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Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
|Facing the Edge: AIDS as a Source
of Spiritual Wisdom appeared in Confronting AIDS through
Literature, ed, Judith Pastore, Univ of Illinois Press, 1993
To order from amazon.com: Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation
Facing the Edge:AIDS as an occasion for spiritual wisdom
Toby Johnson, PhD
“Something is happening in Earth,” declare world religions expecting the Millenium. So declare eco-activists concerned about nuclear waste and ocean pollution. So declare evening news anchors reporting on events in Eastern Europe. So declare AIDS-activists demanding better education and better treatment.
What that “something” is varies from group to group. Some people see doomsday upon us. Some see a utopia about to rise from the toxic ashes of the last two thousand years of Western history. The coming of the Age of Aquarius, global awareness, realignment of morphogenetic fields, quantum leap in evolution, Teilhard de Chardin’s collective consciousness, paradigm shift—all are mytho-metaphorical expressions for a significant change in the way human beings relate to themselves and to Earth.
What all probably have in common is the consciousness that, at least in the Western calendar, we’re approaching a critical year as both the century and the millenium turn over. This is a moment, however, that is not merely an artifact of time-keeping. As the “Age of Aquarius” hype in the late 60s anticipated, the year 2000 marks a change in the sun’s position in relation to the star patterns tracked by astrologers that has been anticipated for thousands of year. And the critical moment is not only in the macrocosm. Life on Earth is undergoing ever-increasing change and stress. Indeed, it has become a commonplace that with new weapons technologies the world is on the brink, that the population is filling up the planet, that the advent of new social, scientific, and cultural paradigms is happening faster than any of us can keep up with, and that modern day disasters threaten to reverberate throughout the whole world.
One of those disasters that seems to be generating ever-new reprecussions is the spread of the acquired immune deficiency believed to be related to the virus HIV. Within gay culture—where, in America, AIDS has struck the hardest—new philosophies, theologies, psychologies, and moralities are developing in response. The onrush of thought about AIDS appears in fiction and non-fiction alike, from books to tabloids and scholarly journals to skin mags. Some of the responses are dark and pessimistic (Tim Barrus, for instance, called his recent book Genocide: The Anthology); some are positive and hopeful (Norman Shealy and Caroline Myss call their book AIDS: A Passageway to Transformation). Some are funny (David Feinberg’s Eighty-Sixed), some disturbing and outrageously sexual (Dennis Cooper’s Closer), some deeply moving (Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time). All these are part of the rapidly expanding genre of gay and lesbian literature.
What was once a hidden, anonymously written collection of sometimes lyrical and literary works (like E.M. Forster’s Maurice)—though more often seedy, embarrassingly written and embarrassing stories of unhappy sex published by secretive small presses—has blossomed into a full-blown literary genre published proudly by both successful entrepreneurial “desktop publishers” and mainstream houses. Big New York publishers now have whole gay and lesbian imprints in both front and back lists. There is a network of gay, lesbian, and feminist bookstores across the country with trade journals targetted to them and book review journals targetted to their customers.
The “something” happening in gay literature is not only the rise of the genre but more importantly the development of the gay or lesbian hero—the individual who faces ordeals, struggles against all odds, usually armed only with truth and virtue, and who ultimately conquers, often through the character’s hard-won belief in him or herself and willingness to be honest. Gay heroes run the gamut from Patricia Nell Warren’s ever-popular Front Runner to John Preston’s pop-adventure “super-heroes” to the enlightened E.T. in my own Secret Matter to Robert Ferro’s and Paul Monette’s literary psychological protagonists. The appearance of the gay hero—in detective, mystery, science, and romance fiction as well as in literary novels and, especially now, in novels of AIDS—indicates a major change in the way gay and lesbian people experience themselves and their roles in life.
Homosexuals have been taught that they should be failures, pariahs, unloved and unlovable outcasts. Instead, in experiencing gay culture, at least some of them have discovered that they and their friends are wonderful, loving, generous, and certainly interesting and entertaining persons, loved by many people around them. They’ve discovered they can be brave and courageous in the face of danger and hardship, self-sacrificing and selfless in tragedy and disaster. In a word, that they can be heroes. And an early step in their hero journey is the accomplishment of the ordeal of “coming out.”
The appearance of these characters in fiction redefines how the gay public in turn defines itself. By reading of such hero journeys other gay people develop the courage and conviction and faith in themselves and the truth of their own experience so that they can come out, that is to say, that they can break the self-perpetuating prophecy of the homosexual as miserable pervert and create a new archtype. Thus has gay life been transformed by the change in consciousness experienced by male and female homosexuals in America in the 1970s and 80s.
As Toby Marotta has documented in The Politics of Homosexuality, the gay-counterculture arose out of the larger Counterculture—of which so much was said in the early 70s by hopeful and insightful thinkers like Theodore Roszak and Charles Reich (one straight, the other gay). That Counterculture was committed to the belief in “revolution through consciousness change.” The 70s idealists truly believed they could remake the world by changing the way people thought about themselves. For a variety of reasons the Counterculture dissipated as it became incorporated into mainstream American society. Countercultural ideas and values, especially cynicism about government and patriotism and concern about health and ecology, were carried into mainstream thought. But, for that very reason, it has been difficult to trace the results of the consciousness revolution.
Yet, in fact, in one small segment of the Counterculture—the babyboom homosexuals—there is clear evidence of the success of revolution through consciousness change. With the advent of feminism and the rise of a popular and political gay liberation movement, homosexuals began to think about themselves differently in the 1960s, and their world changed dramatically. For gay people, at least in principle, that revolution meant being truthful and honest and eschewing phoniness. And it changed the country’s image of homosexuality and lesbianism and gave rise to a new political and economic minority, in fact, redefining the very notion of minority status.
The rise of lesbian and gay liberation is the evidence for revolution through consciousness change. And this dynamic works in the individual’s life just as it does in the society’s. This is the dynamic that is reenforced, propagated, and refined in the fiction and non-fiction of the gay literary genre.
One might object that the appearance of AIDS in the 80s refutes the claim to the success of gay liberation, that AIDS proved the error of homosexual freedom. The answer is revealed in the very structure of the mythic hero journey that is the core theme of the literature as well as the pattern of the social movement. For coming out and assembling together in a gay subculture was only the first step of this hero journey. That “crossing of the first threshold” necessarily led on to the “road of trials” along which obstacles would have to be overcome to find Enlightenment and herohood with which to return bearing boons. In myth, suffering is one of the trials along the journey, less often a punishment than a visitation of God. (Christians interpret the passion of Jesus, for instance, as evidence of his saintliness not of his sinfulness. The Roman persecution of the early Church is seen as “baptism by fire” that proved and strengthened the faith.)
AIDS, then, can be understood not as a punishment from God, but as a challenge and an instruction. To cite but one example, the health crisis has brought a new interest in relationship. While not entirely adopting the so-called “heterosexual model” of fidelity and monogamy, criticized as institutionalized ownership of women, gay men have sought to improve the quality of their emotional lives. Thus, one of the fastest growing subgenres is the relationship book: Betty Berzon’s Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships That Last; Rik Isensee’s Love Between Men; Tina Tessina’s Gay Relationships; Steve Finn’s Intimacy Between Men, Merilee Clunis and Dorsey Green’s Lesbian Couples.
But the biggest development has been the interest in matters spiritual. Dennis Paddie, Austin poet and playwright working to bring spiritual perspectives on AIDS into the mainstream, has commented sagely that he does not know of any relatively conscious gay man who has not been compelled in the face of AIDS to develop some sort of theological or metaphysical explanation. It seems almost axiomatic (perhaps because it is tautological?) that facing death forces human beings to step outside the concerns of daily life and ask transcendent questions about the nature and meaning of life. Within gay and, to a slightly less urgent degree, lesbian culture new spiritualities are being born.
Thus another growing subgenre is the gay/lesbian spiritual book: Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, to cite the classic in this area; also Walter Williams’ The Spirit and the Flesh; Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue, Mark Thompson’s anthology Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning; Roger Lanphear’s Gay Spirituality, Mitch Walker’s Visionary Love; J. Michael Clark’s A Place to Start , Sonia Johnson’s Going Out of Our Minds and, in the current day manifestation of pseudepigraphal prophecy, i.e., “trance-channeling,” Andrew Ramer’s Two Flutes Playing.
In the same way that gay tastes are often in the vanguard in art, style, and culture, emerging gay spiritualities probably hint at the future direction of human spiritual consciousness in general. And, for the most part, these new spiritualities developing inchoately are nature-centered, ecological, egalitarian, evolutionary-based, secular, and post-Christian (in the sense that they generally embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ while dismissing the Christian religion that seems to have long since abandoned the loving and nonjudgmental, anti-institutional and non-legalistic attitude Jesus taught and for which he himself was executed by the religious establishment of his own day).
The gay experience of AIDS as a call to spiritual consciousness and compassion is a step toward reclaiming the spiritual identity as shamans and witch doctors, faeries and oracles—mystical leaders—that gay historical and anthropological research reveal male and female homosexuals and cross-dressers have had in other cultures and other times.
“Why would homosexual orientation produce vanguard spiritual intuitions?” one might legimately ask.
The answer is two-fold. First of all, by its very nature, spiritual intuition stands outside mainstream assumptions and values in order to achieve a perspective in which non-obvious associations can be made that link together diverse elements of experience, creating what we generally call “meaning.” And, by their very nature, it seems, homosexual men and women live outside the mainstream assumptions and values.
As children, lesbians and gay men sense that “we don't belong,” “we aren't wanted (as gay),” “we are different,” “we are outsiders.” Ecclesiatical gay spiritual writer, Episcopalian priest John Fortunato calls this an experience of being “exiles.” Secular gay spiritual writer, book editor Paul Reed calls it “longing.” In Serenity, Reed writes eloquently of an experience that is “integral to those of us who have been spiritually deprived by a society which denies us the food for our souls and hearts”:
Gay people are groomed for longing by the very fact of the lack of a place for gay people within society… We are kind and gentle people. We are a loving community from which violence does not readily erupt. But it is this difference of spirit—this kindness of spirit—that also feeds longing, for the schism between this loving mode of our community and the rough mode of a world we want to remake can be profound. We wish that things were different; we long for them to be otherwise, on a spiritual as well as physical plane, just as we longed for different surroundings and attitudes as gay children and teenagers coping hopelessly in a foreign land.In a sometimes harrowing, sometimes devastating, almost always heroic way, recognizing homosexual orientation forces individuals to reassess their place in society and often, in the process, to question societal assumptions. Gay men and lesbians are forced by socially sanctioned homophobia to achieve some kind of “critical distance” from which they can find their own experience included in the experience of being human. Indeed, if there is such a thing as a “gay sensibility,” it probably derives from individuals being forced by their aberrant sexuality into “critical stance” on life in general.
Gay people learn to be observers rather than participants. That sense of being excluded may be the source both of most of their sufferings (low self-esteem, dissatisfaction, sexual restlessness, compulsivity, etc.) and of their specialness (sensitivity, awareness, compassion, artisticness, taste, etc.). Indeed, it may be that, irrespective of the hostility of the Scribes and Pharisees of the modern-day Church, it is this sense of being outside and wanting more that leaves them dissatisfied with conventional religion.
But, second, this forced perception from critical distance puts gay people in the vanguard because it is not only an aspect of spiritual experience, it is the hallmark of contemporary experience in general and “post-modern” consciousness in particular. For “critical distance” from the beliefs and assumptions of specific cultures is precisely the consequence the human race is being forced into by modern technology and world-wide communication. Changes in the world in the last hundred years (easy travel, mass communication, financial interdependency, exposure to the variety of human cultures, technological achievement) have forced all people to perceive the world from beyond their own personal culture.
World-religionist Joseph Campbell observed that the potent spiritual/mythic image of today is the view of Earth seen from the moon. For the first time in history, human beings have been able to achieve a perspective from which to view the whole of the human universe. Campbell noted that this parallels the psychological experience of viewing one’s self and one’s culture from over and above. And this changes everything. No longer can a person imagine his or her beliefs and opinions obvious and universal. No longer can any one culture claim its “truth” to be superior. No longer can anybody actually believe (except out of reactionary defensiveness and insecurity) that their god is the only true god, their precious savior the only savior, and the millions of other human beings who worship differently totally deluded?
The stance of being “outside” and “above” the content of individual religions forces one into a kind of Buddhistic “meta-religion” in which it is not the content of religion, but the fact of religious questing which provides inspiration and Enlightenment. Gay people are naturals for such “meta-religion.” For, by their gayness, they are propelled willy-nilly into that perspective. Not all survive and thrive. Just as not all people of Earth appreciate the new vision of humanity revealed by the lunar perspective. But gay culture incorporates this higher perspective, witnessing to it by the essence of gay sexuality—if not always by the actual behavior of gay and lesbian people.
This so-called “meta-religion” effects a kind of detachment from the details of day to day life, perhaps because it suggests that there are not facile, obvious answers to the significant transcendent questions, that is to say that it inculcates a “critical stance” on the questions themselves. Such pure forms of spirituality urge virtues of detachment, patience, and compassion, reminding the individual that he or she is more than just the body, more than just the daily routine, more than just the physical and emotional suffering. Of its very essence, spirituality is about life in a larger, more expanded context, beyond the immediacy of time and space, beyond the demands of ego.
It probably doesn’t matter whether such an expanded, ego-transcending viewpoint is “really true”—e.g., whether human beings have “souls” or whether we reincarnate or are part of “God.” What matters is that achieving a critical stance on ego and on the problems of day to day living frees one from the problems and questions and allows a kind of joy, even in the face of suffering. This joy comes from experiencing “meaning,” and meaning comes from experiencing things in a larger context.
As at other critical times in human history—and as we are facing the turn of the Millenium and the turn of the Age—we are discovering larger contexts and experiencing major “paradigm shifts.” The models of the world and of our human experience are changing. That is felt by individuals as a dramatic change in what is thought to be true.
Science—the language human beings currently use to interpret experience—has undermined the religious revelation of ages past. For all that Evangelical Fundamentalism has been enjoying a hey-day in the 1980s, scientific realism has won the battle over which institutions in society establish truth. Doubtless, in a hundred years or less a new paradigm of reality will supplant the materialism of 20th C. science. In all likelihood—given the direction science has been going in the latter half of the century—the new paradigm(s) will incorporate human consciousness into scientific materialism or, conversely, incorporate the material world into the larger reality of consciousness, understanding the physical world as a projection onto three-dimensional space of a higher “multi-dimensional” reality which includes what we now call “spirit.”
Such a pardigm shift will be mediated both by laboratory findings and philosophical dissertations and by cultural upheavals and social disasters and triumphs. The contention of this article is that the rise of a gay counterculture in the 1970s in the dominant Western society and its battle with the tragedy of AIDS in the 1980s play an integral—and even leading—role in the development of new paradigms of human nature, especially in the area of what is called “spirituality.”
One basis of this contention is that in a world about to be devastated by runaway population growth condoning and, even, encouraging a stable percentage of homosexuals may be ecologically adaptive. As society is further debilitated by the collapse of childrearing institutions and the breakup of the family, it only makes sense to encourage people with psychological bents that might militate against their forming strong and nurturing families—from certain styles of homosexual orientation to a history of sexual or emotional victimization—to eschew marrying and reproducing. (Why pressure repressed homosexuals, for instance, into marrying and having children in their twenties only to have them finally acknowledge their sexuality and break up their families in their thirties? Yet this is a major strategy of the Fundamentalists trying to “save the family.” Isn’t it obvious that the people who should be parents are those who have sex because they want children and not those who have children because they want sex?) Gay consciousness points the way toward reestablishing priorities in human life that justify and reinforce population reduction and concern about the quality of life over the expansion of population.
In the wide view of history this may be appropriately symmetrical. The studies of Yale classics scholar John Boswell have revealed that homosexual activity only came to be universally condemned in the Christian West in the 14th C., i.e., at the time of the devastation of the Hundred Years War and the Black Death. An implication to be drawn from his research is that, at least for reasons of organizational-maintenance, the Church needed both to encourage repopulization and to explain how its omnipotent God could have allowed these disasters. Condemning non-procreative sex accomplished both in one swoop: homosexuals were scapegoated with the disaster and the populace was intimidated into reproductive heterosexuality. Boswell’s research shows that after that time Biblical passages—the story of Sodom and Gomorrah among them—which had not previously been so interpreted were then given anti-homosexual interpretations.
For modern homosexuals that reinterpretation of Scripture has proved disastrous—even the United States Supreme Court considered it precedent to permit states to deny homosexual citizens civil rights protections. In the Middle Ages, however, it was at least better than the Church’s previous attempt to explain the plague by blaming witches. For the subsequent slaughter of cats, believed to be witches’ familiars, eliminated the most important predator of the rats which we now know were the carriers of the real vector for the bubonic plague. Blaming the homosexuals didn’t worsen that epidemic; blaming the cats did. In contemporary times, on the other hand, blaming homosexuals for the epidemic of AIDS—perhaps out of the same kind of Church organizational-maintenance and aggrandisement concerns and superstitions—has worsened the epidemic by delaying public health interventions, discrediting early research, and—even a decade into the epidemic—confusing education about how HIV is spread.
Ironically, AIDS may be the undoing of the superstitions spawned by the Black Death. For in the 20th C., the incidence of this new pandemic disease has again affected how sexuality and homosexuality are perceived. For all that AIDS has been a tragedy and a set-back for civil-rights organizing efforts, it has also squarely established the existence and identity of a gay subculture, made “gay” a household word, and encouraged and legitimated intellectual investigation of alternative sexualities.
And for a variety of reasons—some validated, some debunked by Susan Sontag’s discussions of illness as metaphor—AIDS has sparked new awareness of the role of consciousness in the functioning of the body. In ways that are both hokey, even quackeristic, as well as solidly scientific, AIDS has generated such disciplines as psycho-neuro-immunology and brought attention to such previouly esoteric notions as creative visualization, self-fulfilling prophecy, and “energy-flow” in the body-mind-person.
In the 1990s, the concerns of spirituality tend to be this “energy flow” (which in meditation and prayer can be brought into awareness), the interconnection of these energies with other persons and with the Earth itself, and the power of thought to “create” the future. The old Cartesian notion that the body is a machine controlled by mind is fading and with it the mechanistic notion that bodies and minds are individuated and cut-off from one another.
The paradigm shift that is happening to today—and that gay people are inchoately leading—is that, with critical perspective, we can now see the process. We understand the myths not as depictions of reality, but as metaphors available to us for our use in figuring out how to relate to that part of ourselves that is creating our experience and generating the influences that we have in the world around us.
This meta-religious model changes the notion of God. The relationship and interaction with God is perhaps like the relationship human beings have with animals, i.e., with beings on the other end of the continuum of consciousness and intelligence. In the same way that we imagine a personality in our cat, so we imagine—and project onto—a personality in God. But when we’re talking to our cat, we’re really talking to ourselves about the quality of our experience of having the cat. We enjoy talking to our animals, we enjoy imagining they have personalities just like us; we name them and seek to divine traits in their behavior that reveal our influence on them (i.e., what we’ve taught them, what they do for love of us). Just so when we’re speaking with God we’re really talking to ourselves about the quality of our experience of being alive and conscious. The proper effort in life, i.e., “to love God,” is to enhance that experience, to make life richer and fuller, and to have influence in the world around one which makes the experience of others richer and fuller.
That part of ourselves that we are talking to when we talk to God is a powerful force in the creation of our experience. In some ways we can’t understand from this level of consciousness, simply because here we’re individual egoic beings seemingly out of touch with the other levels, part of each of us is the Creator of the universe of experience in which each lives and interacts with others. The myths come down to us as suggestions for how we can imagine the personality of God so that we can relate properly to that part of ourselves.
Just as the cat is really there, so “God” is really there. There is something out there. But what it is can only be experienced by symbols and metaphors. The discovery of this process changes the way we relate to the symbols and metaphors. We see that we don’t have to accept the ones that have been used in the past, we can edit the myths that have come down, we can reshape them by observing the similarities and differences and by observing the influence they have in the world around us. Metaphors for God, for instance, which result in war and racism can be understood today to be maladaptive. And we can stop talking about God like that. In fact, we have to. That’s the moral obligation of the coming times: to recreate God, which is to say, to “construct” the phenomenon of God appropriate for our reality today.
A consequence of the modern ability to view the world from a global perspective is the awareness of natural ecology. We see that different cultures, religions, belief systems developed historically in response to practical problems. Indeed we can begin to see that the growth of life on Earth represents some sort of evolution of a planetary, collective being—called, in New Age mythology, Gaia.
Perhaps our planet itself is an organized and unified organism, not unlike our own bodies, which grows according to instructions contained in something we could call “etheric DNA” (evolutionary biologist Rupert Sheldrake might call this “the morphogenetic fields”). Just as our bodies grow and change without our conscious intention—or particular attention to the instructions, so Earth grows and changes according to the observable dynamics of ecology and rules of evolution. Earth may not consciously design specific coded communication, but nonetheless may be “communicating” with us through our history just as the secretions in our bodies “communicate” with our cells.
Gaia necessarily communicates through sexuality (sex being the dynamic of evolution as it is experienced by individual human beings). And so the development of identified gay cultures and gay consciousness ought to be seen (i.e. mythologized) as a message from Gaia.
Concern with these communications has generally been called spirituality. The function of spirituality is to explain—in myth and symbol understandable to human beings—what’s going on at a higher, global, meta-level, i.e. what Gaia’s trying to tell us. AIDS is surely one of those “practical problems” that shape the direction of human consciousnes. AIDS has to be mythologized and “explained” in ways that provide positive messages about Earth’s ecology. AIDS, after all, is one of the first truly major eco-disasters of modern urbanity, and the gay community’s collective response has been—at least in most instances—exemplary of the kind of grassroots organizing and community mobilization for problem-solving that will be demanded more and more in the future.
The struggle of spiritually concerned individuals is to figure out what the lesson is that AIDS conveys from Gaia or, in other words, to place AIDS in the context of the larger evolution of the planet. The interpretation we construct for AIDS along the road of trials must explain our experience for ourselves in a way that makes our lives better and makes us influence other lives around us for the better. If nothing else, AIDS has revealed gay compassion and given the world an example.
For a segment approaching ten per cent of the population, the 1980s were characterized by a plague that, seemingly out of nowhere, swept through their lives cutting down friends and lovers and threatening to lurk secretly in their own bloodstreams. And while gay men watched their brothers die mysteriously, society didn’t seem to care. Doctors didn’t want to treat the disease. Ministers blamed it on the victims. The Church actively fought strategies to curtail the spread. The President couldn’t even bring himself to say the word AIDS.
In the face of this indifference and hostility, gay men and lesbians joined together to assist the sick and dying. Gay community groups across the country organized buddy programs, psychological support groups, bereavement workshops, safe sex trainings to ease the pain and stop the virus. Women and men came forward to visit and help people with AIDS—people who were often strangers to them, who had a disease other Americans were so frightened of they wanted all the sufferers locked away in quarantine. The volunteers fed and cleaned up after the PWAs; they helped them bathe; they emptied their bedpans. And they did this not for a few days when it was vogue and the focus of a super rock concert, but for months and even years.
In spite of enormous opposition from mainstream society, lesbians and gay men cared for one another. And they virtually stemmed the spread of the virus in their own communities and alleviated untold suffering. Such caring was not born out of guilt or fear of divine wrath, but out of compassion.
In AIDS: Passageway to Transformation, Norman Shealy and Caroline Myss argue that one message of AIDS is that “victim consciousness,” i.e., the experience of being powerless in face of intolerable things happening to one, is literally killing the human race. Metaphorically AIDS manifests victimhood and defenselessness—that indeed is precisely what the virus causes. By responding with compassion, gay men and lesbians have demonstrated the proper cure for victimhood. As a world we must learn compassion. And we must learn compassion for the world, not just for other human beings.
Gay people are the saints—offering their bodies for medical experimentation to save, maybe themselves, but certainly future generations. And they manifest that saints can be liberated and, even, libertine so long as they’re compassionate and do not cause harm to others. In that they are manifesting the significant teachings of the world saviors of the past. And they are recovering our ancient spiritual roles as eccentrics, shamans, prophets, and mystical beings.
The moral and spiritual imperative is for gay men and lesbians to recognize these changes in their status and let them reshape their lives and for non-gay heterosexual men and women to rethink their notions of sexuality according to a new paradigm.
The gay plight manifests a whole new vision of how society should operate in which efforts are turned to helping the misfortunate instead of blaming them. The gay response to AIDS reveals something crucial about the way to envision the rules of reality on the next level up (i.e., how to envision the personality of God) and that is that nobody’s wrong, that we can help people without blaming anybody, that we can solve the problems in society without having to make some people wrong so other people can be right. That is to say that we can learn to forgive and discover that in forgiveness comes healing.
One manifestation of the process of creation—which is usually posed not in spiritual, but in philosophical and sociological terms—is the so-called “essentialist/constructionist” debate currently raging in gay and lesbian intellectual circles. The debate, which originated in the thought of French philosopher and martyr to AIDS Michel Foucault, centers on the question of whether homosexual orientation is a result of inherent, essential biological factors which have remained relatively constant throughout human history (like left-handedness, for instance) or, instead, is a result of sociological influences that have ebbed and flowed in different ways in different times and cultures and produced different kinds of homosexualities. (In ancient times, for instance, homosexual acts seemed to be linked to domination and violence—even in Greece where the violence was civilized out, but not the domination-submission. The oft-touted prohibition in Leviticus was more likely a condemnation of the male dominance practice of anally raping one’s enemies after victory in battle than of same-sex expression of affection between equals.)
A less felicitous version applies these questions to personality development, recapitulating the “nature vs. nurture” debate in psychology and raising the consequent question of whether homosexuality can be changed. Peter Goldblum, co-author with Martin Delaney of Strategies for Survival, observes that in individual development only an “interactionist” model makes sense: the developing person feels pre-verbal sexual urgings and then learns to name them according to the socially—and sociologically—“constructed” terms and norms of his or her time and place.
Because the debate is generally posed in scientific terms, the proofs and disproofs are sought in historical evidence. A “spiritual” approach to the debate might offer other insights by pointing out that both biological essence and social construction are themselves constructed in consciousness and may be best understood as “messages” from Gaia. In that sense, homosexuality as we know it today as gay consciousness may be a relatively recent phenomenon created by “karmic”, “morphogenetic” influences on the evolution of planet Earth.
Evolutionary mystic Teilhard de Chardin said humankind is evolution become conscious and responsible for its direction. Gay men and lesbians may have a special role to play in the “construction” of new metaphors of human life, in part, simply because they manifest the phenomenon of contruction. This is the most important message of the essentialist/constructionist debate: by discussing it, we are modifying our understanding of ourselves, we are engaged in “revolution through consciousness change.”
Part of that revolution may be a new discovery about the nature of sex. This is of its psycho-neurological and evolutionary function. This notion comes out of bodywork psychology and eastern meditation. Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud’s more unusual disciples, observed that orgasm floods the nervous system with energy that in some way has the potential for healing the psyche. Reich hypothesized that neurosis—and indirectly cancer—was a result of constrictions in the flow of psychic energy in the brain and body; a fully experienced orgasm, he believed, flushed the nervous system of the constrictions and so brought psychological health.
With the possible exception of cetaceans, human beings are the only animals that don’t have sex out of instinct or harmonal and pheremonal drives. (Apparently some people do, but as a race we’ve evolved beyond that.) Our sexual patterns are different from all other animals: our females are continuously—rather than cyclically—available and experience specific female orgasm in intercourse (which is not essential for reproduction and therefore not necessarily a trait created by natural selection which seems concerned only with reproduction). And we engage in expression of affection and elaborate genital stimulation in foreplay that generate an altered state of consciousness. (As spiritual erotic massage therapist Joseph Kramer points out, this consciousness is parallel to that sought in Tantric Yoga through the raising of the Kundalini—which is the divine creative energy that vivifies the body and generates the experience of the mind.)
The other thing, of course, that’s different about us is that we’ve evolved intelligence—which is also a state of consciousness. Perhaps evolving the sexual patterns we did resulted in the kind of orgasm we have which, in turn, created the brain mechanisms that could spawn intelligence. Perhaps, for instance, the psychic flushing stimulated the growth of brain cells and consciousness.
Today one role of homosexuals in the evolution of consciousness on earth may be to manifest—and facilitate—the realization that sex has other functions besides the reproductive, that is, to identify the role of sex as psychological experience, worthwhile for its own sake. Indeed, the altered state of consciousness of sexual arousal, especially between consenting equals, free of violence, dominance, or greed, is beneficent. An aligned function may be to act as midwife for the evolutionary transformation. Some of the traits of gay people that blend masculinity and femininity result in personalities that are amazingly creative and sensitive and nurturing; these guide the development of humanness. Though, of course, there are many homosexuals who don’t fit this model of visionaries and creators of the future, just as there are many heterosexuals who don’t fit the mold of good procreators and parents of the next generation.
This role for homosexuals seems relatively new. It’s relatively recent that conscious lesbians and gay men, as we know them, have appeared, i.e., people who blend gender traits and whose sole interest in sex is to form relationship for intimacy and relationship’s sake, not for the purpose of biological necessity. This moves the whole system up a notch into spiritual evolution.
The paradigm shift in the experience of sexuality—which is the spiritual message of gay love—is that we can and should love creation, emotionally and physically, for its own sake. We must love the world as it is. We must love beauty in the material world and strive to enhance it. We must save the physical Earth. We must love life, love experience, and seek richness of experience and find in that experience the manifestation of God.
This is a radical overturning of traditional religious myths which taught that salvation was always in the future, i.e., beyond the grave and not on this physical planet, and that an individual’s function was to obey rules and to be useful, to contribute to population growth—and the wealth of his or her own culture in competition with other cultures—and to assist dominant males in propagating their genes into the future (where salvation lay). This was an intensely egoistic system. It was useful for populating and conquering a world often hostile and threatening to human beings. Now, however, it is human beings who are hostile and threatening to the world. And the propagation of specific genes is now no longer as important as the construction of a society that honors the Earth and seeks to create beauty and harmony. With Earth so full, the struggle for genetic continuation (i.e., immortality through offspring) by dominant males is no longer adaptive. This is the message of feminism. And the gay contribution to this radical overturning of past models is the sensitivity to beauty for its own sake.
Ironically, the Fundamentalists object to homosexuality as “fruitless” and “selfish.” In fact, the fruit that gay men and lesbians produce in the world is not just propagation of themselves, but expressions of beauty (God’s beauty) for all to share. This is far less selfish than overcrowding the world with children for the sake of preserving males’ genes—as though we still needed more.
And from this gay contribution flows a morality that makes sense today—when moral laws from old books no longer do. For if we love life and seek to enhance our own experience and the experience of others in a crowded world, then we are compassionate—and from that, properly, flows all morality.
Politicized feminist-identified lesbians and, to a less imprisoning degree, gay-identified men often impose upon themselves a standard of “political correctness” that demands they embrace every cause and movement for social justice and against oppression they become aware of. This political correctness can be at least as disciplining as the sex-confining morality of Christianity, but more useful. In general, lesbians and gay men seem to have more liberal attitudes about sex and drugs than the mainstream—because they see that these are really issues of social control (concerned with abstract principles), not of virtue and morality—while they are much more concerned about issues of fairness and kindness (concerned with persons).
In that regard, feminism and gay liberation dramatically manifest the real teachings of spiritual religion. For we have faced the edge of history and seen how the human race can save itself. And the announcement of this teaching is the boon of our hero journey born from ordeal along the road of trials.
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Edwin Clark (Toby) Johnson, PhD, is co-owner, with Kip Dollar his partner since 1984, of Liberty Books, the quality gay and lesbian bookstore in Austin, TX. A psychotherapist now in semi-retirement, he is author of two spiritual autobiographies published by William Morrow: The Myth of the Great Secret: A Search for Spiritual Meaning in the Face of Emptiness and In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld: A Mystical Journey, both of which present psychologically sophisticated, modern day understandings of religion and myth applied to such real-life topics as the quest for truth, future shock, and contemporary sexual-social problems.
Johnson has published numerous articles on the spiritual, moral, and psychological implications of AIDS. His first novel Plague: A Novel about Healing, published by Alyson Publications in the fall of 1987, applies the wisdom of Attitudinal Healing to the problems of the health crisis of the 1980s.
His second novel, the bestselling Secret Matter, published by Lavender Press, presents a gay ethics in a science-fiction romance idiom. It won a 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Science Fiction. His most recent novel, also published by Lavender, Getting Life in Perspective again presents gay spiritualities in the telling of a sweet romantic tale of life in the 1890s.
A revised edition of The Myth of the Great Secret, a philosophical account of the influence of Joseph Campbell in Johnson’s life, is scheduled for publication in Spring 1992 by Celestial Arts Press.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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