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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
A White Crane Conversation with Randy Conner
This interview appeared in White Crane Journal, #65, Summer 2005
Toby Johnson: Randy, you have quite appropriately earned the epithet “an encyclopedic mind.” Indeed, you’ve written an Encyclopedia!
Randy Conner: Thanks. I’m very surprised about the epithet of “encyclopedic mind.” I adore encyclopedists like Diderot; the best of them mix historical and cultural panorama with pastiche, collage, bricolage and other elements deemed ‘postmodern.’
TJ: Your first book Blossom of Bone was a vast overview of a wide variety of human cultures and the place of gender variant men. Your new book, Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions, written in collaboration with your partner David Sparks, again demonstrates a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of yet another culture, what you call African-Inspired Traditions. Before we talk about the new book, tell me a little about the Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit.
RC: We see the Encyclopedia, as we see all our works, as magical, spiritual, sacred, visionary texts. When we wrote the Encyclopedia, we envisioned it as a magical text found while excavating Prospero’s island (of Shakespeare’s Tempest). Thus we were disheartened by literary academics who claim that “truth” is a subjective, colonialist notion (thanks to Michel Foucault)who measured our book not by a mythopoetic but rather by an old-fashioned scientific standard alone (i.e., NOT “Tao of Physics” string theory or something new paradigm).
As for sales, well, let me put it this way. Fortunes are made from porn, self-help, and formulaic fiction—not from academic and kindred texts. Also, if one’s seeking sales, one had better not stray too far from the Judaeo-Christian path.
TJ: You and David—and David’s daughter Mariah—have collaborated on these projects. Do you think your working together has shown you any things about the nature of gay men’s relationships?
RC: Working with David, my partner since 1979, and our now thirty-something daughter Mariah taught us that a queer family can work together on projects. Indeed, I’m pretty sure our Encyclopedia was one of the first literary creations of a queer family.
I could not have completed Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions without David’s input. Besides assisting in research and interviewing, he contributed valuable knowledge about the African-diasporic spiritual traditions, having written a master’s thesis for ethnomusicology on spiritual archetypes in popular Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian music. His being a librarian and archivist has also helped immensely.
Beyond working together as partners, both of us, as having participated in the political and cultural movements of the late '60s-mid '70s, deeply believe in collective or collaborative work, especially in ritual/performance art projects; this can be a marvelous way to connect with gay men and others.
TJ: Is there a “basic message” or “meaning of life” that you derive yourself from your exposure to all this vast amount of information?
RC: In a nutshell, we’ve learned that if one is to penetrate the mystery of gay/queer spirituality or that of African-diasporic—as well as ancient and indigenous—spiritual traditions, one must be willing to accept paradox: for instance, that of the simultaneous stability and fluidity of archetypal expressions of gender and sexuality, their continuity and discontinuity. Above all, one must deal with complexity, diversity, and multiplicity. Neither gay/queer spirit nor spiritual traditions of the African diaspora are monolithic.
TJ: The new book is subtitled “Lesbian, Gay, Sexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas.” How did you get interested in this subject?
RC: As I explain in Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions, I became interested in these traditions in early childhood, thanks to my caretaker Lola. This interest was rekindled by sojourns in New Orleans in the company of Vodou practitioners and by encountering Luisah Teish and other practitioners of the Yoruba religion in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has culminated in studying these traditions with Santeria priests and priestesses in Havana, Cuba and with Vodou priestess Mama Lola in New York.
TJ: I got intrigued right away with the idea that there are rich traditions way beyond the so-called “Great Religions” Your book raises very good questions about the nature of religion itself.
RC: “Non-dominant” spiritual traditions like those of the Caribbean and Brazil have much to teach us, including that the Divine can be envisioned as Black, female, gay, and/or transgender, and that the Divine can be embodied by, and have as priests and priestesses, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. They also teach us that we can contact the Divine in numerous ways, including through dance, divination, and magic. That, at least in some spiritual households, our unions can be celebrated. And that we can attain a beautiful afterlife without giving up our love of the same sex. Beyond this, it has been very eye-opening and rewarding to take the intersection of GLBT and spirituality from the realms of history and spiritual and mythic concepts to particular spiritual communities and to see how broad notions play out in the everyday lives of flesh-and-blood individuals. It has been especially enlightening to see how gay men and lesbians living in Havana express their spirituality. For them, spirituality or religion isn’t something one does on a certain day of the week. It isn’t something that is limited to a church or an occult shop. It’s intricately interwoven with everyday life, from how you brew espresso in the morning to how you approach your labor to how you care for elders and children and fellow gay people to how you pray to and dance for the divine. Of course, many Buddhists, practitioners of indigenous traditions, Matthew Fox, and others have learned this lesson about the spirituality of everyday life. For me, however, it has been the African-diasporic traditions that have taught me that everything has a sacred dimension, that all of life is imbued with elan vital, “the force,” or, as the Yoruba say, with ashé. Although the transcendent plays a significant role in African-diasporic traditions, they, like Wicca and Neopagan movements and traditions and indigenous traditions, primarily celebrate immanence and embodiment, the richness of life on this earth.
TJ: One of things I was aware of in reading the book was your care in using terms for sexual and gender identity/classification/description. I think of your earlier book Blossom of Bone. You very carefully crafted the term “gender variant men.”
RC: Choosing or coining terms to describe gender and sexuality is a very thorny project, like sauntering through a minefield. I regret some of the terminology I used in earlier works—it was what was available to me at the time. Sometimes it’s very difficult to determine whether a certain person or group can best be described as “androgynous,” “effeminate,” “transgender,” etc.
As I grow older and learn more, I feel that gay and transgender may or may not share a bond. My vision has grown to include traditionally masculine gay men, leather men. Certainly, not all gay people express gender diversity. Yet it is of course sometimes the case that one encounters both transgender and gay expression in the same person, be it in the drag manifestation of Ru Paul or Lea Delaria or the transgender expression of Patrick Califia. Some transgender friends have also taught me that one can mix gay, transgender, leather, & other identities—ah, the joy of complexity! I do believe that both gay and transgender persons and groups can serve as role models for each other, as well as for traditionally gendered and heterosexual persons who feel deeply drawn to these diverse manifestations. I would say that I try harder these days to be careful of appropriating others’ cultural & historical, gender, and sexual roles.
TJ: What does “Queering” mean in the title of the book?
RC: ‘Queering’ refers to exploring the LGBT dimension of these traditions, and more generally, to challenging and hopefully subverting hegemonic conceptions of gender, sexuality, and the sacred.
As for use of the term “queer” for self-identification, North American interviewees tended to respond affirmatively, while Cuban and Brazilian interviewees preferred the terms “lesbian,” “gay,” and “transgender” or “transsexual.”
TJ: The feature topic of this issue is “Life/Craft.” Marshall McLuhan used to tell of the Javanese Islanders who said “we have no art; our lives are art.” The very idea that there is “art” separate from daily life is a modern Western notion. You made a parallel comment in the opening of the book about the Creole traditions not being “religions” in the modern American sense of church institutions, but being “ways of life.”
RC: Arts and crafts are extremely important in African-diasporic spiritual traditions. Functions such as altar construction (including flower arranging), costuming, cookery (including baking beautiful cakes), and choreography are often taken on by women and gay men. David and I have found this emphasis on spiritual/ ritual arts to be common to both African-diasporic traditions and gay/queer-spiritual manifestations such as the Fairie Circle. Not to mention all the other homoerotically inclined and transgender sacred artists of ancient and indigenous traditions—or the choral director at the small town Methodist Church!
TJ: For a writer, writing is surely such a craft.
RC: In terms of my own writing, and I think in this I speak for David, too, we seek to interweave the personal, political, and spiritual, and the factual with the mythopoetic. In common with many practitioners of other spiritual traditions and movements, including gay/queer spirit, we do not view the spiritual and the secular as separate dimensions of life; indeed, art prohibits this dichotomy.
David is at present working on a book which tracks his spiritual journey as a gay man and parent, and in it, he is braiding everyday experience with archetypal and mythopoetic reflections. I’m currently working on my dissertation, which focuses on the significant role of pre-Christian traditions in the shaping of Western consciousness, despite being under attack since at least the third century CE.
Too often, even as gay men, we tend to forget that we come in all colors, economic classes, political and spiritual affiliations. David and I hope that this book will serve as a reminder of this, that it will encourage LGBT readers to widen their embrace of spiritual beliefs and practices held by members of our communities, and that it will demonstrate that we can be spiritual leaders without sacrificing eros. Also, something I’ve learned from these traditions: it’s finally not about gender or sexuality per se, it’s about good character—iwa pele—how you conduct yourself in your life as an embodiment of the divine. I think gay men and others can empower ourselves and enrich our lives by holding this concept in our hearts as we go about our daily lives, and I hope that the portraits of / interviews with priests, priestesses, and sacred artists in our book can serve as models of this practice.
TJ: There’s an artistic quality to you and David’s lives, a freedom from “career” in the usual American sense of an all-consuming job and a life involved with work not creative choices. As I read about you and David’s adventures doing the extensive interviews in “Queering Creole,” I imagined y’all as “spiritual investigators.”
RC: Forgive me for saying this, but your comment sounds like “the dream,” not the reality. We haven’t quit our day jobs. Indeed, there’s little time for dancing. It’s more like having two full-time jobs. This work has most definitely been a sacrifice. In economic terms alone, David and I spent over $12,000 researching Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions, and we have yet to see a royalty paycheck. We’ve also seen very few reviews, so we deeply appreciate your interest. Hopefully, the fact that the book has been nominated for a Lambda award will encourage sales. Why do I care about sales? Why not just write for the joy of it? Ask me again when we’ve moved beyond capitalism. Having said this, it has been worth it. The sheer joy of encountering gay men whose primary focus isn’t on muscles, shopping, or struggling to attain a place at a table whose wood is rotting, has, in itself, brought joy and hope.
I am honored to be branded a “spiritual investigator”! Perhaps David and I should start a business as “Sp.Is”!
You know, Toby, that your work, including your profound reading of Joseph Campbell’s work, as well as the work of other gay spiritual seekers, has inspired us in this. I think I can honestly say that David and I aren’t dilettantes. But we do try to learn as much as we can about the world’s sacred and mythic traditions, to discover the wisdom that they impart, and how this might guide us in shaping our individual spiritual visions and practices, in creating new myths, new sacred narratives, and most importantly, in more fully embracing everyday life, being more compassionate, more loving. Religion, after all, doesn’t mean you get to remove yourself from real life. Finally, it still all comes down to those glorious values from the Age of Aquarius—peace and love.
Ashe’-o. [May the Divine in all its manifestations open the roads.]
Available from Amazon.com
Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas (Haworth Gay & Lesbian Studies)
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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