Last weekend, I saw a film about the artist Tauko Laaksonen, otherwise known as Tom of Finland, who is known for his gay erotic work. Here’s the trailer:
I’d first heard of the artist at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago and was inspired by his role in the leather community.
There’s a scene late in the movie in which Tauko and his friends are trying to find a publisher in Los Angeles to print a book of his work. This is during the HIV crisis and each publisher they try is afraid to touch gay erotica. As a last ditch effort, they wind up at press shop of an orthodox Jew. The shop owner explains he mostly prints religious materials. And Tauko looks at him with a slight grin and says, “Well, this is sacred to me.”
I wept at these words.
I have no idea if Touko actually said those words, but I believe that the scene captured something true and important. I knew that his art and/or what it has meant to the gay community is, indeed, sacred. But, as I left the theater, I couldn’t say why.
The film did a good job of showing the discrimination gay men faced in the 20s through 90s when Touko was alive. Being forced to hide their identities, their relationships, and desires for fear of violence, imprisonment, the disowning of friends and family. And of course, sexual minorities still face discrimination, violence, rejection.
In part, Touko’s art was sacred because it was a celebration of his and others’ innate desires and identities. It was a form of resistance.
I’m not going to claim I fully understand what Touko’s art meant then and means now to the gay community — why it might be considered sacred. But I can explain what the scene meant to me.
The art and the movie are filled with graphic depictions of gay sex and sexuality. The raw, thick aura of lust in leather bars; scenes with bare chests, bare cocks, firm grips on their own members and brazen grins confident of their sex appeal; three-ways, blow-jobs, and penetration. Can this wild, confident, free sexuality be sacred?
There are two definitions of sacred I’d like to compare:
- Dedicated to a deity or for some religious purpose
- Regarded with reverence, set apart for a specific purpose.
As a person who believes in a loving Creator, I want to believe that whatever I regard as good and worthy of respect, my Creator does as well.
I do not believe it was a coincidence that I saw this film right after spending three days at the Mystic Soul Conference. The focus was on centering the spiritual lives and practices of people of color, but the topic of queerness was also often present: how to queer mysticism, how queerness is a gift from the Creator. Many of the presenters identified as queer and many of the attendees felt comfortable outing themselves in conversations.
(I have a lot to say about the conference, but suffice for now to say that it has inspired me to revive my project, Sacred and Subversive, a blog and book proposal in progress on queer perspectives on the future of faith communities. Expect some amazing interviews to come.)
At the conference, one of the thoughts I kept coming back to is how much I’ve accepted mainstream white church’s opinions on where spiritual authority comes from. I wrestle with and doubt my own perspective, and so often it’s an opinion based in oppressive (racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist) thinking.
The conference was a celebration of spiritual practices that have long been deemed lesser than by the white church. It was also a claiming of the worth of marginalized identities and bodies. Our bodies were important in that space — a part of us that needs healing and care, through reiki, through chanting, through simply taking up space.
To go from this space to a movie that celebrated the bodies in a very different way, the question buried in my psyche was whose authority do I trust? Who gets to say what is sacred, especially what the Creator approves of?
I believe that blow jobs can be healing. A reclaiming of one’s sexual confidence can lead to self-love and community. Orgies can be blessed acts. Why? Because they have been for me.
That night after I watched the film, I read Fenton Johnson’s Harpers essay entitled, “The Future of Queer: A manifesto.” Just as watching the film on the heels of Mystic Soul did not feel like a coincidence, neither did reading this essay, as well as a wonderful excerpt from an older piece of Richard Rodriguez that Harpers paired together.
In Johnson’s essay, he writes about how, in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, the traumatized and tired gay community, tired of fighting for their rights, gave in to the assimilation of marriage rights. He explains that twenty years before they were won, same-sex marriage rights “will represent a landmark civil rights victory but a subcultural defeat.’
He explains that part of why this is important is that the assimilation of marriage further separates the queer community into the haves and the have nots. He writes:
Because our salvation, our literal salvation in the here and now, in this nation, on this planet, requires our abandoning those ancient clan divisions in favor of the understanding that we are all one. As the Buddha abandoned his family to undertake the search that led to enlightenment, so Jesus, that communitarian proto-feminist celibate bachelor Jew, rejected the ancient clan divisions in favor of a new order—Matthew 12:47-49:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’
To turn the counterculture question on its head, can someone be gay without being queer? Someone who, to adapt the words of Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, understands himself as a conventional man who fucks around with guys? Who puts what where is in fact important, not because of the obsessions of the homophobes and misogynists but because in sex the receptive partner is vulnerable, open, at greater risk. These, it turns out, are the essential qualities of love, the essential qualities of queer. And so what defines queer, finally, is not what one does in bed but one’s stance toward the ancient régime, the status quo, the way things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism. (emphasis mine)
Under what authority does one claim what is sacred or in line with the justice agenda of the Creator?
What if I believe in a trail of celestial breadcrumbs — God speaking to me through a conference, a movie, an essay? What if I believe that my longings — for unions of the flesh, for community, for the power and confidence that leather and BDSM and queer sex— are God-bestowed?
What if I claim my own authority as a beloved child of the Creator and say that all these things are good and worthy? Especially because they buck the status quo, the prim and proper.
Of course I don’t believe that all expressions of sexuality are good, such as those that are non-consensual or done without mutual respect. We still need our actions to be guided by a moral compass. But we get to adjust the compass.
A couple of years ago, I spoke at CatalystCon, a conference about sexuality and social justice, about contemporary Christian sexual ethics. I quoted a summary of the “Presbyterians and Human Sexuality,” report of the Special Committee on Human Sexuality, 1991 as it appeared in Eros Breaking Free by Anne Bathurst Gilson:
The cornerstone of the report consists of a sexual ethic based on the norm of justice-love. Also referred to as right-relatedness, justice-love means that the goodness of sexuality is to be honored; gratitude for the diversity of all people is to be expressed; special concern for those who are sexuality abused, exploited, and violated is to be conveyed; people are to be held accountable for their sexual behavior, considering the well-being of their partners and the entire community; and an openness to learning from the marginalized and preparing for change is to be cultivated . . .
According to the report, the church should not waste time concerning itself with who sleeps with whom and under what circumstances. Instead, it should be concerned over commitment to an ethic of common decency consisting of equality and inclusivity: ‘We should be asking whether the relation is responsible, the dynamics genuinely mutual, and the loving full of joyful caring. That line of moral inquiry directs people to things that matter.’ (emphasis mine)
I believe that it’s within this revised ethic of justice-love that blow jobs can be healing. A reclaiming of one’s sexual confidence can lead to self-love and community. Orgies can be blessed acts. Because they have been for me, and for Touko, and so many others.