When I was in high school I spent just hours upon hours trying to suss out gay subtext in novels, songs, poetry. I longed for that moment of recognition: the moment when you realize that someone else has put into words and images something you have felt but never understood. It was so frustrating when somebody would slur through a pronoun (is that, “Was a lover, and his last”?) or skitter away from a revealing turn of phrase. And it was so thrilling when somebody–usually Morrissey, bless his heart–suggested that there was a place for all my queer stories and emotions.
It’s often easier to tell the truth in art than in plain speech. In art you can suggest and shade, you can show every angle of a situation instead of just the one you want to champion; you can explore your own doubts and despair within an overall context of Christian faith; you can show the world’s beauty and broken edges instead of just arguing for them. You can admit a lot under cover of fiction, and you can speak in several tongues at once. You can expand the imagination.
So in this post I want to see which stories are out there that show the intersection (or collision) of same-sex sexual desire and Christian faith, in which neither the desires nor the Christian sexual ethic are demonized. Are there stories–plays, paintings, poems, songs–that show people like us?
I welcome your nominations! My own suggestions are below the cut, as well as some ideas about what I’m looking for and not looking for.
Brideshead Revisited is of course the misty shaggy mountain here. It’s short! It holds up to rereading! It’s not for everybody but let’s just get this out of the way: Brideshead, check it out. I think many of us will relate to the ways these characters feel constrained and humiliated by their inescapable faith; the way their faith is neither understood nor respected by those around them; their helplessness, and their patience in the face of repeated or ongoing personal defeat. Also, it’s frequently really funny.
Is it cheating to name Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray? Wilde is such a moralist (the moral is usually “Judge not, lest ye be judged”–but not this time!), and this is one of his forays into specifically sexual moralizing: Don’t be a hedonist, y’all. Wilde is so churchy in his ability to sate your senses while reminding you that all the incense and the music points beyond itself, flowing up into Heaven. Anyway this is a Wildean work with pretty strong hints of homoeroticism. If we’re accepting that memoir and essay can also be artistic forms, which I’m semi-okay with although I don’t want this post to focus on that, we can also add his self- and other-lacerating prison cri de coeur, De Profundis.
Beyond the Hills is a heartbreaking movie about two Romanian Orthodox women who grew up together in an orphanage. One entered a monastery when she became an adult; the other comes back to rescue her from religion and reignite their lesbian relationship. It doesn’t end well. My spoilerous review here. This is hardly an inspiring, uplifting gay Christian story–but it is a story that respects its central character’s love of God and her love of another woman.
Therese, the 1980s Alain Cavalier biopic of St Therese of Lisieux, includes a subplot in which another nun develops a crush on Therese. I haven’t watched this in years (though I’d like to revisit it–it’s a sublime film) but I recall it as being handled sensitively, though again, it does not end in reconciliation of desires. So far I guess none of these suggestions really do. Ah well, life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone etc etc.
So, what are your suggestions, people? Here is what I am not looking for: * Art in which a gay/queer/same-sex attracted person realizes it was just a phase or, like, “gets better.” (If they end up marrying someone of the opposite sex that’s fine, it happens to the best of us!, but I am not looking for The Triumphant March of Heterosexuality.)
* Art in which religion and/or the Christian sexual ethic are oppressors to be overcome. A lot of those “how I realized God loves gay marriage”-type narratives will still be of interest to many of SF’s readers, because they’ll draw on experiences a lot of us have had, but they’re not what this post is about. E.g. Choir Boy, or But I’m a Cheerleader!–well worth your time, but not what I’m looking for.
What I’m down for: * Art by somebody who eventually rejected SF’s understanding of Christian sexual ethics, but which is not about that rejection and which treats our position sensitively.
* Art that’s not explicit or completely blunt about its themes. I thought about saying, “If you’re not sure if there are gay people or Christians in this song, don’t suggest it,” but that’s untrue to the covert and coded way queer people have expressed ourselves–and it’s untrue to how art works. I know I’m opening the door to a lot of projecting one’s own desires or beliefs onto others but sure, go ahead, tell me about your Sufjan Stevens feelings. We’re all friends here.
* Art that you and I would fit into a tradition of “same-sex desire,” whether or not the creators would have understood that desire sexually. Again, I know this is tricky because I don’t want to suggest that all intense same-sex desire or longing is sexual. But I do want us to be able to talk about art from before the rise of gay identity language, and that means being open to ambiguity. Frederick Roden’s Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is a real treasure trove of this stuff, especially for fans of English poetry–he includes both women and men.
Okay, your turn. What else is out there?
This field is a complex one, such as how one feels about art that depicts Same sex subject in a not so sexual manner, and yet it still leads one to be aroused by the said piece of art. I am a Gay man looking into possibility of experimenting in the field of tasteful full frontal Male nudes in Oils and Acrylics, and the scenes I am interested in…is a biblical one at that….the creation of Adam, my own artistic interpretation. What say y’all on this one?
The Boys in the Band (1970) has a hint of faith/sexuality collision in the Catholic alcoholic character Michael. It remains one of the best gay movies of all time IMO
Just out of curiosity — to what exactly does the phrase “Sufjan Stevens feelings” refer? I know the singer and enjoy his music. I also know some people think he’s gay, but that still leaves me puzzled by the phrase.
Regarding art recommendations, this is a tough one. I think that I have most identified with Chaim Potok characters in this respect. To be clear, I DO NOT think that there are gay overtones in Potok’s work, nor have I ever heard someone suggest this. However, I think many of his books give voice to a conflict between a desire for intimacy and religious devotion.
I think “Sufjan Stevens feelings” would refer to texts that have a homoerotic charge but are ultimately ambiguous, because they might plausibly refer to a friend, a lover of the opposite sex, Jesus, etc. (e.g. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” and like, 2/3 of the songs on Carrie & Lowell)
What about Antonia Bird’s 1994 movie Priest? People not familiar enough with clergy may think of every priest in the movie (including the bishop) as a caricature, but they are not. I think it makes the common argument that associates closet and disfunction more believable. As Nietzsche said: “Silence is worse; all silenced truths become poisonous.”
The silence I am referring here is not the silence of dignified private matters but the silence of a “dirty secret.”
I don’t think the movie solves the problem of silence. It just rips off the bandage and leaves the festering wound open, so the viewer can go home with the hope that, now exposed, someone would know how to cure it.
I’m sorry, I have a problem with this movie. I agree that the people aren’t caracatures, but the Catholism is. About the only thing they got right was that, yes, gay sex is a mortal sin.
The whole confessional business assumes that just being in the confessional makes what you say secret. It doesn’t – you would have to making a sacramental confession, which a Catholic would know the molester isn’t even trying to do.
I don’t know whether the people who made this film were actually anti-Catholic, or just really that clueless.
Dear Mary, it is not my intention to start an argument. I do not believe that the director of the movie has the last word in what it means to be a Catholic. On the other hand I think she managed to portray, with almost “evangelical” skills, how the sinners tend to be more merciful than the righteous.
With all due respect, my own experience has taught me that most of the time I imagine anti-Catholic sentiments, it is caused by my own insecurities.
Dear Mary, I don’t know you, I don’t know if it is the case, but I can almost be sure that you, like me, can find a character in the movie that is somehow closer to the type of catholic you are. It may not be a movie about saints but it is a movie about Catholics.
One last point, the “seal of the sacrament,” because it is not part of the sacrament per se, extends even to those occasions in which absolution is not given for some reason. The treatment of the subject in the movie was according to Canon Law except in one aspect, the priest would have been excommunicated ipso facto for acknowledging to the father of the girls that he knew she was being raped.
@Marcos I’ve been a practicing Catholic for most of my life, except for about ten years when I left because I disagreed with church doctrine. (I came back because I realized I was wrong and the church was right.) I agree that the priest would have been bound by the seal even if he hadn’t given absolution, but I saw no sign of a sacramental confession. Just talking to a priest in a confessional doesn’t make it a confession. Just like you don’t even have to be in a confessional to receive the sacrament from a priest.
And there were other doctrinal problems too, even aside from the sex. But no, this isn’t the place to go into it. I’m just tired of non Catholics and former Catholics misrepresenting the faith. So I got what the message was supposed to be, but it was hard to take seriously over the trivialization and misrepresentation of the sacraments and church teaching.
This is a bit of a stretch–and it definitely involves a suspiciously biographical reading–but Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (Une Saison en Enfer) might fit the bill, at least if taken as being in part about the fallout from his relationship with Paul Verlaine. (And perhaps no author can quite rival Rimbaud’s tortured relationship to Catholicism: “Je suis esclave de mon baptême”)
I, Worst of All (Yo, la peor de todas) 1990
“Thanks to a liberal abbess at the convent, Sister Juana is able to meet with the leading writers and scholars of the day, all of whom hold her in high regard. Her large library, one of the best in the Americas, is filled with volumes not readily available to the general public. The talented nun also teaches music and does accounting work for the convent. When the vicereine gives birth to a son after losing three babies, Sister Juana rejoices with her. Then the poet and playwright shows her friend her own “children” — her telescope, her lyre, and her books — but notes, “It is a hard path without sweetness.” Perhaps that is why the tender love she has for the vicereine lights up her life and makes her feel even closer to God.”
Full movie on YouTube
The French author Nina Bouraoui (whose mother is French and father is Algerian) has many novels which explore French-Algerian ethnic identity and difficult family relationships. There are also beautiful and gut-wrenching passages about the female protagonists’ love of women. I was struck by the closing of the novel “Mes Mauvaises Pensées” (or My Bad Thoughts) in which the narrator comes to a place of healing–with regards to wounds from her family history and feelings of anxiety–and her writing takes an explicitly spiritual tone. It felt like her soft words about faith and God, in contrast to the tumultuous but always transcendent probing found in the rest of the novel, were the unwrapping of a closely and tentatively held source of warmth and light.
Can’t get enough of this writer. Some of her novels (like “Tomboy”) have been translated into English.
There are gay/SSA characters in the Regina Dolman fairy tale novels. One of her main male characters is gay/SSA, although it isn’t made explicit until around the third or fourth book. The Rapunzel book has two non-Catholic sexually active gay supporting characters that seem to me to be well portrayed as people, even though their lifestyle isn’t approved. There are negative gay characters too, in her books.
I also just read Lion’s Heart recently, by Dena Hunt.
Of course these aren’t great literature like some of the other things mentioned.
I read Fred Uhlman’s novella “Reunion” as a teenager, and to this day it has been one of the most emotionally powerful experiences I’ve had from reading.
To say, “it’s the story of a friendship between two high school students” doesn’t begin to do it justice. When I first read it, I felt freed in some way, like a weight was lifted: somebody else *got* it, somebody else understood and meaningful and powerful a friendship can be, how desirable friendship can be as a goal, how a life can be built around it.
I looked up Reunion, thanks to your recommendation, and just finished reading it. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. Thanks for pointing it out. I highly recommend it.
The friendship between Jane and Helen in Jane Eyre. “Helen Burns: Jane’s best friend at Lowood School. She refuses to hate those who abuse her, trusting in God and praying for peace one day in heaven. She teaches Jane to trust Christianity, and dies of consumption in Jane’s arms.”
oh my, so good and true!
My first thoughts, of course, are Shakespeare and Plato. I think most of us would recognize ourselves in Plato’s Phaedrus, though not enough people read the dialogue. (Plato obviously doesn’t address Christianity, but he does hold to the Christian sexual ethic). This isn’t fiction, but C.S. Lewis’s letters to Arthur Greeves are brilliant. Greeves knew early on he was attracted to men and was open about it with Lewis. Lewis walked beside him until Lewis became, well, a prick, and then — when Lewis was converted — Lewis wrote TONS of long letters to Greeves, who seemed to be the only person who could understand the depths of Lewis’s struggles with sin.
Indigo Girls music, of course — especially the early stuff, when faith was a reality to them. “Blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold / And these nights of desire keep calling me back to your fold”. Faith is held at a distance (except in “Prince of Darkness”), but never slammed. Prince of Darkness and Strange Fire both explore the same themes, though with a different feel. Prince of Darkness is, if I might say so, “Side B Indigo Girls”. They have since essentially repudiated the song. Bummer.
Oh, and this: Rufus Wainwright’s version of the song Hallelujah. He obviously didn’t write it, but he sings it as a gay man trying to figure out his place in a world where sin is sin, and love does not fulfill: “it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Wainwright can be brilliant. On an unrelated point, “Dinner at Eight” is perhaps the most moving father/son song I have ever heard.
I’ll stop rambling. 😉
Gosh, I just can’t resist quoting “Prince of Darkness”, because one line just perfectly captures my own experience of my feelings about men: “My dreams came in like needy children / Tugging at my sleeve / I said I have no way of feeding you so leave.”
Lewis walked beside him until Lewis became, well, a prick, and then — when Lewis was converted — Lewis wrote TONS of long letters to Greeves, who seemed to be the only person who could understand the depths of Lewis’s struggles with sin.
Wow. Is there a single book containing alot of them, or are they scattered in various places?
I read and enjoyed William Maxwell’s THE FOLDED LEAF after Wesley Hill referenced it in his SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP book. Though there was a great deal of disfunction between the two young men who were this novel’s main characters, I was so very compelled by the closeness of their relationship and their eventual (though understated) recognition of who they were to each other. I found myself wishing I could read more stories like these, or that could even write stories like these. But I could never publish such a story, because I’m not out and almost no one I know would understand. And yet I felt in reading this book that at least William Maxell understood!
Thanks for reminding me I’d meant to read this book! The kindle version was on sale, and I’m reading it now.
The Bell by Iris Murdoch. An exerpt: “God can always show us, if we will, a higher and a better way; and we can only learn to love by loving. Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.”
I haven’t gone through his poetry exhaustively, and — being a gay poet who converted to Catholicism in the 1950s — he rather fell between two stools in terms of literary movements; but Dunstan Thompson’s poetry is an example. Personally I would second the suggestion of Rimbaud above: he wasn’t devout by any stretch during his creative years, but he shows plainly a God-haunted mind.
It could be viewed in more than one way, and it definitely veers toward the “Christianity or at least the traditional sexual ethic are foes to be overcome” thing; however, the movie “Save Me” (2007, directed by Robert Cary) is an outstanding piece of film dealing with Christian ex-ex-gay experience. “In the Name Of” (2013, Malgorzata Szumowska) is a Polish film that chronicles the difficulties of a devout, closeted gay priest with profound sensitivity and complexity.
If it isn’t too vain of me, I’ve written some poems on this subject that have been well-liked by the people I’ve shown them to. “An Antithalamion” and “The Adoration of the Image of God” are both posted on my blog.
Just read “An Antithalamion.”
I don’t know much about poetry, but I love biblical imagery.
If read outside the context of your blog, lots of readers would think, “Wow, what a picture of my shame!” and never for a second think it related to being gay.
(does that sound like a bad thing or a good thing to you?)