(Pictured above: “Wandering in a Field” by Vasily Perov, 1879.)
In 1988, as a young, confused, and rather naïve teenage boy, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Castro District of San Francisco. In reality, this was just the beginning of my wanderings. For the next decade, I would stumble in and out of countless “gay” bars, discotheques, and bathhouses. Initially, I would almost reverently draw near to these welcoming dungeons as if they were holy temples. Inside, the crush of beautiful bodies, the music, and the smell of sweat became a euphoric experience similar to mass ecstasy; on constant rotation were the songs: “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, “Personal Jesus” from Depeche Mode, and Enigma’s Gregorian Chant infused “Sadness Part I.” When I first took to the dance floor, and I became a part of the pulsating throng, in that instant: the pain and solitude that seemed inescapable as a child – magically vanished. It was a profound pseudo-religious experience.
In the late-1980s, and early-90s, I continually haunted antique shops and art auctions. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, I started noticing Russian religious icons appearing for sale. At one pre-auction viewing, I was mesmerized by a silver encrusted image of the Child Jesus and the Virgin Mary. By then, I rather hotly despised Christianity, but the artwork displayed in this image was extraordinary so I bought it. In a sense, on a very subconscious level, it reminded me of something. When I was a little boy, father always had an icon in his room; it was one of the few possessions he brought with him when he immigrated to the US from Sicily. As a child, I could not take my eyes off of it. Looking at its flat surface and staring eyes – I felt immediate pulled in. For years, I kept the icon I bought and dragged it along with me wherever I moved. Towards the end, one day I inexplicably placed it in a box with some other things I didn’t need anymore and left the lot at my parent’s house.
Having grown-up in the Catholic Church of the 1970s and early-80s, it was easy to walk away from Jesus Christ as a young man. Then, at best, Christ was a nebulous figure: part social justice warrior, part flower-power hippie from the Haight-Ashbury. I will never forget being marched into the school gymnasiums and the entire student body watching the film version of “Godspell.” Seeing Jesus crucified to an electric fence and dying at the hands of the police, as if he perished for some political cause.
At the same time, the new church building was a homage to poured concrete and glulams. The liturgy was reduced to a communal prayer service interspersed with forced hand-holding. The music felt like a bad folk-revival and the altar became a dining room table covered with multiple glass goblets. One Sunday, the priest asked the children of the parish into the sanctuary, to form a circle, and then link hands during the Eucharistic Prayer. Standing there, what little mystery remained from my First Communion – was gone. As Christ was made to seem more present and familiar – he appeared more ordinary and thus forgettable.
In the world of male homosexuality, there was a transformation from the chaos and fear of my earlier existence that became fully realized and made completely manifest in the availability of the body. Herein, the divine could be touched, consumed, and integrated into the system of the adorer. Even in the midst of AIDS, as this false consummation was being revealed as a tragic lie, wherein “gay” men were literally taking into their bodies – a substance that carried death, I couldn’t resist approaching and kneeling down over and over again.
Yet as time passed, I wanted more and more. One experience and a solitary body was no longer enough. Partners became multiplied and sex turned crowded and communal. On this tract, my need for fulfillment reached an apogee at the Folsom Street Fairs were sex merged with public acts of perversity and penance. I submitted to being openly flogged, mimicking the posture of a martyred Saint. For a few moments, the pain made all the other lingering inner torments go away. Only, when it was over, I did not ascend into heaven, but fell further into devastation. In a sick way, I had hoped for lasting redemption.
Afterwards, I shifted my focus and became a sort of “gay” monotheist – seeking my salvation in the arms of one man. However, the perfection that I desired, and needed, was always elusive and just beyond my reach. Older men became my “Daddy;” I was the son. But as I passed from being youthful and fresh to prematurely middle-aged, I was suddenly expected to initiate and confirm the next generation. But who was the father and who was the son?
Then, I met someone who I thought would accompany me into exile. We stayed away for awhile, socializing with a small group of friends at our home on the peripheries of the Castro. All the same, in our quiet realm of proper decorum, the sacred felt massively lacking. Sometimes at night, after saying goodbye to a few visiting friend that had been over for a later dinner, we stepped out onto the front poach and could hear the distant beats emanating from the now crowded clubs. Suddenly, we practically racing down the hill towards the sounds. After that, we made it a weekend date. Most of the time, we danced with each other between the nearly faceless bodies. Sometimes, to make our increasingly bored sex-life a bit more interesting, we stopped by the strip-clubs or joined the masturbatory parties surrounding a single dancer. One night, my partner drifted away with someone and for a second I was dancing with myself. All of a sudden, I didn’t care. Because the horde enveloped me.
On a cold later winter night, I couldn’t dance anymore. To get a breath of fresh air, I walked outside and collapsed into the gutter. Once I got on my feet, for some reason, I decided to go home. My mother took me to the hospital and I was resolved to lie down and die. But when hell loomed before me, it was jam-packed and desolate. At that moment, when I literally had nowhere else to turn, the only comforting thought in my head was of Jesus Christ. I called out His Name. Eyes on a flat plain suspended in three-dimensional space looked at me. And I knew I was saved.
Nineteenth Century Russian painter Vasily Perov was a founding member of the Peredvizhniki School which focused on depictions of everyday life. One of his forgotten masterpieces is the 1879 work “Wandering in a Field.” The image shows an itinerant shoeless man collapsed in a landscape of wild flowers; his only belongings include a rough sack tied with a cord and an icon secured in a homemade carrier to the side of his chest. The picture is symbolic for me – in that it demonstrates the Presence of God in my life, even when I ceased to believe in Him. Due to my Baptism, and the modicum of religious Truth I received as a boy, even of that contained in the look from a picture on the wall, Faith was like an icon strapped to my body. As much as I tried to leave it, and Him, behind me – the Lord never left me.