First appeared in Outlook 6.12 (1988): 8-12
© 1988 by Outlook; © 2004 by Louie Crew
With prize-winning, meticulous scholarship, in one of the most important books ever done for gay studies, Byron and Greek Love (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), Louis Crompton, cites at length from a rare pamphlet, "The Trying and Pilloring of the Vere Street Club." Crompton explains that on July 8, 1810, the police had raided the White Swan in Vere Street, "a popular [London] gay club." The pamphlet describes their pillorying on September 27th:
At an early hour, the Old Bailey was completely blockaded, and the increase of the mob about 12 o'clock put a stop to the business of the Sessions.... Shortly after 12, the ammunition waggons from the neighbouring markets appeared in motion. These consisted of a number of carts which were driven by butchers' boys, who had previously taken care to fill them with the offal, dung, &c. appertaining to their several slaughter-houses. A number of hucksters were also put in requisition, who carried on their heads baskets of apples, potatoes, turnips, cabbage-stalks, and other vegetables, together with the remains of divers dogs and cats. The whole of these were sold to the public at a high price, who spared no expense to provide themselves with the necessary articles of assault.Crompton tells us that foreigners who visited England during this period repeatedly asked the same question many of us ask: How could England have allowed these spectacles to happen?
A number of fishwomen attended with stinking flounders and the entrails of other fish, which had been in preparation several days. These articles however were not to be sold, as their proprietors, hearty in the cause, declared they wanted them for their own use....
The gates of the Old Bailey Yard were shut, and all strangers turned out, after which the miscreants were all brought out, and placed in the caravan. Amos began a laugh, which induced his vile companions to reprove him, and they all sat upright, apparently in a composed state but, having cast their eyes upwards, the sight of the spectators on the tops of the houses operated strongly on their fears, and they soon appeared to feel terror and dismay. Directly the church-clock went half-past 12, the gates were thrown open, the mob at the same time attempting to force their way in, but they were repulsed. A grand sortie of the police was then made, and about 60 officers, armed and mounted as before described, went forward with the City-Marshalls. The caravan went next, followed by about 40 officers and the Sheriffs. The first salute received by the offenders was a volley of mud, and a serenade of hisses, [and] hootings..., which compelled them to fall flat on their faces in the caravan....
It is impossible for language to convey an adequate idea of the universal expressions of execration which accompanied these monsters on their journey. It was fortunate for them that the weather was dry; had it been otherwise they would have been smothered. From the moment the cart was in motion, the fury of the mob began to display itself in showers of mud and filth of every kind. Before the cart reached Temple- bar the wretches were so thickly covered with filth, that a vestige of the human figure was scarcely discernible. They were chained, and placed in such a manner, that they could not lie down in the cart, and could only hide and shelter their heads from the storm by stooping, which, however, could afford but little protection.-- Some of them were cut in the head with brickbats, and bled profusely; and the streets, as they passed, resounded with the universal shouts and execrations of the populace....
Before any of them reached the place of punishment, their faces were completely disfigured by blows and mud; and before they mounted, their whole persons appeared one heap of filth. Upwards of fifty women were permitted to stand in the ring, who assailed them incessantly with mud, dead cats, rotten eggs, potatoes, and buckets filled with blood, offal and dung, which were brought by a number of butchers' men from the St. James's market. These criminals were very roughly handled.
The Napoleonic Code legalized adult homosexuality for most of Europe, yet England continued not only to allow public taunting but also to exact the death penalty as late as 1857--a mere 4 or 5 generations ago.
Did you notice what the Church did say?: "Directly the church- clock went half-past 12, the gates were thrown open, the mob at the same time attempting to force their way in..."
The church merely gave the time of day.
A lawyer asked, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Why did the Church sit silent? Did piety--smells and bells and clocks and organs and vestments--simply deafen the Church to the cries of gay neighbors tormented in the caravan outside?
If deafness to human suffering could occur then, what's to prevent it from happening again? Do the 177 years that separate us from that occasion grant us immunity from their mistakes?
In his play Galileo Brecht shows how the Pope, initially sympathetic to Galileo, used Galileo as a pawn in a battle with the Jesuits. You know the result: the Pope forced Galileo to recant the "heresy" of discovering the world not to be at the center of the universe. In an ante-chamber, away from those who made those decisions, Brecht has one church queen to ask another: "But how can the Pope do this? He knows Galileo is not wrong! He knows......" The other interrupts, "Ah, my dear, it's easy once you get the knack of it."
Scholar John Boswell has documented that the Church took a long time before it bothered to learn how, but it had had several centuries of practice when those who worshiped in St. James, London, on September 27, 1810, simply did not see the gays riding in that caravan as their neighbors. Probably the Church had baptized most of them. Some probably used wombs and penises of St. James to arrive in London in the first place. But according to the customs of September 27, 1810, these "criminals" had forfeited the right to be considered "neighbors." Church people taught everyone to refer to their "crime" as one "unmentionable in the company of Christians."
It's easy to love your neighbors once you get the knack of choosing them.
Long before any Yuppies "discovered" gentrification, the Church raised to a high art form the knack of choosing our neighbors. I am Anglican, and everyone knows that it's much harder to be an Anglican-in-Good-Standing than to enter the Queandom of Heaven.
The lawyer asked Jesus merely "to test him":
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"
The lawyer paid as little attention to the answer as the Church has paid since. The lawyer wanted Jesus to choose one of the 10 and then fall into an endless argument: that's how many lawyers and other theologians stay in business. Viewed one way--the way the Church most heeds--Jesus merely outsmarted his questioner; Jesus merely proved himself a better lawyer. Instead of choosing one of the ten, Jesus abstracted Commandments into two, and prioritized them: First, Love God completely: love your neighbor as you love yourself. End of argument. I win; you lose.
Woopiedo! Our God is clever. He's no mere sentimentalist; he thinks. God wins arguments. He might receive a Rhodes Scholarship or run for the U. S. Senate. Clearly Jesus could hold his own with the McGaughlin Group. He might even silence their dreadful shouting.
Respectability so quickly asserts itself as religion that we must pay close attention to hear: "On these two commandments, hang all the law and prophets."
If people could learn merely by listening, perhaps Christ would not have had to hang on a cross to complete the same point. Love God: love your neighbors as yourself, ALL of them.
Calvary looks more like the gay caravan of Vere Street than like any church. With "criminals" on the right and left, the Creator of the Universe said all that the Church ever needs to hear about Respectability.
That's the easy part. Now the hard part.
Perhaps suffering gives gays an advantage with religion. Surely our own experience of adversity lets us easily visualize a ride in a caravan with our brothers of Vere Street. Maybe we can have smells and bells and Calvary too, the best of all possible worlds! Maybe we have no immunity to the Gospel. It swoops lesbians and gay males up to Glory automatically. Right?
The date, 2164--the same distance from us that we stand from the dung and entrails cast at our brothers of Vere Street. Another scholar, like Crompton, discovers a rare document that has survived from 1987, and reveals how far you and I missed the point.
What caravans carry the persecuted when our Church merely tells the time of day? Let's guess:
We will not go to bed hungry tonight, or any night. We will not suffer from the pollutants that our corporations bury everyday willfully and carelessly in the soil of most Third World nations. God warns:
.cp 4 If ever you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep. If your neighbor cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:26-27)
I urge you, as a spiritual discipline: count your shirts. I tallied 18 in my room, not including at least two dozen more stored in a warehouse in Hong Kong: all tacky and cheap, I admit, and some don't even fit now that I have fattened; but the richest country in the world treats its middle classes very well indeed, even when out of work, as I have been for the last four months.
My students in Beijing, fully employed, had an average of three shirts. Workers in China make only about $65 a month. The Chinese consider themselves much wealthier than Africans, who often have only one shirt, or no cover at all.
The garments in our closets outnumber those of our neighbors in China precisely in relation to the way that the developed nations write the rules to keep undeveloped nations in our debt. Our Representatives in Congress have given to us our Chinese and African neighbors' shirts "in pledge." One per cent of the world owns 34% of the world's wealth. When they write the rules, they do not heed:
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him. (Exodus 23:25)
Few Christians today know that Judaism and Christianity treated Capitalism as a grievous sin for thousands of years. A teacher would not last long in our "free" society if the teacher spoke this candidly.
In my four years of exile in Asia, I learned two lessons which promise to trouble my agenda for the rest of my life:
I have seen more neighbors begging during the last four months in Chicago than I have seen in all 50 of the earlier years of my life combined. Most people seem not to notice. Our poor rarely make the evening news. I have to go to a tiny parish in the ghetto to hear any sermons about them.
If you could speak in St. James's, London, September 27th, 1810, what would you tell them? "God's gonna get you!"? "You're evil!"? Would you try to show them verse by verse how to see their inhospitality as the only sodomy of record? Would you urge them to forget their censure of all homosex as fully as they had already forgotten their ancient censure of usury? Would you want them to depart guilty and anxious? What good could their guilt do for their gay brothers carted and pelted outside?
But if they could love lesbians as themselves, gay men as themselves....
When you count your shirts, remember as yourself all the people everywhere who sleep uncovered. Remember them not as your brothers and your sisters, but as yourself. If you remember someone as your brother or sister, you might just pity, or maybe even patronize, or possibly even try to justify the nakedness, the exposure.
Remember ALL of them. If you remember just one, you might rush to a private, ad hoc solution. You might vainly take it on yourself to redistribute a few of your own shirts rather than to revise the System which uses others' nakedness to assure our warmth.
Don't sentimentalize the uncovered. If you remember all of them as yourself, you will ask, "Whom do I know that I can enlist to help? What can we together do to change the system so that all people will sleep covered, will have enough to eat, will have a chance to discover and use our talents....
Count your shirts soberly, not drunk with guilt--both the shirts in your closets and the shirts you do without as you roll yourself in plastic to protect yourself when the winds pour down the darker corners of your street tonight.
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets.
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