A White Crane Conversation with Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson
There are couples one thinks of as “power couples” in our history as gay people. Not “power” in the political sense, but in the sense of depth of intellect, influence, and the production of works of lasting value. Will Roscoe/Bradley Rose, Harry Hay/John Burnside, Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy all come to mind. The names Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson would have to join them. Both accomplished authors in their own “write” well before they met in 1984 (as Thompson documents in Gay Soul), they have shared their lives for the last twenty-one years.
The Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd is poet/writer-in-residence at Los Angeles’ Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul. Born in Manhattan in 1923, his colorful and diverse career includes work in the motion picture industry where he was a production partner of film legend
Mary Pickford. He served as president of the Television Producers Association of Hollywood. But in 1951, Boyd left this brilliant success, this “Hollywood heyday” glamour to enter seminary and was ordained a priest in 1955. He went on to serve parishes and college chaplaincies in Indianapolis, Colorado, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Santa Monica. Life magazine selected him as one of the “100 Most Important Young Men and Women in the United States” in 1962
He came out ‘unofficially’ as a gay man in 1965 with his prayer “This is a homosexual bar, Jesus” in the best-selling spiritual classic Are You Running with Me, Jesus? (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) Officially he came out in 1977 in an interview in the Chicago Sun Times. A year later he wrote Take Off the Masks(Doubleday &Co.) In 2005, he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his ordination as an Episcopal priest and will be honored at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City with the Unitas Award for “extraordinary leadership contributions to the church, the academy, or to social justice organizations” this October. His thirtieth book In Times Like These (New York: Seabury Press, 2005), on prayer, was released in September.
Mark Thompson, author and editor, was born and raised on the Monterey Peninsula, California. In 1973, Thompson helped lead the Gay Students Coalition at San Francisco State University, where he was a journalism student. He has worked for gay causes since that time.
This fascinating couple sat down to a conversation with White Crane editors Bo Young, Dan Vera and Andrew Ramer.
Bo Young: So much of what both of you are involved in is connected, it seems: deeper spiritual connections in general, and specifically for gay men. There isn’t a gay man of my generation, at least, that wasn’t touched by Are You Running With Me, Jesus?
Between that and Mark’s trilogy you’ve practically written a canon of gay spirituality. This issue is devoted to a contemplation of Our Bodies, Ourselves: the State of the Gay Body...how would the two of you characterize “the state of the gay community” now vs when your books first came out?
Malcolm Boyd: Are You Running with Me, Jesus? came out in l965. I didn’t realize it at the time but I’d come out, too, with the prayer “This is a homosexual bar, Jesus.” Time magazine didn’t review the book but simply published that prayer. It spoke for itself. The prayer concluded with these lines: “Quite a few of themen here belong to the Church as well as to this bar. If they knew how, a number of them would ask you to be with them in both places. Some of them wouldn’t, but won’t you be with them, too, Jesus?”
In the months that followed the book seemed to provoke a major quake in a spiritual and cultural sense. Bishop John A .T. Robinson of England wrote: “This is prayer in the raw, with the last varnish gone—human life, in all its warmth and lovelessness laid bare before God.” The New York Times said the book’s “eloquence” came from the personal struggle contained in the prayers: “a struggle to believe, to keep going, a spiritual contest that is agonized, courageous and not always won.”
I was still “officially” closeted, so the media uproar and huge controversy surrounding the book provoked an extraordinary spiritual crisis in my life. I felt a lot of anger. Hadn’t organized religion long persecuted gay people, refusing to offer unconditional love? Indeed, was it possible for me to pray through my pain and rage? Trying to be quite realistic, could I offer unconditional love to the church? My self-esteem as a person (a gift from God in creation) had been battered cruelly by the church’s seeming rejection. Could I find a lifeline in prayer to discover healing in Jesus’ love?
“The state of the gay community” in l965 was so totally different from that of today! Even calling the bar “homosexual” instead of “gay” somewhat describes that situation. There were a handful of gay books then; now there seem enough to fill libraries. “Homosexuality” was virtually unmentionable in polite society except to describe a seeming form of leprosy; now gay news is on the front page, the evening news, the Internet, and gay themes surface in big movies and plays and top TV shows.
It’s funny. I had worked in Hollywood in the motion picture industry and early TV before entering an Episcopal seminary in l95l. I knew a lot about underground gay life in Hollywood and New York. But as soon as I enrolled in the seminary in Berkeley, I met more gay men than I had ever met in Tinseltown or Glamour Palace. This was a sudden, abrupt wake up call to me. Yet through history gays have always dominated religious life and churches. After all, there was only one other alternative: the military. The latter, however, lacked gorgeous music, beautiful vestments, candlelit altars in magnificent cathedrals, exquisite liturgies—and sensitive, soulful men.
Bo Young: Your comment about Gay life in the 50’s…Dan reminded me of Harry Hay’s half-joking, half-serious comment that “We didn’t have community then…we had shrubbery!” Obviously we’re moved out of the shrubbery and into something more open and along with that openness, a whole new set of problems. Who would ever have suspected that we would be arguing about gay marriage? Or that this would be the rallying issue!? What do you think is the greatest challenge, spiritually, for the gay community now that we’ve managed to sort of stake out some territory politically?
Boyd: You’re right, we’ve managed to stake out some territory politically—although I think we’ve been extremely stupid both in regard to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and “gay marriage.” I don’t think we’ve gained ground on either politically. Marriage per se is in chaos and rapidly changing. We want certain inalienable rights pertaining to marriage, yes, but do we want “marriage” itself? It’s been so marked by patriarchy, possession, stereotypes, perhaps Norman Rockwell-like clichés and expectations.
However, you ask: what is the greatest challenge, spiritually, for the gay community? Possibly it’s to be proactive instead of reactive. To feel free to explore spirituality without engaging in the
rearguard action of sending loud negative “reactions” to organized religion, churches, theology, morality, ethics et al. I’m aware how complex this is. Yet the “answer” can only be found, in my opinion, in a both/and approach instead of an either/or one. Looking for black/white separated “answers” is an exercise in futility. Real answers need to be found in dialogue and interaction and, yes, our shared human condition. This means being open to one another instead of simply fighting to maintain a prescribed position.
Both politically and spiritually, it seems we’ve often staked out an absolutist, even perfectionist-seeking position that is predicated on banning or fighting what has been described as “morality” or “religion.” Yet it’s clear that “Christianity” isn’t “the enemy,” in a simplistic sense; but “fundamentalist Christianity” (or Judaism or Islam) appears to occupy trenches in no-man’s-land.
Speaking for myself, my very integrity as a human being needs to include my freedom to explore who I am both spiritually and sexually. Not just to explore—but to practice. Then, in a real sense, both my spirituality and my sexuality are “my own business” in that no one else has the right to define them or regulate them or punish me for them or tell me what to do. So, in my own way(s), I have developed a spirituality and a sexuality that “work” for me and that I can share with others in both religion/church and the gay community. (In other words, I am not operating in secret and in the dark). Does this make sense to you? Does it seem valid to you?
Bo: Sure.. and in the end, that it is valid to you is really all that matters…but that would certainly be the raison d’etre for this magazine.
Boyd: What I’m saying, in effect, is that we need to open up spirituality as we’ve opened up sexuality—and relate them.