Monday, July 31, 2006

Dirk Bogarde (Part II)

I continue to make my way through the 600+ pages of John Coldstream’s biography of British actor and author Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999).

It’s a fascinating though, at times, sad read. In chapter eleven, for instance, Coldstream shares Oxford Playhouse director Frank Hauser’s thoughts on the homosexual Dirk and his struggle to present and maintain a heterosexual image.

According to Hauser: “Dirk was never able to work out his own attitude to being a film star, or a star of any kind, and that adulation had prevented him from being ‘really devastating’ in the theatre; adulation for a matinée idol brought with it as a corollary the threat of derision. ‘I remember sitting chatting with one of my nieces, who was then a schoolgirl of about fourteen or fifteen. Somebody mentioned Dirk Bogarde. She said, “Dirk Bogarde – he’s queer isn’t he?” ’ Dirk was terrified of being pronounced queer. He was so anxious to present a macho image. If he had a riding crop, he would swish it – but he was fooling nobody.”

Hauser believes that the “possibility of, and consequent fear of, derision prevented Dirk from achieving the stature of his almost exact contemporary, Gerard Philipe, who flitted between stage and screen to equal effect.”

This “fear of derision” plagued Bogarde throughout his career. Actor Helen Bonham Carter, who worked with Bogarde in the late 1980s, recalls how “he would always make out that he was a macho heterosexual. He was conscious of keeping the mystery, weaving webs. But he was really a hunk of self-denial”.

Despite the difficulties Bogarde encountered throughout his career as a closeted gay man, his life wasn't all doom and gloom. He was involved in a lifelong and loving relationship with another man (fellow British actor Tony Forwood), was a gifted and witty communicator, and a successful actor and author. He was also prone to being somewhat of a loose cannon, as the following humorous anecdote demonstrates.

“The Rank [film company] publicists knew all too well that in Dirk they had the least pliant of their artists,” writes Coldstream. “On one occasion at a screening [in the 1950s] Dirk was introduced to the audience by a nervously gushing cinema manager, who kept on referring to ‘this up and coming star’. When Dirk was given the microphone he said: ‘I’ve never been up and coming so often in two minutes.’ It did not go down well with the powers that be.”

I’ve been scouring the local video stores here in Port Macquarie for some of Dirk Bogarde’s films. I’ve yet to actually find and view a single one of them. In particular, I’d like to find A Tale of Two Cites (1958), The Spanish Gardner (1956), Song Without End (1960), Hunted (1952), Death in Venice (1971), and, of course, the groundbreaking
Victim (1961).

In fact, it was a powerful clip from this last film, featured in the 1994 documentary
The Celluloid Closet, that first brought Dirk Bogarde to my attention. I plan on writing further about Victim and its significance in a future post.

For now, I’ll share the following clip from the 1960 film Song Without End, in which Dirk plays Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

(Note: For the film, Dirk was coached by Victor Aller, a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York and a brilliant interpreter of Brahms, who was determined to “turn Dirk into a credible Liszt – pianistically anyway.” Accordingly, Dirk learnt more than eighty minutes of music at the dummy keyboard, which was then synchronized for the camera with the pre-recorded playing of Jorge Bolet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.)

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Dirk Bogarde (Part 1)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Decline of the Neocaths?

Over at his excellent Spirit of Vatican II blog, Joseph O’Leary examines various “signs” that have emerged over the past year which indicate the “decline of neocathism.”

In a 2005 commentary, O’Leary introduced the terms “neocath” and “neocathism” to refer to a younger generation of Catholics whose members are “becoming more and more traditional and conservative in their thought patterns.”

In his latest piece on this phenomenon, O’Leary observes that the neocaths “did not greet [the new pope’s] encyclical with any real enthusiasm and they have been complaining that he is not ‘nasty’ enough (Michael Liccione), that his pontificate is shaping up as just a lull before the next storm, that he is not following through on the needed abolition of the ‘Novus Ordo’ – the current liturgy of the Church, which many neocaths tend to see as heresy-ridden.”

Furthermore, says O’Leary, “Benedict XVI’s “gentle diplomacy in Spain, where he did not once attack gay marriage or criticize the government, was the kind of let-down his fans are now used to. The rather cranky cardinal of the early 1990s seems to have disappeared into a blander, kinder figure.”

Benedict XVI has, however, fulfilled the neocath dream in one respect, says O’Leary: “It now looks as if the entire Curia has devoted itself to the ‘inquisitorial’ task of ensuring orthodoxy. The Pope and his Secretary of State are the former Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF continues, under Cardinal Levada, to investigate and threaten theologians (Diarmuid O’Murchu is a current case), but the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Congregation for Catholic Education are involved in the same activities. They have even produced doctrinal utterances – an incredibly inept document on gay seminarians from Cardinal Grocholewski (Catholic Education) and a much-touted fifty-five page document from Cardinal Trujillo, which was made available only in the form of an Italian pamphlet that virtually no one has seen.”

“This massive investment in orthodoxy,” say O’Leary, “has had no effect whatever . . . The pastoral inefficacy of the Vatican is only highlighted by these bureaucratic distractions.”

The full text of O’Leary’s insightful commentary on the decline of the neocaths can be viewed

A Rabbit's Tale

Images: Michael J. Bayly

Thursday, July 27, 2006

In Search of a “Global Ethic”

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent call for “prayers and penance” for the situation in the Middle East reminded me of Hans Küng’s contention that a “global ethic” is required for the survival of humanity.

In the conclusion of his book The Catholic Church: A Short History, Küng says that the world is in need of “a common ethic for humankind” – an ethic which can be supported by all churches and religions, and even non-believers.

“Our globe cannot survive without a global ethic,” insists Küng.

Accordingly, he lists a number of priorities that the Catholic Church should support in order to advance this “global ethic”:

(i) A social world order: a society in which human beings have equal rights, live in solidarity with one another, and in which the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor is bridged.

(ii) A plural world order: a reconciled diversity of cultures, traditions and peoples in Europe, in which there is no place for anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

(iii) A world order in partnership: a renewed fellowship of men and women in the church and society, in which at every level women bear the same responsibility as men, and in which they can freely contribute their gifts, insights, values and experiences.

(iv) A world order which furthers peace: a society in which the establishment of peace and the peaceful resolution of conflicts is supported, and a community of peoples who contribute in solidarity towards the well-being of others.

(v) A world order which is friendly to nature: a fellowship of human beings with all creatures, in which their rights and integrity are also observed.

(vi) An ecumenical world order: a community that creates the presuppositions for a peace among the nations through a unity of confessions and peace among the religions.

Elsewhere in the conclusion of his book, Küng outlines “four conditions that need to be met if the church is to have a future in the third millennium”.

These “conditions” are as follows:

1. [The Catholic Church] must not turn backwards and fall in love with the Middle Ages or the time of the Reformation or the Enlightenment, but be a church rooted in its Christian origin and concentrated on its present tasks.

2. It must not be patriarchal, fixated on stereotyped images of women, exclusively male language and predetermined gender roles, but be a church of partnership, which combines office and charisma and accepts women in all church ministries.

3. It must not be narrowly confessional and succumb to confessional exclusiveness, the presumption of officialdom and the refusal of communion, but be an ecumenically open church, which practices ecumenism inwardly and finally follows up many ecumenical statements with ecumenical actions like the recognition of ministries, the abolition of all excommunications and complete Eucharistic fellowship.

4. It must not be Eurocentric and put forward any exclusivist Christian claims and show a Roman imperialism, but be a tolerant, universal church which has a respect for the truth that is always greater, it must therefore attempt to learn from the other religions and grant an appropriate autonomy to the national, regional and local churches.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Prayer for Compassion

Pope Benedict XVI has called for Sunday, July 23 to be a “day of prayer and penance” with regards the situation in the Middle East.

Specifically, the pope is asking the Church to pray for a cease-fire in the recent hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinians.

A Vatican press release notes that “the Lebanese have the right to see the integrity and sovereignty of their country respected, the Israelis, the right to live in peace in their state, and the Palestinians have the right to have their own free and sovereign homeland.”

In recognition of the pope’s call for prayers for the “worsening situation in the Middle East”, I offer the following prayer – one that I wrote in 2003.


Let us pray for the fearful, broken world of humanity,
pray that each one of us may seek and find deep within
the flame-like seed of compassion.

May this compassion be lovingly cultivated by all
so that it blooms in desires and actions for justice,
community, and a sustainable world
for all living things.

And may the fragrance of such blossoming
be recognized and celebrated
as peace in our lives
and in our world.


Image: Michael J. Bayly

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, but Definitely Queer

Once back in Port Macquarie after travlin’ north, I took the opportunity one Sunday afternoon to see Superman Returns with members of my family.

We were all especially curious to see the film’s depiction of the boyhood farm of Clark Kent/Superman as these scenes were filmed on the plains near the village of Breeza, 25 miles south of our hometown of Gunnedah, New South Wales.

As the June 22 Namoi Valley Independent reports: “At the heart of the film is Superman’s boyhood home, recreated on a property in the Breeza district, where hundreds of film crew, stunt artists, construction workers, caterers and others spent several months on location. Several Gunnedah businesses were involved in the Breeza filming – among them HE Silos and Torrens Plumbing. Gunnedah Shire Council also played a role, constructing gravel and sealed roads in the vicinity of the farmhouse. The sets included a farmhouse and barn, silos and a crop of corn grown specifically for the film.”

The paper also notes that "the [film’s] storyline [begins with] Superman [played by newcomer
Brandon Routh] returning to the boyhood home of his adoptive parents, the Kents, [after five years away in search of the remains of his home planet, Krypton].

Though filmed in rural Australia, the farm scenes are meant to make audiences think they’re viewing the American heartland. My Dad, however, observed that the radio in Martha Kent’s kitchen is actually an old-style Australian radio – complete with abbreviations for the various Australian states on its dial, for example, QLD for Queensland.

Apart from the film’s links to my hometown, there was another reason why I was interested in seeing Superman Returns. Recently, the US magazine The Advocate posed the provocative question: “How gay is Superman?”, and suggested that the new Superman film (like the latest X-Men movie) “flaunt[s] a bold queer spirit.”

Okay, but does flaunting a “queer spirit” necessarily make Superman “gay”? Does “gay” always equate with “queer”? How are these terms understood? How are they related?

These were some of the questions I found myself pondering in light of the furore (in the US, at least) over the new Superman being “too gay” – a charge that made me wonder: had Superman been only a little gay, would things be okay?

But first, the film itself: My family and I agreed that though not a total disappointment, Superman Returns is nevertheless marred by problems with pacing, holes in the plot, and character development. Perhaps none of this is surprising given the “super problems” of the film as recently reported by Sydney Morning Herald writer Rob Lowing.

“Right from the start”, says Lowing, “Superman Returns was plagued by exiting directors and irate fans.” The studio apparently spent “11 years and a reported $52 million on failed Superman movies: including a 1996 project which would have the man of steel fighting polar bears, giant spiders and a gay robot [!]; a Tim Burton-directed version with Nicolas Cage (a proposal savaged by fans), and a Batman vs Superman movie.”

Then in 2004, notes Lowing “assigned Rush Hour director
Brett Ratner quit, to be replaced by X-Men's Bryan Singer. Ironically, Ratner went off to make X-Men: The Last Stand.” All of this was followed by problems on the set of Superman Returns, with reports of an “exhausted Singer plagued by back pain”.

Lowing also notes that “fans on websites like hotly debated the size (too small) of the ‘S’ on Superman’s costume and the traditional blue tights and red cape (some wanted all black).” And lastly, “contrary to fan gossip,” reports Lowing, “Superman’s crotch did not have to be digitally reduced for being ‘too super’, as Empire magazine amusingly described it: “a special flattening-cup kept matters discreet.”

All of which brings to mind’s take on the supposed “queering” of the new Superman: “Joel Schumacher and George Clooney,” notes the website, “might have made great strides by reimagining Batman as a rubber-nippled, impressively cod-pieced bondage queen, but we don't think the tag-team of Bryan Singer and the previously obscure Brandon Routh are quite up to the task of delivering Gay Superman until at least the second installment of the revived franchise.”

So how gay (or queer) is the new Superman? Well, from the onset, it needs to be acknowledged that for many people – including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people – the trials of comic book superheroes are often perceived to reflect their own struggle to be who they really are in a world that fears and misunderstands them.

“When I was a teenager,” one gay man told Gerard Jones, author of the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, “superheroes were obviously about being queer. Clark Kent shedding that hideous suit and shooting into the sky in his tights? What else [could it be about]?”

GLBT people also relate to Superman’s “outsider” status. In Superman Returns, the “man of steel” is often depicted as feeling alone and dejected in a world full of people who are not like him. GLBT people’s “outsider” status stems from the ostracism and rejection many of them experience as a result of society’s imposition of heterosexual ideals. For GLBT youth in particular, such feelings of isolation and rejection can often make them feel as if they’re all alone in their suffering.

Of course, it’s not so much their sexual orientation that sets GLBT people apart, but society’s homophobic attitudes and actions. As novelist and essayist Philip Hensher writes: homosexuality has acquired “a sort of social history, because it was rarely allowed to rest as simply a biological variation, but was turned into a sin, a disease or a crime by society at large.”

And the punishment for this “crime” of being different has often been brutal and cruel. Superman Returns graphically depicts this in the scene where the kryptonite -weakened Superman is violently bashed by Lex Luther’s henchmen. I must admit I had a hard time watching this particular scene. In his flamboyantly colored outfit (complete with dress-like cape) and his vulnerable state, Superman seemed reminiscent of a drag queen or a “pretty boy” set upon by heterosexual thugs – their vindictive rage fuelled by irrational fears and intolerance of anything or anyone deemed to be outside the bounds of normality.

And perhaps that’s the queerest aspect of Superman: his “otherness” which sets him apart, makes him different. That, after all, is the most fundamental meaning of “queer”, which, according to the Collins Australian Dictionary, means “not normal or usual”. Thus one doesn’t have to be gay to be queer.

So what does it mean to be queer? I'd like to suggest that to be queer is to attempt to expand or go beyond (in thought, word or deed) the parameters of gender, race, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and other socially-constructed (or manipulated) concepts.

Brandon Routh (right) – out of his Superman costume
and clearly in a playful mood.

To be queer is to also recognize and embrace the “outlaws” of such “transgressions” (be these outlaws oneself or others) as members of the human family, and thus part of our shared human condition. And once at this level of consciousness (and to be sure, it’s a Christic level), we can all take heart in Superman’s parting words: “Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you will never be alone.”

Of course, this is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the obsession of many in the United States with the idea of a “gay Superman”?

Well, let's be clear about one thing: the film doesn't imply anything as obvious as an interest on Superman's part in, say, Lois Lane’s handsome male partner. Rather, I think what's happening is that many viewing the film are sensing that this new Superman reflects the openness, inclusiveness, and vulnerability of being queer – qualities that not only allow us to transcend such things as gender and sexuality, but a construct like nationality as well.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the new Superman is being branded not only as “too gay”, but also as “un-American” by those firmly entrenched in the social (and thus sexual) status quo. As one Australian newspaper puts it: the US is “angry” that Superman has “lost his way”, i.e. conservatives in the US are pissed off that this particular interpretation of Superman is taking both the main character and audiences beyond their way of viewing the world - a view that insists on the superiority of not only men and heterosexuality, but the US as a moral power in the world.

For we cannot forget, as Gerard Jones (rather wistfully) reminds us in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece, that Superman, in an earlier era, was loved by many in the US because he “was the simplest and purest of his type . . . [He] found his greatest success with a good-humored smugness and an ethical system as primary as his costume's palette . . . Superman was all about resolution.”

More often than not, however, such “resolution” reflected and served a decidedly American view of the world; a view that saw only “good guys” and “bad guys,” and which never acknowledged the disturbing reality of American empire and the US government’s complicity in covert political and military operations which, to this day, serve to protect and expand such imperial hegemony.

This ugly reality is often draped and disguised in the distracting and flowery language of “the American way.” Superman, of course, fought for truth, justice, and the American way – and, in the case of the latter, so much so that in the contemporary world of comic book superheroes, Batman now dismisses Superman as a lackey of the US government and nicknames him “boy scout”.

Yet as Nick Papps of the Sunday Telegraph of Sydney reports, the return of Superman to the big screen has caused “controversy” because he is “no longer fighting for the American way”. Truth and justice remain but the once familiar “American way” catch phrase has been dropped from the new film because, according to Superman Returns co-writer Dan Harris, it’s “no longer appropriate for today’s Superman”.

“The world is a different place,” says Harris. “The truth is [Superman is] an alien. He was sent from another planet. He landed on Earth, and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero’.”

How unusual for an all-American icon like Superman. How queer!

Said another way, Superman’s now a universal superhero. And putting it this way brings a smile to my face, because another word for universal is, of course, catholic! Things just keep getting queerer!

Not surprisingly such a queer and, by extension, universal understanding of Superman has angered many right-wingers in the US. They correctly sense that something has shifted, but they’ve failed to grasp the true significance of the issue. Rather, they’ve only scratched the surface by (mistakenly) claiming, in an always vague and unsubstantiated way, that the character of Superman is “too gay”.

Yet although being gay may be for them the most obvious expression of queerness, it’s by no means the only expression. And to be sure it’s queerness, in all it’s boundary-breaking, soul-searching, and transcending power, that the new Superman embodies.

Nowhere in the film is this more beautifully depicted than when Superman breaks through the upper atmosphere and gently floats above the planet, at one with the myriad of different voices and languages emanating from the Earth.

It’s a powerful image. For in a world where sectarianism, domination, and violence are increasingly perceived as the norm, it’s an image that exudes interconnectedness, inclusiveness, and hope.

Such qualities (“unusual” as they are in today’s world) ensure that the image of the listening and responsive Superman, at one with the diversity of humanity, is a profoundly religious image.

And when you think about it, that’s simply another way of saying it’s queer.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
What the Vatican Can Learn From the X-Men

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Out at a Catholic University

Below is an insightful article by Ian Houlihan from the June 19, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The author is a professor in the social sciences at a Catholic university in the US. He is also a gay man.

I read this article with great interest as, like the author, I'd taught for a number of years at a Catholic college where it was common knowledge that I was gay. Indeed, my teaching position was secured, in large part, by a presentation I had made on campus as a graduate student - a presentation which explored the coming out process as a spiritual journey.

In his article, Houlihan addresses a number of important issues – from college-age students’ attitudes towards homosexuality, to what the art of teaching is really all about. It’s an important and thought-provoking article and I thank my friend Sally for bringing it to my attention.

I do, however, have one quibble with it. At one point Houlihan states: “There is a difference between being comfortable with your sexuality and being an activist.” Actually, I’d say that being comfortable with one’s sexuality, and letting people know you’re comfortable, is a form of activism.

It troubles me when people shy away from being identified and/or described as an “activist.” Why do people do this?

Well, “activist” is clearly a code word in conservative circles for intolerant extremism, which when you think about it, is kind of ironic. I mean the activists I know within the justice and peace movement and within the Catholic Church around gay rights issues, are the most open and tolerant people I know. It’s our detractors’ views that come across as rigid, narrow, uninformed, and exclusionary.

As followers of Christ I believe we’re called to live lives of action. I understand such a life as an activist life. We’re called to take action. After all, God’s transforming love can only go out into the world through our words and actions. As Mother Theresa once famously said: “God loves the world through us – you and me.”

It’s time we take back the word “activist.”

Okay, enough of my rambling on, here’s Houlihan’s article:


The Ins and Outs of the Closet
By Ian Houlihan

The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 19, 2006

“That's so gay,” the student said. “I mean, weird.” He corrected himself quickly, with obvious discomfort. Clearly, he suspected something.

“Why did you say it that way?” I asked, in what I hoped was a lighthearted manner. I figured it was as good a time as any to have a serious discussion about my personal life.

“I'm trying not to do that anymore – to say ‘gay’ when I mean ‘odd’ or ‘weird.’ People do that all the time. Someone might be offended.”

“You’re right that some gay people take offense to that,” I said. “But I know what you meant.”

Jason’s reaction was a mixture of shock and confusion. I could only guess what was running through his mind: Did my professor just come out to me? Or did I misunderstand him. Oh, man, this is gay. I mean, weird. Or both.

It wasn’t clear to me that he knew what I was saying, and forcing the issue might make the situation worse, particularly if he were bothered by it. The fact that he quickly changed the subject made me wish I hadn’t brought it up at all.

That was not the first time my sexuality came to the fore in my role as a professor in the social sciences at a Roman Catholic university. Last winter at a social engagement, a student told a staff member that she thought I was bisexual. And there were two encounters with gay students. The first occurred during my first semester at the university. It was an accidental, and at the time harrowing, encounter at a gay bar. The second, in an online chat room, was equally awkward but a bit less disconcerting.

It’s not that I wished to hide my sexuality from my students or that I would ever lie about it, but I just didn't see the need to be open about it, especially since there was no one special in my life.

Even so, I am rather surprised that more people at the university do not know since it’s not a large campus, and people love to talk. I've always felt that knowledge about my sexuality was like a snowball rolling down a hill. Every semester, each class, students would become more curious and, most likely, acquire more information about me. In addition to being “thin and neat” (for you Seinfeld fans), I am single and in my mid-30s. How many witty retorts can I give to the question, “Why aren’t you married?”

The incident with Jason occurred during a recent conference in New York. Our group was able to save on the cost of a room (for four nights) by having one of the students stay with me. Since I envisioned my room would be our default headquarters, I didn’t think it would be much of an inconvenience to have one of them sleep there. I also felt a tad guilty for the fact that students had to pay their own way, when so many other groups were financing the trip on their university’s dime. I was willing to do whatever possible to cut costs. I selected a student roommate (Jason) with whom I had a decent amount of familiarity.

He and I went out to lunch on the first day, and we talked about how his classes were going, his plans for after graduation, and family life. It turns out that we had similar experiences with our fathers. Mine was an alcoholic who regularly hit my mother – before she gathered the will to leave him. His was a drug user who is now incarcerated. Things had gotten so bad that he thought it necessary to change his last name.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded. “No one knows.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’m glad you felt comfortable telling me. I’m sure your friends would be supportive if you were to tell them.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “It's just a lot to deal with.”

We also talked about the troubles he had with his former girlfriend. They had dated all though college but had grown apart. It was the first time since his early teenage years that he was not involved in a serious relationship, and he was looking forward to meeting new people and starting his career.

“What about you?” he asked tentatively.

“Well, I've had a couple serious relationships. But I moved twice for school and for work to come out here, so it's been tough.”

“Nothing in four years, eh?”

“Not really,” I responded somewhat dismissively.

I could tell he was dissatisfied with what I shared with him. And the conversation soon turned to issues related to the conference.

It was not until his “That’s so gay” comment that I could revisit the issue and explain myself more openly, however unsuccessful I was. Thankfully, it was not the last that was said on the issue. Later that night, a few of us met at a nearby bar for food and drinks. After dessert, Jason found me at the jukebox. “Hey, I have a question.”

I could tell by the tone of his voice that it was something serious. “Shoot,” I said, glancing over his shoulder to gauge the distance between us and the rest of the group.

“Were you trying to tell me something earlier? I mean, I think I understood what you meant.”

“Yes, I was.” I took it as a good sign that he brought it up, but I wasn't sure how much he wanted to talk about it. “Are you OK with it?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said quickly. “A couple of years ago, I don't know. But I'm different now.”

It turns out that Jason was from a small town with small-town prejudices. It was not until he started college that he knew diversity of any kind. The dialogue I started with him became a teaching moment, as we discussed his background and how he has changed – or grown, he could have said – as a person.

Jason would later tell me that he was not surprised about my revelation. Others, too, he informed me, had suspected as much. A couple of my “favourites” have had lingering questions. I have since had discussions with a couple of them, and I'm supposing it's only a matter of time before the fact that I’m gay is common knowledge on the campus.

The truth is that the vast majority of young people could not care less about the sexual orientation of their professors. Those students who are put off by gay faculty members will have to learn tolerance, if not acceptance, if they are to succeed in their professional lives.

Others might find the idea of a professor being open with students about his sexuality objectionable for its political implications. “Our students need to be rescued from the liberals who have taken over the academy” is a common refrain from such circles.

But there is a difference between being comfortable with your sexuality and being an activist. More to the point, those who think students’ minds are so easily shaped have obviously not spent too much time with today’s young people. And those who think personal lives should be kept out of the classroom ought to try for one week to refrain from telling stories about their spouses, children, and friends. Only then would you realize how absurd such avoidance can become.

Given how difficult coming out can be, I would never judge someone who decides to dissemble or even deny their sexual orientation. Nevertheless, my admission to certain students, however minimal, has made me realize how misguided, and even silly, I had been about wanting to keep my sexuality from my students. Although the stories vary greatly, if there is one constant about coming out it is that the manner in which we let it be known determines to a large extent the reaction that others will have.

In his remarkable book The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer contends that “we teach who we are.” His approach is unique for its ability to consider technique as incidental, if not altogether irrelevant, to success in the classroom. Teaching is more about creating and sustaining an open and mutually supportive dialogue than it is about grading rubrics, research competency, or integrative technology.

I never wanted to be “the gay professor,” but I especially don't want to be the shameful one. That is not the kind of person I am, and that is certainly not the kind of teacher I want to be. The closet is a dark, lonely, and, for the most part, unnecessary place, and it’s not a particularly good place to teach.

Ian Houlihan is the pseudonym of a professor in the social sciences at a Catholic university in the Northeast. He considered using his real name, but he's not ready for that sort of large-scale public admission. Yet.

Dirk Bogarde (Part I)

Yesterday I started reading the hefty tome that is John Coldstream’s “authorised biography” of British actor and author Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999).

In the introduction, Coldstream includes the following insightful quote by Peter Ustinov:

I’ve always been very much opposed to the courts of law where you are asked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because I think that’s impossible. If I was forced to do that, I should refuse because I’m willing to tell my truth, but I can’t guarantee that it’s the whole truth, and certainly not that it’s nothing but the truth. The truth is like a chandelier in the courtroom, which everybody sees, but from a different angle – because they’re different people and can’t occupy the same seat.

In talking about Bogarde’s sexuality, Coldstream writes:

At an entirely personal level and in the context of this book, it is perhaps worth saying that in the eight years I knew Dirk, the question most frequently asked about him was: “Is he homosexual?” I would answer, in all truth: “I don’t know – and I don’t care.” With some regret I now have to care . . . After all, it informs Dirk’s life, some of his most important work in the cinema and – even if by omission – his writing. Laurence Harbottle, Dirk’s solicitor from the early fifties, puts it unequivocally: “It is not given to many people to know themselves thoroughly. Even less can our observers, friends and acquaintances achieve a complete picture, especially because they are usually deprived of the knowledge of what we do on the streets or in bed. Nevertheless I shared the view of every friend of his I have ever known that Dirk’s nature was entirely homosexual in orientation.”

So what was it like to be an “entirely homosexual in orientation” film star in the fifties and sixties?

Writes Coldwater:

As L. P. Hartley wrote in his prologue to The Go-Between, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. But it is not that far away. It is a place where, as recently as the 1960s, to grow up as a homosexual was to live in a very real fear of state-initiated disgrace. A certain leniency seemed to apply towards the arts, and especially the West End theatre where, from the inter-war period through to the late fifties, the power and influence wielded by a homosexual Mafia, with Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont of H. M. Tennent as its capo di tutti capi, were formidable. Yet there was an ever-present threat of either prosecution or blackmail.

Bryan Forbes, a fervent admirer of the elegance and discretion with which Dirk and [his life partner] Tony [Forwood] lived their lives, wrote in his memoirs that [playwright] Terence Rattigan “was well aware that if any whiff of scandal about his private life escaped, the whole pack of cards would come tumbling down. Just as we were warned during the war that careless talk costs lives, careless talk cost careers.”

At least some of the reason for that fear was removed by a change in the law, but no legislator can affect personal prejudice, and in the course of researching this book I have met middle-aged men who, even now, are unable to admit to a parent the truth about themselves. Noël Coward proved both sage and seer in A Song at Twilight, which opened fifteen months before the Sexual Offences Bill received the Royal Assent. When the law ceases to exist, says [Coward’s character] Hugo Latymer, “there will still be a stigma attached to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ in the minds of millions of people for generations to come. It takes more than a few outspoken books and plays and speeches in Parliament to uproot moral prejudice from the Anglo-Saxon mind.”

. . . [Dirk] constructed the outer shell for his own personality in an era when he had to do so; but the “house of cards” in which he then lived and worked was altogether more vulnerable. If Terence Rattigan, a shy playwright creating his brilliantly perceptive chamber pieces from the seclusion of his home, felt threatened, how much more fragile was the structure assembled around a matinée idol, who had to go out and “flog the product”? So the shell became harder and harder, until it was impossible not only for any outsider to “crack,” but also, I believe, for Dirk himself to shed.

Monday, July 03, 2006

An Excellent Historical Overview

At Spirit of Vatican II, Joseph O’Leary (pictured at right) has reprinted an insightful article that he wrote in 1998. Entitled “Mother Church and Her Gay/Lesbian Children,” it provides an excellent historical overview of the Catholic Church’s relationship with gay and lesbian people.

The piece begins by citing two highly publicized deaths of gay men in Rome in the late 1990s – one of these men had prominent ties to the Vatican.

“These incidents,” says O’Leary, “can be construed as ‘epiphanies’ of the current relationship between the Church and her gay sons and daughters. They reveal a gulf or void where there should be a two-way relationship, a coldness where there should be love.”

Following is an excerpt from O’Leary’s article.


The objective immorality of gay sexual expression in all circumstances, along with its logical correlative, the “intrinsically disordered” character of the homosexual orientation itself, form the core of current Vatican teaching [on homosexuality]. So great has been the investment of church authority in these claims that one cannot imagine them being changed in the near future.

On no theme have Vatican documents been more strident or more forcefully backed up with practical steps: punishment of revisionist theologians and even archbishops, intervention against civic statutes favourable to gay rights, dissolution of gay Catholic organizations.

Where the human voice and the questioning intelligence have been silenced, it seems that blood has to speak instead. I am thinking not only of the blood of Italian men but of the many gay teenagers who have been pushed to suicide by the failure of parents and clergy to speak a word of acceptance.

When the Vatican formulated its official apology for the Inquisition this year, the multitudes burnt as heretics and witches were duly remembered. But no mention was made of the thousands of gay people burnt directly by the Papal States down to 1750 and executed in other states with papal approval.

“Sodomites” were demonized in exactly the same style as “witches” were, and treated with equal brutality. Sixteenth century missionaries had sodomites burnt in the Philippines at the same time as they were having Jews burnt in India. But there is no evidence that this weighs on the Vatican's conscience.

Today in Afghanistan gay men are commonly “stoned”, with the help of walls and bulldozers. The Vatican, which collaborates with fundamentalist Muslims on family planning issues, can scarcely condemn this, since in its own teaching it still gives prominence to the texts in Leviticus that call for such stonings.

The Catechism denounces “unjust discrimination” against gay people, but the Vatican nonetheless defends what it calls “just discrimination”. This category can justify any form of anti-gay legislation.

A note of decency was struck by the American Bishops in October 1997 in their pastoral message to parents of gays, “Always our Children”: “A shocking number of homosexual youth end up on the streets because of rejection by their families. . . We call on all Christians and citizens of good will to confront their own fears about homosexuality and to curb the humour and discrimination that offends homosexual persons. . . It seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one’s personality and to recognise its relative stability in a person. . . Use the words ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’, and ‘lesbian’ in honest and acceptable ways, especially from the pulpit”.

The document was vigorously denounced by right-wing Catholics, and in July this year [1998] the Vatican objected that since the document was not unanimous the Bishops should have asked Vatican approval before publishing it, a procedure to be rendered mandatory by new regulations.

It is encouraging that the battle has spread beyond the tiny, easily dismissed groups of gay Catholics of 20 years ago to the upper echelons of the hierarchy.

What gays should have learned from all this, as the Jewish people had to learn, is the importance of organizing (beyond the vast but fragile world of the commercial gay scene). No liberal statement emanates from church authorities without long and hard pleading from gay groups within the churches.

The forces of homophobic prejudice – as seen in the expulsion of so many gay youngsters from their homes – are ever poised to strike, and the Church has shown herself unworthy of trust as a protection against them.

Instead of being a Christlike friend to gay people, offering richer and deeper models of community, she has all too often shown herself their devilish foe.

It may well be asked how Christ could allow his Church to be involved in the judicial murder of gay people over hundreds of years. I do not know the answer to that question.

But the human mechanisms of this betrayal of the Gospel can be reconstructed. A key factor has been clerical hypocrisy. Incapable of acknowledging openly our sexuality or gayness, we turn to the homosexual men and women in our churches a face of bland incomprehension, of pretended obtuseness.

We stifle the healing words we could so easily speak, because the Moloch of clerical conformity speaks more loudly than the blood of adolescent suicides, or than the tears of those whose lives we have poisoned by our doctrines, doctrines we refuse to discuss with them or even among ourselves.

Prudent trimming, opportune disengagement, positive concurrence in the expected lie, convenient silences, reflexes of dismissal and denial, are only some of the subtle forms of the clerical vice. The role of hypocrite is a comfortable and polished one. But it has brought endless torment to faithful Catholics struggling to carry the burdens we so calmly lay on them.

No doubt it was because he foresaw this that Jesus spoke so fiercely against the well-meaning scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23). When moral teaching becomes in principle a one-way communication, when it is couched in a condemnatory tone, and marked by a phobia about face-to-face discussion with the people addressed, then we are in a “pharisaical” situation.

Church discourse on gay people is heavily reliant on dehumanising objectifications, referring constantly to “objectively disordered tendencies” or “dispositions” or “inclinations” and to “objectively immoral acts”. When Vatican documents seek to give themselves an air of scientific respectability, as they tell gay people the “objective truth” about their sexual identities, they parody the jargon of old-fashioned homophobic psychoanalysts, who had never learned to listen to their “patients” or to let them speak from their own lived experience.

In these utterances there is no respect shown to the freedom and intelligence of the addressee's moral conscience. It is taken for granted that gay people have no moral insights of their own which could enrich and correct church tradition.

Any questioning is dismissed a priori as stemming from an erroneous conscience, which is seen as having no right to express itself (whatever Vatican II may have said on the matter).

. . . The Gospel preaches an inclusive community, where the outcast has the place of honour. The tone and content of Christian teachings on gay and lesbian sexuality should build up such community, one in which human beings can share their feelings and thoughts openly, without having to wear carefully tailored masks.

To evangelize our discourse we need first to humanise it. And perhaps to humanise it would already be to evangelise it. The prophets called not for hearts of bronze but for hearts of flesh, not for sacrifice but for mercy; they had seen enough of the ravages of inhuman law.

Jesus, in turn, rooted his teachings in one value only. We wait for the Church to address to her gay and lesbian sons and daughters a message reflecting that value in both tone and content, and showing, as a kind mother should, that love is a reality, not just a verbal pawn in a game of control and condemnation.

To read “Mother Church and Her Gay/Lesbian Children in its entirety, click

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Travelin' North

Recently I spent eight days in Queensland visiting friends in both Brisbane and Townsville.

I took a night train to Brisbane on the evening of June 17 and was met the next morning at Roma Street Station by my friend Mark.

Mark and I first met in 1987 when we were both studying in Canberra and living at John XXIII College – a Dominican-run residential college on the campus of the Australian National University.

I last saw Mark and his partner Lana ten years ago in 1996. Accordingly, it was great to catch up with them in Brisbane and to meet, for the first time, their young son Matthew. Among other things, Matthew is an avid and skilled young soccer player. A future Socceroo, perhaps?

Speaking of the famed Australian soccer team, early Monday morning, June 19, Mark, Lana, Matthew, and I roused ourselves from slumber to watch Australia play Brazil in the World Cup. Unfortunately, the Socceroos were defeated.

Later in the day we visited Surfer’s Paradise on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Matthew brought his soccer ball and we enjoyed kicking it around on the beach – until a sudden downpour put an end to our World Cup fantasies!

Two days later, on Wednesday June 21, Mark drove me to Brisbane airport where I caught a flight to Townsville on the far north coast of Queensland. Here I visited my friend Jeremiah and his girlfriend Kristy.

Jeremiah and Kristy live quite close to Castle Hill, and from the moment I laid eyes on this impressive natural landmark I knew I wanted to explore it further. Shortly thereafter, Jeremiah and I took the “goat track” to the summit. The climb was exhilarating and the views from the top spectacular.

NEXT: Alva Beach

Alva Beach

On the weekend of June 24-25, Jeremiah, Kristy, and I enjoyed time camping and fishing at Alva Beach, situated north of Townsville near the town of Ayr. Also with us were Wendy and Paul and their dog Roxy.

We pitched our tents at the Alva Beach Caravan Park, set amidst a coconut grove. The place was filled with all types of birds – including a whistling kite that would swoop down and catch in its talons the pieces of roast chicken that Jeremiah threw into the air.

We spent much of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning fishing on the sand bars and mud flats of Alva Beach. It was a very relaxed time at a very beautiful place.

I’ve come to realize how much I’ve missed the expansiveness of the Australian landscape. It’s going to be difficult going back to Minnesota – as beautiful as it is in its own unique way. I clearly wouldn’t last long in a crowded place like Europe.

I’ve also been reflecting on the role that the broad, sun drenched surroundings of my homeland may have played in the development of my outlook on life – including my theological outlook.

I have a hard time with clutter – physical or mental. I like "elegant simplicity", and the idea of there being space for all at the table and in God’s design. Yet so much of humanity’s religious outlook is cluttered with oppressive doctrines and dogmas that not only narrowly and rigidly segregate and limit people and their experiences, but dismiss and/or belittle the diversity intrinsic to God’s creation.

It’s a wonder I didn’t sink beneath the mud flats of Alva Beach with such heavy thoughts!

NEXT: Last Day in Townsville

Last Day in Townsville

My last day in Townsville was Monday, June 26. On the way to the airport, Jeremiah and I visited the Botanical Gardens.

It was great to wander with Jeremiah through the various parts of the garden and take in the lush, tropical atmosphere. Unlike much of coastal North Queensland, Townsville is actually quite dry. However, the small patch of rainforest in the garden – with its hanging vines, giant palms, and decidedly cooler temperature – was a pleasant, albeit imported, reminder of what other parts of the coastal landscape are like north and south of Townsville.

Like the rest of Townsville, the garden was alive with birds – some unfortunately caged, like the sulphur-crested cockatoo pictured below. This particular cockatoo, along with another parrot, was an exceptional mimic, and both birds' antics and utterances brought a smile to our faces.