Monday, November 26, 2012

Timothy Kurek: "The Cross in the Closet": "Gay like me?"

Author: Timothy Kurek

Title: “The Cross in the Closet: One man’s abominable quest to find Jesus in the margins

Publication: Blue Head Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9835677-4-5, 331 pages, paper, 4 parts, 35 chapters

Amazon link is here

Readers may know the 1961 book (and  1964 film) “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, in which the protagonist used certain medications and an ultraviolet lamp to look black for a social experiment. Former Naval Academy midshipman had mentioned this book in his own “Honor Bound” in 1992 (Oct. 10, 2007 on this blog).  I’ve just added the film to my Netflix queue. Will Kurek’s book become a film, too?

Kurek, raised in a fundamentalist church in Tennessee, decided to conduct his experiment after a lesbian friend was thrown out of her family.  For a whole calendar year, he went undercover and lived as an “open” gay young man.  Of course, he didn’t have to change his body (although he did try a little light drag once).
He got to know the bar scene around a place in Nashville called “The Tribe” (an ironic name). He traveled to New York to join a protest against the Vatican for refusing to support a UN measure to stop anti-gay legislation in the “third world” (that is, in countries like Uganda).  He worked for a gay coffee house, which closed late in his year and he really feared its change to “family” ownership.  He even traveled to Topeka, Kansas, to try to “interview” staff at the Westboro Baptist Church, which he depicts as having bragged about its hatred. Kurek also notes how churches and conservative groups raise money and lobby to take away gay people's rights.  He admits that one time as a teen working in a fast-food restaurant he pressured a gay manager who accidentally brushed against him at work. Those kinds of accusations are all too easy. 
He also discovered a layer to love that he didn’t know existed, as he built friendships with some of the men in the community. I found particularly interesting his account of the gay softball league.  In 1984, I played in one such league in Dallas, where a team could forfeit a game if it had “too many straights”.  I remember the Smith brothers, the quiet younger gay one being an accomplished tennis player, and the older extroverted straight one showing up at the Dallas TMC bar and saying one time “Hairy chests are for sissies”.    I wasn’t good enough to play on the team regularly (I couldn’t compete with “Thunderbuns”), although I remember an opposite field single (hard to do in slow pitch) in a 13-9 win for JR’s, and a real opposite field home run (over the wall) in a practice game.  And I remember an 18-inning women’s game that ended 4-3.  Good slow pitch can be very difficult to hit.  I also remember a bar softball league in NYC in 1978 where I played for Boots ‘n’ Saddle (on Pride Day)  and got a bases-loaded single to keep a rally alive in a 13-4 win in a field on Leroy Street.  The fence was so close that clearing it was only a double.  (For those who remember, 1978 in NYC was the Year of Bucky Dent.)

Since the 1990s, the thrust in the “gay rights movement” has focused on equality: in opportunity, benefits, responsibility, and sharing risk.  But back in the 1950s, when the Mattachine formed, it was all about simply being left alone.  Visitors to my blogs know my own story (from my “Do Ask Do Tell” first book in 1997) about my “expulsion” from William and Mary for telling the Dean of Men (under pressure) that I was gay.
Why did these things happen?  It has seemed like a brutal twist that it was more offensive or traumatic to the community to say that you were gay (or be “found out”) and presumably disinterested in having children at all, than to get a girl pregnant by “mistake”.  Moral standards seemed to have contradictions, or what I call “wind shifts” like those that accompany  cold fronts.  Sometimes the spun in circular reasoning like tornadoes.

Of course, the book attributes most of this to “fundamentalist religion”.  It is certainly true that people turn to “authorized” interpretations of “scripture” when they can’ resolve seeming moral contradictions by science and intellect alone. This leads to authoritarian social structures (often abused) and intellectual childishness.  But it’s important to look even beyond “teachings of the Church” to see what could drive them.

One good starting point for grasping this is to look at the Biblical idea of not placing too much stock on your own material situation on Earth.  In short, bad things happen to good people. Families and many communities need to maintain a lot of social cohesion or “social capital”, just to survive and have a future.  In such a culture, any challenge to the importance of having children and proving the optimum environment for them (mother and dad, married) is not tolerated.  Given sustainability problems today, these ideas could return.  There was also the myth that homosexuality undermines the ability of men to fight collectively to protect women and children in a community, an idea that some people tried to leverage in the 90s with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, although sometimes it sounded like “do ask, if necessary”.   One of Kurek’s anecdotes involves a Marine tossed out under DADT.  In the 1980s, when AIDS surfaced, the religious right tried to add hyrdrocarbons to homophobia by raise the idea of an indirect threat to general public health (the “amplification and chain letter” argument, which fizzled out with time. )

There is, also, the “windshift”.  Once people say that scripture says that a person has a particular life issue because of “sin”, other people are confronted with the “love the sinner” paradox.  It’s a lot easier to hate the sinner to get out of this discomfort.  There’s another paradox that older homosexuals remember, at least those who were not physically competitive like me (and that was more of an issue in the 1950s than it is today).  I was told I was unfit, but suddenly people changed windage and wanted to see me married and making babies to carry on the family anyway (I’m an only child).

In the long run, this has been an issue where “reproduction rules” until people get smart about the rules of engagement, which often invoke the idea, "If I have to play by these rules, so do you."  It’s a sort of psychological communism.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of downtown Nashville.  

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