Finding “Home”: The Gay Evangelical Body
Finding “Home”: The Gay Evangelical Body
At some point or another in our lives, we generally come to realize that we are unique beings; furthermore, we also discern that much of our individual essence is encoded in our physical bodies. From height and weight to race, gender, crooked teeth, bum leg, or speech impediment; it is in the body that we may find so many of our defining attributes: our general appearance, our physical strengths and limitations, even our illnesses and diseases. It is the body that Eli Clare conceptualizes as “home” in Exile and Pride, that is tied in so strongly with our notions of self and identity. In light of this assertion, one might question whether the gay Evangelical is able to come “home” to his body. How is it that religion and sexuality are reconciled somatically? Is it even a possibility?
Initially, one might be tempted to immediately say that “yes”, of course the gay evangelical is at home in his body. If his body is that of a white cisgendered man, then what is there not to like? What resentment could there be, and what other form besides white cisgendered man could be desired? But it is not so simple as that, because being at “home” in one's body is not merely an issue of liking and accepting oone's body, nor is it fair to objectify the white, cisgendered, male body as ideal, despite its normalization and acceptance as such in Western culture. The question is one that deserves more thought and consideration.
In Exile and Pride, Eli Clare draws upon his experiences as a gender-queer man with cerebral palsy; he writes about the politics and the intersections of disability and sexuality in what seems to be a disjointed and tangential way. Ultimately, however, Clare ties it all together with a single image: that of his own queer and crippled body. It is an image that courses throughout Exile and Pride, one that Clare explicitly paints for his audience, one that is reiterated again and again. Clare writes about his body as defined at points by disability, by a lack of sexuality, as the target of abuse, and now under the gaze and scrutiny of his audience. This painful experience of body, however, can only be read along with a narrative of progression into eventual comfort and belonging. Clare asks: “But how do I write about my body reclaimed, full of pride and pleasure?...How do I mark this place where my body is no longer an empty house, desire whistling lonely through the cracks, but not yet a house fully lived in?” (153) Clare writes that, “for [him], the path from stolen body to reclaimed body started with [his] coming out as a dyke” (Clare, 153). Thus, Clare's sense of comfort in his body wasn't given, nor was it readily acquired. Rather, there was (and is) a perpetual struggle. It is in this manner that Clare brings about the notion of body as “home”, an elusive place of refuge that might be found within each of us.
If a sense of acceptance, comfort, and belonging within one's body predicates an understanding of body as “home”, then we might begin by examining what bodily struggles the gay Evangelical faces. The able, white, cisgendered body of the gay Evangelical man stands in stark contrast to the disabled and gender-queer body of Eli Clare. Relative to Clare, it might seem as if the gay Evangelical doesn't face any sort of struggle at all– but that assumption, although erroneous, is most illustrative and must be examined.“Whites are carefully taught not to recognize White privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.” (MacIntosh, 278). This is the case when discourse is framed not in terms of privilege, but rather in terms of disadvantage. It is never suggested that privilege be removed in order to level the playing field; instead, it is disadvantage that must be addressed. “The pressure to avoid [the recognition of privilege] is great, for in facing it [we] must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, it is not such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own” (MacIntosh, 280). MacIntosh makes a poignant observation here that neatly illustrates the normalizing forces in our society: discourse that is performed and thus perpetuated, unquestioningly accepted. This line of inquiry into the privileged body serves not to antagonize the able, white, cisgendered, male body, but rather to begin critically examining how bodies are constructed as objects, how the gay Evangelical body, though vastly different from Clare's, yet is similarly able to be conceptualized as object by both society at large and the gay Evangelical himself. Objectification naturally stands as a corollary to normalization and privilege, wherein the “normal” body comes to represent a person and further scrutiny is precluded. Whereas societal discourse has objectified Clare's body through labels of disability and queerness and through acts of abuse; the able, white, cisgendered, male body is objectified instead through the marked absence of any other label, through the disavowal of unseen difference and the failure to recognize any potential complexity. It is thus that the denial of privilege maintains the illusion of the able, white, cisgendered, male body as falling within the range of median rather than being an (exceptional) outlier; denial of privilege paradoxically serves to maintain privileged bodies as inscrutable, which is itself a privileged position – and it is a position that relies upon an implicit and unexamined objectification of the body in question.
For the gay Evangelical, privilege and objectification are of issue because the intersection of religion and sexuality force their explicit recognition. The gay Evangelical faces two opposing identities, both of which are intractable – the resulting conflict forces introspection and scrutiny, which of course curtails the denial of bodily privilege and forces a different type of objectification. Whereas the objectification previously spoken of refers to societal perceptions of one's identity with regards to maintaining “normalcy”, the gay Evangelical is also confronted with a different type of objectification, one that is much more reflexive, that ties into personal constructions of identity. Conflict of identity occurs when the gay Evangelical's sexuality, as seen through the lens of his religion, constitutes a stigma. “The term stigma, then, will be used to refer to an attribute that is deeply discrediting, but it should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed.” (Goffman, 3). The relationships in question exist between the Evangelical man and his religious community, as well as between him and his body. The gay Evangelical is not a discredited man, but a discreditable one: his stigma isn't readily apparent, but one which may surface and besmirch his character. And thus, “The issue is not that of managing tension generated during social contacts, but rather that of managing information about his failing. To display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie” (Goffman, 42). In light of his stigma, the gay Evangelical is painfully aware of the privilege his body holds; because of his privileged body, others fail to scrutinize, and of course don't question his assumed heterosexuality. It is thus that although sexuality isn't embodied (as opposed to say gender expression/preference or disability), the gay Evangelical yet is conscious of how his body is perceived and normalized by others, and thus might himself come to constitute his body as object. In his practice, psychologist Doug Haldeman thusly describes one of his patients: “John acknowledged that he was gay, but he also felt fervently that he wanted to stay married to his wife and remain an active, involved father to his three children. In professional parlance, his sexual orientation was gay, but his sexual identity – the way he saw himself, and the way he wanted to be seen – was as a straight man.” (Swartz). It is thus that an able, white, cisgendered, male body encodes normalcy; it is constituted as an object by which his desire for heterosexuality is embodied, and yet conversely, it can also be construed as an object against which latent homosexual desires struggle.
In light of this objectified understanding of the gay Evangelical body, we will now return once again to Eli Clare and what it means to find the body as “home”. Eli Clare's own path towards “home” first entailed agency. He writes that, “In a queer community, I found a place to belong and abandoned my desire to be a hermit. Among crips, I learned how to embrace my strong, spastic body” (Clare, 155). Clare exerts agency in various ways: when he relocated in search of an accepting community, when he came out, first as a dyke and then as a man, and whenever he climbs a mountain, thereby challenging the constraints of his body along with societies preconceived notions of him. But of course, agency alone isn't enough in the quest for body as “home”. Although crucial, agency is only the vehicle by which subjectivity is ultimately gained. In moving between various queer and disabled communities, Clare surrounded himself with individuals for whom queerness and disability were the norm. This deliberate redefining of “normal” consequently also redefines what constitutes “stigma”, thus allowing for the erasure of objectifying labels and a new subjective understanding regarding his queerness and disability. Whenever Clare climbs a mountain, he does more than merely taking agency and defying expectations as the “supercrip”, pushing his body to do “extraordinary” things. Clare also grapples with the reality that his body does indeed have limits, that he might not be able to summit a given peak on a given day, and the fact that his body is not “extraordinary” at all: it has both merits and flaws like any other, it is both constituted by and located within a complex and ever fluid set of circumstances and experiences, it is beyond the constraint of any given label, it is home for Eli Clare and for him alone.
At this point, the original question not only stands, but has taken on more nuance: is it possible for the gay Evangelical to defy an objective understanding of his body as derived through the intersection of conflicting identities, repressed desires, and the given privilege that is attached to the able, white, cisgendered, and male body, such that he might arrive at a subjective understanding of his body and thereby the concept of body as “home”? Swartz's article suggests that compromise is possible, but a true subjective understanding is ultimately unachievable. Psychotherapist Denis Flanigan takes an approach wherein he doesn't try to make his patient “choose” between the two or influence his patient in any way. Rather, Flanigan prompts the gay Evangelical to prioritize his desires and then helps him achieve those desires (Swartz). Through therapy, the gay Evangelical is certainly given some degree of agency. In several though not all cases, the gay Evangelical is able to live a straight life while simultaneously accepting himself as gay (but never acting upon that sexuality); his religious identity takes precedence while his sexual identity isn't denied but rather suppressed as secondary. In this case, there is agency with the fulfillment of desire, yet agency doesn't lead to a subjective understanding of the body. Despite compromise and some reconciliation between religion and sexuality, the gay Evangelical is still hard pressed when it comes to breaking free from the label of “normal” and understanding that his body as “able”, “white”, “cisgendered”, and “male” need not also inherently be “straight”. For the gay Evangelical, the body can't be home if it can't be accepted as less than an ideal, because ideals are the ephemeral constructions of society and thus confined to objectivity.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge: South End Press, 1999.
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Aronson, 1974.
MacIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Gender Through the Prism of Difference. Ed. Maxine B. Zinn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 278-284.
Swartz, Mimi. "Living the Good Lie." New York Times Magazine. June 16, 2011.