Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Body With Spirit: A Queer Theology of Community

It is very sad, but it is also very true, that Queer Spirit is as dead as dead can possibly be. There is certainly no desire anymore in the Queer Community to have a sense of that Spirit, because Spirit implies that there is something called Creation, and Queers have long-ago distanced ourselves from Creation as something made by a Creator. Creation smacks of God. God smacks of the Church, the Synagogue, and the Mosque. God smacks of organized religion, and that smacks of heterosexist homophobia and unspeakable spiritual torture and pain, so Queers in general have disengaged themselves from anything religious, but wrongheadedly have also disavowed themselves from the only thing that can hold us together as a People--Spirit. Oddly, the one place I have found Queer Spirit is in the Queer recovery community of Crystal Meth Anonymous. One of my meetings consists of practically all Queermen with a few occasional women and some Transgender people. Although those wonderful people in recovery would not like to admit it, our Queerness has a great deal to do with the bond we feel toward each other. It is the bond of spirituality in Queer Recovery. It is a bond of Queer Spirit. There is no doubt in my mind about this.

It is a funny thing, but when the genocide was happening during the Death Years of the 1980's and 1990's, during the AIDS Crisis Holocaust, when an entire generation of young, beautiful Gaymen were being slaughtered in their prime, Queer Spirit was so alive and so well, so enormous, so all-encompassing, it boggled the mind. As the body died, the Spirit came to life. No one would touch us, us "lepers", the "unclean". Except for the few Gay medical practices, most physicians wanted nothing to do with us. Landlords threw us out on to the street to die on park benches and sidewalks. Cab drivers would not take us in their cabs. Restaurants refused to serve us. Store personnel refused to wait on us. Airlines refused to allow us to fly. Funeral Homes refused to bury us. Emergency Rooms denied us care. We were denied the use of public toilet facilities. EMT units refused to treat us. In such a world of no services, we had to make our own community of care, our own community of services.

Something happened back then to the so-called Queer Community that was not really a Community at all. Before AIDS, we were just individual Gaymen and Lesbians who were living out our oppressed lives, going to work and coming home at night, some to partners, some to empty apartments and houses, going to bars with friends, and going to parties where there were lots of drugs with letters for names and of course, cocaine and crystal meth, and there were the bath houses that were a great social/sexual attraction for Gaymen. But, there was no community. We were just individuals living out our everyday, individual lives, detached and disenfranchised. Then, when we began to disappear into the darkness of AIDS-related opportunistic infections to die, a Spirit began to grow in us because no one wanted to have anything to do with us. No one would take care of us. No one would feed us. No one would come to our homes with in-home care services, so we had to make all that happen for ourselves. We formed support groups for the dying and for the grieving. We founded hospices so that the dying could dye with dignity. We started soup kitchens, meals on wheels for the shut-in sick, and free food pantries for People with HIV/AIDS. We had fund raisers and benefit concerts to help financially those services which we had to make for ourselves, because no one was doing it for us. Queermen, Lesbians, and allied straight women became an army of care and comfort. Out of death came life abundant.

Suddenly, there was a Community of Compassion and the individual Gay and Lesbian people coalesced into a Queer and Queer Allied Community of Compassion. Queer Spirit built up among us, and there was Love, not just love, but a Divine Presence, Divine Love that came from our Queerness specifically. We became a People of God. It was the fact that we were Queer and we were dying that empowered us to find that spiritual wholeness. Even many atheists, upon their deathbeds, became believers in Something Greater Than Themselves because of the care they were receiving from their Brothers and Sisters who were perfect strangers, because of the outpouring of a love previously unknown. Queer Spirit was alive because we felt ourselves to be very much a part of a Creation that was dying, and in feeling part of that Creation, especially a dying Creation, we were able to feel part of a Spirit that was Life Giving. This was paradox indeed. It must be stated here that this was no Golden Age of Love, but, at its core, a world of horror and death, terror and pain. It was what came out of the horror, what came out of the the terror that made it at least bearable.

It was this Community of Love that helped dispel the messages of terror, those messages of eternal damnation from the Biblical texts of terror. The Community of Compassion helped my Brothers know that, as they were dying from the very thing that defined them as Queer, i.e. sex, they were not only beautiful and worthy of human love, even as they were being abandoned by their families and called pariahs by the media, but that they were Loved by this God whom they were told found them to be an abomination. They discovered the lie under which they had been living. They finally found that they were loved by this God who is Love, and that not only was their illness not a punishment for their sins, it was something from which to grow and learn of themselves in deep and profound ways if they allowed it to be that.

My sweet Brothers found the ineffable Love of God through the love of the Community of Compassion. They found what little good their was in the evil of AIDS. We all found that little good and made it a Very Big Good. We formed those cadres of helpers who cleaned the homes of the ill, who changed their diapers and cleaned up their vomit, who washed the piss- and shit-soiled sheets, who cooked them hot meals and carried them to the Emergency Rooms that would take them in, who sat with them in the dark, lonely hours of those long, long nights of pain breathing with them, holding their hands, and desperately trying to take some of their pain on to ourselves in order to ease their own. As they took their final breaths we held them in our arms and caressed their brows and kissed them on the lips and told them that "all will be well" as our own tears of sorrow and grief poured from our eyes. God was certainly working in us and as the bodies died, Queer Spirit sprang to life. Queer Spirit abounded. We had a love for one another and for ourselves such as we had never known before. Now, in the midst of death, there was Love; there was Life. There was a Community of Compassion where there had been none at all.

Now, today and for the past number of years, AIDS is not killing people anymore, at least not as noisily or in such numbers. It is quieter and less noticeable now, although it is still happening. Indeed, a friend just died from an opportunistic infection only a few weeks ago. Another friend was recently diagnosed with Kaposi's Sarcoma and AIDS-related Lymphoma. So, it still exists. Don't let anybody tell you it doesn't. People with HIV/AIDS are having terrible side effects (really just effects) from HAART--Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy--sudden heart attacks, strokes, osteonecrosis, peripheral neuropathy leading to Charcot Foot, renal failure, liver disease, etc. But, AIDS qua AIDS is a politically incorrect concept now. "There is no such thing as AIDS anymore", we hear. So it is said in the medical communities, anyway, and in the substance abuse recovery communities anyway. "AIDS is a thing of the past". Well, in fact, that's not true, and I am a living witness to that fact, being a Person With AIDS myself who suffers from AIDS-related conditions, but I am not dying anymore. That's for sure. I am not dying. I am very much alive, not always very well, but always very alive. There was a time, though, when the Death Crone was my closest companion and I had just 4 T-Cells. She came for me and She led me by the hand into the Light, but then She decided to let go and I came back. It was just not my time. I had more work to do.

What is certain now is that bodies are not dying from AIDS-related complications anymore, at least not in anywhere near the numbers that we were. And, along with that certainty of life now comes the same and tragic certainty of death of the Community of Compassion. AIDS has become so mainstreamed that only a very few AIDS service agencies still exist. Here in Chicago there is still BE-HIV, Test Positive Aware Network, Vital Bridges, and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the largest direct services provider in the Midwest for People with HIV/AIDS. There is the Trinity United Church of Christ AIDS Ministry on the Southside of Chicago which is very large and does major service work in the African American HIV/AIDS community. There are the great medical practices such as Northstar Medical Center that provides the largest HIV/AIDS practice in the city. But, in general, the respect for life and for each individual Queer person, both ill and well, no longer exists as it did during the Holocaust. The Community of Compassion that was so far-reaching no longer exists. As the body lives now, so the Spirit dies now.

Now we have everything we want---better HIV medications, Queer Marriage in a number of states, Queers being more public and even seen as politically correct friends to have in one's circle, better generalized medical care for Queer People with Queer and even not-so-Queer physicians, dentists, and psychotherapists, Queers on TV and in the Movies, Queer Studies courses in colleges and universities, condominiums on Lake Michigan now, 6-figure incomes now, Mercedes Benz's, Accuras, memberships to the best gyms now, pugs, dining in the finest restaurants, season theater and dance tickets now, season opera and symphony tickets, friends with whom to drink and party, everything that makes "life worth living" now. (Although to re-phrase Harvey Milk, he said that only hope makes life worth living, "because without hope, life is not worth living", but I say you can't have hope without Spirit and we don't really have Spirit, so do we really have hope?). We think we have it all now and people are not dying anymore. We have assimilated into the heterosexist corporate world of competition and one-upsmanship, of Madison Avenue and Wall Street, of the Fortune 500 and Who's Who. And so, the Community of Compassion has become a Community of Work and Play, and AIDS is "a thing of the past". Sprit has died as the body has come back to life. We have moved so easily from the spiritual to the material. But, our Queer Brother Jesus has something to say about that, doesn't he? "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, if he lose his soul?" We have the whole world now (we think and fantasize it anyway), but we have lost our soul, our Queer Soul, our Queer Spirit.

Without Queer Spirit, there is no Queer History, and without Queer History we are not a People, for what makes a people a People is its History. We are simply back to being individual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people leading our individual Queer lives in a corporate world of individuals competing for the best jobs, the best properties, the best friends, the best of the best, and let the Community of Compassion, let Queer Spirit which bound us into that Community be damned. But, if we as a People let Spirit die, we will as a People surely die and lose our voice in death, the voice that helped make the larger world what it is today, the voice that has sung songs of power and liberation from time out of mind..

It is a sure and certain fact that among the young intellectual elite of this country, in Queer communities on college and university campuses everywhere, there is a deep hunger for Queer Spirit, for Queer History, for the great Queer Myth. This hunger can only get fed with the food of the Story that is ours, the Story that comes out of the Community of Compassion during the Death Years, during the genocide, the Story that comes from the lives of our ancestors, the great artists, writers, composers, dancers and choreographers, architects, and designers, actors and even scientists, the story that is of the Ancients, the Sacred Band of Thebes, that army of Sparta with Lambdas on their shields that was 150 pairs of Warrior/Lovers who won the Trojan War against unthinkable odds, Gaymen all, Men who Loved Men, who fought by their lovers' sides to keep them alive, not just for the glory of the city-state but for the glory and sanctity of their love, Achilles and Patroclus among them, and it was just this sanctity of their love that won them the victory at Troy ("An army of Lovers cannot lose!" "Troy was won by Queers with spears"). It is the powerful Story of the Warriors of the Stonewall Riots in NYC in June, 1969, those enraged Drag Queens and Street Youth, and average ordinary run-of-the-mill Gayman and Lesbians who were in the streets in front of the Stonewall Inn tossing Molotov Cocktails at the police who we barricaded in the bar while we overturned police cars, starting fires, ripping up parking meters and using them to smash police car windshields, getting our heads cracked open and ribs broken by cops' billy clubs, with fire hoses turned on us and dogs and riot gear and it lasted for many nights. It is the spiritual Story that is of the great Lords Shiva and Vishnu who, as two male Hindu gods, had a deeply loving sexual relationship with each other, the Biblical Stories of the same sex love of David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Scripture, and the Gospel Story in Mark of the same sex love between Jesus and "his beloved," "the one Jesus loved best", his disciple John, the one to whom Jesus gave his Mother upon his death, much like one lover would give his parents to his partner upon his death from Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia during the Death Years. It is the Story that is of great love affairs, the passionate partnerships of the ages--Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Walt Whitman and his Civil War soldiers in his "city of comrades", Alexander the Great and his lifetime partner Hephaestion from childhood unto death, and all the other great same sex lifetime partnerships to which we can look for our history, for our Queer Spirit. Such love can only be Love, i.e. Divine Presence, which can only exist in Creation, in God's Creation. Once we recognize that there is something called Creation and that we are part of the Great Story of Humanity as Queer People in Creation, we must recognize that something that is called Spirit, for Creation is nothing if it is not Spiritual.

Such a metanoia requires transformation, transformation from the quotidian to the exotic, from the general to the particular, from the terrestrial to the other-wordly. It does not require a transformation from the body to the spirit, for such a dichotomy does not exist in reality, and one is not more exalted than the other. Body and Spirit are the same thing theologically, at least in my theology they are, my Queer Theology, my reality. Certainly, that is a paradox, but then God and spirituality are nothing if not Paradox. So, the great paradox is that as the body dies the Spirit lives, and as the body lives the Spirit dies. This is not how it needs to be now, however. It was so during the Death Years, during the Holocaust that was ours, because that was reality as we understood it at the time, that Augustinian reality of the body/spirit split, where body is bad and spirit is good. It was the common paradigm for body/spirit connectivity, i.e. separation, but now that the body is living, the Sprit, if seen as the same and not as other, can live as well. When that happens, we can live in a state of ecstatic bliss, in the great Community of Compassion that does not require death for it to survive. The Living Body is the fecund soil of the Living Spirit. Each requires the other in order to survive. We do not need to remain in our mundane, competitive, corporate, capitalist, individualistic, materialistic lives. We can live in the Community of Compassion again and be part of Creation again. We can feel the life of a God who does truly have only the very best intentions for us alive in our Community, and as we feel the Sprit moving, we can grab on to our History, because it is the story of Creation, but, more than that, it is the story of our Creation, and we can become a People again, dancing the Great Dance.

We don't need to die in body anymore in order to live in Spirit. We can live in body very well, and celebrate the body and our sexuality very well, and live in Spirit equally well simultaneously. And so, my Queer Theology is not one of body or spirit, or even body and spirit, but, rather, body with spirit, a unity not a dichotomy. We are body/spirits. As our bodies live now with these miraculous, although highly toxic, medications, so can our Queer Spirit live now in a symbiotic Community of Compassion, simple compassion for our Brothers and Sisters as we live our simple lives trying desperately to connect to one another while not yet having a clue as to how to do that. My dear Brothers and Sisters, have the courage to engage our magnificent Queer Myth. It is ours by birthright, ordained by God to be our core definition, to be that which gives us the Community of Compassion in a world of wellness now. To re-engage the Myth means to revive the Tribe from a Community of Compassion that came out of death, out of mourning, to the Community of Compassion that comes out of Life, out of celebration. And then perhaps, indeed, we can have our Golden Age.

Soli Deo Gloria


  1. Excellent post, Roger. Did you see this?:

    It's a different world, I think.

  2. wow ,you are the most inspired writer are a true role model....thanks for sharing your wonderful insights......luv......marc