Above: Agnolo Bronzio, [Detail from] “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” (1546).
…Ideologies and slogans cannot satisfy you nor can they solve the problems of your life. Only spiritual and moral values can do it, and they have God at their foundation. – St. John Paul
I was a sad little boy. I often felt isolated and alone. An older brother thought of me as a complete nuisance. My father worked himself to exhaustion. At school, the other boys didn’t accept me. I was awkward and shy, but also desperate for attention. I longed for male camaraderie and guidance, but I was clumsy and insecure. When I broke a treasured model of a hot-rod, my brother permanently banished me from his room. My dad fell asleep every night in front of the TV. The supremely macho PE teachers tolerated my presence as part of their job while encouraging the more athletic and decisive. At recess and lunch-time, I sat on a bench and drew pictures of mythical warriors. After school, I rushed home to watch reruns of “Bat-Man,” “The Wild Wild West,” or “The Green-Hornet.” I dreamed that one day I could take my place as a sidekick next to these enormously assertive and unabashedly masculine men; though my Saturday-morning viewing of the “Superfriends” cartoon remained the highlight of the week. I idolized Superman and Aquaman and decorated my bedroom with an endless array of officially licensed merchandise. Surrounded by these images of manliness, I felt safe and whatever happened during the day didn’t hurt so much. The ideology of the comic-book replaced any actual interaction or interest from real men. In contemporary culture, this has gone further and pornography is a substitute for the once proverbial father/son talk. A repeated trope in gay porn films is the authoritative and experienced man instructing a bashful barely legal boy on the ways of manhood. These movies are unshakably evocative for almost every generation of gay men as long as fathers neglect their obligations and boys look for heroes and instruction in other forums besides the home.
Norman Rockwell, “The Facts of Life” (1951)
Later, in my early-teens, I experienced a momentary reprieve from unending loneliness and joined with a group of rejected nerds. We smuggled into our classroom the first examples of hand-held video games. They were basic gadgets offering a single rudimentary game, but playing required concentration and focus. When my friends and I gathered in a semi-circle to exchange games and share the strategies we learned through endless hours of practice at home, only a few spare words were spoken; but an intense sort of singular dedication drew us together.
Within a year or so, even these guys abandoned me as I embraced the emerging gender-bender culture of the New Wave Romantics. The possibility of immediate escape through costume, music, and theatricality I found completely mesmerizing. Epitomized by the totalitarian starkness of the Eurythmics and their performance of the melodious “Sweet Dreams,” a song punctuated with the repetitive loud snaps of an electronic whip, which shocked the dreamy listener into an alert state of rigid obedience, rock concerts and MTV became conduit through which I briefly grasped the transcendent and the sublime This was also my first taste of sadomasochism.
It is necessary to recognize that the serious, profound crisis that has affected the liturgy and the Church itself since the Council is due to the fact that its center is no longer God and the adoration of Him, but rather men… – Cardinal Robert Sarah
Throughout the twelve years I spent in the parochial school system, the image of Jesus Christ presented by the flower-power nuns in turtlenecks and shorts-skirts was of a laughably anachronistic hippie throwback from the Summer of Love. The teachings of Christ were nebulous and non-specific, reduced to fortune-cookie quotes from Confucius, except when relating to an all-encompassing concern for the economically disenfranchised and the current political situation in Central America. In their estimation, the individual, institutional, and militaristic transgressions against socialist justice principles involved the greatest threat to humanity. And, in the 1970s, when the United States was just emerging from the economic, racial, and political turmoil of the previous decade, this probably seemed to be the case. But the absorption of culture and society in the burgeoning sexual revolution would eventually result in the proliferation of abortion, contraception, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – including AIDS. I was taught to be kind towards children, flowers, puppy dogs, the earth, and all living things.
There were no moral absolutes concerning personal choice and sexuality; everything was up for debate and dependent upon the individual conscience. Man was the absolute arbiter of his inner ability to distinguish good from bad. I had a conversation with a persistently grinning Catholic priest and he said that because I was “born gay,” certain restrictions against homosexuality only applied to those heterosexual men who would use another man simply for sexual pleasure. In my case, I could find someone I loved, express my sexuality in a healthy and “safe” way within a relationship, and that would be a good thing.
As a boy, my family only sporadically attended Sunday Mass. Later, by the time I was in middle-school, almost not at all. On the somewhat rare occasion, a Holy Day of Obligation, when the entire school went to Mass, for several days prior, accompanied by their guitar playing, the nuns taught us Simon & Garfunkel songs that they deemed proper liturgical music. Sometimes, instead of a Gospel reading, a passage from “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach served as a worthy substitute. I remember: “The only law is one which leads to freedom…” The with-it young associate pastor occasionally taught our “Religion” class. I will never forget when he said: “The best Catholics are those who question everything…don’t be like the old men and women that kneel in the pews, pray the Rosary, and accept everything the Church teaches.”
When my parents moved and we switched parishes, the rather gruff pastor required all able-bodied boys to volunteer as altar-servers. Already feeling alienated and slightly frightened by my endlessly bullying male peers – I connived a way to get out of it, but he was unrelenting. Under the strict supervision of this alpha-male, I finally experienced a treasured moment of male-bonding. It didn’t last. When a new pastor arrived, the focused and quiet solitude of the sacristy became immediately transformed by chatty female Eucharistic Ministers. Quickly, as the women began to take over all of the duties once reserved for the boys, every one of my classmates dropped out – leaving only me. Sensing my abandonment, the women huddled about and tried to smother me with their shared maternal instinct to protect the marginalized and the unwanted. It felt claustrophobic and I quit, though I think the pastor never knew I left.
I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father. – “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”
Pop-culture was my sole link to masculinity. With no male role models or men willing to look after me, I went in search of them. Fathers – if you abnegate this role, someone else will step right in.
Throughout my teens, I inwardly longed for structure and a strongly compassionate man to guide and teach me. Therefore at age nineteen I left home and headed to San Francisco. Although it was the height of the AIDS crisis, I remained scared but confident that somehow a courageous and caring uninfected man was waiting there for me. On my first night, the boy no one wanted was suddenly in demand. When I was a child, men ignored me. Here, handsome male specimens, that perfectly matched my childhood conception of heroic masculinity, eagerly conveyed me through the sometimes painful and rigorous opening procedures that were my introduction to all-male sex. In a way, it operated as a male initiation ritual similar to those that only survive in a few native cultures and as part of the tragic death-cults propagated by certain urban gangs.
For awhile, this new ideology of freedom through a never-ending supply of willing sexual partners successfully caused me to forget the pain of the past. But the old doubts and oppressive sense of hopelessness began to resurface as the number of friends and former lovers who died of AIDS slowly added up. I panicked. Because when I was a boy, even in the midst of loneliness and suffering, I stubbornly persisted in the expectation of eventual rescue or that things would simply get better. But here I was. I did what I believed was the brave thing and “came-out.” Why did the insecurities and fears of loneliness still haunt me?
In homosexuality, particularly among men, shared beliefs were often dogmatic and strictly upheld. As AIDS continued to ravage the gay male community, the question persisted as to why someone would willingly submit themselves to the overwhelming, yet largely unspoken, danger inherent in those sex practices favored by homosexual men. At the beginning of the epidemic, Randy Shilts, the famous gay journalist and author of “And The Band Played On,” wrote:
…the desperation of denial: how when something is so horrible you don’t want to believe it, you want to put it out of your mind and insist it isn’t true, and how you hate the person who says it is.
As a way to shield ourselves from the reality of the danger, there arose an intransigent explanation in the form of the “born gay” theory. This marked a significant shift in attitude among the general population and the gay male community itself. For instance, in the 1970s, the image of the homosexual male was often a sort of binary persona epitomized by the bisexual character Brain Roberts in the 1972 film-version of “Cabaret,” the decidedly ambiguous Mr. Humphries in the BBC comedy “Are You Being Served?” and the cross gender carousing of the construction worker from The Village People in the movie “Can’t Stop the Music.” The preeminent example of this type materialized in Madonna’s notorious 1990 video for “Justify My Love.” Set in a Parisian hotel where men and women wander in and out of numerous rooms while exploring the sexual pleasures with whomever they encounter, Madonna pushed against the increasingly fanatical movement that intended to align homosexuality with identity and less with sexual activity. Nevertheless, that exact same year, hardcore gay activities, namely Michelangelo Signorile, began to “out” supposedly closeted famous homosexuals. Although the sexual proclivities favored by some of these individuals was already widely known to their friends and certain sectors of the business and entrainment world, that wasn’t enough. The plan was to pressure those in positions of influence and power to publicly declare their orientation and their allegiances. By the end of the decade, it became routine for various actors, television personalities, and sports stars to “come-out.”
Since Madonna, the last attempt at a non-identity based interpretation of homosexuality occurred with the release of Katy Perry’s 2008 hit single “I Kissed a Girl.” Though commercially successful, a number of gay activists as well as music critics trashed the song for its crass acquisition of homosexuality with the sole purpose of arousing controversy. Yet, in the identity obsessed culture in which it was created, “I Kissed a Girl” ironically inspired the gender-fluid phenomena later adopted by the same young women who were girls when the song first became popular – among them: Miley Cyrus and Paris Jackson. In a way, Cyrus and Jackson are symbolic of why the Millennials are susceptible to ideologies. At a relatively early age, both have undergone fairly traumatic experiences: family instability, the divorce of their parents, drug use, sexual relationships, suicide attempts, and stints in rehab. Both have aligned themselves with such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, mirroring the almost wholesale acceptance of homosexuality by a generation that unquestioningly supports same-sex marriage. Hence, Millenials and the LGBT community are natural allies in that they collectively struggled with the effects of family dysfunction as children and as adults are drawn to ideological certainty.
The ideology of sexual freedom transformed into the ideology of identity.
Also during the early-1990s, there appeared a flurry of research, from such esteemed scientists as Simon LeVay and Dean Hamer, that claimed to discover the biological or genetic determinate for homosexuality. At this point, sexuality identity solidified into a doctrine. Initially, I was a true-believer. Those who didn’t accept my ideology were bigoted, intolerant, and heartless. These enemies stood in the way of our eventual happiness; they often included parents and unaccepting relatives and friends.
Next, I wanted to further confirm through DNA the intricacies of my sexual desires. Everywhere in the gay male community, existed different subcultures which catered to various fetishes. Here, I met other men who believed they too had been born not just a top or a bottom (having a preference as an insertive or receptive partner), but as a master or slave, a “bear” or “pig.”
There’s something – you know, that love of – that masculine love of a certain kind of oily muscle…I can’t put my finger on it, but – I can just imagine a beautiful SS man loving The Little Prince. – “My Dinner with Andre”
During my studies of Art History at UC Berkeley, the courses were devoid of any beauty. Every work of art became politically charged and a step closer to complete abstraction. Bodies literally disintegrated. In a favorite gay bar, a large semi-nude statue of a man in the pose of Michelangelo’s “David,” stood at the top of an almost altar-like series of shelves crowded with numerous liquid filled glass bottles that varied in shimmering color from dark brown to pale yellow and crystal clear. Here, a respect and a reverence for the historical power of masculine beauty steadfastly survived. These were neo-pagan shrines maintained by a devoted male priesthood. Multiple layers of meaning made sex highly ritualized and bordering on the sacramental. Your lover became a father (a “daddy”) and you transformed into the eternally youthful son (or “boy.) It was the only means by which the haunted mind could touch the painful memory of the past. But the chasm separating the incorruptible from the putrid widened with each encounter. This growing distance caused hysteria. Some retreated; others plunged deeper into the abyss. In the age of AIDS, it was a pitiful, but unbelievably astonishing rush towards an empty martyrdom.
Gay Icon – Tom of Finland
The gay male concept of adored, but unattainable masculinity.
The promise of sexual freedom inadvertently created a propensity for domination and submission. During the 1990s, I saw this in the largely underground “leather” clubs sequestered to the seedy industrial South of Market (SOMA) district of San Francisco. Here, gay men eagerly accepted an extremely orthodox view of sexuality based solely on a hierarchical structure that surpassed any form of natural selection seen in the blood-thirsty animal kingdom. In their effort to both reject and admire traditional concepts of manhood, gay male culture idolized masculinity until it swerved toward the cruel and the fascist. For the barroom, bathhouse, and dance-club process of exclusion was customarily a ruthless Darwinian spectacle that reminded me of the humiliating pecking order that took place during the choosing of team members for a schoolyard game of kickball. Regardless of race, education, or social status, the main attribute that firmly placed someone at the pinnacle of the gay pantheon was the size and proportion of their body; predominantly the penis. This was a stark return to the fundamentalism of ancient phallic worship. On the other end, the composition of the undesirables included the older, the overweight, and the unattractive. In his landmark book, “The Dancer and the Dance,” expertly detailing the gay disco sex scene of 1970s New York City, Andrew Holleran wrote:
For if anything is prized more in the homosexual subculture than a handsome face, or a large co*k, it is a well-defined, athletic body. Having all three is devastating…
For awhile, I experienced the euphoria of setting up my own hierarchy among the rejects where I imperiously ruled as if I were a tyrannical commandant. I become obsessed with sadomasochism in all its forms. Through ritualized violence, I could finally unleash my anger. Only, it never completely went away. Subsequently, my discharge of tension was only a slight reprieve and the level of disgust would immediately begin to rise again. I believed I was born to such a destiny, to rule over the lesser beings of the Earth. I simultaneously loathed and adored the ideology of hate. But my reign of terror came to an end, and I became filled with rage. Yet I couldn’t walk way. I needed to believe in something. But my fall from the ranks of the lesser gods didn’t initiate a crisis-of-faith, only an intransigent obstinacy and growing malevolence. There were no other identities I could claim – except nothingness.
In contemporary American culture, the aesthetics of BDSM are no longer relegated to the fringe. Proudly displayed in Castro Street gay front windows are assorted cat o’ nine tails and leather harnesses. From the success of gay liberation arose bondage. In a philosophy which abhors the restrictive shackles advocated in traditional heterosexuality and strict Judeo-Christian morals, there is an odd celebration of extreme discipline and punishment. This reveals the fundamental need in all Men to bring about meaning and order out of chaos.
The crumbs serve more to whet their appetite than to satisfy their hunger. David says: They will suffer hunger like dogs, and wander around the city. And if they are not filled, they will murmur. [Ps. 59:14-15]. This is the characteristic of those with appetites; they are always dissatisfied and bitter, like someone who is hungry. – St. John of the Cross
In the subterranean dungeons of San Francisco, I fell to the literal bottom of desolation. Hate preoccupied every thought. I blamed those from my past that once abused and hurt me, including an older boy in high-school who called me a “fag” and most of all – my father. I adopted the outward appearance and cold demeanor of a Czarist-era nihilist. I shaved my head, incessantly wore nothing except black, and when alone (which was often) I meticulously studied the back of my eyelids. The daytime was the torturous required precursor to the night. Once the city streets emptied of the frantic suburban commuters, I loathed them all, scurrying home in order to see their kid’s recital or basketball game, I vacantly proceeded down a flight of stairs and into oblivion.
For the next hour or so, I would kneel down, and with a painfully distended tongue, scrupulously clean the black leather boot of my master. Sometimes, because he purposefully stomped about beforehand in the grime of the gutter, I would swallow down gallons of dirt mixed with saliva as I went about my task. For a job well done, he rewarded me with a violent beating and a hose down.
The ideology in which I took refuge turned out to be monstrous and maniacal. It became the incarnation of every childhood oppressor. Afterwards, there was no one left to hate; not even myself. Each successive ideology brought me to this. What I feared most: I was alone and in pain.
Fear brought me to this place, and fear served as the unwitting catalyst to get me out of it. Because in my indifferent awareness, I finally noticed how every distorted ideology and every imaginary savior left me in a constant state of dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness. But in the hollow of my devastation, I could inexplicably sense an unceasing presence that refused to leave me alone. Perhaps, it had always been there. Then in the inescapable darkness, I crawled toward an infinitesimally small light that paused briefly on the head of a pin. It was all I had.
I was covered in filth; my clothes were soiled in excrement, and my hands resembled claws. For so many years, I didn’t care if I lived or died. Now, something pushed me forward. I did not know in what direction I was headed, but as I neared the crest of a hill I could faintly see on the distant horizon the home where I was born. I tried to overlook my disappointment, but I did not want to return back to the exact site where I believed all of my suffering began. The torment I tried for so long to escape, I could no longer avoid. Yet, in those years of my absence, my parents, in particular my father endured a tremendous amount of pain. For the most part, my father bore the responsibility for my redemption.
While I moved from one ideology to another, my father fasted, prayed, and sacrificed in the hope I would eventually return. I did everything to circumvent the painful, he embraced it. In faith and perseverance, he taught me the true meaning of manhood. That the only ideology worth believing in begins and ends at the foot of the Cross. And in this self-giving, which during a sporadic home-visit, just a few months before, I judged as absurd, when my dad retired early to pray a Rosary, I now experienced a strong kinship. So many times before, only using different words, I cried aloud like Our Lord Jesus Christ: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But God had not forsaken me, and He heard my pleading.
St. Alphonsus Liguori prayed: “I adore Thee from the abyss of my own nothingness…”