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2200 Miles Later, My Magnum Opus Is Done; Now What?

Tom of Finland

After ten years of following my fictional characters Jamie and Kent around, taking down their every thought, word and deed – looking in on their sex lives, picking over corpses’ bones with them, being lobbied to omit Jamie’s occasional culinary failures – I am at last coming to the end of my latest and best novel.

The final rewrite of The Gospel According to Gay Guys is done. I’ve transferred the text from a blog to document format, and now have only two more steps to go before it’s published as an e-book: downloading a word processing program and formatting correctly, then uploading it to the publisher.

I feel like a hiker who’s traversed the entire length of the Appalachian Trail; it’s exhilarating to climb the final mountain and look over my tiny, magnificent triumph. But soon it’s time to descend again and go home, wondering what to do with the rest of my life.

I’m glad I hiked. My head is full of memories; not just magnificent views, but delightful or frightening wildlife, hunger, thirst, illness, danger, confusion. Why did I go on such a lengthy quest? Just to say afterward, “I did it”?

Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? I think once is enough.

How did it change me? And how do I know which changes came from hiking and which from living an extra decade?

I woke up this morning with one question on my mind: should I keep the explicit sex in a book that calls itself the Gospel? Sex no longer interests me the way it once did. I seldom look at porn anymore; this is a very recent change and it comes as quite a surprise. I’ve devoted my entire adult life to the liberation of oppressed Gay people, as if I were Elizabeth Cady Stanton – so “sex” has been at the center of my work. I’m immensely proud of what I’ve done; not just in politics, community organizing, religion or even writing. I think I’ve come up with rare or even original ideas about Gay men and sex.

But I’m starting to think that my waning interest is like a lot of other former hobbies I’ve had; is it gone for good?

It’s very odd, watching obsessions gradually disperse. I was 34 when I quit dancing in Gay bars, because Jack didn’t dance and I was in love with Jack. So one day I just stopped. Then over the years I quit watching TV, going to movies, wearing leather, even following Purdue basketball. This spring for the first time I didn’t watch the NCAA Tournament. And now even sex leaves me shrugging. I’m not bored or burned out, I’m just refining mind, body and soul perhaps.

Mind you, I’ve slept with “Kent Kessler” every night since 1994. I doubt I stop that, but I didn’t think I’d ever stop being turned on sexually, even though I’ve pretty much given up the act.

I can tell how I’ve changed by the clothes in my closet; all my leather gear is shoved in the back. I don’t like wearing the Wrangler jeans I bought five years ago on my trip out West; those jeans are too tight now. I bought them to be tight (and I haven’t gotten bigger), but now I don’t want tight anymore. I no longer buy anything from International Male.

Some of this is just being 60, but some of it may represent spiritual growth, too.

If so, should I keep the explicit sex?

If it’s true that I have some sexual insights in the book, they should stay – even if my potential fans are turned off. Mrs. Cady Stanton caused an uproar in 1906 when she published The Women’s Bible; it was so controversial the National American Women’s Suffrage Association repudiated her, though she was their founder! The thing is, now we know she was right. If her book was published today it wouldn’t be the huge bestseller it was a century ago. It would still be denounced by fundamentalists, but it wouldn’t have the same cultural impact today. Millions of Christians address God as female now; I do too, including on my prayer sites with their 2 million hits. Yesterday’s revolution is today’s wisdom.

So what insights do I think I have?

• Monogamy, for one; it isn’t the most important issue in sexual relating, but Gay guys shouldn’t reject it out of hand, no matter what pressure we get from peers, pornographers and queer theorists. Some guys have always believed in it, because monogamy can lead to greater intimacy. Do I think it should be enforced? No. Do I think it should be respected? Very much.

• Masculinity is at the heart of Gay male sexuality. I didn’t write a single bitchy queen in any of my thousand chapters, or even a queen with a heart of gold, simply because I don’t write queens at all. I’m not against them; I just don’t really understand them. (They’re born that way, so I don’t oppress them either.) I attempt to illustrate a “new masculinity,” though it’s very familiar to every Gay guy; it isn’t Straight masculinity, but it’s definitely active, decisive, courageous, tender sometimes, aggressive at others. Masculine is what most of us are.

It’s morally wrong to oppress Gay guys who aren’t masculine or don’t identify with the term, but even they want a lover who’s very butch. Quentin Crisp was right in saying we all want “a big dark man,” but he was completely wrong in saying that man doesn’t exist. Crisp was profoundly homophobic, which was only natural given his era, but that homophobia is why he became unpopular again at the end of his life, at the very time he was celebrated for his longevity and courage. If the only desirable man is a Straight one – and that’s exactly what he believed, and what many of us still believe – we’re doomed.

I say we’re not doomed, and that Gay men are more desirable partners for us in every way.

“Homosexuals” exist on a spectrum that probably corresponds to biological differences within our group. We’re all a bit different. But we do cluster – almost unanimously – in our turnons, so a Gay author’s job is to illustrate that and to celebrate it. My character Kent is an athlete, a cop and a hunter; he also cries when he’s overwhelmed with grief. My character Jamie is terrified of bugs and other critters who “invade” his house, but he’s clearly an outstanding leader.

If anything I’ve overdone my descriptions of them as butch guys to overcome the stereotypes. But I like lifting up positive images of our masculinity. Most Gay guys are not so much “Straight-acting” as male-acting. I think our books should say so.

• I have aimed to lift up the sexualizing of power, which is very desirable (it’s what that whole macho-turnon thing is about), but stop short of sadomasochism, which I’m increasingly convinced is an abuse of power – less physically abusive than emotionally so. We’re only two generations past Stonewall, and we still have a lot of internalized shame about sucking dick. SM, I’ve come to believe, acts out that secret shame and is destructive.

Get this, I’m a former member of the Windy City Bondage Club; I will always wish leathermen well. I’ve been impressed many times by their intelligence and sensitivity, and I believe organized BDSM clubs provide a real public service for the sexually adventurous by emphasizing safety, responsibility and accountability.

But the bottom line is that sadism isn’t worthy of respect, and neither is masochism. They both sound, look and smell like internalized homophobia; look at all the degradation in fetish porn. Considering SM’s popularity, you’d think the Stonewall generation didn’t accomplish much at all; we’re still punishing ourselves and each other for being cocksuckers.

That’s not healthy. That’s not being liberated in the least.

Of course there’s a difference between fantasy and reality; it is good to recognize and express sexual fantasies in safe ways. But as I’ve explored these questions with real leather tops and bottoms – intelligent, mature men who know what they’re doing and are careful to stay physically and emotionally safe – what I’ve found is that the sadistic impulse in tops is real; they like the idea of hurting someone, and I don’t respect that. The masochist feels deeply unworthy, deserving of punishment. He may act out only symbolically, but his feelings are real and so are those bruises; I find it tragic, because in truth he’s as worthy as anyone else to walk this earth, and often more so. Masochists are very good boys.

So the sexual turnon I give Kent and Jamie is dominance and submission. I make them be explicit about turning on to power. One gives sexual orders and the other is happy to take them. But I also wrote a scene in which too much is too much, so they are forced by their mutual love to rebalance. Sometimes the only way to learn is by making mistakes.

Power’s a very masculine thing (and of course women have it too). But it has to be controlled, and it should never be Gay-hating at its core, or we’re simply parodies of Straight guys (many of whom are smarter than their stereotypes). One of my favorite lines in the book is Kent’s to Jamie: “What you Gay guys have going here’s a cult of masculinity.”

That elevates Gay guys; abuse does not. Gay men have been abused for thousands of years all over the world, and still are abused in many, many places, so I don’t think we ought to be re-enacting it, much less calling it love.

In order to illustrate these things I think I know, I’ve laid them out explicitly in the book. Will this help or hurt sales? I don’t know. At least I’m expressing my truths, whether right or wrong, well-expressed or not.

• My overarching belief about Gay men’s liberation is that we can only achieve it psychologically by achieving it sexually; that sex is the way to get to wholeness. Maybe that sounds simple enough, but it’s difficult to do, considering it involves one or more flawed human beings.

As long as we are acting out the scripts of other people – pornographers, Gay politicians, scientists and doctors and therapists, leather theorists, bar owners, writers and the entire array of homophobes and ignoramuses, religious and otherwise – we are failing to be true to ourselves.

The journey is personal. The healing is sexual. This book is me on the Appalachian Trail.

I have tried to describe an ideal relationship, and the personal qualities a man must bring to it to be fulfilled and fully human. My characters are young, handsome and rich, but those qualities aren’t necessary; they’re also honest, and that quality is.

A lot of times I see my people being dishonest, sexually and in other ways. It doesn’t help, fellas. We can’t be lovers if we’re not honest friends.

But love is more than friendship; it is a state, a condition, an ongoing reality, a decision that I will put you first. And I can’t do it for a lifetime if you’re not also putting me first.

This is why monogamy really helps.

Love doesn’t require continuous self-sacrifice; a lot of times it’s mutually beneficial. I like you, you like me, let’s have a party!

The chief thing we have to learn, I think, is the difference between sex and making love. During sex a man is primarily concerned with his own orgasm. In making love he’s primarily concerned with his partner’s. It’s a fundamental difference. Tricking with a stranger may be good or bad, but lovemaking is clearly the best.

A lovemaker turns on by turning his partner on, until they both can’t help but come. (Yippee!)

Orgasm is the result of losing control, which is why a dominant/submissive relationship, which is about control in its structure, can be such a hot idea between two men. It fits our fantasies to a T: Gay guys like dick. We like having one and we like getting one. The percent of times we give and/or get will vary, but sexually it’s all about the dick.

Where Religion Comes In

As a Christian I have two additional beliefs; one, that sex is sacramental, that it reveals God to us. Two, that our lover isn’t and never will be God, but God is and always will be our lover.

I cannot stress enough that God loves us as Gay guys in our fucking; he delights in our lovemaking. That’s when we are closest to him, when he’s excited with us and feeling close. (Of course this means doing it right, and Dr. Pittenger said there is good, better and best.)

Learning to do it right, unlike my young fictional characters, takes every step and footfall on that 2200-mile trail through the mountains. By the time we get to “right,” we may be 60 freaking years old. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, all our fur’s rubbed off; we’ve lost an eye and our nose has been sewn back on a dozen times. We never will be new again, but that’s okay, it’s great.

If we’re lucky we live so long that we learn from love what God is like. He gave us sex to teach us how to love each other.

God is love; we all know and agree on that. Where preachers quote Bible verses, I’ve tried to draw a picture in words. I’ve tried to tell a story worth reading; I’ve tried to say what I have learned.

And if the telling of sex galore now means I’m pretty much done with the doing of it, I think I’m all right with that. I think it might mean, in my post-Trail world, that I’m starting to be ready for the life of the spirit.

There isn’t a contradiction between the life of the body and the spirit, far from it, but almost all of us choose the life of the body first. Fewer of us get to the life of the spirit afterward, or ever.

I don’t presume that I will never love a man again, but I may be more ready to love God than ever from having walked this trail for so long.

I hope I’ve written it well; I hope I give my readers food for thought, love and prayer. The sex is staying in the book, despite my second thoughts.

This is what I’m convinced of: God is an irresistible magnet, because of his perfection. He draws us to him in a way that’s inexorable, yet joyful and full of personality – ours! Mine. Yours, just the way you are.

This overwhelming attraction of divine love is what I see in Leonardo Ricardo’s art; he paints and builds within cultural frameworks, yet his work is madly exuberant. You can’t take your eyes off it. I see the same divine spark in pictures of his dogs, his garden and when he writes about his friends. This man loves what he’s doing! He just explodes with it like a volcano.

That’s what happens to every soul in love with God. Our final destination is a place of ecstasy, such that orgasm is a foretaste.

Heaven is where, when you finally arrive at the top of the mountain after all that time and work, all those steps over 2200 miles, a miracle happens; you don’t have to climb down and go home. Your new mountaintop becomes your home. You get to stay and enjoy all the scenery that teems with life.

I think it’s time to get The Gay Man’s Bible into print.++

Mt. Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Holy Week: Cling to Hope

This is a lot nearer than we think; it happened yesterday, it's happening now.

For most Christians this is Holy Week, the Week of Christ’s Passion, encompassing four of the most important events in the life of Jesus: his triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) a few days before Passover; his last supper, the seder of Passover, which he transformed into the Sacrament of His Body and Blood (Maundy Thursday, including washing his disciples’ dirty feet); his execution nailed to a cross (Good Friday); and his returning to life, the Feast of the Resurrection, or Easter Day.

It’s a difficult week for people who take this seriously. It ends well, but getting to the end is hard work.

Late last night David, a member of my Daily Office prayer group on Facebook, sent me a wonderful message. He’s an elderly fellow, a Gay guy in Texas by way of New England, and he’d been to the Palm Sunday mass that morning. He wrote:

12:55 am CDT 04/02/012 I hope you are resting…Just had to BLAB….After all these years , I finally “GOT” what Palm Sunday is all about…The music was awesome…not the point..The processing with the children was awesome…NOT the point…when we all read the gospel, OUT LOUD, and in unison…I realized that I was there that day, throwing palms down, demanding that Jesus be crucified, watching Him die for me…. I was there just as certainly as the whole human race..That’s so neat..Praise God..!

I replied,

I remember where I was (Church of Our Saviour, Cincinnati) the first time I had to shout, “Crucify him!” It was shattering.

I’m very glad for your experience this year, and happy you told me about it. “Music awesome… not the point.”

It really is a privilege to receive messages like David’s – one of the unanticipated side benefits to me of running the group.

He’s referring to the practice in many Episcopal churches of making the congregation read aloud the Gospel lesson, recounting the crucifixion. Normally a deacon or priest reads the lesson from one of the Gospel books, but Palm Sunday is different: everyone reads together. This year the reading was from Mark. The climactic verses (Mark 15:12-14) are these: picture the congregation acting as a mob.

Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”

The point David referred to is this: we’re the ones who crucify Jesus, and we do it every day, every year. Sin crucifies him; sinners do, and that’s us. We’re not always the active ones with the hammer and nails, but, y’know, we employ “little people” for that. Politicians, for instance.

It’s a very difficult thing to realize we are sinners – partly because the term has been so corrupted, narrowed and dumbed down by fundamentalist preachers that everyone thinks “sin” mostly amounts to whatever kind of sex somebody else doesn’t like. Sexual sin is real, but it’s not always consequential, and God is a lot less concerned about our sex lives, or that mean thing you said to Aunt Mildred last Thursday, than about the economic, political and military injustices we participate in. The prophets of the Old Testament were horrified by the injustices they saw in the world around them – especially the complete abandonment of women whose husbands had died, leaving widows and orphans to beg in the streets.

Judaism is a patriarchal religion. But God’s condemnation of Israel’s sexism is 3000 years old. The very first stirrings of “feminism” arise in the Hebrew Bible (and Jesus was a Jew).

(Sidebar: you can see the same mistreatment of women in other religions; Hindu widows used to throw themselves on their late husbands’ funeral pyres, not just to mourn them publicly, but to spare themselves from a life of beggary and degradation. Fortunately this is illegal in India now.)

Don't do this at home.

Thus sin is mostly about the destructive behavior of human institutions, though it also has a personal aspect that must never be discounted.

Put it this way: a Wall Street banker makes decisions, motivated by greed, which result in destroying 40% of the world economy. Meanwhile he’s also having an affair with his secretary (or his gym buddy). Which sin do you think matters more?

If the only religious mistake fundamentalists made was being anti-Gay, we could be allies on everything else. But no, they’re also gung-ho for war and the Greedy Old Party.

So this year on dailyoffice.org, I’m showing contemporary “sin pictures” for Holy Week. This morning I started with the murder of Shaima Alawadi, the Iraqi-born mother of five who fled Saddam Hussein in 1994, only to be bludgeoned to death in her California home last week by a Muslim-hating American.

Here’s her husband in mourning.

(Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

This evening we’ve got a picture of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. I’ll reproduce the caption just as I wrote it on dailyoffice.org.

Sin: Blasting the top off a mountain by a coal company in West Virginia, USA, the most sacrilegious act I can imagine on God's green earth.

Tomorrow we get two horrors of the war in Afghanistan. The pictures aren’t gory, but they’re dramatic. And each time I let the guilty parties have it, in the words I write. I’m no prophet, these are strictly my opinions, but I’ve got so fed up TO HERE that I can’t keep quiet anymore. If anyone doesn’t like it, I don’t care.

But I have had to make one adjustment to hang onto my sanity and cling to hope: no more commenting on political news, anti-Gay or otherwise, on the websites of my home state newspapers. I’ve read them both since I was knee-high to a grasshopper (thank you, Mom, for making sure we were a newspaper-reading family), but I can’t take it anymore, so I’ve removed both sites from my bookmarks. Going there isn’t good for me. I write my comments to be very punchy – they usually get a lot of responses, pro and con – but they lead to feelings of bitterness in me, and they drain my energy.

The world is a screwed-up place. Get used to it.

Sin is all around us. Pray about it, repent of it, and learn to forgive the perpetrators, difficult though that is.

We are all perpetrators; here’s a chart, also running this evening, about mountaintop removal – and I benefit from cheap electricity too.

Coal mining companies are the most corrupt industry in the United States. They'll do anything; buy politicians, bribe judges, endanger their workers, ignore safety laws, poison the air and the water, cause cancer in their neighbors. There's no limit to their ruthlessness - all for cheap electricity that powers the economy. (Touch to enlarge.)

If you want to see crucifixion, you don’t have to go back 2000 years. Just look around you, it’s everywhere.

But remember that God has redeemed it all. Cling to hope. In a way this isn’t even about religion; it’s a beautiful world we live in, despite all our efforts to destroy it.

As a commenter said, more cleverly than I, on one of those newspaper sites:

My dog is pretty good most of the time, and he doesn’t even read the Bible.