Two encounters with religion yesterday have left me wishing there were something you could spray on it and make it go away. Only after the second occurred did I realize the first had left such a nasty residue. Let me tell you about the second one first.
Last night I sat in an auditorium listening to Chris Hedges wax lyrical about the horrors of war. Because the theme was the intersection of violence and religion and because he shared the program with Hamza Yusuf, the audience was largely religious and Muslim. And because this is Berkeley, the message was outspokenly anti-Bush and filled with illustrations of how things are seriously wrong with America. My kind of crowd, in other words (anti-Bush, I mean, not religious Muslim). Taku asks why I keep going to these events where people come to Berkeley to find an adoring choir to preach to. Chalk it up to a yearning for community in a hostile world.
So while waiting for the speakers to get started, I’m listening to this conversation in the row behind me. Three or four guys were in from out of town for some kind of computer conference. After yakking a bit about how hard they had to work, they moved from work to a discussion of what evidently drew them all together, their masjid. (If you’re not au courant, you may not know we don’t say mosque any more, but masjid.)
From there, they got onto the subject of stiff shoulders and the importance of regular massage. “You’d better hold off on the massage while you’re in San Francisco,” says one of them. “That’s what my mother is worried about.” Laughter all around. I missed the reference until they said, “Did you see that episode of Seinfeld where they were wondering if massage could make you gay?” More laughter all around.
When does gay sensibility walk over the line into paranoia? I turned around and took a look at these guys. Nurdy geeky types, not Orang Utangs at all. Gentle men. Their next topic was their children and how active little Ali was now that he was approaching his second birthday. It’s going to be hell, these terrible twos. More laughter all around. All part of a pattern of light chatter among ordinary American church /shul /temple /synagogue /mosque /masjid folk.
The fact they were religious Muslims (and therefore a suspect category when it comes to homophobia) is not incidental. Sheikh Yusuf’s talk was focused on the need for religion as an antidote to all social ills. He spoke about violence and greed and commercialism, the American abuse of women as pornographic objects. Nothing I’m sure the audience didn’t agree with completely. It was a completely safe place for anyone with the local sense of values.
One guy behind me was wondering if a gay man’s hands on his shoulders could turn him gay. I don’t think so, I wanted to tell him, but these gay hands on your throat could probably lower your intake of air. The sense that a neck-hold on this nice man would probably ruin the event for him and for me gave me pause. I then thought of asking if turning gay would be such a terrible fate, but I don’t see much point in asking questions when the answers are obvious. So, as usual, I said nothing, and stewed in my own juices.
Which brings me to the morning event, something I read in the morning Chronicle about former Archbishop Levada. I was struck with how the gentle level of homophobia in the boys behind me is different from the blatant bigotry of people like William Levada in the mainstream catholic church, but it feeds from the same pig trough. Levada, in case you’ve allowed your subscription to Today at the Vatican to elapse, recently took over Papa Razzi’s former job at Inquisition Headquarters. His latest move was to send out word that catholic charities will no longer be getting out of line and allowing gay people to adopt kids. Never mind that the five kids adopted by gays in his San Francisco days were the hard-to-place kind that nobody wanted, and he had ample opportunity to see the benefits up close.
Time will tell whether the gay parents turn out to be good parents, of course, or whether the kids would have been better off in the orphanage or shunted from foster home to foster home. If past experience is any indication, the gay parents will do at least as good a job as parents who fall into the mixed-gender marriage category.
Old Bill Levada, however, appears uninterested in such social analysis, preferring to follow the dictates of Mother Church and prejudge the parents on the basis of this noxious belief in not touching yourself or others in an interesting way unless you’re making babies. "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children."
No shit. That’s what the bastards had to say on the issue. Violence to these children.
It’s hard sometimes to sort out all these various homophobias. To separate the harsh from the probably benign and then both of these from the possibly mislabeled.
That last category was illustrated this week in the Academy Award’s preference for Crash over Brokeback Mountain for best picture. My first reaction was to bend to the argument that Crash was a good movie. Roger Ebert, who I agree with probably 90% of the time called it a better movie than Brokeback Mountain. I’m in the 10% this time, obviously, since nothing has blown me away in a theater like Brokeback Mountain in years, and quite possibly ever. The portrayal of the evils of the closet and the insidiousness of closeting was unexpectedly brilliant, and the fact the movie won for best story adaptation, best music, and best directing all give wings to the argument being made by people crying foul.
In the end, we have to let this one go, though. Short of polling the members of the academy and getting honest answers, we will never know whether their vote was actively or passively homophobic or whether it reflected a deep-seated preference for LA stories over Wyoming stories. Or whether the topic of racism is better tuned to the zeitgeist than homophobia, or whether there were considerations not related to the movie’s theme. I’m sure there’s a parallel with blacks who think Porgy and Bess would have been a better choice for best film in 1959 than Ben Hur, and with Jews who insist there was more substance to Sophie’s Choice than Gandhi in 1982. Still, I’m troubled by a nagging suspicion about the Academy’s motives. It could also mean we all share a point.
There is a way the guys behind me could have done things differently, though. They might have said, “Hope I don’t get too into those massages and turn gay! I’ve got enough problems with my lust for one sex – I don’t need two!”
If they had said that, maybe I wouldn’t be so pissed off today at Bill Levada.
March 12, 2006
Catholic Charities: http://news.bostonherald.com/localRegional/view.bg?articleid=130113
Violence to Children:
"Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children."
Chris Hedges’ book: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Gay parenting research: