Bawer 'steals Jesus' back from fundamentalists in new book

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

When I heard Bruce Bawer was coming to town as part of his book tour, I immediately knew I wanted to attend. Partly because I had enjoyed his controversial book, A Place At The Table, which was released a few years ago, and partly because I expected controversy.

Since A Place At The Table was released in 1993, Bawer's name is constantly brought up in the gay press. He's against gay pride, sex-negative, conservative, assimilationist, you name it.

Walking to the Metropolitan Community Church, my view of how he was perceived was confirmed when people walking behind me referred to Bawer as being part of the Gang of Four, which refers to four recent outspoken "critics" of certain aspects of gay culture. (Michelangelo Signorile, Gabriel Rotello and Larry Kramer being the other three, I suppose).

I admit, I expected there to be some sort of scene during his question and answer period. The pastor of the church said members of Sex Panic! were in attendance, but just sat quietly and didn't say anything.

Bawer, on tour promoting "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity," delivered his book reading from the pulpit of the church as he explained his motivation for writing the book, which explains how religion has gotten so far off-track in this country.

During his reading, Bawer read a passage from the book about an exchange he had with a 17-year-old boy who, upon coming out, was told he would have to leave the house because of homosexuality being against religion:

"I received a phone call from a newly out friend of mine, a young man of seventeen who lives in a tiny Indiana town. He told me that his mother, who was raised in a conservative Lutheran family, had ordered him out of the house that morning, saying that his homosexuality was against her religion. Falling to the floor and clinging to her ankles, he begged her not to throw him out. He cried, "You have to love me." She replied, "Unless you can change, you're going to hell." Eventually, in order to be allowed to stay at home for another year and finish high school, he had to promise to drop his gay friends and never again speak of being gay. His mother gave him one last brief phone call to me. This was it.

"What does her religion say about love?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he replied flatly and defeatedly, "and I don't care."

I wanted to say more to him about God. I wanted to tell him that it was for people like him that Jesus conducted his ministry and gone to the cross. "I give you a new commandment: Love one another," Jesus said. "As I have loved you, so you are to love one another." Jesus came to tell his disciples "you are loved," not "you are going to hell." But in the home of that boy's parents, God is a trump card for bigotry. How do you talk about God to somebody who thinks his only hope lies in getting far away from people who talk about God, and who has to get off the phone in five minutes? All you can do is give him love. All you can do is assure him that you care about him and are there for him, and pray that the Holy Spirit will help him to discern, to accept, and to return that higher, all-subsuming love that no one can take away from him. That, in this world, is our job as Christians."

After the reading, Bawer spoke one on one with Oasis and said compared to the feedback he gets from this book, the criticism from the gay establishment and gay press doesn't matter.

"People have told me this book has helped them to be a gay Christian again. And not even just gay people, but that people are comfortable being a Christian again, or proud to be a Christian again or to be able to say that they're a Christian again," Bawer said. "And, Jesus, along side that, what could any criticism matter?"

Bawer said he was torn between his spirituality and sexuality for nearly a decade, and the rift began the day he accepted his sexuality.

"The day I realized I was gay, I stopped saying my prayers and I had said my prayers all through my childhood and my teens," he said. "Our family was never a big church-going family, but I was brought up to say my prayers. And I did take it very seriously. I was not brought up in a fundamentalist home by any stretch of the imagination, and my mother told me God was about love and he didn't care what religion you belong to. It wasn't about church, it was about what was in your heart.

"And yet, despite that, I picked up enough from the culture that told me that you couldn't be gay and Christian," he said. "I stopped saying my prayers that day and didn't do it again for 10 years."

He found his way back to the church after falling in love with another man.

"I fell in love so powerfully with somebody, that that experience made it impossible for me not to be a believer. It just blew the mechanistic view I had of the world out of the water," he said. "It made me realize there was something larger, greater and much more important out there. And it's so criminal that sexuality and spirituality are pitted against one another, because they are so close. They are so intimately tied to each other. To express that and learn to respect that and rejoice in that is an extraordinary spiritual experience and to deny that connection is an act of hostility toward your own spirituality."

Bawer is aware that the problem many people have in the gay community is well-deserved in many instances, though.

"So many people have been harmed by bad religion, by hate religion. I fully understand why a lot of gay people are hostile to me because I'm a gay Christian," he said. "Many of them were brought up in awful, hateful religious environments and they are badly scarred by that. It's hard to get past that and it can take a very long time."

Bawer's book looks at how many of today's churches and "religious institutions" like the Christian Coalition are based not on a Church of Love, but a Church of Law. The book traces how that shift came to be.

Bawer, for the time being, is still best-known for his book "A Place At The Table." Of course, many of its strongest critics have never read the book, but through reading reviews of the book in the gay press and the subsequent references to Bawer in the gay press, they have figured out what he stands for.

Bawer said the mail he got on Place overwhelmingly positive, and only in the gay press and the gay political establishment has his position been misrepresented. He understands why they attack him personally, though.

"It's a way of avoiding what I had to say in the book. They've done it to Andrew Sullivan and to other people since then. At first, I was upset and surprised by that, but now I'm totally used to it," he said. "All I do whenever I read something like that, which gets me all upset, is to take a handful of letters out that say 'A Place at the Table changed my life. It brought my family back together again.' And that's what matters."

I seemed to hit a sore spot when I asked him about what might be the most often-quoted passage in Place, where he seems to take offense to a gay pride parade in New York City. Bawer takes a breath, and starts defending what he was trying to convey. You get the impression he has defended this section of the book before.

"A Place at the Table is like 300 or some pages, and in one or two pages, I described an experience I had at a gay pride parade where I observed a married couple with their son who was a teenager who set off my gaydar," he said. "I noticed how appalled his parents were by the parade and it bothered me a lot the rest of the day. They were obviously tourists where they don't have pride parades. They happened to see the party of the parade where they saw things they won't see in Omaha or Topeka or wherever they were from. And it bothered me that because of this parade, their reaction when and if that kid ever tried to come out might not be a positive one.

"That was one anecdote that took up several pages in a very long book, and a lot of people who may not have even read the book think that's what the book was. A lot of people think the book was an attack on gay pride marches and drag queens and people into leather, which it isn't at all," he said. "I know people who are into S&M. I have friends who into drag. I'm fine with it. I love it."

So, what exactly was the point?

"Any stereotype about a group is bad, even if it's something that's intrinsically neutral or positive, because even to say 'gay people have good taste' reduces you as a human being. It reduces every gay individual as a human being to say we can know who you are because you fit into this category," he said. "Being gay is an extraordinarily important part of who we are, but it doesn't tell anybody anything about us as a human being. That was the point I was thinking to make in that part of the book."

In recent barebacking articles, where people in the gay press argued about whether trying to repress any sexual expression is against what the gay movement was about, Bawer's name came up every so often as someone who is sex-negative. He said he has no idea where the notion came up that he is against sex. I suggest that he broke the rules of being a mainstream gay writer, by not writing about sex at all.

"But it's not a book about sex. So much of gay writing has been vaguely self-affirming stuff that really has nothing to say. There's not that much intellectual content in it," he said. "Talking about sexual orientation is one thing, talking about sexual activity is another. Talking about sexual identity is another thing than sexual orientation, because everyone has a distinct sexual identity of which the orientation is just the beginning. These distinctions are very rarely there.

"A Place at the Table was about gay people living in society as whole human beings. It was not meant to be about sexual activity. That was implicit in every sentence of the book," he said. "I don't think anyone sex negative would write a book called 'A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society' and put his picture on the cover. That just doesn't add up or make any sense to me. Gay people who are sex-negative tend to be very closeted."

Having softened why people have a negative image of him earlier in the interview, Bawer at this point names his accusers.

"The reason all these notions of me are out there is that there are people in the gay political establishment and the gay press who have no history of engaging in serious discussion of ideas. They don't know how to do it. They don't know what it is," he said. "They saw me come along, and maybe read it or a few parts of it. And they saw it as something threatening because it was unfamiliar. There were ideas that they, in many cases, mis-read because I was using words they were typically used to seeing in other contexts.

"They were used to a very simplistic level of discussion about these issues. Either you're 'Up With Gay People' or you're this homophobe. If you say anything that sounds remotely critical of any gay person or organization, you're a homophobe, you're sex negative, etc." he said. "The thing is that if we can't be critical of ourselves as individuals and as a community, then we haven't grown up.

"I look at A Place at the Table, and I don't agree with everything I wrote. I wrote it five years ago in a specific place and time. And five years ago for the gay community is a long time ago in the 1990s," he said. "Things have changed so much, partly as a result of the book. We shouldn't be afraid of change."

Bawer's life began to change when he first started coming out in his early 20s.

"I didn't start until I totally fell in love with somebody. I came out to friends, and then to my parents and sister," he said. "It was difficult. Not with my friends, they were fine. With my parents... my mother had obviously watched the Phil Donahue Show enough to know what you're supposed to say. 'We love you and it doesn't change anything.' My father yelled at me for an hour, very very heatedly. And then he said he loved me, too, and that it didn't change anything. But, of course, it changed everything for a while.

"It took them two years to be totally accepting, to be as comfortable as they wanted to think they were at the beginning. That's natural and understandable. A big part of it was seeing me comfortable with it and being happy with it," he said. "It was important for my parents to see that my coming out had made me somebody who was happier with myself and my life. I wasn't lying to myself anymore. It was a matter of personal integrity in the deepest sense of that word. I had it together in a way I hadn't before. And I think they observed that and it made a big difference. When they saw me happy and in a relationship with somebody, that made a difference, too.

"A lot of times parents react negatively because they think being gay is going to be a bad thing for the kids that they love, and if you can make them see that it's not a bad thing, but a beautiful thing, then that can alleviate a lot of their problems," he said.

Although he extols the virtues of being out, he does warn that people, especially gay youth, need to do it at an appropriate time.

"Kids shouldn't feel guilty for not coming out if they don't feel that they're really ready for it. Only you know what you family and school situation is. You have to be sure that when you come out, even if people react badly that you'll be okay. That you have somewhere to go and somebody you can turn to," he said. "But when you do come out, the feeling of not having to lie is incomparable. I know people who are a lot older than I am who have never come out and I really hurt for them when I see what their lives are. I can't imagine how I lived without being out for as long as I did. When I look back at it, I can't even imagine how I got through it for so long."

So, I went to see Bawer expecting a protest, considering the gay community is so much better at infighting than fighting our shared enemies. And after talking to him, I am forced to wonder, do the only tables at which everyone in the gay community has a place to sit belong more to people like Bawer?

Bruce Bawer welcomes your e-mail at bbawer@aol.com
Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com