Compulsions & Affirmations

Compulsions & Affirmations

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Christianity & Crisis 46.4 (1986): 78-81.

© 1986 by Christianity & Crisis. © 2004 by Louie Crew

I used to wonder why my brightest black students needed to say "Black is beautiful."

"I find it counterproductive to say 'White is beautiful.' Why risk glibness? Does not race already denominate too commonly?" I cautioned.

In time they took the trouble to educate me, after I shut up and listened, and after I said the same to black colleagues.

Of course when blacks say "Black is beautiful!"--or as Jessie Jackson now has groups to chant, "I'm somebody!"--they risk glibness. But glibness threatens far less than does the demon Self-Contempt, which they strive to exorcise, a demon which stigma quickens.

Professional status does immune one to the power of stigma. Some professional people compound the problem and refuse to confront the stigma until well into their careers. I have held the hands of several gay priests and psychologists through such rites of passage. I have seen them traumatized, sometimes as old as 65, to accept for the first time as perfectly all right their mere desire for another person sexually.

A heterosexual who tries to imagine the specifics of homosexual desire misses my point. A heterosexual can better understand the dynamics if the heterosexual imagines remaining overwhelmingly and involuntarily heterosexual, but in a different world, in a world which makes heterosex illicit and allows only homosex.

Stigmatized people often see themselves as anathema. Some find it enormously difficult to own and to name what they feel, yet wholeness requires us not only to name but also to integrate all that we are.

I'll never forget the first time another male ever whispered to me which men he found sexy on the city bus with us, in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s:

"We're not supposed even to think like this! How dare you name our feeling!" I thought. "We're wicked!"

Fear gripped my gut: I wanted to vomit. But even more I wanted him to continue talking! Here another person named what daily I had seen, what my dreams had recovered even when I had tried to suppress my appetite; and God did not thunder! I knew in an instant: such a God be damned. If such talk was sin, I could not get enough of it!

Those men were gorgeous. The Creator-God could not keep that secret.

My friend's saying so then and my saying so now would cause no notice whatsoever in a healthy society.

Inevitably, however, a few people will think that I say that we should approve all gay behavior as unconditionally as I say that we should approve all gay people. Such persons should ask what they have at stake in wanting a gay activist to look stupid. As do many straights, many lesbians and gay men live unwisely. Some such lesbians and gay men want help.

Those who give that help, be they heterosexual or gay, need both to respect the sexual orientation and to see beyond it. Our labels should help us, not perversely prevent us from relating to the very persons we attempt to describe.

Many victims of stigma often do not understand how the stigma functions. As one who teaches women, I have an obligation to attend to what feminists say about sexism, sometimes in terms much too advanced for many of my young women students. Those of us who work professionally with the oppressed may have no interest in, or talent for, politics; but we must appraise political reality sensitively. Otherwise we may harm, no matter how much we may intend to help, especially if we underestimate the systemic sources of what we take as individual behavior.

For example, if I try to teach a ghetto child to read, I might misread the signals of her intelligence or her motivation if I refuse to look at politics. Any good teacher must insist that a pupil do her homework; but if the pupil has not eaten for three days, or if she has to work 6 hours after school, or if her drunk mother yelled all night at a pimp for not bringing a john....the child's blank lesson book "speaks to her condition" (as my Quaker ancestors would have put it), but not to her intelligence or to her motivation.

Little wonder that we universally repeat Neibuhr's prayer, which many think to have been written by an earlier saint: God give us the strength to change what we can change, the courage to accept what we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In this context, I review the questions that several in your group raised about sexual compulsions in the lesbian and gay community. Lest I unwittingly add to the stigma, I hasten to add that no group holds exclusive rights to sexual compulsivity. Even with the full support of most institutions, thousands of heterosexuals, especially males, compulsively sustain the major industries of prostitution and pornography. Thousands of other heterosexuals compulsively beat their wives and compulsively abuse their children.

These compulsions do not define heterosexuals, any more than does their breeding. Nor can the compulsions of any number of individuals define lesbians and gay males.

While we have no accurate statistics on the incidence of hetero- vs. homosexual compulsivity, I would in fact be surprised if gay people do not have more than our share of compulsive sex. Society actively discourages most healthier alternatives for us:

Society not only refuses to affirm any on-going and comprehensive gay relationships publicly; it penalizes gay people more for openness than ever it does for a fling in the bushes or a sleezy bar. The Church blesses cats, dogs, canaries, automobiles, butterflies, sewer name it....but casts only mephitic asperges on even the most loving, nurturing, caring gay couples. Even liberal dioceses "draw the line," when it comes to blessing our unions. No Justice of Heteropeace anywhere is ever allowed to.

I am not amazed that some gay people act compulsively. I am amazed that many others do not.

One in your group commented, "But the sexuality cannot be fulfilling if one has sex with numerous people in one evening, as do many of the homosexuals I counsel." Of course compulsive sex cannot fulfill. Compulsive sex is compulsive precisely because it does not satisfy, not because compulsive sex is sex.

We do not devalue banana splits merely because a person like me might compulsively eat two in one sitting.

A gay person who wants to move out of sexual compulsions does not have to devalue homosex. In fact the person likely needs to value homosex more thoughtfully.

Compulsions resist easy analysis. What prompts my second banana split on one occasion might not prompt my second banana split on another. Still, I sometimes forgo the second banana split, without a compulsive diet, if I merely pause to appreciate at least part of the dynamics of my "hunger."

I shall never forget how Dad and I angered Mother once. He and I had fished all afternoon, and had stopped for supper on the way home. But she had worked all afternoon on a surprise feast. She insisted that we eat again, lest her fare degenerate into mere "leftovers." We did not resist. In fact, with no apparent difficulty we accommodated her even to second helpings. Afterwards, as if to pass onto Mother the blame for our aching stomachs, Dad and I emended the Sunday School text as we sang in full voice while we washed the dishes:

Praise [it], praise [it], all the little Children, [Food] is love! [Food] is love!
Mother, who generally loved all humor at her own expense, angered instantly: we'd moved from tease to sacrilege. We had profaned our family table.

I suspect that I do not overeat to fulfill a hunger for food, but other hunger misdirected. My parents used (some would argue "misused") food as a love-additive. No one in our block was surprised when I became fat like the two of them.

Guilt does not help me as a compulsive. It clouds the issue. When I have finished one banana split, I can too easily think, "Well, see, I am indeed hopeless. I feel so bad. But at least I know who I am: I am a hopeless fat person." Guilt then licenses me to buy the next banana split, to confirm my worst fears about myself. I can even throw in, "I'm hopelessly this way because Mother and Dad made me so."

With imagination, with some simple habits, and with a huge measure of God's grace, I can sometimes forgo the second banana split, especially if I remember to enjoy the first one and remember with love the parents who, as best they knew how, taught me to value all things that taste good. In other words, sometimes I grow up. That's what any good counselor, parent, or friend wants to encourage a compulsive person to do.

Too often adults never sort out our hungers. I suspect that I hunger far less for the extra sweets than I hunger for the love of those who continually supplied sweets in overabundance in the most formative years of my life.

People compulsive about sex, especially about stigmatized sex, often think after the sexual act: "Well, I really am the dirty person society has taught me to be, so I might just as well have another go at it."

In a major contribution to black literature, Richard Wright let Bigger Thomas in Native Son act out the stereotype which white America created. Bigger, thoroughly versed in white America's stigma of him, knows only one course of action when suddenly and accidentally in the bedroom with a naked white woman. He must rape her. Many compulsives value the hunt more than they value the partner. Straights buy Playboy month after month: no one model satisfies.

Yet, with imagination, with simple habits, and with a huge measure of God's grace, sometimes the compulsive person can learn to share the clean, sweet silence which follows sex with only one partner.

We know few things for certain about sex. We're lucky that much mystery remains. But we need to value sex's one major certainty: it makes human creatures want one another. How sad if desire does not or cannot effect intimacy, communion.

We also know for certain that sex, like other hungers, is an appetite, as regular as most compulsions. How delightful! How fully human!

I refuse to believe that God turned out the lights and drew the blinds when She created our sexual parts and tested our juices. God is not such a pornographer. The Creator likes creatures. Genesis is right: creation is good!

When Jesus chatted with the woman at the well, he teased:

"Where is your husband?"

"I have no husband," she fudged.

[Most translators miss Jesus's wink here. Wake up!]

"You speak truly. You have had husbands aplenty, and the man you now live with is not one of them."

Notice that Jesus did not jump to condemn her. He spoke as one who understood. He left it to her to ask the next question. Jesus left change to occur, if at all, at the compulsive person's own volition. Jesus did not specify a timetable or a quota. We must discover, name, and define our own salvation with fear and diligence.

How fiercely ironic that a gay Christian can have clandestine sex several times in one Sunday after church with far less risk than the person takes if he introduces as spouse at the parish coffee hour a gay lover of many years.

(I used to avoid the gay term "lover" in sentences such as the last one, since straights usually use "lover" to refer to companions to whom they commit themselves minimally, people "on the side" or "on the sly." Then a straight priest told me that he and his wife had discovered our joyful secret, one which most in the majority culture cannot even name. To celebrate, each now refers to the other, even in public, as "lover.")

The gay press floods with discourse about "responsible sex," especially in the wake of the grim specter of AIDS. Meanwhile, the church can't even decide whether to defrock those of us in holy orders unless they lie.

Some straight counselors stress that most of their gay clients are sick. Most of their straight patients are sick too, I hope; or someone should sue for malpractice. We should not extend to the healthy our generalizations about the sick.

Stereotypes often occur for reasons, as I have tried to suggest in discussing the stereotype of gay people as sexually compulsive. As a good antidote to the reductiveness of one stereotype, consider the greater inclusiveness of contrary stereotypes. For example:

In a large family with only one lesbian or gay male child (or only one that is "questionable"), which child most often remains with the parents to care for them in their old age?

Why do many children in the schoolyard or, years later, on the golf links, think that poetry is for sissies?

Why do little girls risk being called dykes when they become lawyers, doctors and priests, or when they refuse to dress seductively?

Why do little boys risk being called fags when they oppose war, value art and music, like candles and vestments, and treat literature with more fondness than they treat football?

Jesuit John McNeill, author of The Church and the Homosexual, preaches a marvelous sermon about Philip, possibly the most narrowly ethnic of Jesus's disciples, strangely led to ride in the chariot of the Ethiopian sexual-outsider. They discussed literature (Isaiah) and then paused for the liturgy of baptism!

I personally wish that Luke had mentioned the Eunich's brand of cologne and had described in detail the chariot's decor. In light- hearted moments I know for certain that gay males will inhabit heaven; otherwise God will never find the right antique store to buy the sapphire throne described in the Revelation.

Put with less camp, but no less seriously: the cross-cultural Christian community I proclaim, Acts proclaimed too. Pentecost indeed!

Every person who has 10-20 friends, has gay friends, if we use Kinsey's projections. I strongly believe that no heterosexuals should minister to lesbians and gay males or deliver any other professional services, if they do not first celebrate their lesbian and gay male colleagues, however much privacy such celebrations may require while the culture slowly plods ahead. That few professionals actually do know and celebrate (as opposed to patronize) their lesbian gay colleagues, indicates the caution their lesbian and gay clients should exercise.

Prurients beware: I mean sharing details no less intimate, and no more intimate, than a wedding ring, a spouse's picture, a lover's illness or new job, etc. Much too often a colleague has patted me on the back and whispered over a drink after I have addressed sexual issues as a guest on his [not generic; for some reason these people always sport a penis] campus: "Yes, we want sexual liberation too. Lot's of us want the freedom to have sex with our students and with friend's wives....." Please address your own agenda; but do not confuse it with mine.

Christopher Isherwood, the reserved English novelist, does not shift out of character when he speaks of "the heterosexual dictatorship." A person does not have to act like a dictator to enjoy the spoils: the bullies' prerogative comes with or without the matching behavior.

When a door opens for me that my gay male spouse cannot enter merely because he is black, I rarely halt at the door, though I respect others who resist in that way. I usually prefer to enter and then, from inside, try to use my access as a means to change the system, to ridicule out of existence silly criteria like color.

Recovering what is violated:

The Founding of Integrity

I first glimpsed how huge are the forces which conspire to violate my wholeness in a strange epiphany back in 1974. In February of that year another man and I had united our lives. Never before had anyone loved me who did not, at least in some measure, have to. All at once Ernest showed me how Jesus's similar claim could be true. I could begin to become whole.

Newly baptized in God's and Ernest's love, I arrived in Berkeley as an NEH fellow for the summer. I called Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to inquire, "Where can my gay spouse and I meet other gay Episcopalians while here?"

For a moment the full switch-board seemed to short-circuit. Giving one inane excuse after another, each secretary transferred the call to another, so that every one could relish the occasion.

I expected such silly run-arounds in rural Georgia where we had lived openly as a gay and racially integrated couple, but not in the city most famous for its large gay population, and not in the most liberal of all Anglican houses, and not five years after the purported beginning of gay liberation, and not....

Thus I ran head-on into the real world, where, unlike the world of comic books, evil and righteousness maintain no specific address, except yours and mine.

The Holy Spirit used their highly placed tittering to prompt me into taking responsibility. I knew that God promiscuously loves everybody! All lucky enough to know that, share an obligation to tell the good news. When I returned to rural Georgia, I took out ads in church and gay papers announcing a new publication, called INTEGRITY.

Others have taken that small beginning and have built a ministry that has acted within and beyond the Episcopal Church over the past decade, influencing every General Convention. Over 40 chapters now worship and function as healing communities. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have entered or re-entered the Church, many into priestly vocation.... For several years now, I have not been a part of the formal organization. For the entire time I have lived in isolation, either in rural America or in voluntary exile in the Orient. I stand amazed that God actually does take seriously the tiny faith of one quean like me.

God has blessed me in many other ways: My father as a Baptist deacon routinely voted against any issue if it promised to become unanimous. Mother and I suspected that no neighbor would like us because of Dad's crankiness, but he powerfully demonstrated time and again that dissent does not make the world fall apart.

Dad also taught me the proper use of privilege. He risked any credentials he had--to empower his efforts to reform our community, not to assure his personal advantage within the community. He never played football, nor does our society yet properly value his kind of courage.

I am blessed with several friends, gay and straight, well grounded enough to live comfortably next to a lightening rod. With them I can candidly confront political pressures and at the same time move comfortably within completely different rooms.

The Episcopal Church in General Convention at Minneapolis in 1976 passed that "homosexual persons are Children of God and entitled to the full love, care, and pastoral concern of the Church." That claim seems as presumptuous today as it did then, as if an isolated group of Christians can get together privately and ratify Calvary. But God calls us all to presume to ratify Calvary daily. Manna rots when hoarded.

Even the official records concur: God never loves exclusively one people, one time, or one place. Throughout history God has continued to extend the boundaries, to love people whom the Religious officially exclude. Joy to the world indeed.


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