Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gay Pioneer Malcolm Boyd on Survival – and Victory – with Grace

The Wild Reed’s 2011 Gay Pride series or Queer Appreciation series (take your pick!) continues with some inspiring words from Episcopal priest, author and "gay elder" Malcolm Boyd (pictured at right in 1990). They are excerpted from an interview with Boyd found in Mark Thompson’s 1994 anthology Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature with Sixteen Writers, Healers, Teachers, and Visionaries. Thompson, incidentally, is Boyd's life partner.

Before being ordained a priest in 1955, Boyd worked as a TV and film executive in Hollywood during the 1940s and early '50s. In the 1960s he became known as “The Espresso Priest” for his religiously-themed poetry-reading sessions at the “Hungry i” nightclub in San Francisco. He went on to become a prominent white clergyman in the American Civil Rights Movement, and the most well-known gay clergy person in the U.S. after "coming out of the closet" in 1977. He is the author of over 30 books and is a frequent contributor to the gay magazine
White Crane.


Mark Thompson: You’ve asked, is Jesus gay? Don’t you mean was?

Malcolm Boyd: I have no theory about the historical Jesus. I wish that he had done an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. But in Christ I find many gay qualities: vulnerability, sensitivity, someone who emptied himself of power, who lived as a gentle but strong person. He also broke many social taboos and found sterling qualities in a number of people who were despised by the society they lived in. He is very much a gay archetype in my understanding of what being gay means.

Mark Thompson: But one can certainly find gay men who are not particularly gentle or sensitive or kind.

Malcolm Boyd: Being gay for me means gentleness, sensitivity, warmth, and service to others. When I meet a gay person who is the opposite of those things, I am offended. Because that’s someone who has not realized himself or herself. I’m always put off by somebody who’s bitter or vindictive, who doesn’t care about helping other people, who is not reflective. They’re missing an opportunity to be who they really are, or at least what they have a capacity to be.

Mark Thompson: Did your interest in pursuing a spiritual life have anything to do with being homosexual?

Malcolm Boyd: I don’t think I went into seminary with the idea of meeting gay people. I went into seminary with the idea of meeting God. To my astonishment, I met more gay people in seminary than I ever met in Hollywood. There are more gay people in the church than probably anywhere else, and you could say intuitively I was motivated by this. Because here I found my tribe. That wasn’t my conscious intention, however, but if it had been it was the smartest thing I could have done. Of course, gay life was all underground. The closet in seminary was huge, much bigger than I’d felt the closet in Hollywood was.

Above right: Malcolm Boyd's ordination as an Episcopal priest in 1955.

Mark Thompson: How did you relate to the gay life in Hollywood [when] working there [in the 1940s and '50s]?

Malcolm Boyd: It turned me completely off because I didn’t know what it was to be homosexual or gay. I would have been open to an absolutely gorgeous romance with Prince Charming, but I certainly wasn’t interested in abusive, cynical, snorting men who assumed that I was interested in them. I remember some friends and I were at a drive-in once, and truck drivers were going in and out of the men’s room rubbing their crotch. Somebody said, “They’ve got a queer in there who’s servicing them.” That was the way I looked at homosexuality. There wasn’t any other picture presented to me.

Above left: Gloria Swanson, guest starring on a Malcolm Boyd TV show in Los Angeles the week before she started filming Sunset Boulevard. During his years in Hollywood, Boyd worked as a TV-film executive and served as the president of the Television Producers Association of Hollywood.

Mark Thompson: What is it about the church that attracts so many gay men?

Malcolm Boyd: Where were gays ever going to go in the past but the military or the church? And the church dealt in mystery, beauty, music, and ritual. These are things that speak to gay men. And also the mere fact of gay men being there meant that even if you were closeted from one another, somehow you knew.

Mark Thompson: The church has traditionally been a shelter for broken souls in need. Is this what attracted you?

Malcolm Boyd: I’m not sure that I felt sheltered so much as I clearly identified as a wounded, broken person with the wounded, broken person of Jesus. In other words, Jesus has always made complete sense to me. Here is God saying, “I’ve gone through the same thing you’re going through – you’re not alone.” This has been very elemental in terms of my belief and my caring.

Mark Thompson: You are one of very few gay men with such a high profile to have dared to come out, even in a place as liberal as the Episcopal church. What is the price of staying closeted in the church?

Malcolm Boyd: I have never seen such bitterness, vindictiveness, and cruelty as I have on the part of closeted gay priests. These are people who have chosen to live a lie and have paid a high price – a price of happiness and freedom. What do they get back? A certain prestige, which they guard with their life. [Reading these words I cannot help but think of those within the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church working so hard to deny civil marriage rights to gay couples. How much of their vindictive and cruel campaign is fueled by their loathing of themselves as gay men? I’ve long maintained that the most dangerous and rabid opponents of gay people and gay rights are closeted gay people. And when such closet cases are in positions of secular or religious power, the potential for anti-Gospel rhetoric and behavior, for lies and fear-mongering, and thus pain and harm to individuals, couples, families, society and the church, is very great. We must never hesitate to challenge such people and the vindictive and cruel campaigns they devise and direct.]

. . . Mark Thompson: What basic Christian tenet or philosophy do you most closely follow in your life? What of Christianity has sustained you personally?

Malcolm Boyd: I have been most affected by the doctrine of the Incarnation, which states that God became human, that God entered into the ordinary life of men and women in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that there’s no separation between God and people. For thirty-three years in the earthly life of Jesus Christ, God fully embraced the human condition – bled, sweated, experienced life completely, and was executed. In the doctrine of the Incarnation, there is simply no room for homophobia or racism. This has deeply affected me. It led me into the civil rights movement [in the 1960s], for example.

Above: Malcolm Boyd with other civil rights workers
standing in front of a bombed African American church
in McComb, Mississippi, in the early ‘60s.

Mark Thompson: What is a gay theology, a gay-centered faith? This is something you’ve given a great deal of thought to, yet it’s hard to understand what would make a theology gay.

Malcolm Boyd: A gay theology is theology seen though a gay sensibility. An African-American theology is a theology seen through an African-American sensibility. A feminist theology is a theology seen through a feminist sensibility. That’s what it is. I’m shocked at how little valuable work has yet been done in this area.

Mark Thompson: It’s difficult for many gay people to accept a theology of any kind, particularly when religious orthodoxy has been used as a weapon to condemn them.

Malcolm Boyd: The weapon wasn’t used by God. And the weapon wasn’t used by Jesus Christ. The weapon was used by people who have also used the same weapons of racism and misogyny. The answer is that different people come to God through different paths. We need to respect one another’s traditions and where we’re coming from. I do try to respect others. I ask them to respect me, too.

Mark Thompson: So what’s the gay path to God?

Malcolm Boyd: I don’t know if there is one gay path to God. Gay theology is mediated through whatever is one’s experience of worship and spirituality. In terms of myself, I’m gay and I make peace with God in terms of my gayness. My prayer is rooted in my gay experience. My understanding of sexuality can’t be someone else’s understanding – it can’t be heterosexual. It has to be my own. I have to relate this to God.

Worship can’t really be by rote or something alien; it has to be rooted in my own struggle and yearnings as a gay person, my understanding of myself and of God. This has been my journey. If I’d grown up in the environment of being seen – and being able to see myself – as a complete whole person, it would have made all the difference; it would have saved me torture.

Mark Thompson: What is the difference between soul and spirit?

Malcolm Boyd: There’s shit in the soul, there’s sweat in the soul, there’s room for cock and balls in the soul, and for civil rights and community building. The soul brings me down t the ground of my very being without any illusions – I can’t hide, I can’t be a hypocrite. I’ve got to deal with the reality of life if I’m talking about my soul. Spirit is more transcendent. If I attempted to deal with spirit by being a religious person and not deal with the soul, I would be missing the point. [This reminds me of Christopher’s thoughts on “True Holiness.”]

Mark Thompson: Are gay men more in touch with their souls because they’ve been wounded for being different?

Malcolm Boyd: The gay experience is very similar to the African-American experience in terms of soul. Both peoples have been unable to bullshit the process. There’s noting to hide behind. It’s all hanging out. It’s frequently bloody. And we have been to hell and back at the hands of nice white people and nice heterosexuals, and “nice” is in quotes. We have suffered and are wounded. We understand soul better because we’ve had to in order to survive. How could we survive? Some gay people have survived by lying and not looking at reality. They have become twisted and engaged in a self-destructive process. But for the gay person who is not self-destructive and who is striving to be whole and be healed, it’s necessary to embrace the soul and deal with everything that’s found there. [I love this last sentence! It rings so true to me and gives me great courage and hope! This particular response of Boyd’s also makes me think of Dusty Springfield, one of my all-time favorite singers. Like so many queer people Dusty was wounded by the homophobia of society and of the church (in her case, the Catholic Church). Yet today she is remembered as one of the greatest soul singers of all time. She struggled against being self-destructive, and at times was self-destructive through alcohol and pills, but ultimately she triumphed as a singer and as a human being. It’s interesting that many people who heard her sing without actually seeing her, often mistook her for being black. She had a deep love, respect and affinity for black musicians and vocalists. Like them, she sang with soul. Given Boyd’s contention that the queer experience is very similar to the black experience, perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising. For more on this connection, see here, here, here and here.]

Mark Thompson: How can gay people begin to redeem and separate out the hopeful message that perhaps does exist for them in Christianity?

The principal way is to quit concentrating on gay spirit and get involved in the muck and the reality of gay soul. Too many gay Christians have been remote, transcendent, have been involved in churchianity rather than Christianity. It’s essential to discover a relationship with the radical Jesus Christ. Gay soul is the great meeting place for gay Christians and gay Buddhists, gay Jews and gay agnostics. Anybody interested in gay spirituality and theology has a meeting place in gay soul. However, we have not met there yet.

That entails coming back to the basic question: What does it mean to be gay? You can’t find the answer to that unless you immerse yourself in gay soul. And soul that is gay is soul experienced through gay experience and sensibility and reality.

Mark Thompson: Some would say that if you’re dealing with the soul on that very deep level, then you are addressing God.

Malcolm Boyd: I would say that.

. . . Mark Thompson: In what way does the church contribute to the kind of soul work you say needs to be done?

Malcolm Boyd: When the church practices the offering of forgiveness and the acceptance of forgiveness, it is doing soul work. And where it’s happening, it’s real. Where it is not happening, the church is refusing to engage in serious soul work. The church is split. Much of it is in heresy. Much of it isn’t doing soul work. Much of it isn’t doing God’s work at all – it’s playing games. But there are parts of the church and there are places in the church that are doing the serious work. [Indeed! See, for example, here, here, here, here, here and here.]

. . . Mark Thompson: You’ve said that the average gay man isn’t some guy in a tank top on Hollywood Boulevard but an overweight schoolteacher living in a sort of crummy apartment. Could you explain that?

Malcolm Boyd: I feel some anger and rage . . . about the fact that a small group of gay people are controlling some of the media representing what is supposed to be gay life and the gay community. Probably seventy to eighty percent of gays are honeycombed into the culture or are still in the closet. The prototype of the gay male may really be a flabby, tweedy gay schoolteacher who lives in relationship with somebody in a quiet neighborhood. We’ve projected some very mistaken and distorted images of gay life. What’s essential now is to start dealing with gay people as we are. As for the seventy percent or more that are closeted, I’m fascinated. I want to know who these people are. I want to address them; I want them to address me. These people are living a gay life. These people are grappling with gay soul.

I come back to this point to Jesus in terms of the kind of person that he was and reveals himself to be; he wasn’t a “successful” type. In fact, Jesus was a failure at a human level – the cross represents that. Jesus said turn the other cheek and practice unconditional love.

. . . Mark Thompson: Did God make gay people to be wounded?

Malcolm Boyd: If you look at the beatitudes, blessed are the poor, blessed are those who have been persecuted. To me, the fact that God is concerned with the poor and the persecuted is very deep. I believe that God has a plan.

Mark Thompson: You do?

Malcolm Boyd: Oh, yes. It’s important for gay people to realize that we’re unique. We’re special. We’re loved. God isn’t a monster or a demon, and God has shared our own experiences of human life. Shared it. All the way to and through the cross.

Mark Thompson: But to be different from others, to be queer, means that one is gong to be wounded in some way.

Malcolm Boyd: Yes. So God then has given us gifts. The capacity to love, the capacity for a deep sensitivity, the capacity for service. How many of us are schoolteachers, shamans, priests, and ministers; how many of us are in service capacities? An enormous number, completely disproportionate. When I marched with Martin Luther King and worked in the civil rights movement, I met so many gays.

God never planned anything in terms of making gays suffer. God created. It isn’t God who’s ever persecuted gay people. Part of our uniqueness comes out of our sensitivity, the horror, the torture, the terror that we have lived through. I’m very grateful to have survived and to be surviving. And I love others who have survived. Our love is manifold. Our hope is limitless. Our faith is a gift. We are here for one another in acceptance and gratitude. God loves us. We can love God, and one another, and ourselves. This is survival – and victory – with grace.

Above: Malcolm and Mark.

NOTE: For the next in this series, click here.

To start at the beginning of this series, click here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Malcolm Boyd's Official Website

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Challenge to Become Ourselves
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
In the Garden of Spirituality – Toby Johnson
Love At Love's Brightest
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with "Modern-Day Mystic" Chuck Lofy
The Winged Heart
Dan Furmansky: "Why We Have Pride"
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Quote of the Day – March 6, 2011

For The Wild Reed’s Gay Pride 2010 series, see:
Standing Strong
Growing Strong
Jesus and Homosexuality
It Is Not Good To Be Alone
The Bisexual: “Living Consciously and Consistently in the Place Where the Twain Meet”
Spirituality and the Gay Experience
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

For The Wild Reed's Gay Pride 2009 series, see:
A Mother’s Request to President Obama: Full Equality for My Gay Son
Marriage Equality in Massachusetts: Five Years On
It Shouldn’t Matter. Except It Does
Gay Pride as a Christian Event
Not Just Another Political Special Interest Group
Can You Hear Me, Yet, My Friend?
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Worldwide Gay Pride

1 comment:

Mareczku said...

Excellent article. Mark