Review: New books show, imply progress in gay rights debate
TORN: Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays-Vs.-Christians Debate. By Justin Lee. Jericho Books. 273 pages. $21.99.
ON BEING DIFFERENT: What It Means to be a Homosexual. By Merle Miller, with foreword by Dan Savage and afterword by Charles Kaiser. Penguin Classic. 96 pages. $13.
MY HUSBAND AND MY WIVES: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. By Charles Rowan Beye. FSG. 272 pages. $26.
In the 1930s, the debate was about communism; civil rights followed in the 1950s and 60s; the cultural war now dividing this country rages around gay rights. Although one battle is ongoing in the courtroom, to many it is a holy war with the soul of America hanging in the balance. These three memoirs address the issue with varying degrees of success and zealousness, written by vastly different “combatants.”
“Torn,” the aptly named volume by Gay Christian Network founder and North Carolina resident Justin Lee (and subtitled “Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate”), is perhaps the most poignant. A committed evangelical Christian once called “God Boy,” Lee kept praying his gay urges would go away. What pained him most, however, was how his church condemned what it did not even attempt to understand.
His earnest tale of trying to come to terms with what he finds natural in himself and the raging hate erupting from a community professing love is a compelling read. He uses easy-to-follow analogies and down-to-earth language to drive his points home — points that frighten him.
Lee sees the church itself, not just human psyches, as the major victim in the culture war between gays and Christians. The statistics he quotes are astonishing: 91 percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of churchgoers believe Christianity to be anti-homosexual. Confirming this in his own experience, he found himself torn between “ ‘Gay vs. Christian.’ ... You had to pick one or the other.”
The choice made one either “a good person, or ... an honest person. Deny what you believe about God, or deny what you know about yourself?”
In his search of self and Scriptures, and in reporting of facts, he abolishes the efficacy of “ex-gay ministries” and offers possible interpretations of those Bible passages that appear to condemn love between men.
He is wise enough to offer no pat solutions, instead suggesting ground rules for how the different sides of the debate can engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue, and not just use such cliches as loving the sinner and hating the sin.
In his search for others like himself, Lee describes his hunt in books and on the Internet; perhaps he ran across (though he does not mention it), Merle Miller’s “On Being Different,” a landmark essay published in The New York Magazine in 1971, responding to a denigrating anti-gay article in Harper’s.
Miller’s essay, along with an introduction, afterword and information setting it in context, has just been reissued in book form as a Penguin Classic. Reading this cry from the heart, one realizes how far we have come as a country since then.
No mainstream magazine would dare publish such hateful rhetoric today, and it would be hard to imagine the attitudes that Miller had to face among New York intellectuals and artists back then still persisting.
A best-selling historian and novelist, Miller had much to lose coming out when he did, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so.
The slender volume is still readable, though it may make readers who remember the 1970s feel a bit dated with its footnotes explaining such things as the talk shows of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. (“Torn,” in turn, has scriptural footnotes.)
“On Being Different: What it Means to Be A Homosexual” is truly a milestone, one that we hopefully have passed.
The third book, the terribly titled “My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey” by the retired professor and classics scholar Charles Rowan Beye, falls between Lee’s passion and Miller’s pain.
Though both are present, the memoir is a rather matter-of-fact retelling of a long and diverse life, lived as an out gay teenager in Iowa, the local “town queer” who marries women twice, sires children and never gives up his love of men, finally marrying one later in life.
The book is homey and domestic in many places and almost lurid in others; it’s as if you’ve come across porno shots while flipping through your favorite uncle’s high school, college and family scrapbook. An idiosyncratic tale, it often amuses and intrigues, but it also periodically drags, as any life surely does.
That such a book was published by a distinguished press shows how far we have come in our culture war. The milestone of Miller has passed, but as Lee’s “Torn” shows, the war is by no means over yet.
Reviewer Harlan Greene is senior manuscript and reference archivist at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library. He is writing a biography of gay novelist and adventurer Harry Hervey (1900-51), who was once a resident of Charleston.