By Jim Costich February 2020
This is the third in a series of three impressionistic writings. These aren’t formal essays but rather are meant to take you along on an emotional journey. It is autobiographical but in no way complete. The music elements are essential because I can not communicate what I’m hoping to with just words. You may not end up any closer to knowing what I was feeling but I’m hoping you’ll feel closer to what you feel, having experienced this.
They’ll Know We are Christians – Carolyn Arends – Lyrics
This hymn was written and popularized in a massive ecumenical movement spreading between Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism starting in the 1960s and not collapsing until the rise of Evangelical fundamentalism in the 1980s. There was a time not so long ago when hearing the word “Christian” didn’t instantly bring to mind hate, intolerance, judgementalism, the worship of money, xenophobia, and sexual depravity from human trafficking to pedophilia. None of that had yet emerged while we were singing this song.
In the post Vatican II world of western religions, a new focus on religious Humanism was taking its baby steps with no choice because of the love generation. But this goal was not shared by Evangelicals, Southern Baptists and those with a racist foundation in their religion. If you were a sex minority did this new approach to religion, make you an exception to all that talk about love and brotherhood? Yes. Everyone knew we are the ones who pay attention in Sunday school, who sing in the choir, want to be altar boys/girls, arrange flowers, play the organ and design vestments, write liturgy and ritual. If we never revealed our romantic or sexual interests but instead seemed to be living lives of total sexlessness we were sort of tolerated because we were needed.
I was one of those. Creativity, like other generative talents, emerge from our sexuality, our romance. Love. I’m not anymore, but I have a 35-year history of church musicianship in multiple denominations. Those of us who understand the music, the ritual, how to help others achieve a meditative state and to use emotion, intuition, and poetry, and intuition that comes from the right side of our brains are most often LGBT. It’s well known and well understood especially among us. We are sensual and sensitive and that is what people call “spiritual” when they try to talk about it. It’s where the love comes from. Can you imagine sex as just rutting reproduction? Me either. Hate and judgementalism come from a very different place – like an infection or a parasite that is immune to both reason and love.
There isn’t a single major, organized religion that has a positive outlook on sexuality. Every one of them is sex-negative. Each of them considers sexual desire, sexuality, and sexual intimacy to be a human failing that is bound to make us miserable if we don’t repress desire, reject romantic attachments and curtail what we do. Each religion promotes repression as a path to perfection and perfection as a goal for each human life. The “best” person is one who renounces all sexuality except what is required to replace themselves through reproduction.
Along with it come doctrines that consider all females to be dirty. They’re portrayed as inferior afterthoughts of a “creator” who had males in mind as the physical form closest to perfection but only once they are castrated of all desire. We can’t blame that on the civilizations of the Mediterranean because at the same time civilizations in Meso and South America were no more enlightened. If the development of human understanding as a species mirrors that of an individual’s maturation, then we all hit kindergarten maturity at about the same stage of development, and we haven’t made it out of the sophomore year of high school yet.
I spent a good deal of time, energy and effort studying and experiencing, singing and ringing my way through what Sam Harris’ describes as searching for a “diamond in a dung heap”. I thought for sure that the “ultimate forever father of unconditional love” I’d been taught about in my early childhood must be what religions are based on and that I would find it’s solid, sure foundation under the foul corruptions that had justified wars, genocides, slavery, all manner of cruelty and every manner of sadistic torture that could be imagined. I wanted this:
Miserere mei, Deus – Allegri – Tenebrae
Alas, that study revealed something uglier than I could have imagined. Religions hadn’t started out with good intentions and then been perverted by corruption after all. Religion’s beginnings are the fear of death even as they waste the living of life obsessing over it. That’s sad but hadn’t artists, musicians, architects, scientists, writers, designers, poets, and mystics all brought our most beautiful creations to religion so that it morphed from a prickly piece of gut to a wonderful butterfly?
No. Religions don’t just fail to see human sexuality as a way to unite us into one body. Religion can’t even imagine that it might be a good thing to do so. The way me and so many others have experienced it when it comes to human sexuality religion is willfully ignorant. It doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know. It only answers to sexual excess and abuse is amputation literal and figurative. It is totally bereft of imagination. Life is for suffering. If you want paradise wait until you’re dead. In fact, almost all religious philosophy starts with a view of life so terrible they claim one think of life begins not at birth but at death. Surely this is a point of view in diapers, something our species must grow out of. Musicians, poets, architects, and artists have been undermining that terrible attitude since the beginning.
Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven
Yes, that terrible attitude. We now know that very few people choose their religion. For most people, it’s just an accident of geography. If you were born in Persia (Iran) in the 2nd century your religion would be Zoroastrianism just because that was the state religion at that time. If you were born in Egypt at the same time you would have been a Christian because the first seat of that religion was Alexandria and Greece. If you were born in Alexandria today, you’d think that Islam is the only one, true religion. Most people don’t treat religion as if it’s one of 100’s of available options. Our religions are taught as if they are empirical facts right along with, “don’t touch the stove, hot!” and “No! If you drop that it will break!” Does a belief that someone you can’t see, or hear is watching your every move, a moratorium on masturbation and details about an imaginary life after death belong with things like the exploration of the solar system, or the discovery that the first life on land was fungi, or how some plant and animal life split into sexes but that the prototype of no sex at all isn’t gone? After all, every one of the 3 million single cellular life forms that make up our bodies reproduces by splitting, not sex.
Meanwhile when the church shattered into hundreds, now thousands of separate religions each different and each claiming ownership of “true” Christianity people slaughtered each other, and the reign of terror lasted. What became the northern USA started as a British colony and in the 1500’s churches, convents and monasteries were ripped down to ruins, sold for apartment dwellings or private estates and only some of them were repurposed under the “new” religion. Instead of the head of religion being a politically meddling Pope, the new head of religion was the head of state; the King. And while he made up his mind what to keep and throw away, he flip-flopped back and forth until people were so scared of believing something that would get them killed they just hid. Some fled to the “new world”.
When did you learn about this? When did you hear the music and see photos of the ruins? I was a young, gay, intersex teenager. I was raised between the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches and when the pipe organ was destroyed at my childhood church, convinced my family to spend a few years in the Lutheran church our maternal grandfather – a gay man who had been organist there. But, I didn’t hold still. I was exploring Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Celtic religions of my ancestors like Led Zepplin’s sword emerging from the tempering fire in visions of the ancients. By the end of that experience, and the exposure to the history and theology of it all I had been disabused of my illusions about religion being known by love. I had a new anthem:
Crosby, Stills & Nash – Cathedral
The air just hangs in illusion, but in time I’ll be fine…. And in time I was fine. First, I had to unpack my pre-Christian ancestors’ wisdom and learn from local Native Americans that their spirituality was like the ancient Celts I was ¾ descended from. I had to face down the many oddities of a body that ensured I’d never be one of those soldiers lying in an unmarked grave having been hacked down for some rich lord’s delusions of grandeur. Yes, you can still visit a place named, “The Luxury of the Lords.” But, what about the music? When you are a church musician from near infancy in the Episcopal/Anglican Church you are floating on a magical cloud of 2,000 years of the most inspired music ever composed by western musicians.
I stayed to sing. I stayed to stand at the front of the church, leading people into a state of meditation to heal as an open, honest gay man. It would be a decade before I understood enough about being intersex to even begin to know how to come out about that truth. At the time all I knew was I was missing testicles, and that my “birth defect” meant that the development of my penis was partial. I was an unfinished male is what I’d been told. It made me different from the other boys around me but it didn’t separate me from them like has happened for so many of others like me.
It was my sexual orientation that was relevant to my social position and relationships then. My maternal grandmother gave me “her husband’s diamond ring” that she had been wearing since his death because “only I would understand.” With it came a notebook of charcoal drawings of male nudes he had done and hidden in an attic. He was long dead and still she dared not open that closet door. She never did open her own closet door although my suspicions were high by that time. Her closet had been a Jewish one. Both she and my mother would be dead before I would be able to confirm that truth.
I learned the truth of it in 2013 at a Synagogue where I was asked to screen “Intersexion”, an educational documentary about us intersex people, and educate a congregation my Mother had “hung out with” for a few years, hinting that I should go there sometime but refusing to tell me why I could just march in like I belonged there. But I digress. That’s for another story. Christianity came from my father’s side and my father was my primary, caregiving parent. My mother was overwhelmed by my being intersex. My dad thought I must be someone special because I was something special.
In 1977 my very best friend in the whole world and I were going to school in Canandaigua, NY in the Finger Lakes. We were gay, out and open, dancing our tushes off every weekend at gay bars and having adventures that only queer boys in the ’70s could have. I was discovering that my partly developed genitals were not freakish after all. They were exotic and exotic is hot. Having needed hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to start puberty I looked underage but I was 19 years old and while looking like a boy had been hell while in High School I cannot overstress the value of looking “too young” as a gay man in the 70’s. I had left the black and white of Kansas and was up to my eyeballs in Oz.
There was something ugly and weird on the road between my home in Rochester and my school in Canandaigua. It was a new church built on an old pasture and the thing looked like a dairy barn with a World War I helmet spike sticking out of it. Our teenage sense of the absurd, unfashionable, of this supremely ugly building made us posit that what went on in it must reflect its outward appearance. I cleaned that up, nicely didn’t I? We mocked the hell out of it. However, my fellow out and about a gay friend was extremely religious. He had grown up Catholic but a couple guys from this new church were on him like lamprey. They kept showing up, trying to convince him that god hates gays, and masturbation and if he could not manage to turn himself straight, he was bound for hell.
They swore he could pray away the gay. There are two aspects to homosexuality. The first is a romantic and sexual attraction to your own sex and/or gender. The second is a varying degree of repugnance for the “opposite” sex and/or gender. He tried desperately to undo his own nature. He even begged a female friend to try to help him through an effort to have heterosexual intercourse. It failed and he cried over it for a month because he was convinced that if he couldn’t even have sex with her, he was a Kinsey One – damned forever.
Horrified that his god created him in a form that He loathed and intended to burn him for eternity for something he could not change drove him to constant anesthetization by pot. I had the time of my life when I discovered these creeps knew almost nothing about religion. I was well-read. They knew even less about science and I was a budding scientist. I would send them back to their cow shed with more questions than they could cope with but none of this helped my friend. He flunked out of college breaking his family’s hearts because he was the first one to get so far. His mother, born in Italy had a third-grade education. He died in the first wave of AIDs in 1983 and his suffering and death haunt me to this day. If only he hadn’t left his home church where he was loved and respected gay and all. Now all they could do was bury him. The priest of his home parish eulogized him as having been too gentle and true a spirit to last long among cruel people and surely God had seen that and called him back young. He meant well but of course, it rang hollow and today that bell doesn’t ring at all.
My friend introduced me to Dan Fogelberg who became one of my favorites too:
Dan Fogelberg ~ Along The Road ~
The sunset and the journey ended for my friend and so many more of us as we fell off cliffs of AIDs to our deaths in the ’80s while self-righteous, self-declared “Christians” spat at us and leaned over to see if they could see us fall into the flames of eternal damnation which they were sure our lovemaking must take us.
The President of the USA, (Reagan) was one of them and even suggested rounding up all gay men and shipping us to a leper colony style island off the coast of California. Never mind that like all plagues everyone is vulnerable and that all four Gospels include repeated admonitions from and exampled behavior of their savior embracing the sickest and denying the religious idea that sickness is a divine punishment to be visited on people. Instead, they went with the image of a vengeful Christ who declares that his “father” punishes even our sexual fantasies as if we’d actually “committed adultery.” Sex as thought crime. Pardon me if I see nothing good from that point of view or the misery it engenders even now. I learned to confront with a gentle tone but razor-sharp words that I could make Christians turn their backs on everything they’d ever been taught about mercy, love, brotherhood, and charity with two little words, “I’m gay.”
By the time I was 35 I’d read through the whole Bible once and studied parts of it with guidance, including that of a Rabbi. I would finally have done this three times. I’d read the Gospel of John which paints a vividly clear picture of Jesus in love with a disciple never named but always called, “The Disciple Jesus Loved.” Soon I’d read a book by that title which frankly just states the obvious. I’d read Shelby Spong and John Boswell and many more. But seeing as people, music and art mean a whole lot more to me than being a good scholar that’s a road I marched right down. I was partnered to a church organist then, continued to sing in church choirs – now all over any denomination or individual congregation that didn’t puke at the sight of a gay couple who knew more religious music than any of them had ever heard and come pushing two wheelchairs with young children in them being raised by two men in an age when it had only recently been legal for gay men to visit their biological children. Legal adoption’s ink wasn’t dry yet. But my partner was raised in the Christian fundamentalism I’d only glimpsed in college. It was ugly beyond my worst nightmares; bore absolutely no resemblance to the 2,000-yr. old religion I knew about and it’s LGBTI survivors were psychologically damaged.
A psychologist my partner tried to work with told him that of all the abuse he had witnessed the LGBT people having survived a fundamentalist indoctrination had the worst and longest recovery if they ever did. Unable to deal with his demons he couldn’t make marriage to another man work. Most of my momentum in music had left religion by then so when he left I just wandered back into the Episcopal church, took my seat in the choir loft under the rainbow flags and kept right on singing with the Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus which had been the center of my life since ’96. The Gay choral movement in the ’90s was big. Music for SSAA and TTBB choruses had to be composed and arranged to fill this new demand. My good friend Dennis Rosenbaum arranged this Bruckner piece and two more for all male voices and it was published by an LGBT Choral publisher. Of course, we never came close to this rendition, sung by one of the best choirs in the world. As a singer, you have to “get in the zone” which is a kind of meditative state where you no longer hear your own voice singing but instead, you hear everyone else around you and blend into the whole – hive mind style. At some point you feel like you’re floating – your feet aren’t’ on the ground anymore. You realize from the faces of the audience they are with you in it.
Schola Cantorum – Ave Maria (Bruckner)
So, consider this; is the most important thing about the timeless, best mother of mothers the claim of her parthenogenesis? I would say no, but I remember people claiming that this was utterly impossible and throwing her out of their churches for it. I will never forget the day when I saw a scientist lecture that although exceedingly rare it is not impossible for a mammal to have a working uterus and ovary and a working testicle if she were an intersex chimera and that means it is not impossible that such a person might self-impregnate and give birth. There are similar legends of this happening over thousands of years and over the whole planet, but these stories may be more than just our “wildest imaginations” like people with wings are.
In the ancient Jewish world only the physically perfect were allowed in the temple. That’s where the idea that only the perfect are lovable comes from. The intersex people were not on the favored list. In fact, poor eyesight excluded a man from the temple relegated to the court of the women who weren’t on the list. Isaiah prophesied that someday god would let the partially developed and wounded into the temple and forgive their inequities. It wasn’t a god. We stopped being assholes on our own and then blaming it on a god, didn’t we? Didn’t some of us anyway?
I gave up church singing around 2007. The love of my life, Lee was raised Roman Catholic and he’d left it after a priest told him that women working outside the home were destroying civilization. Lee was so fed up with trying to invent sins to confess he’d had enough to last a lifetime. I once heard the phenomenal gay minister, Mel White speak at one of the many LGBT welcoming and affirming churches in Rochester, NY. He told an audience of LGBT and allies to seriously consider refusing to finance our own persecution. He said that it was all very fine and good to support charitable efforts in the local congregations who welcomed us but if our denominations still condemned us every penny sent was not just against our best interest but financing the persecution of LGBT children just being born today.
I could have told him it was even bigger than that with the genital mutilation of the intersex children but I wasn’t yet sure of how religion not only supports it but inspires it. The Episcopal Church had been ordaining LGBT people since the early ’70s and blessing our unions. However, the hierarchy of the church was refusing to condemn pending laws in Africa that would make being LGBT and intersex a capital crime. The Anglican Communion was refusing to say it is wrong to kill us. We ended up walking away. Christianity has routinely failed morality tests throughout its history and we couldn’t talk ourselves into thinking that our association with it could be justified. The laws didn’t pass back then. Here and now, in the 21st Century, they are passing. The Anglican Church still refuses to decry it.
One of the last church-based things I attended was a seminar lead by a theologian from San Francisco who had come to speak to clergy, church lay leaders, and any LGBT laity interested in what they’d need to do to make their churches successfully welcome in LGBT families. There were about 50 people there. I knew a whole lot of them. One, in fact, was an intersex, gay, closeted, Presbyterian minister whose congregation my ex and I had served for 4 years, and an RGMC bass singer who is an ordained American Baptist minister who had been teaching a course at his church based on the book, “Gay Theology Without Apology” Comstock. We didn’t plan it but we ended up with all the LGBT clergy, leaders and laity sitting on one side of the room and all the straights on the other. Our speaker was non-plussed. He expected just exactly that.
It didn’t take long for him to ask the other side of the room if any of them had marriage enrichment programs, or how often they heard the topic of successful sexual relationships between men and women discussed at church. None had ever experienced such a thing. Then he asked the LGBT side of the room how often when we meet in groups do we talk about the same topic. Of course, we said we never shut up about it. He gently told the straight people that they weren’t ready to begin to welcome us back into the churches we’d been raised in and driven out of yet. It had only just hit me how rare I was to have stayed. He let them know that until or unless their religion could reconcile itself to human sexuality and find sexual intimacy to a be a strength instead of anathema to their religion they would not be able to have peaceful interaction with a community of people who were working on this openly and actively. They still hadn’t come out of their own sexual closets yet. Love is indeed the answer, but it had eluded them, nonetheless. They were going to have to change that.
Paul McCartney Golden Slumbers , Carry That Weight , The End
I am a retired and disabled medical laboratory technician with an insatiable appetite for learning, reading, art, music, history and science fiction. I’ll be a choral singer until my voice is too old. I am not nailed to any one religion. For those who comprehend such things, I would say I’m a freethinker, a free spirit, and a free heart. I am a lover of all life and realize that most of us from the paramecium to the elephant just want to experience our lives with the least suffering possible for as long as we can until the ride is over.
Since my husband’s death in 2015 I’ve been reading philosophy and science and keeping a crazy garden. I am on the verge of the next leg of intersex education. I’ve been an activist which isn’t reflected in this set of writings. Those are other branches and roots in the tree of my life. I hope you enjoyed this little ride. Well, it was a bit brutal eh? So I’ll leave you on a brighter note with this:
Tears For Fears – Shout