It's a Sin (Part II)
In which nobody gets hurt
To be clear: This is all about sex. Brian Broome wants to make sure that’s understood. Writing this week in the Washington Post, he registers his objection to the slogan “Love is love,” which as a younger activist he used to appreciate:
But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to think that this message, in and of itself, occludes the real issue of what people are protesting when they object to the lives and freedoms of gay people. Love isn’t the problem. I don’t believe that homophobes object to whether same-sex couples love each other.
No, it’s not the love. It’s the sex.
Broome then recalls a painful memory of being harassed and sucker-punched on his way home from a night of underage clubbing, which he proceeds to juxtapose with the thunderings of his childhood preacher. In fire-and-brimstone black Baptist fashion, the preacher would literally pound his Bible and declare “something deeply wrong” with men who commit gay sex acts. In that moment, it seemed to Broome that the preacher was looking directly at him.
Straight people routinely ignore “queer love,” Broome argues, then underlines this point by gesturing slyly at old TV show couples like Felix and Oscar or Laverne and Shirley. Straight people loved those shows, but only because the ugly 70s apartments those odd couples shared had two bedrooms. (I fleetingly wonder what a Broomeian reading of Frog and Toad Together would look like, but only fleetingly.)
Broome winds up:
I believe that LGBTQ rights aren’t a matter of love. They’re a matter of bodily autonomy — the right to do what you want with your own body, as long as you’re not causing harm to others. The right to dress it how you want, present it how you want. The right to be sexually intimate with the consenting adult of your choice.
Love is love. Love is beautiful. And heaven knows there isn’t enough love in the world. But when it comes to slogans, “Love is love” is a bit misleading. I like “Your body is yours. Period.”
But Broome well knows this has never just been about the legal right of consenting adults to participate in the bedroom sport of their choice. Plenty of social conservatives, myself included, can still recognize historical anti-sodomy law enforcement as a corrupt quagmire. It is when we are called on collectively and individually to normalize such sport, nay to celebrate it, to bake cakes for it, to recast our language and social structures in its mold, that we’ve declined, as a matter of conviction. As Carl Trueman forcefully traces in his book, the modern self's actualization process set the rules for a game that was always zero-sum in essence. And as I argued in my first entry in this series, honesty compels gay spokesmen and women to acknowledge this—to acknowledge exactly what was sought, and what was achieved.
For my purposes in this entry, though, I’m interested in how Broome frames his replacement slogan: “Your body is yours.” In essence, this is not a legal declaration. It is a moral one—dare I say, a theological one. As is my wont, I can’t help quoting C. S. Lewis here, in the devilish voice of Screwtape Letters:
The sense of ownership is general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counselors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from ‘my boots’ through ‘my dog’, ‘my servant’, ‘my wife’, ‘my father’, ‘my master’ and ‘my country’, to ‘my God’. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of ‘my boots’, the ‘my’ of ownership. Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by ‘my teddy bear’ not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but ‘the bear I can pull to pieces if I like’.
Or the body, as case may be. But what does it matter, if nobody gets hurt?
I wonder how Broome conceives “Don’t hurt,” in his mind. I assume at minimum he means “Don’t rape.” Hopefully, in addition, “Don’t buy sex,” or “Don’t have sex with underage teenagers” (though these are hardly black-and-white areas for many gay men, as prostitution abolitionist Julie Bindel has courageously pointed out). Broome doesn’t say how old he himself was as he walked home from the club that night, fake ID in hand. In his memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, he recalls another night of dancing in a cocaine-fueled haze, encountering a “boy” of unspecified age (though said “boy” was quite experienced enough to make his own intentions plain).
I read Broome’s memoir in a day. It is revealing, to say the least—an angry, searingly honest self-portrait. In its unsparing depiction of the black gay experience, it is at once wholly distinctive and wholly familiar. Distinctive, in that it tells Broome’s very particular story. Familiar, in that anyone who has read other memoirs or literature drawn from the world of gay promiscuity will recognize the same chords, the same leitmotifs. The crushed hopes. The lies. The cruelty of the young. The bitterness of the old. The rejection swallowed and dealt out, swallowed and dealt out. The gasping loneliness in the eyes of an overweight trucker, pathetically chasing young terrified Broome around a bath-house that no longer exists, until finally they face each other and Broome finds the breath to say “No.” The trucker is stymied. For a moment he stands there, swaying, blinking tired bloodshot eyes. Finally, Broome gets up and walks away, leaving him behind. But the man meant no harm. At least nobody got hurt.
Broome tells another story about going home with another black man, then quickly changing his mind and inventing an excuse to leave, the sort of excuse he had learned to make by long observation. The other man is at first furious, then tearful, dissolving in a drunken puddle of anguished, vicious self-talk. Broome turns and hesitates, then kneels down, awkwardly pats the man’s back, tries to mutter something generically soothing. But the man is lost beyond reach. And so Broome collects his shoes, collects his jacket, quietly slips out the door. He meant no harm. At least nobody got hurt.
On a bus ride, the bus ride Broome pays out beat by beat to set off his chapters as he watches a black father with his little son, he passes the site of a favorite bar—now covered in flowers, like a gravesite. Memories come rushing in: the rivers of whiskey, the mountains of drugs, the desperate perpetual hunt for the manhood that was always slipping away. As the bus slows, an old woman stands to get off, walking slowly on a cane. Broome watches the little boy watching her:
Tuan stares at her openly, with his mouth agape. Maybe he’s wondering why she walks so slowly. I want to explain to him that age will catch up with us all. I look out the window again.
I spent too much time at a place that no longer exists. I spent too much time looking for something that I still haven’t found.
Of course, a straight man who had similarly squandered his youth might feel a similar regret in such a moment, express a similar lament. But there is a uniquely bitter quality about the gay experience, a unique quality of curvatus in se, curving in on self. The classicist Daniel Mendelsohn elaborates, looking back on lessons learned as a gay man who first tried to experiment with straight sex:
From those indifferent couplings I do remember this: When men have sex with women, they fall into the woman. She is the thing that they desire, or sometimes fear, but in any event she is the end point, the place where they are going. She is the destination. It is gay men who, during sex, fall through their partners back into themselves, over and over again…
I have had sex with many men. Most of them look a certain way. They are medium in height and tend to prettiness. They will probably have blue eyes. They seem, from the street, or across the room, a bit solemn. When I hold them, it is like falling through a reflection back into my desire, into the thing that defines me, my self.
No wonder that Mendelsohn, like Broome, is always going back—back to the dance floor, back to the lottery machine, back and back and back.
Andrew Holleran said it like this, in a TV interview:
In a curious way, we’re victims of time. Fire Island can remain the same, the sky can be just as blue, the men just as beautiful, the beach just as lovely, and the life just as alluring. But we’re growing older, and we’re just being pushed on to something else, and there’s...That’s an interesting question, can you arrive at a certain point which is perfect and never have to leave? That peace that we’re looking for? I suppose there is, conceivably, maybe, but that’s a pessimistic way to look at it. I don’t know. Perhaps there is something happy. That’s a theme in a lot of literature, the Great Good Place. You’re going to get to a house, you’re going to get to a lover, you’re going to get to a fireplace, you’re going to get to a town, you’re going to get to a situation, you’re going to get the job you want, the lover you want, you’re going to be at peace finally.... So I’m looking for it, certainly, and if I didn’t think it was really there I wouldn’t look for it so hard.
Holleran is a well-read man. He knows his Augustine. He knows the Augustinian reply: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
I close with something from someone I know, a writer named Joseph Sciambra who did find that rest (though, devastatingly, not in all the places he first sought it on returning to the Church). The scars and memories he carries are always with him. For some, it’s Fire Island. For him, it’s San Francisco:
Sometimes, I can’t stop crying. I feel as if I am standing next to the cliffs on the Marin Headlands. Beyond the Golden Gate, I can see San Francisco spread out before me. In the far off distance, Los Angeles swelters under ribbons of heat. Souls are extinguished everywhere, as if they were hot embers escaping a raging inferno. I furiously stretch my arms to catch them, but I cannot. They are falling. I pray to Jesus. I ask Our Lady, please help them.