Queer Rites: Faith Politics and Sexual Diversity
Author: Thom Nickels
January 16, 2012
In August of last year, I boarded a Greyhound bus for Scranton, Pennsylvania for a week’s stay in an Orthodox monastery. Okay, so it wasn’t like flying to Honolulu for a week, but for me it was more or less a necessary trip.
Since I was a teen I’ve been visiting monasteries. At 14, I spent a week in a Norbertine Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania, with some grammar school classmates. I knew I was gay but I was still interested in the Catholic monastic life. Part of my attraction to the Norbertines was the snow white habit. The Norbertines were not a strict religious order; in many ways they were a level or two down from real monastics like the Benedictines and the Trappists.
When you visit a monastery the idea is to tailor your daily schedule so that you’re always doing what the monks are doing. If they get up at4 AM, you get up at4 AM, and so forth. Since my visit was in the summer, life at the Abbey was somewhat relaxed. In fact, it was so relaxed that we spent one afternoon lounging by the monastery pool. We wore our bathing suits, as did the five or six young monks who acted as our guides. Seeing monks in bathing suits was a little shocking. My first thought was how worldly these guys seemed, especially one handsome blond brother in eye-catching sunglasses and bikini briefs. Since the brothers regarded the Abbey as their home, they had no use for pretense and so they behaved like any 18 or 19 year old around a swimming pool, which is to say, un-monk-like.
The blond monk’s high camp mannerisms (notably the way he applied suntan lotion to his body) struck me then as proof that he “was like me,” meaning, queer. I wondered then, as good looking as he was, if he was having sex with any of the brothers.
Years later I visited a Catholic Benedictine monastery in Elmira, New York. I was in my mid-twenties and living at home with my parents for a year after a grueling Vietnam War-era three years in Boston and Colorado. I was out; I had been a member of the Boston Gay Liberation Front and had already published openly queer writings in the underground press. I had also pretty much exhausted the “fruits” of the sexual revolution in that I had nothing to show for it except a string of failed romances, an introduction to STDs, and a trick score card that rivaled John Rechy of City of Night fame.
I arrived at Mt. Savior Monastery on a feast day night when the monks were finishing dinner and enjoying beer from a generous cooler. I was invited to grab a brew and join several monks sitting around a table.
What do a bunch of men who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and who pray half the day, talk about over beer?
Before my visit, I would have replied, “Why, liturgical colors, or the funnier aspects of the lives of the saints.”
You can imagine my surprise then when the monk in charge of the farm animals took a swig of his Heineken and explained how he had milked a cow earlier in the day, and that he had gotten… horny. Had I heard him right? I knew that Vatican II had opened windows, but barn doors?
At St. Tikhon’s monastery near Scranton,Pennsylvania, there were no such shenanigans. There were no beer coolers, although I was told by the Abbot that the monks do drink wine on Sundays and feast days. Unlike western Catholic monks with their shaved faces and nearly-bald haircuts, Orthodox monks let their hair and beards grow in an almost unkempt way. Long hair and beards have a way of covering or camouflaging youth and beauty, but for a visitor with a penchant for beauty this can be a good thing. I didn’t want intrusive Rechy-style thoughts soiling the province of Orthodoxy.
In this “off season,” I was the only visitor in the monastery guesthouse. A small library there included books by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy’s answer to Catholicism’s Thomas Merton, as Rose (or Eugene Rose), was a former San Francisco-based atheist and Marxist who hung out with the Beats and studied under Alan Watts. Rose was also gay and had a partner before converting to Orthodoxy and becoming a monk. .
Meals at St. Tikhon’s (except for breakfast) are mostly silent affairs as monks and visitors listen to readings from the lives of the saints or the writings of the Church Fathers. The silent portion of the meal concludes when the Abbott rings a hand bell. Afterwards everyone rises for a short prayer and then, if the Abbott allows it (and he almost always does) everyone resumes eating with some conversation.
At Mount Savior, the monks ate in silence as a reader read aloud from the Lives of the Saints. While the Benedictine meals tended to have a more leisurely feel than the ones at St. Tikhon’s, they also concluded with the Abbott ringing a hand bell. It might also be worth noting that when I visited Mt. Savior the monastery was undergoing something like an aggiornamento, when the writings of Thomas Merton were being put into action. Visitors at that time were directed to take a look at the Zen garden-cell of a Benedictine bother who had woven Zen meditation practices into his daily prayer ritual. In the 1970s, Zen trappings like this were considered the western monastic avant-garde.
While there are many orders of Catholic monks who dress in a variety of habits, in the Orthodox world all monks dress alike: black cassock and belt with a small raised black hat. Orthodox monks do not shave or cut their hair, so depending on the monk long hair can be bunched up ponytail-style or arranged in a “bun” of some sort to get it off the neck. The visual effects of this for the first time visitor can be startling.
One gray haired monk’s rustic demeanor and long pony tail kept reminding me of the Hell’s Angels, whereas a young novice’s appearance—his long hair arranged in a fan-like web at the nape of his neck—seemed to be “modeled” after an angelic figure in a Byzantine icon.
The majority of the monks at St. Tikhon’s are converts from evangelical Protestantism. The Abbot told me there’s also a significant waiting list and that plans are underway to expand the monastery.
Many of the converts are in their twenties, typical “white bread” youths from Kansas, Ohio or Los Angeles, where they found their way—“through the grace of God,” as the Abbot likes to say—to this esoteric mountain top.
In Catholic monasteries, monks are warned not to get involved in “particular friendships,” meaning not to cultivate one special friendship with another monk. Particular friendships, the logic goes, can lead to intimate relations. At St. Tikhon’s I asked a young monk about this and he told me that as far as he knew there were no such restrictions there. “We can hang out with whomever we wish,” the monk told me, a little perplexed at the idea of restrictions.
Do monks sleep with one another and have love affairs? The answer comes down heavily on the side of No, although an active monk at one large Catholic abbey in western Pennsylvania told me that there are a number of covert love affairs going on, all seemingly undercover but somehow also known by those with “eyes to see.” “Only those monks who are careless or who are otherwise too bold in their expressions of love are ever called out for this,” he said.
Faith Politics and Sexual Diversity [in Canada and the United States], published by UBC Press in Vancouver-Toronto, is a 462-page guidebook to current trends and policies among faith communities towards LGBT issues. The text is dense with charts and graphs detailing every nuanced change in the field of acceptance. What is most interesting about this book is the comparison of Canadian and American attitudes towards LGBT issues. Overall the studies indicate a slightly higher tolerance and acceptance percentage (ten percent) on the Canadian side, something I don’t think will surprise most readers. Each chapter deals with a specific faith community—Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholicism, Non-Christian Responses (American Jews and Muslims), and Political Parties.
Because of this book’s reference library nature, it can be assumed that mostly scholars and those with an interest in religion will read the book cover-to-cover, although as a handy reference this encyclopedic guidepost is a gem, an indispensable index for quotable quotes and in-depth observations. The steadfast durability inherent in this work seems to me to be a guarantee of permanent classic status. The grueling work of statistic gathering and graph comparisons, while up there with back breaking mental labor, can lead to the sort of study that puts you to sleep, but not this volume.
The supplemental essays by knowledgeable analysts who sum up their various findings are written in clear, readable prose. The book’s opening chapter sums up the overall political landscapes in both countries, touching on subjects like immigration and the so-called Pro-Family movement. Regarding immigration in Canada, for instance, we learn that “Canada consistently has one of the highest immigration rates in the world and currently has the second highest foreign-born population (10 percent) after Australia (22 percent).”
The top four Canadian source countries, researchers say, are China, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan, “countries where [generally] relatively little policy recognition of gay rights has been achieved,” sans India and attempted rights measures in the Philippines. Researchers also reveal that “Some political strategists have speculated that, after several decades of increasingly liberal approaches to matters of sexuality, Canada’s political centre may begin to shift towards greater traditionalism as immigrants gain influence…”
One page later, however, a reverse-diagnosis is formulated: “It has been discovered that over time the attitude of immigrants’ views on homosexuality and rights “are changing in much the same way—and much the same rate—as are the views of the Canadian average.”
Generally, evangelicals who disapprove of homosexuality “support at least some progressive policies,” such as interest in the environment, world poverty and AIDS. Regarding same-sex marriage, the studies quoted show that while “support for many gay rights policies is increasing in the general US population, a majority still oppose same-sex marriage, and this opposition has been particularly strong among black Protestants.”
Six in ten Protestants are biblical literalists, and “more than two-thirds (68 percent) of black Protestants say that they consider themselves born again or evangelical Christians,” researchers report.
In early Christianity, same sex activity was not high on the list of major sins. In fact, as the book points out, St. John Chrysostom “thought that the world was fully populated and that, therefore, no more procreation was needed. He was open to the ancient argument in favour of pederasty as the ‘final refinement of lovemaking.’”
How’s that for an earth shaking revelation?
As LGBT historian John Boswell once pointed out, Chrysostom was against sex generally and saw homosexuality as “placing men in the inferior position of being seen like women.”
The Middle Ages changed everything; that’s when same sex activity went from minor to major (or viral) on the musical chairs sin scale. By 1179 AD, laypeople who had same sex experiences were excommunicated from the Western Church.
In the chapter on Roman Catholics and Same-Sex Marriage in Quebec, Solange Lefebvre and Jean-Francois Breton give an excellent analysis of Quebec Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which saw the radical diminishment of the influence of the Catholic Church in Quebec society. During my last visit to Montreal, I visited the parish of Saint-Pierre-Apotre, smack in the middle of the gay village, where, as the authors note, “the parish creates specific Masses and forms of benediction for gay and lesbian couples and their children.” During my tour of the church then I was told that this development came about because of demands from the LGBT community for religious ceremonies and funerals for friends and family members who had died of AIDS.
Kenneth D. Wald’s essay on American Jews and Same-Sex Marriage notes that “American Jews are much more favourable to extending marriage rights to gays than are other religious groups and that the effect of Jewish affiliation is hardly spurious.”
Wald does concede that Jews with “high rates of synagogue attendance…are more likely than other Jews to support enshrining traditional moral stances via-a-vis homosexuality through a constitutional amendment.” However, Wald writes that being Jewish in the United States“still breeds skepticism about the use of constitutional means to bar other minorities from the civic membership that Jews themselves value so highly.”
Of special interest to me was the inclusion of an essay on Muslims and sexual diversity in North America.
Writers Momin Rahman and Amir Hussain both agree that American Muslims “are even more likely to be scriptural literalists than are Christians. Those who believe that the Quran is the word of God, to be accepted word for word, comprise 50 percent, compared to 40 percent who have similar views of the Christian Bible.” The writers also quote findings from 2003 that indicate there has been a shift among younger Muslims from identifying with their country of origin “towards closer identification with Islam.” There is also a strong link among Muslims between religious belief “and opposition to the public recognition of sexual diversity.”
Here the writers navigate sensitive waters, and readers will sense their disappointment when they state, “Within Islamic religious circles, progressive interpretations are even less prominent than they are in Christianity and Judaism, so we should not be surprised to find very strong currents of moral conservatisms among American Muslims.”
Polls taken among American Muslims about acceptance of sexual diversity are not very good, and in fact are rather discouraging.
There is, however, an emergence of queer Muslim voices. In Toronto, for instance, the group Salaam was established in 1991-92. Some years later the website Queer Jihad was founded. Then there is the American gay Muslim group, Al-Fatiha, where Muslims can integrate their faith with sexual orientation or gender identity. The Los Angeles Al-Fatiha is considered to be the strongest group in North America.