Remembering the Closeted: Becoming At Home in Our Own Bodies
Another queer person who shaped my life was a lady I shall call Sandra, or Sandy for short. Sandy was a good friend who many people did not know was queer. In fact it was only after she passed, far too young in life, that it really dawned on me that she was queer. The unique shape of her queer life is something that shaped by straight soul.
I got to know Sandy through friends, particularly my roommate I’ll call John. Immediately I was struck by Sandy’s love for life. It didn’t matter what was brought up – lunch in the cafeteria, her work at the radio station where we both worked, the reasons she didn’t want to be a part of the Baptist student association on campus (hint: it had something to do with them trash talking queer people) – she could transform it into a joke, an off-color story, or an excuse to dance to club music.
At the time I was dating a lady I met in high school and she was dating a young man in my hometown. Our perfect solution to this was for Sandy and I to carpool back and forth, rides which were full of laughter, shouting out song lyrics at the top of our lungs on the highway, and also deep sharing. Sandy walked with crutches when she did not use a wheelchair. She shared about the illness as a child that caused this and her own struggle with her own body. She let me know too about a boy in high school who used her disability to take advantage of her – raping her after a school dance. She talked about the deep shame she felt about this, growing up in a religious Baptist family who taught a woman’s worth was in purity. Now she felt she lost her holiness, and so that she lost her worth. Because of this, she did not worry about it anymore. She could not get it back, taken from her as it was, she said, so she just embraced her body as it was, as a gift. She embraced her sexuality, and simply loved deeply, physically, passionately. She struggled in that meant she did not fit the model of love her family raised her with, but this also meant since she knew she never would fit that mold, she embraced simply who she was.
I also learned on these drives that this rejecting the mold also meant she loved women passionately, deeply, as well. Since Sandy was the first queer woman I had ever known and she did not describe herself as queer, at the time I thought her deep, passionate, fearless expression of her sexuality in relationships – and openness about it, without shame, in front of others – was a result of her being raped or molested earlier in life. As I have gotten to know many different same-gender-loving folks over the years, including a few of Sandy’s partners over the years, what I’ve realized is that sexual abuse does not open up our sexuality to such new possibilities that it changes us from straight to bisexual or gay. Abuse closes us off, not opens us, until we are able to do the work of inner healing with the help of counseling and other supports. Rather than being caused by abuse, our sexual orientation, like our skin color or height, is a gift, given us as a part of our lives in the bodies in which God has placed us.
I’ve also come to appreciate the way she openly loved, fearlessly expressing all of who she was – heart, soul, and yes body through her sexuality – in relationships. That she could embrace her body as a gift to others in her loving had added significance in that she had a disability that alternately placed her in crutches or a wheelchair – a situation I know from other women in my life with disabilities can produce a great deal of body shame.
Sandy’s embrace of her body, her sexuality, her heart, her humor – her whole self – as something beautiful, to be offered without shame or apology in love and joy, makes me think of examples from Scripture: the example of Ruth who approaches Boaz well before they are married and in a private place uncovers his feet and washes them, according to most translations – a description many of my Hebrew Scripture professors have pointed out was sexual. The “feet” symbolize in much of that period the male sexual organs. Apparently in Hebrew the euphemism used here for Ruth’s approach to Boaz is some kind of sexual act, likely oral sex. In the Biblical narrative we have received, Ruth’s owning her body, her sexuality, and making use of it to connect with a new partner and build a life together with him, which began even before marriage was yet an option, is a part of her own strength, beauty, and courage which allow her to be the model of faith and spirituality she is in Scripture. It enables her to become the ancestors of both King David of Scripture and of Jesus. It reminds me, too, of Tamar who uses her embodied sexuality, for which she is slut shamed for by the men of her own family, to help build bridges of justice. This refusal to shame or be shamed for their bodies you see continuing in the example of David who openly loves Jonathan, with kisses and warm embraces, confessing his love to Jonathan better than the love of women, whether that be romance as queer theologians think or deep friendship as conservatives imagine. It also continues in the life of Jesus who again and again refused to buy into the shaming of women for their bodies and the shaming of people in non-traditional relationships for their different ways of forging connection which other of his contemporaries did.
Despite my upbringing in first Adventistism and then evangelicalism drilling into me that our bodies and our sexualities are things to be feared, Sandy’s example and that of so many queer people I know which, together with these stories and examples of Scripture, suggest to me that in fact such embodied sexuality can be holy.
This is something I had to learn the hard way. I listened to the sales pitch in the churches of my childhood and waited for marriage for sex. I actually know very few good evangelicals that pull this off. Yet, once the blush of romance was past, I found feelings connected to my evangelical values and experience making me feel I must be wrong, doing something wrong, when all I was doing was trying to just be a good husband.
The beauty her shameless love and openness to her own sexuality created was held in sharp tension with the learned shame she would often talk about, a shame that she had not remained a virgin until marriage, a shame she carried even though she was raped by a man who took advantage of her disability. Again and again I have heard stories of women and men who have had the message of purity which is intended to safeguard our children used in conservative Christian circles become a source of deep shame, sadness, and alienation from their bodies as well as a barrier to true intimacy in loving relationships.
In her life, dear Sandy embodied one of the messages which I find queer people all over call us to hear, a message I believe is a word from God to our times. Go to any LGBTQ Pride event and you will find, standing side by side, very devout queer couples totally committed to fidelity raising their children together and also displays of people celebrating their bodies, their sexuality, not as curse to feel shame over or hide. The message is clear: we must get away from this antiquated notion that our bodies, our sensuality, sex and romance, are things about which we must hang our heads in shame.
These are in fact celebrations of the deep truth spoken to God inPsalm 139, from the Message paraphrase:
“Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day.
Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!”
The lesson Sandy and so many queer saints have taught me is beautifully summarized by the late father Henri Nouwen, a renowned spiritual teacher who, after his death, those reviewing his spiritual journals discovered was also a closeted queer man:
“We are not what we do. We are not what we have. We are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving Creator. We no longer have to beg for permission from the world to exist”
Nouwen’s lesson as a queer man who, due to the homophobic and patriarchal structures of the Catholic church he served and loved, stayed closeted about his queer identity his whole life, teaches the same message to me that Sandy’s life did: the importance of learning to embrace our sexuality, our bodies, our selves not as sources of shame but gifts of God.
To close, I want to share a poem I wrote on Sandy’s death which expresses both the meaning her life had for me and also the ongoing ways she continues in the communion of the saints to live and move in my life, a guiding spirit lighting the way for us all.
= = = =
On Golden Streets
The last time I saw you
a-twirl with a kaleidoscope of color
was it you I saw
or some phantasmic vision
of my desperate mind?
My heart knows.
Has always known.
Finally I saw you that day
as you’ve always said
in your dreams.
As you have always been
though too few saw it.
Your crumpled form
I had been told fell lifeless,
and without warning
like some rag doll dropped
by an untidy and careless child
was such no longer,
but now you stood alive
more alive than ever.
You stood almost three inches taller that day.
But, how can I call it standing?
Your feet were ever moving
your body swaying like a ballerina.
You were dancing,
moving as always
to music you alone could hear,
dancing upon that marble altar
as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,
and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on
like the foghorns of Fort Fisher
mournful in the mist
announcing the coming of the night.
Your laughter chimed out its own song,
a thousand hand-bell choirs
in joyful unison
cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul
like summer rain on my old home,
drowning out those other more ghostly voices.
I could have sworn this brilliant form
all crutches and wheelchairs layed aside
and you giggled
whispering of joys
that mournful company could not dream of.
Another secret you whispered
like the many we shared
as friends so long ago.
You were a gift to me, dear one,
a friend and big sister
when friends fled
and my own big sister forgot me.
Know you are never forgotten.
I can still remember our late night talks
stories and jokes
singing in my Chevy Sprint
en route to each visit our youthful loves,
and the whispered stories
we both shared of our romantic endeavors
Nor can I ever forget
the wonder of
seeing in you
a person more alive
than I’d ever known,
never worried what the world would say
free to be herself.
Dance on, bright spirit.
And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes
and join you in moving again
to the music of the spheres.
Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!
= = = = = =
Your progressive redneck preacher,