posting more often; I’m trying to adjust to the schedule and volume Patheos is going to want from me (two or three posts a week at five hundred words minimum). No fixed date yet for the change-over, but I did want to suggest to my Patreon sponsors (thank you for your support!) that now might be a good time if you want to make adjustments to your pledges, since supporting three or four posts a month at $X is quite a different thing from supporting a dozen posts a month at the same rate.

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I’ve heard about the clash between the Jesuit school that won’t fire a gay-married teacher and the Indianapolis archdiocese that won’t let the school call itself Catholic so long as it perseveres in its refusal. My initial impression is ‘unimpressed with the archdiocese,’ but I’m waiting to weigh in until I have more facts at my disposal. For the present, I’ll say only that the archdiocese seems to have a better case, canon-law-wise, than it is being given credit for in some quarters; and that I am not mollified by this.

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Yours truly with the inimitable Grant Hartley, whose workshop on queer culture for Christians was a delight.

Revoice’s second year continues to release its effects into me. On the positive side of things, Johanna Finegan’s excellent keynote is now available on YouTube, Eve Tushnet’s excellent workshop on celibacy has been posted on her blog, and I bought three copies of Lead Them Home’s excellent book Guiding Families of LGBT+ Loved Ones and gave one to my pastor.

On the more melancholy side, a number of friends of mine left the Side B community shortly after the conference, and that’s been hard for us. It’s always a little gloomy to see a fellow laborer leave the field you’re in, even if you’re confident they will continue to do good work.

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Today is the memorial of SS John Fisher and Thomas More: Fisher was the sole dissenting voice among the English bishops, imprisoned and eventually martyred, for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy; Sir Thomas More, martyred on similar grounds, was actually executed on 6 July, but I think they slated the two together to give Fisher a little more notice.

The film A Man For All Seasons was my introduction to St Thomas More, and his story was a major element in my initial opening to Catholicism; I encountered it at a time when I believed that sincere, consistent Catholics went to hell, and it was mighty hard to maintain that belief in the face of his obvious devotion to Christ. Who could forget that simple and magnificent last confession: ‘I die the king’s good servant; but God’s first.’ I nearly took him as my patron saint for Confirmation—St Joan and St John of the Cross were strong contenders as well, and they remain part of my little family of favorite intercessors.

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Tomorrow being Corpus Christi and also my parish’s picnic, I made cupcakes in honor of the Real Presence: red velvet—first time making them!—for the Precious Blood, with white frosting to represent the Host, and silver foil wrappers for the chalice (I couldn’t find golden ones). I also have some white and red sprinkles, with which to make white cross designs on the frosting, and to dot them with red spots of blood as if they were Eucharistic miracles, because Catholicism is just that metal.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Caution: Contents Toxic, Under High Pressure

Lilith, checked in her monotonous gabble by the radiant vision who let in the sun’s new light, stared at it with old and blinking eyes. She saw the shape of the woman; and did not know beatitude, however young. She supposed this also to be in need of something other than the Omnipotence. She said, separating with difficulty words hardly distinguishable from gabble: ‘I can help you.’
‘That’s kind of you,’ Pauline answered, ‘but I haven’t come to you for myself.’
‘I can help anyone,’ the old woman said, carefully enunciating the lie.
Pauline answered again: ‘Adela Hunt wants you.’ She could and would say no more …
The other said, in a little shriek of alarm, such as an old woman pretending youth might have used for girlish fun, ‘I won’t go out, you know. She must come here.’

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

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After my last, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t make a note of some Christian individuals and organizations that I would warn fellow LGBTQ people against. Not all of them profess the ex-gay label; it has lost a great deal of its selling power. But this does not mean that their practices have changed or that their goals are different.

The ex-gay movement has certainly changed since it began the 1970s; by the mid-2000s, it was increasingly clear that those who had left were not just quitters, but had recognized that orientation change was not a realistic goal and that attempts to effect it were doing at least as much harm as good; but this led largely, not to a frank admission of failure and apology for hurts caused, but to a quiet decision to redefine what the goal was. Heterosexual attraction, which could not be achieved, was shelved, in favor of heterosexual self-concept, which could. It couldn’t be honestly achieved, but it could be achieved, and it still can: the substitution of what straight, American evangelicals find normal and comfortable for the natural outlook and self-expression of people outside that category, this was the new and improved goal. And while there are some die-hard proponents of SOCE even today, the heteronormative identity redefinition folks (I shall call them HIRs) are the present face of the ex-gay movement that persists. Many of those on the non-exhaustive list below are HIRs rather than self-professed ex-gay groups; this does not greatly move me.

In fairness—yes, even to destructive ex-gay drivel—I am not saying that every person involved in these movements is individually a bad person, or that nobody gets anything out of these programs. I’ve said more than once that I got a great deal from my first therapist despite the fact that he was a pretty bad therapist. But that is not a defense of bad therapy. The good aspects of these groups can be gotten better, and more safely, elsewhere; and they help give a veneer of plausibility to practices that are deeply toxic and harmful.

The American College of Pediatricians—what a reassuring, professional-sounding name. Too bad they only have one employee, inflate their membership numbers by more than double, aren’t the peer-accepted American Academy of Pediatrics, and have been accused of misrepresenting scientific research by the National Institute of Health and of being a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their principal work is in promoting conversion therapy and opposing gay couples’ legal right to adopt; neither of which sounds to me the layman like they constitute pediatrics per se, and both of which are opposed right back by the AAP.

Brothers On a Road Less Traveled is how People Can Change decided to rebrand themselves when it turned out people could not change. PCC [1] is a relative newcomer to the ex-gay scene, founded in 2000; its best-known thing is Journey Into Manhood (boy they did not think that name through), which claims to provide the groundwork for men to become heterosexual ‘over time.’ One of the group’s co-founders, David Matheson, an early protégé of Joseph Nicolosi (see NARTH below), left PCC early this year, stating that he now identifies as gay.

Courage International does not technically promote orientation change, but they promote the hell out of other groups that do, like NARTH (see below), so yeah, they get a spot on the list. The group was founded in 1980 by Fr John Harvey, and operates on a twelve-step model derived from Alcoholics Anonymous. Fr Harvey has been quoted as saying that there are no homosexually oriented people, only heterosexuals with a homosexual tendency (because that’s a useful and necessary distinction in any way at all). The leadership remains more than a little yikes-y, to my mind; Courage helped organize a conference before the synod in Rome in 2015, for which one of the speakers was Cardinal Sarah—as in, the same Cardinal Sarah who compared gay people to Nazis and called trans people Satanic.

Desert Stream Ministries, also known as Living Waters, was founded by Andrew Comiskey, some time before he became a Vineyard pastor in 1981. He has authored multiple books, in which he says that homosexual relationships are demonic and that homosexuality ‘defiles God’s very image’. The organization has remained in operation to this day, surviving not only Comiskey’s controversial decision to embrace Catholicism in 2011, but a blog post from the previous year, in which he rejoiced that there had been no media coverage of the revelation that a member of their staff had abused a teenage boy who came to DSM for help. This was not quite true; a family had sued DSM in 1998 for a similar case of child abuse, and the LA Times had covered that.

Equipped to Love is the organization behind the self-styled CHANGED Movement—it’s not an acronym as far as I can tell, and no, I don’t know why they’re yelling—associated with Bethel Church in Redding, California. Bethel’s worship band has apparently drawn a great deal of notice nationwide, kind of like Hillsong, and their ex-gay drivel has come along for the ride. They offer #OnceGay stories, links to groups like DSM (above) and RHN (below), and of course, merch! Mostly books, but they’ve got some tees as well, including one trendy one in that gotta-have-it sans-serif font. This seems to be the newest group of the bunch, so I’m guessing we’ll start seeing the fallout from ETL and CHANGED begin in earnest in ten or fifteen years.

Although Exodus International was shuttered in 2013 by its president Alan Chambers, Exodus Global Alliance, the worldwide network supporting ex-gay organizations around the world, continues to operate. Not every group in this list is affiliation with EGA, but any group that is linked with EGA can be relied upon to be an ex-gay organization.

Genesis Counseling is headed by the notorious Joe Dallas, who not only practices and promotes conversion therapy, but has been an energetic contributor to the kulturkampf against ‘the homosexual agenda,’ [2] authoring three books (two family-centered and one apologetics-oriented) on that subject. He is a featured speaker at Focus on the Family’s ex-gay conference ‘Love Won Out.’

Homosexuals Anonymous is just what it sounds like, another twelve-step group. Also begun in 1980, one of its founding leaders, Colin Cook, stepped down only six years later due to having been found to have had sex with at least a dozen of his male patients—this, after having been defrocked in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for having had relations with another man in his church in 1974. Nonetheless, HA continues to operate to this day, including the active involvement of Cook, and it held an ex-gay conference in Kenya in 2009, just five years before Uganda tried to pass a bill instituting the death penalty for homosexual behavior.

JIFGA, the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness, was a clumsy attempt to evade the 2015 court order closing JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing—clumsy enough that JIFGA too was ordered to shut down this very month, and its founders, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, forbidden by the court to serve in the leadership of any non-profit in the future. JONAH was specifically ordered to close on grounds of violating the state of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, for claiming to be able to change sexual orientation. The group’s practices were considered bizarre even in the ex-gay world, including counselors ordering patients to strip naked and touch their genitals during counseling sessions, or having them beat up effigies of their mothers, who were blamed for their sons’ homosexual feelings. Jewish organizations such as the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America had already publicly repudiated JONAH as early as 2012. Whether this, too, will reëmerge in yet another shape remains to be seen.

Joel 2:25 comes to us from Texas, and aims for ‘far more than sexual sobriety and abstinence’ (these being, for the record, what Scripture actually enjoins upon us); rather, it seeks ‘healing of emotional wounds and relational brokenness,’ standard evangelical coding for heterosexuality, heteronormative identity and behavior, and marriage. The group states that a life of unrepentant sexual sin—a term which appears to include disagreements about what sexual sin consists in, though I admit I’m not sure—inevitably results in damnation.

NARTH. Oh, NARTH. The National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, now calling itself the ‘Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity’ (uh huh) or ATCSI, was the 1992 love-child of Joseph Nicolosi and Charles Socarides. Nicolosi, until his death in 2017, was the figurehead of the organization. They’ve been peddling the farther-and-smother theory of homosexuality for close to thirty years now, and getting less credible as they do it. Their status providing continuing education credits for therapists in California was revoked in 2011 for non-payment of dues to the California Board of Behavioral Scientists, and their non-profit status was revoked by the IRS in 2012 for non-filement of the required paperwork for several years.

North Star, a Mormon group, is a little ambiguous. They certainly were involved in promoting conversion therapy, via links to PCC and JONAH (see above), but they seem to have stepped back from this; one of the group’s leaders renounced ties to PCC in 2015. They haven’t earned their way off the watch list, in my judgment, but perhaps they could.

PATH, or Positive Alternatives to Homosexuality, is a worldwide network of groups supporting ex-gay programs and conversion therapy, with a frightening number of affiliates. Many of the groups on this list are members of PATH (or were before being shut down for fraud). It was founded by one Richard Cohen, who also founded the International Healing Foundation (which closed in 2015), got expelled from the American Counselors Association for promoting conversion therapy, and is not a licensed therapist in the first place.

Restoration Path is the rebranded name of the infamous ex-gay group Love In Action. LIA was one of the first ex-gay organizations; one of its founders, John Evans, abandoned the organization and the ex-gay movement after a close friend of his committed suicide over his sexuality. John Smid was a member of the group’s leadership for over twenty years, finally leaving in 2008 and stating publicly that he didn’t think he had ever encountered a single genuine instance of orientation change. LIA was also embroiled in a legal battle with the state of Tennessee in 2005, due to one of their ‘Refuge’ camps there operating unlicensed mental health living facilities, including dispensing medications without qualifications to do so. The suit was settled the next year, and the Refuge program closed down the year after that. The renaming took place in 2012.

The Restored Hope Network took on the mantle of Exodus International, beginning shortly before the latter closed its doors; RHN’s founders felt that Exodus was not sufficiently opposed to homosexuality. James Dobson, Albert Mohler, and (a little odd in such company, but only a little) Christopher West are on their Board of References, whatever the hell that is. RHN promotes the same theories and techniques that Exodus did, though with a definite air of doubling down; they feature Anne Paulk, for example, the ex-wife of John Paulk, who left Exodus and returned to ‘the lifestyle’ in 2013, making a formal apology to the gay community at large for having ever been involved in promoting ex-gay therapy.

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[1] As funny as it looks, I’m not going to take the time to write out BORLT instead of PCC, even as an acronym.
[2] Why do so many people hate Taco Tuesday?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Are "Celibate Gays" Really Gay?

Dryden also ‘meant’ by wit the essential gift of the poet. He defined this gift as … ‘propriety of thoughts and words.’ … This definition would commit us to the consequence, ‘Euclid was the greatest wit that ever set pen to paper.’ It may also be asserted almost safely that no human being, when using the word wit to talk with and not talking about the word wit, has ever meant by it anything of the sort. Nor does Dryden himself anywhere make the slightest use of this definition …

We might tax our brains for a long time to explain how a man of Dryden’s stature could have said anything so false to all actual usage, so useless, and so unsupported, if we did not realize its tactical function. He is thinking neither about what the word actually meant nor about what it could, in the interests of clarity and precision and general utility, be made to mean. It is a valuable vogue-word. Therefore a strong point in the critical battle. He wants to deny the enemy the use of it.

—C. S. Lewis, Studies In Words
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Freelance journalist Brandon Ambrosino tweeted up a storm about ex-gay organizations a day or two ago, and concluded with a shot at self-identified celibate gays, stating in no uncertain terms that anyone who abstains from gay sex due to traditionalist moral or religious beliefs doesn't even qualify as gay. As he put it, ‘Gayness is more than gay sex, but it can’t be less’ (I think I recall that correctly). I'm not at all sure why he came after me and my friends [1]. Perhaps he had us on the brain because Revoice just took place, I don't know. Regardless, he did it—and seemed more than a little thin-skinned about it: anyone who wishes can go to his Twitter feed and look it up, but I can’t, because he blocked me and several other people who, in his words, came for him and got bitchy.

Anyway. I actually don't want to just rag on Mr Ambrosino for a whole post: partly because I have no intention of obeying a guy who’s not my dom, partly because I've liked a lot of other things he's written, but chiefly because I do think I understand where he’s coming from. Ex-gay organizations have taken to rebranding and moving the goal-posts a hell of a lot in the last fifteen years or so, as it became irrevocably clear that orientation change does not work, but many of them remained unwilling to really face up to the facts. Some ex-gay people have even appropriated the Side B label, notwithstanding the fact that Side B’s salient characteristics are rejecting SOCE and embracing LGBTQ identity and culture. [2]

Further still, some people’s experience of Side B has been toxic for a variety of reasons. A lot of my own attempts at chastity as a Side B person were shot through with problems that could easily have wrecked my mind, if I hadn’t had the help of guides much wiser than myself. Defensiveness and suspicion toward celibate gay identity are perfectly understandable in these circumstances.

But that doesn’t make this gatekeeping definition of gayness a sound one. I believe it’s not only a poor use of language, but actually damaging to the community it’s ostensibly meant to serve, for a great many reasons. I will list just seven.

1. It’s not how anybody actually uses the word. Okay, ‘anybody’ is an overstatement. There is an ideologically driven minority among gay people who do insist that the word be used to indicate beliefs as well as orientation; and thirty or forty years ago, that meaning was much commoner currency. Nonetheless, it isn’t how the majority of people use the word now. It normally indicates orientation, experience, and self-identity, none of which depend on having sex to exist. That is how we know we’re gay before trying gay sex, after all.

There is one other group, however, who habitually use this definition. This leads me into a second and bigger issue …

2. It endorses a definition of gayness originally designed by homphobes to justify and maintain homophobic practices. Now, the origin of a term or definition is not the only thing that determines its value, but it is one of them. And, well, in this case, it's a doozy.

I mentioned ex-gay practices above, which I endured personally. The definition expressed by Ambrosino is the exact same one drafted and used by ex-gay organizations like the Restored Hope Network to this day, because it’s one of the things that helps them move the goalposts. You’re ‘not gay anymore’ because you stop having gay sex, which they can then sell with all the appeal of orientation change—a bait-and-switch change of identity. It downright encourages ambiguous, deceitful language and thought patterns, both with oneself and others. It’s arguably the most basic tool in the ex-gay box. Insisting on gay sex as a qualifier for gay identity gives ex-gay groups more room to maneuver and ammunition to do it with, not less.

3. It erases ace and demi identities. Asexual, aromantic, demisexual, and demiromantic identities all have queer expressions (indeed, insofar as they depart from the het norm, they’re queer by definition). An asexual but homoromantic woman is every bit as entitled to call herself a lesbian as a sexually active polyamorous lesbian is. [3] Under a you-must-be-open-to-gay-sex definition, grey identities are implicitly excluded.

4. It forces people who are still navigating their own feelings into a false dichotomy. This is especially true of teens, I think, who have the most navigating to do and the most at stake in doing it; but it’d certainly apply to, e.g., the heterosexually married Christian man in his thirties who’s finally facing up to the fact that his feelings about his best guy friend are erotic, not just affectionate. A person who’s told that they have to have gay sex (or at least be open to it) in order to ‘really’ be gay is being given an ultimatum about their feelings and identity, and maybe being asked to choose between deeply held religious convictions and powerful instinctive and emotional desires—being asked to call one of those things false and insignificant, when they aren’t ready to do that. What good does that do to anyone? Why is a choice like that necessary? They should not be compelled by others to choose what part of themselves to lie about.

This is normally what Side B is saying to fellow traditional Christians. In this case, we find ourselves saying it to fellow LGBTQ people. The dichotomy is artificial either way.

5. It erases Side B Christians who support gay civil rights, including those of us who’ve been traumatized by SOCE. Okay. In the name of not pulling a bait-and-switch myself, I’ll say frankly here that there are Side B people who don’t support complete political equality between, e.g., gay and straight marriages. [4] But a lot of us do support full political equality, and have paid for that belief among our families, friends, and churches. Furthermore, a lot of us are ex-ex-gays, survivors of conversion therapy. We rejected that stuff because it’s unnecessary, wrongheaded, and toxic. We learned that the hard way—which, if I may be a bit tart, is more than can be said of Mr Ambrosino. We paid for our identities. Having those identities invalidated again, by members of the very community we’ve been vilified for asserting, is a blow upon a bruise.

6. It adds an ideological modifier onto an identity more defined by experience than by behavior. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that every LGBTQ person’s experience is the same. But the shared thread among them is the experience of being othered, excluded, demeaned, treated as less than, on the basis of our attractions or gender expression. We all experience that, in our fears while we're closeted and in our lives when we leave it. That unites lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, and everyone else in the community, not sexual activity.

Really it couldn’t be sex that united the gay community, not just because (for a variety of reasons) some of us never have any, but because our sexual acts and experiences are so radically different. An act of gay sex usually contains none of the same ingredients as an act of lesbian sex; in that way, each resembles heterosexual sex more than the other. This is, of course, a ridiculous line of reasoning, but that’s kinda why I don’t take this view.

7. It drives an unnecessary wedge between LGBTQ people during a time when anti-gay sentiment appears to be rising rather than falling. Infighting is dull and wasteful at the best of times. When you have a homophobic administration elected by a right-wing portion of the populace, it’s dangerous. And sure, the media distorts things and my own consumption of media is kinda random; but I’ve been seeing a lot more stories about homophobic violence lately, including a couple of nasty scares even at Pride events. This is not a smart time to be fractious.

When Side B people speak up for ourselves and the LGBTQ community as a whole, that is precisely what we’re doing: speaking up for ourselves, and for the LGBTQ community as a whole. If you think we don't get targeted for harassment and hatred because our families or our churches know we're 'the good gays,' you're wrong. We are endangered when the gay community is endangered, and vice versa. Homophobes don’t generally care that (most) Side B people are attempting celibate lives; they care that we’re gay. That’s the thing they hate. That is why, for example, an institution like the Catholic Church can be at one and the same time welcoming on paper, full of homosexually active clergy, and riddled with homophobia in its attitudes, rhetoric, and policies. They’re targeting the identity, the rallying point for the community: often as not, they’re prepared to ignore the sex.

Want to deprive your enemies of a word? Fine. But know who they really are first. You might learn something.

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[1] At any rate, many of my friends can truthfully claim celibacy. I admire celibacy, and I consider celibacy and monogamous heterosexual marriage the only two intrinsically licit sexual states; but, phrased gently, it would be generous at the expense of accuracy to describe me as chaste, and I'm certainly not going to marry a woman. [5]
[2] With qualifications? Sure. But then again, St Augustine embraced Neo-Platonism with qualifications, St Thomas Aquinas embraced Aristotle with qualifications, St Edith Stein embraced Phenomenology with qualifications. That doesn’t make any of them not part of those traditions: it just means they’re a different part of the tradition.
[3] Yes, she might well add the qualifier ace lesbian at her discretion. But that’s exactly what it is: a qualifier, added at her discretion, not a contradiction.
[4] I’m not crazy about this fact. But I don’t want to be accused of pinkwashing a movement that is pretty diverse in certain ways, including some ways that a lot gay people would find objectionable. All the same, I don’t consider it a very damning criticism of the Side B community, since there are outliers in the gay community, like Milo Yiannopoulos or Jack Donovan, that most LGBTQ people find objectionable, too.
[5] Phrased less gently, I’m kind of a whorebag.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Sometimes You Really Need a F***ing Break From This Stuff

CW: Sexual abuse, homophobic imagery

It has been a grueling few days.

The day before yesterday, I went with a friend of mine to the Waterfront Marriott in Baltimore. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting there, and my friend was asked at the last minute to help provide music for the Mass; I went along to look after my friend's baby during the evening Mass. Being surrounded by bishops was itself something of a trial for both of us: my friend had been horribly mistreated while working for the Archdiocese, badly enough to need therapy (and badly enough that the Archdiocese footed the bill for said therapy). For myself, the revolting, myopic conduct of the bishops over the sex abuse crisis had me seriously wondering whether I'd get hauled out of the hotel if I just spat in one of their faces. (I didn't, so I guess we'll never know.)

Yesterday, I went to the same place with a different friend, the lovely and talented Eve Tushnet. The Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests held a press conference outside the hotel that evening, and she and I went in support. SNAP had apparently sent a letter to Cardinal DiNardo, the current president of the USCCB, asking him to come out and meet them. Neither he nor any representative of the episcopal conference was in evidence. The little group, about half a dozen people, read stories of their own experiences of abuse; the one that hurt the most to hear was from a man singled out and groomed by a priest whom his family adored, until one night when he and the priest were having dinner alone together. The young man was excited to have such an important, attentive friend. Then the priest drove them to a secluded area and assaulted him. After some groping, the young man told the priest to stop. Eventually the cleric complied, telling him angrily that 'I thought you were ready for my special attention,' and that he was a disappointment to God.

I tried to take today slow and easy, to detox from all this. And then, for no reason, in a group devoted to discussing Aquinas, this:

The Nazi Party imprisoned, tortured, and killed gay men. And yes, some of the early Nazis were gay; that is, until Hitler betrayed them, having them murdered en masse on the Night of the Long Knives, up to and including the man who had been maybe his only real friend, Ernst Roehm. But sure, we're a bunch of fucking Nazis because we put a rainbow on something.

I am sick to death of all of this.

I can't write any more right now. Pray for me, and for the people who behave this way.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Revoice 2019: A Brief Retrospective

And O! such joy I saw my Lady wear
When to that shining heav’n she entered in,
The planet’s self grew brighter yet with her;
And if the star laughed and was changed, what then
Was I, whom am but flesh, and ticklish
To touch of change, and all the moods of men?
As in a fish-pond still and clear, the fish
Draw to some dropped-in morsel as it goes,
Hoping it may provide a dainty dish,
So I saw splendors draw to us in droves,
Full many a thousand, and from each was heard:
‘Lo, here is one that shall increase our loves!’

—Dante Alighieri, Paradiso

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I was at Revoice 2019 [1] from Wednesday till this morning. My mom came this year, and she really enjoyed it. Saturday was technically the last day, but since our flight didn’t leave till Sunday and a lot of people hang around anyway, I stayed and observed Pentecost in St Louis, in the beautiful basilica cathedral.

It always feels huge, being at gay Christian events. There’s a weight that comes off you when you’re among people you don’t have to defend yourself to. A weight you forget you’re even carrying most of the time, and you wonder sometimes why you feel hunched and aching; and then you get to a place like Revoice, and suddenly you can stand up straight again.

Just like last year, the workshops were great: even better, a lot of the ones that I loved last year were given again this year so I know other people got to profit from them, and a lot of the ones I missed last year due to scheduling conflicts were also given again this year and I got to go to them this time. I probably enjoyed Eve Tushnet’s workshop on healthy celibacy the most, closely seconded by Ty Wyss’s on intimacy as an antidote to sexual shame; I also went to the lovely and talented Grant Hartley’s talk on redemptive aspects of queer culture, and Raw Low’s on how to protect your witness from being coöpted by heteronormative Christians. I’m looking forward to them all being posted on YouTube so I can rewatch them.

Both Ty and Eve touched, perhaps accidentally, on some things that I really profited from last year, at the workshop on recovering from spiritual abuse given by David Gill and Sara Collins—for instance, Eve’s incredibly succinct and clear summary of spiritual abuse: ‘People can try to make you obey in ways that are about them and not about Christ.’

But the thing I’ve been especially ruminating on, since I heard it, was something from Ty’s talk. The ways he spoke about experiencing and understand shame lay partly on a gradient: shame tends to tell us that we are either Not Enough, or else Too Much (or sometimes both). He gave the example from his own life of his coming out: that same week, his parents went to church and got saved; which, yay, but it also sent the message: You’re so Too Much that we had to call on the God of the universe to be able to deal with our own son. But shame is far more diverse than that of course, and he laid out a sort of sample phrase for understanding how it operates in our own lives (using Too Much and Not Enough as prompts more than as rigid categories): ‘Shame tells me that I am _____.’

I thought about it for a minute, trying a phrase or two that were true enough but didn’t really resonate emotionally. Then it came to me: Shame tells me that I am on probation. Screw up too much, and you’re done.

Especially when I believed in sola fide, I was abjectly terrified that I wasn’t good enough for God. My experience of sola fide was toxic because the way the doctrine was articulated to me was that, while you’re saved by faith alone, genuine faith produces good works—which trapped me in the inescapable prison of wondering whether my works were good enough to prove my faith was genuine. I gaslit myself for a decade, doubting every thought, word, and deed as perhaps being (how could I ever tell?) the secretly rotten fruit of hypocrisy.

Catholicism, which offered me a means of placing even the most mixed motives under the influence of grace, saved my faith and probably my life; yet Catholic culture too provides lots of space for scrupulosity, self-righteousness, and fear, and a greater multitude of methods by which to seem to oneself to be earning celestial approval. The mechanics of Catholicism, just as such, aren’t enough. Without the matured and patient wisdom of many guides, living and dead, I would probably have wound up merely in a larger prison—one defined by the concrete acts of confession and penance, instead of the bottomless chasm of whether I were sincere, but a prison all the same. And I’m neither surprised nor angry nor scornful that others, finding themselves in such a prison, have chosen to break out of it. Who wouldn’t? If God sounds like a jailer, why would you want to go to heaven?

Thus far, most of my attempts at reconciling my sexuality with my faith have had a strong element of shame in them. Not, for a long time now, shame about the bare facts of who I am and what kinds of relationships and sex I long for. But shame of a different and more calculating kind, a shame rooted in that idea of being on probation with God. The God that shame depicts for us doesn’t love us; he wants something from us—a performance. Which, given a moment’s thought, is ridiculous. As if he needed anything! Or as if a parent would evaluate their child’s drawings and decide whether to keep the child based (however gently and reasonably) on an increase of skill!

I haven’t altogether worked out where to go from here. But simply to name the problem seems like progress.

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1 For those who don’t know, Revoice is a nationwide conference founded for Side B Christians (queer-identifying Christians who subscribe to a traditional sexual ethic), to provide support and fellowship and increase visibility. It first met last year.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Forked Tongue of Bishop Tobin

He is the son of one Saywell, he dwelt in Prating-row; and he is known of all that are acquainted with him, by the name of Talkative in Prating-row, and notwithstanding his fine tongue, he is but a sorry fellow. … Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith.
—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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CW: Sexual abuse and sacrilege.

Bishop Tobin of Providence (of whom I had not heard before) tweeted several days ago that Catholics must not attend gay Pride events, since they are incompatible with Catholicism and harmful to children. He was promptly hung, drawn, and quartered by half the internet.

He deserved it. This is the man also had the gall to say, about a year ago, that back when he was the auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh, he did know about cases of child abuse but didn’t do anything about them because ‘My responsibilities … did not include clergy assignments or clergy misconduct … I was not contacted by the Grand Jury, interviewed, nor mentioned in their report [well have a fucking cookie Your Excellency] … In my experience, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has been very responsible and transparent in responding to allegations of sexual abuse’—which is why, when four priests of that diocese took photos of a fifteen-year-old boy stripped naked and posed as Christ crucified, we all learned about it at the time, and not decades later when the truth was forcibly extracted by the pressure of the law and incorporated into the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. The responsibility and transparency of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, we have these to thank for the fact that Fr Richard Zula was removed from ministry and reported to the authorities the first time a complaint was made about ‘violent sexual activity with a minor,’ as opposed to, say, letting him rake up one hundred and thirty criminal charges and two confessions of his own before informing the authorities. The snake who learned about cases just like these and decided ‘Not my area’ wants to warn us about other people’s conduct being ‘harmful to children.’

Is Bishop Tobin the most hypocritical and corrupt member of the USCCB? I doubt it. Have another cookie.

I was frankly outraged to see Bishop Strickland of Tyler speaking in Tobin’s defense, given that Strickland was one of the few American bishops for whom I had any respect left, since he seemed like he was going to practice some real, public repentance and reform. [1] That list is now down to pretty much just Bishop Persico of Erie, who actually met with the Grand Jury and has made some concrete effort to deal with his diocese’s guilt. Whether Tobin's right (which, no) is irrelevant. After the way he's behaved, he, like many, many other Catholic bishops, should be deposed and degraded yesterday.

I remain a Catholic (one with sins of my own that I cannot take back) by God’s grace. Nothing else. As Flannery O’Connor said, the one thing that makes the Church bearable is that she feeds us Jesus. Literally, and in spite of herself.

It rips me up inside to think of people who lose that because the behavior of her priests was so sick and sadistic, and that of her bishops so self-centered and cowardly, that they couldn’t bear to be near it. Those for whom a golden cross evokes memories not of the gift of the Eucharist or the tender Heart that endured the Passion, but of unwanted hands and tongues and eyes. And it disgusts me that there are still Catholics willing to go to bat for the same bishops who allowed this stuff to go on unchecked, these hirelings that care nothing for the sheep, and blame those who leave for being driven away.

I’m staying. I’m staying for the Eucharist, which is Jesus. I hope those who have been driven away come back for Jesus. But I don’t blame them for running from the wolves; nobody should. Nor do I blame them for not trusting shepherds (hell, I don’t trust shepherds), when they know shepherds chiefly as men who bring wolves into the fold and tell everybody they’re sheepdogs.

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[1] In fairness to Bishop Strickland, perhaps he didn’t know about Bishop Tobin’s atrocious remarks last August. They weren’t front-page news.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Antifascism 104A: Why America?

This third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can, however, produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe, it may shade off into that popular racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. 
… If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century, the English became very conscious of such duties: the ‘white man’s burden.’ What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. … And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights, not the duties. 
—C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
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But why is this even happening? How is it fascism, of all ideologies, getting a comeback tour? Weren't the upsets of Fascist Italy in 1943, Nazi Germany in 1945, and Nationalist Spain in 1974, enough to establish that this is a political dead-end?

Honestly, no—for a mixture of reasons, some more thoroughly unflattering than others. In this post I will begin to address just two of the relevant culprits. One is the nature of fascism, and the other is the history of American politics.

Let's start with that second one first. We all know, in a vague and general way, that the U.S., like a child who has thrown up only once, is not done getting racism out of its system. Our almost-definable right, infighting-riddled left, and aggressively shapeless center all insincerely and equivocally agree about that. What our various factions disagree about is what racism consists in, how it manifests itself, and how to correct it; so, most things. Two rough models of what an American might mean by racism can be described. I’ll refer to these models as the Whig and the Jacobin, because I feel like it. Most self-described conservatives in this country use the Whig model, and most self-described liberals, the Jacobin.

The Whig model defines racism as being primarily an issue of personal arrogance, prejudice, and dislike, and thus as a primarily moral issue. Racial bigotry and spite are acknowledged to be real problems and (by Christian Whigs) serious sins, but insofar as the problem is a moral one of individual attitudes, a systemic solution is neither called for nor helpful, on this view—and most Whigs, while they will allow that government interventions are occasionally necessary, maintain that the government is even less to be trusted than the individual and that its interventions (whether political or judicial) are to be avoided accordingly.

By contrast, the Jacobin model defines racism as being primarily an issue of power dynamics among groups of people. (The groups in question may be socially constructed, and so in a sense artificial, but this does not make them fake, any more than the fact that a house is a construct rather than an organic growth means the house is fake.) Racism is, primarily, a tool for keeping racial minorities—black, brown, red, or yellow—at a group-wide disadvantage as compared to whites; the occasional excelling minority person is not a threat to this system, because it is precisely occasional and exceptional. Reform of these diseased systems is therefore both necessary and appropriate as a response.

Thus you can have a Republican (Whig model) arguing with a Democrat (Jacobin model), or a Green (Jacobin model) arguing with an Independent (Whig model), and they can all be agreeing that racism is bad and yet coming away from the discussion each thinking the other is a total idiot. I don’t know that I personally have ever met a Republican who didn’t admit both that the South is pretty racist, and that that was a serious problem; but they’re basing that belief on the stereotype (fair or not) that more Southerners are personally disdainful of black people than elsewhere in the country, not that the South has more egregious systemic problems. Even if the latter were true, and acknowledged to be true by the Republicans I’ve met, it wouldn’t enter into their calculations of racism (although it might enter into their view of a society’s general healthiness, independent of its political structure). A shared term with a disputed definition is worthless. [1]

It’s no secret that I think both the Whig and the Jacobin approaches, insofar as they can be reconciled, are right; and I think they can be reconciled a lot more than many of their proponents think. Any social and political system is more than the sum of its parts, and having laws and systems that encourage (even if they cannot compel) a just outcome is desirable: that is the Jacobin side. But it must also be recognized that every system is constructed and enforced by individual people, individuals who aren’t necessarily better than anybody they’re drafting laws and policies for: that is the Whig side. I don’t consider this problem totally insoluble—but it’s a genuine problem.

But here’s the thing. American history has a lot of systemic keeping-the-coloreds-down shit in our history, quite apart from slavery. Segregation is the ur-example: ‘separate but equal’ was the mantra, but it was obvious to anyone who wanted to look that the separation was into two flagrantly unequal segments of the populace, and anyway, why have a separation in the first place if we’re equal citizens? Or there’s the Muskogee syphilis experiments, or the Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s, or the current US policy of ripping families apart for requesting asylum (something that can only be done on US soil). The US treatment of First Nations is an equally egregious: one of the less-publicized facts about the Dakota Access Pipeline that caused so much controversy in 2016 and 2017, was the fact that it violated the territorial sovereignty of the Sioux tribes in the area, which the US had guaranteed by multiple treaties. A white-centric idea of America may have arisen from individual prejudices first; it is surely not something that can be totally eradicated by law, because laws aren’t perfect; but it is something that’s incarnated in our history, our habits, and even our laws—not just a phenomenon of individually awful human beings.

Fascist ethnonationalism plays to this. Not many people would want to go to bat for everything the US government has ever done, but not many people would want to go through and repent of all of it, either. The exercise would be exhausting. And fascism offers a way around it, a way to define all those whiny brown and black and yellow and red people as Somebody Else: as critics of America rather than wronged Americans, people whom we therefore don’t have to listen to—because who can really blame any nation for looking after itself? It’s what we have nations for, isn’t it? All of these Other People should go to their own nations if they want to complain about it!

By defining itself in terms of ethnicity and appealing to a colonial history defined by whites, modern fascism makes itself instantly appealing to people who are bothered by a sense of socio-historical guilt, but aren’t sure what to do with it, or resent it, or just find the people who talk about it insufferable. (To be fair, many people who talk about socio-historical guilt are insufferable: being right does not make a person pleasant.) It’s pretty natural that this should become appealing at some point following the early successes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. If anything, it’s something of a miracle that it took this long to do so.

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[1] Of the two definitions, I’ll confess to having more sympathy with the Whig one, partly because it’s the understanding I grew up with, and partly because it does often seem to animate the use of the term by leftists and liberals. I mean, when a journalist or a politician calls somebody a racist, I doubt they even frequently mean ‘You participate in a system that disfavors nonwhite racial groups!’, nor would that term be very useful if they did, since (on Jacobin principles) that described basically everyone in the US. Rather, what I take them to mean is closer to ‘You’re bigoted against people of nonwhite races!’ And while we can never be completely certain of that charge, we can be certain enough to make the term a useful one.
Nonetheless, the thing that the Jacobin usage defines as racism is a real thing, and merits a term to denote it. I don’t know that I have a good alternative; ‘systemic bias,’ maybe?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review: "Jennifer the Damned"

When my mother sat me down at the kitchen table one night, about a month before my 
class was scheduled to receive Holy Communion, I had no idea she was about to tear my world apart. My mind could not conceive of anything worse than that she was going to have to work a double shift again.
‘Jennifer, you won’t be receiving Communion with the rest of your class.’
Tiny shards of pink crystal hope exploded inside my heart, lacerating my dreams. ‘Why?’
‘Communion is not meant for us.’
‘Sister Joan says it’s meant for everyone, to save our souls from the devil.’
My mother smiled her crooked, perverse smile. ‘Jennifer, you and I … we don’t have souls.’

—Karen Ullo, Jennifer the Damned

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So not only is Catholic vampire fiction its whole own subgenre, we have a Facebook page now! We are: Karen Ullo (Jennifer the Damned), Eleanor Bourg Nicholson (A Bloody Habit), J. B. Toner (Whisper Music), and myself (Death’s Dream Kingdom). I’ll be reviewing my three compatriots’ novels, beginning here with Mrs Ullo’s book, which I got last week and whose nigh-400-pages I devoured in just a few days. (All four novels, I believe, can be purchased on Amazon; I have included direct-from-publisher links for each, both because the books are sometimes cheaper that way and because screw Amazon.)

Jennifer the Damned is set in contemporary Louisiana and California. The titular Jennifer was stolen from her birth mother by the lovely, heartless, and masterful Helen Carshaw, a vampire centuries old, who chose Jennifer as her protégé. She raises Jennifer as her own daughter—feeding her only the raw or rare meat that she can digest—and places her in Catholic school, in order to nurture her in both knowledge of God’s love for humanity and hatred that that love is withheld from the likes of them.

As the novel opens, Helen has disappeared, and Jennifer Carshaw has been in the care of a small convent of teaching nuns for a few years. She has been receiving a robustly Catholic education, and even a fairly normal high-school-misfit social experience—save that she alone is excluded from the sacraments, and especially from the Communion, that she so badly yearns for and envies her classmates for being able to access.

But Jennifer is experiencing her transfiguration into a full-fledged vampire, and the insatiable bloodlust that goes with it. The very smell of the Precious Blood at Mass drives her close to blind frenzy. Left to navigate undeath on her own, Jennifer decides to attempt a balance between her secret life as a vampire and the life she wants as a human being.

Here Be Spoilers
(Jump to Next Section to Skip Them)

The attempt, though valiant, fails. Jennifer learns a degree of self-control and develops the cunning to dispose of her kills without leaving any incriminating evidence behind, but she cannot truly balance the demands of the human life she has led till now with the new urges of the vampire: after a handful of anonymous disappearances, she loses control and kills the boy she has been dating. Around the same time, Helen’s bizarre plans, which involved turning a classmate of Jennifer’s named Jeremy into a vampire as her ‘brother,’ gradually become clearer: Jennifer despairs of ever managing a semblance of human life at home, and, as the FBI zero in on her, finding more and more evidence of her murders, she deserts the nuns and her school, adopting a false identity and telling Jeremy how to reach her later.

A few years later, while she is living in Los Angeles and working as a makeup artist, she meets someone new, a young actor named Conner who takes a shine to her. She begins toying once again with the idea of leading a human life, at least part of the time. But Jeremy, who is now experiencing his own growth into full vampire-hood, comes to find her: abandoned by their pseudo-mother, they have only each other to rely on as fellow undead. Nevertheless Jennifer opens herself up, little by little, to Conner’s increasing affection and seriousness about their relationship. Against all her prior experience, Jennifer even begins to see signs of mortality returning to her body—until her false identity is exposed and, like a pantomime demon out of a trap-door, Helen emerges. Helen informs them that she, Jennifer, has become the most pathetic of creatures, a mortal vampire, and demands that her two pseudo-children kill Conner and come with her; driven by rebellion and revenge for the humanity she took from them, they instead destroy her.

Jennifer leaves Conner, hospitalized after their confrontation with Helen, with a note expressing her regret and her love for him, and returns to Louisiana and the nuns. She confesses what she has been and done, including all her murders, and agrees to face justice, asking only to receive the Eucharist first, now that she at long last is sure she has a soul. The priest consents, she drinks the Precious Blood, and there the novel ends.

(Spoilers End)
Here Be Lit-Crit

Jennifer the Damned is comparable to Twilight in premise, yet with the superior craftsmanship of Anne Rice. It takes the psychological and spiritual gravity of being a vampire seriously, in a way that many of its rivals fail to do, even Dracula, whose vampires are indeed evil but merely evil, without the depth of a human sinner or even of a fallen angel like the possessed Weston of Perelandra. Feeling cut off from humanity not merely in a social way, but in an urgently sacramental sense, is something I’ve rarely come across outside of Rice’s work. I wonder whether the choice of Louisiana, such an important location in Interview With the Vampire, may itself be a tribute to Rice. (Louisiana has become virtually the Transylvania of Southern Gothic, also popping up in Vampire: The Requiem and the stories of Jacques St Germain).

Structurally, the novel works well enough; stylistically, though it has a few sags into cliché, it’s generally very good—better than Dracula. But where Jennifer the Damned really shines is its pacing. This is itself a cliché, I know, but I couldn’t put it down! I always needed to know what was going to happen next: I cared what happened to Jennifer and the people around her.

If the novel has weaknesses, they are two: audience grasp of the mechanics of vampirism, and the ending. Now, it is appropriate that we don’t fully understand how being a vampire works at the beginning, partly because we the readers are learning with Jennifer as the story progresses. However, a major mechanical shift away from what we had been led to think, one that’s highly plot-relevant, takes place fairly close to the end without really being foreshadowed. This leaves us feeling more like the mechanics have been fiddled with to convenience the plot, than that we are continuing to learn with Jennifer and that if we’d been a little cannier with the facts we had we might have seen this twist coming. It’s not a fatal flaw but it’s the worse of the two, in my opinion.

The other flaw is that the closing feels kind of rushed. Jennifer’s love interest in the last third of the book falls for her so quickly that I was inclined to put it down to vampire charm, but then that explanation seemed to be repudiated, which resulted in the romance coming across as over-idealized—though, to be fair, not cloying or problematic like Stephenie Meyer’s; the characters’ behavior and dialogue stays convincing. The one truly important death of the book happens with little fanfare, which was a real disappointment. And while I can’t quite bring myself to call this a problem—because if I’m truthful, it’s kind of the point of the book—I am furious over the openness of the very end! I want there to be sequels so I can find out, even indirectly, what happened.

Should You Read It?

If you are a fan of vampire literature or coming-of-age stories, definitely! All in all I give Jennifer the Damned a B+, with the note that it could’ve gotten an A- if Ullo had stuck the landing just a little better (and if there are sequels I am optimistic that she will). Go forth and buy.

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