Explorations in Queer Spirituality

My interest in religion, spirituality and books along those lines does not exclude a preference for the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). This may sound incongruent given the conservative nature of Traditional Catholicism, where toleration for same-sex affection is even lower than it is in your typical Novus Ordo parish. But it is what it is.

In Philadelphia, I recently found a parish that celebrates a weekly TLM. Here I can listen to old Latin, see Fiddle back vestments, and smell incense rather than watching worshippers race across the aisles to shake hands with their neighbor at the Kiss of Peace. There are quite a number of gay men who belong to this parish, so I hardly feel alone.

But being a liturgical conservative and a theological liberal can be a difficult balancing act.

In my case, I was refused an order of review books by a traditionalist Catholic publishing company, because a secretary there discovered my website and saw that I was the author of a number of gay books. I was no longer welcome to receive review copies.

I tried to talk sense to the secretary, going so far as to say, “How do you know that I am not a member of COURAGE? Why did you make assumptions about my personal life, despite the books I’ve written?” She was adamant. “This is not negotiable.”

Twenty years ago, I suppose, I would have raised a ruckus, written letters or even organized a protest, but this time I settled for one (I hope) smart response email, and left it at that.

This rejection does not mean that I am about to give the (dumbed down) Novus Ordo Mass another chance. I’m no more game to clap my hands and shout, “Praise the Lord,” while receiving pita bread communion than I’m about to go straight. When it comes to some forms of tradition, some of us, despite our politics, are sticklers.

Here are two books that recently crossed my desk.

THE WONDER WITHIN YOU
From the Metaphysical Journals of David Manners
Edited by David Morgan Jones
Trafford Publishing/Wise Child Press
Hardcover, 9781412200509, 192pp.
February 2005

Manners was one of Hollywood’s leading men in the 1930s and worked with actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. But despite the Hollywood machine’s portrayal of him as a handsome, eligible leading man, Manners had other ideas about his life’s direction.

At the height of his career, he took an unlikely detour: the California Mojave Desert, to live as a hermit.

For Manners leaving the film industry meant keeping his personal integrity intact. He was tired of the Hollywood publicity machine arranging studio dates with women, so rather than lead a false life like so many closeted actors of the day, he opted to detox in the desert. His goal then was to discover the nature of God and the universe, and to do that he founded the Yucca Loma ranch and began exploring the great religious writings of the East and West.

While it may have been easier for a lesser-known actor to walk away from Hollywood, as David Morgan Jones writes in The Wonder Within You (Wise Child), a collection of Manners’ metaphysical journals, “…By 1935, his fan club counted 200,000 members and four secretaries handled the correspondence. His popularity was so high, he was one of the first 100 actors to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard.”

As Jones notes, “His star is no longer there,” an odd fact indeed when common knowledge seems to dictate that when one has a star on Hollywood Boulevard, the star is there forever. Unfortunately Jones provides no clues. The reader is left to assume that this happens when old celebrities fade into obscurity, or when an actor hightails it to the desert to explore spiritual questions.

The removal of Manners’ star, however, seems to speak volumes about the transitory nature of earthly fame, something Manners himself would understand and appreciate.

Hollywood, after all, isn’t interested in permanence. For every handsome Hollywood leading man there are hundreds waiting to take his place. Toward the end of his life, Manners wrote:

Perhaps to the young, old age looks pretty grim, but let me tell it. For this ancient one, this is the happiest, most beautiful time of a long life. How come? The appearances are that I have less freedom, less motion, less of everything, including hair and shape, but these are the lesser blessings. There are blessings today that were never dreamed of.

Although Manners never came to accept a specific creed—he examined Catholicism, Anglicanism, Christian Science, Zen, Taoism and Buddhism—he opted to find “Truth” in the form of his own philosophy, a generalized compendium of the basic truths of the world’s great religions. While this may seem like as generic and general mishmash, it gave him purpose. He would not end his days descending long staircases a la ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

“Consciousness does not die. Consciousness is an attribute of God; therefore, it is eternal. What is there to fear? Nothing real is ever lost. Much that is believed to be real is lost. Life is an attribute of God and is indestructible,” Manners wrote.

At times Manners’ journal comes off as a kind of companion piece to the Oprah-fueled The Secret, though Manners promises no material riches from any of his “applications.”

“Go with the rhythms of life,” he advises. “Bend like a reed or a willow. After a peak of activity, be ready for the quiet place in preparation for the rise that follows. Never resist. Never grieve after yesterday. Never look for tomorrow. For what is, here now. Watch in tranquil surety where you are.”

According to Jones, Manners suffered “from conflicts over his sexuality and his yearning for spiritual sustenance and release.” That’s understandable, given the time. It is also true that men or women who retreat in this way often transcend sexual desire and adopt a kind of celibacy that in the end is neither straight nor gay.

Manners published two novels and would have published a third were it not for the paper shortage of WW II. In 1948, he met the man who would become his companion for 30 years, Frederic William Mercer, a playwright. The two eventually left the Ranch and found property near the ocean in Pacific Palisades. Manners died in his sleep at the age of 98 in 1998.

As a compendium of quotations and words to live by, this little book is worth a second look.

——

THE FIRE IN MOONLIGHT
Stories from the Radical Faeries
Edited by Mark Thompson
White Crane Wisdom Series
9781590213384, 309 Pages, $25.00
Forthcoming 2011

Mark Thompson’s latest anthology, The Fire in Moonlight (White Crane), is a collection of first person accounts of the Harry Hay-inspired Radical Faerie movement. Hay, a co-founder of the Mattachine Society, joined forces with Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker to start the Faerie movement in order to add a spiritual dimension to the (often dry) nuts and bolts world of emerging gay politics.

Inspired in part by the writings of Edward Carpenter and the Calamus poems of Walt Whitman, Hay saw the homosexual as much more than a creature fighting for rights in a hostile society. The homosexual, according to Hay, was a multidimensional being with roots in the mythic, a sort of alien spirit with special healing gifts for the world.

As Stuart Timmons notes in his introductory essay, “The Making of a Tribe,” Hay once told a circle of 200 Faeries: “We Faeries need to stop saying, ‘My consciousness is better than your consciousness.’ That’s heterosexist. No one person, no one group, no one ideology has the answer. You need a spirit.”

Theologians may quibble with that relativist statement, insisting that if one truth is as good as another truth, then there’s no truth anywhere. One thing’s certain, however: You have to have spirit in order to “build.” For Hay, this meant constructing a homosexual spiritual dimension outside the world of conventional religion.

In a 1975 edition of RFD, Hay wrote: “To be a true homosexual, is to be put at odds with home, school and society….We are so other that we have to learn early how to protect our very survival.”

While this perspective may seem dated post-DADT, Hay was nonetheless insistent that a pronounced queerness was buried inside the homosexual’s “stubbornly perverse genes.” Hay’s vision of a monastic-like collective of queer men of all ages coming together in friendship circles for a process of “shedding the ugly green frog skin of hetero-imitation” started with the first Faerie Circle in Colorado in 1979.

Called “A Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries,” at that Labor Day event hundreds of men (the gatherings would later include women) participated in mud baths and neo-pagan, quasi-Native American rituals like circle hand holding, chanting, and taking turns speaking to the circle while holding a Talking Stick. Many of these ad hoc talks were spiked with references to Aliester Crowley as well as Hay’s own take on what it means to be “queer” and “other.”

In these free-love pre-AIDS gatherings there was ritualized group sex as well as individual couplings. As Timmons observes, “In selecting fairies as a role model for gays, [Hay] combined logic with inspiration to surpass the medieval Mattachines—to a pre-Christian time and beyond human limits.”

With its emphasis on aspects of Native American culture and worship of the earth, the early Faeries attracted gay men who had had enough of the dead end clone life in the urban gay ghetto.

At the second Spiritual Gathering for the Radical Faeries in 1980, in Estes National Forest above Boulder, Colorado, faerie names were adopted and the emphasis on paganism was enhanced. As contributor Carol Kleinmaier notes, besides a denial of spirit-body and male-female duality, Faerie spirituality “was sourced in… the celebration of sacred sexuality, Wicca, paganism and shamanic traditions.”

As one would expect, highly eclectic and a diverse range of spiritual references as well as divergent opinions about the Faerie experience mark these essays.

Allen Page, for instance, writes that during the first gathering he “asked the Goddess (which Goddess he doesn’t say) to show him why he needed to be there.”  Meanwhile, “a young man shook a rattle and stands up in a speckled dress.” The philosophy was to embody masculine and feminine energies although one finds in many of these stories a distinct prejudice against patriarchy as well as an emphasis “to take the gifts of the Father back to the Mother.”

Philadelphian Chris Bartlett (The Lady Bartlett) notes:

I like cultures that use rituals to embody choice: the Amish Rumspringa when Amish teens, following a year of exposure to the outside world, choose to join the Amish community (be baptized) or are shunned. Another example is the bar/bat mitzvah when young Jews choose to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The investiture of a priest in various religions is another moment of powerful choice. When participants in a culture choose to embrace that culture, they become full actors, as opposed to full recipients.

In Faerie circles, identification with the feminine is assumed. It would not be unusual, for instance, for the males in a circle to cry while listening to reports of the rape of a female friend of a member. Since Radical Faeries spanned all age categories, older men were respectfully called elders and were regarded as purveyors of wisdom, even if that “respect” ended at the bedroom door. Wisdom cannot compete with beauty when it comes to a good lay.

Just as in any local city bathhouse, the young are attracted to the young, as the older and less appealing find themselves casting about for a bone or having to spend their nights alone, Trappist monk-style.

Artwit, for instance, writes that at one gathering he got lucky three times so that his “usual depression at being alone while the slender twinks slept in pairs was less severe.”  Highly critical of many in the Faerie community, Artwit states that “self righteous beliefs about food seem to be a hallmark of the Faeries. We used to joke in the kitchen about making ‘Cream of Vegan’ soup for our next meal.”

Artwit also writes about the Faerie Drag Wars.

The first two Gatherings had that old rustic-northwest-jeans-and-flannel flavor and here come these queens from California doing wigs and make-up. So a small culture war was started at the Gathering, with the hosts deciding not to send the Call to California next year. “[But] over the years, wigs and makeup won and overtook whatever Heart Circles there were.

For Artwit, the Faeries main problem was making social problems into personal ones.

“I have no desire to be a Faerie Mormon and make breakfast while the pretty ones sleep in and fuck,” he writes.

Editor Mark Thompson is to be commended for not editing out Artwit’s less than flattering reminiscences. The inclusion of such criticism is a tribute to the Faerie generosity of spirit, although there’s enough good stuff in this book to make Harry Hay proud.

As Berbiar (Jerry the Faerie) puts it, “We need queers who have radical askance alternative viewpoints to dominant cultural mores. May the Radical Faerie movement continue to play its role in providing a cauldron of change so needed in this ignorant and repressive world.”



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  • Ron Fritsch

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