Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches – Tony Kushner

AIASomething to wrestle with, this is a play that deals with the transition between AIDS and post AIDS, of powerful ideologies becoming less believed and the dialectic between ideological certainty and human uncertainty and the chaos that ensues.

The playwright misdirects us and then questions our misdirections.

Views amongst our group varied. Some found it compelling. Kushner was likened to Brecht. Others found it to be hard work and one simply didn’t like it because it was full of stereotypes. Despite this, our discussion of this play made it, probably, our longest meeting ever.

The opposition between stasis and change is Kushner’s favourite theme.

The anti-migratory impulse is voiced by Rabbi Chemelwitz, Emily the nurse and Sister Ella Chapter, and most spectacularly by the Angels.

America needs to embrace even those changes that frighten some people—especially the growth of a politically active and culturally accepted gay and lesbian minority. In the Reagan ere, a rainbow coalition could have changed things and we need to make new alliances. The politically naïve need challenging, much as they were in Britain when Thatcher’s Section 28 mobilised protests.

With its overarching story about angels, God and Heaven, this play is studded with specific references to the Bible. Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Scriptures say about someone who abandons a loved one; Joe tells the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel; Louis compares a wound on his forehead to the Mark of Cain; Roy mentions the story of Isaac and Jacob and the Book of Isaiah.

The sceptical audience member is like Prior listening to Hannah describe the appearance of an angel to Joseph Smith.

Biblical allusions foreshadow the real events of the play, so that Joe’s description of Jacob’s encounter with the angel lays the groundwork for Prior’s—like Jacob, he wrestles the Angel into submission and discovers a ladder leading to Heaven.

Roy tells Joe that unlike Isaac, he gives his blessing freely—but the comparison proves more apt a moment later when Joe reveals he is living with a man, and Roy feels the pang of a father at what he perceives as the missteps of a wayward son.

Mormons and Jews Both are separated from the wider society by their own inward focus as well as by prejudice and lack of understanding. Both make epic migrations both faiths make moral demands commandment to loyalty overshadows both Louis and Joe after they leave their partners, traditionally frown on homosexuality, adding to the characters’ lack of self-esteem.

The antagonists are most importantly, Roy Cohn and the Angel; more generally, homophobia and intolerance, lack of community, and the ravages of AIDS. Roy Cohn portrays the stereotypical image of the Jew as a heartless, greedy middleman . He is not abandoned to the wilds of isolation: his death unwittingly links him to communities he had abandoned. He is reclaimed.

Henry is Roy’s doctor, whom Roy threatens with destruction lest he refer to him as a homosexual. Roy’s tirade to his doctor is a succinct example of his view of the world. Roy imagines that he has no connection to other homosexual men because he sits at the right hand of Nancy Reagan. In Roy’s deluded world, values like love, honor and trust are irrelevant, and all human relationships can be tallied up by favors granted or seconds needed to return a phone call.
Doctor: You have AIDS, Roy.
Cohn: No, Henry, no. AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer.
ROY. Everyone who makes it in this world makes it because somebody older and more powerful takes an interest.

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. This is what a label refers to. Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?

He contrasts unfavourably with the charity and generosity of Belize, who cares for Prior not because he thinks he will get something in return but because he is a friend.

Ironically, as much as he believes himself to be distinct from the gay community, his opponents on the disbarment committee see him as just another “faggot.” And while his clout secures him a private stash of AZT, it is ultimately worthless since it cannot protect him from disease and death.

He is the play’s most vicious and disturbing character, a closeted homosexual who disavows other gays and cares only about amassing clout. His lack of ethics led him to illegally intervene in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg, which resulted in her execution. He represents the opposite of community, the selfishness and loneliness all too endemic to American life.

He is forgiven (though not exonerated) in the play’s moral climax, in part two, Perestroika, after his death (from AIDS) unwittingly reconnects him to the gay community from which he always distanced himself.

We see the ferocious pain of his life and the secrets bottled up within. He also fits with more modern stereotypes of Jews as quietly influential overlords. He has an affection for the musical La Cage Aux Folles and unprofessed but profound loneliness.

Emily is a nurse who attends to Prior in the hospital. Emily is one of several characters who give voice to the same anti-migratory impulse as the Angel, she tells Prior in no uncertain terms to stay put.

 The Angel of America seeks a prophet to overturn the migratory impulse of human beings. Their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation.

 Martin Heller, a Justice Department official and political ally of Roy’s. Martin is fundamentally spineless, allowing Roy to manipulate him in order to impress Joe and then taking the abuse that Roy heaps on him along with a blackmail threat.

 Sister Ella Chapter is a real estate agent who handles the sale of Hannah’s house in Salt Lake. Like Emily, she urges her friend to settle down and remain at home.

The protagonists include Sarah Ironson, Louis’s grandmother. Her funeral takes place in the first scene of Millennium. Prior encounters her in Heaven, in part two, playing cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz.

In a play whose title promises a discussion of national themes, Louis is the character who most consistently examines the big picture. Louis Ironson most resembles Tony Kushner: a young, progressive, Jewish New Yorker whose wordiness feels like an affectionate parody of the playwright’s own rambling prose style. It is easy enough to reduce Louis to a caricature—the idealist who loudly discusses virtue but reneges on his own responsibilities. His abandonment of Prior is weak, selfish and insensitive. Louis’s guilt is genuine. Belize berates Louis for his “Big Ideas,” the meting out of eternal justice. His is the eventual answer to Roy’s and Joe’s amoral veneration of pure law. He voices most of the play’s ideas about politics and is a spokesman for a brand of democratic optimism who makes the journey from callous heartbreaker to sincere penitent. Prior’s journey to the afterlife and back is mirrored by Louis’s voyage to self-awareness. Louis’s comical monologue in Act Three, Scene Two: there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to manoeuvre around the inescapable battle of politics

By deflating Louis’s secular claim, Kushner seems to be connecting his populist optimism with a sense of spirituality. The America the characters are striving for is as transcendent as it is democratic.

A “word processor”, he embodies all the stereotypes of the neurotic Jew: anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty. Yet that guilt does not prevent him from leaving his lover Prior when he contracts AIDS.

His idealistic faith in American democracy is often naive or self-absorbed. Prior accuses Louis of crying without endangering himself, a meaningless performance of emotion.

Louis and Joe abandon their partners and then repent.

Joe Pitt is a Mormon and a Republican lawyer at the appeals court. Joe grapples with his latent homosexuality, leaving his wife Harper for Louis and being left in turn by Louis. Louis is at first drawn to Joe’s ideology but ultimately turns on him because he is a conservative and an intimate of the hated Roy Cohn. His initial naiveté is challenged by Roy’s unethical behavior and his painful love affair.

Joe’s path in the play (from self-sufficient and strong to helpless and dependent) is in some ways the opposite of Prior’s trajectory. The play finally seems to abandon Joe, excluding him from its vision of the good society because of his ideology—an omission that comes off as uncharacteristically narrow and intolerant.

Prior Walter, the boyfriend Louis abandons after Prior reveals that he has AIDS, becomes a prophet when he is visited by an Angel of God, but he eventually rejects his prophecy and demands a blessing of additional life. His ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, representing the notion of being rooted and stable.

wiser than the Angels in rejecting their doctrine of stasis in favour of the painful necessity of movement and migration. He is as genuinely decent and moral as Louis is flawed. In part two, he manages to transcend victimhood, surviving and becoming the centre of a new, utopian community at the play’s end.  An effeminate man, he is also the victim of social prejudice as epitomized by the self-hating but extremely powerful Roy. So the meek inherit this earth and he defiantly delivers the play’s final, stirring monologue. His speech in Heaven is the clearest statement of the theme of stasis versus change that predominates throughout the play, and the firmest rejection of stasis offered throughout.

I look like a corpse. A corpsette. Oh my queen; you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when even drag is a drag.

PRIOR. I … I’m sorry. I usually say, Fuck the truth’, but mostly, the truth fucks you

 Harper Pitt is Joe’s wife, a Valium-addicted agoraphobe trapped in a failing marriage who hallucinates and invents imaginary characters to escape her troubles. She ends the play the farthest from where she began: as an independent, confident woman newly in love with life and setting off to build her own life in San Francisco. After its earthquake, San Francisco was almost immediately rebuilt, ceaseless energy and determination of human beings longed-for ideal society Harper is migrating even farther west, The gathering on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain could have easily been staged in San Francisco’s Castro District—both locations represent voluntary community, inclusion, civic participation, and personal promise.

HARPER. It’s my time, and there’s no blood. I don’t really know. I suppose it wouldn’t be a great thing. Maybe I’m just not bleeding because I take too many pills. Maybe I’ll give birth to a pill. That would give a new meaning to pill-popping, huh?

HARPER. Oh! In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals. PRIOR. In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.

Belize is a black ex-drag queen and registered nurse, Prior’s best friend and, quite against Belize’s will, Roy’s caretaker. She is the most ethical and reasonable character in the play and to us, feels less like an individual than a symbol of marginalized groups.

BELIZE. You better tell the doctor. Or I will.

PRIOR. No no don’t. Please. I want the voice; it’s wonderful. It’s all that’s keeping me alive. I don’t want to talk to some intern about it.

You know what happens? When I hear it, I get hard. BELIZE. Oh my.

PRIOR. Comme ca. (He uses his arm to demonstrate.) And you know I am slow to rise.

BELIZE. My jaw aches at the memory.

Hannah Pitt is  Joe’s mother. She moves from Salt Lake City to New York after Joe confesses he is gay in a late-night phone call. She tends sternly to Harper but blossoms after she encounters Prior. Her chilly demeanor is melted by Prior and by a remarkable sexual encounter with the Angel.

“and I asked the driver was this Brooklyn, and he nodded yes but he was from one of those foreign countries where they think it’s good manners to nod at everything even if you have no idea what it is you’re nodding at, and in truth I think he spoke no English at all, which I think would make him ineligible for employment on public transportation. The public being English-speaking, mostly. Do you speak English?

HANNAH. Shut up. Please. Now I want you to stop jabbering for a minute and pull your wits together and tell me how to get to Brooklyn. ……I am sorry you’re psychotic but just make the effort — take a deep breath — DO IT!

Ethel Rosenberg was a real-life Jewish woman who was executed for treason during the McCarthy era. The Ethel of the play returns as a ghost to take satisfaction in the death of her persecutor, Roy. Ethel hates Roy with a “needlesharp” passion, yet on his deathbed she musters enough compassion to sing to him. Her recitation of the Kaddish with Louis indicates her forgiveness.

 Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz  is the elderly rabbi who delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Ironson,

RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ …….She was … Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not, to be frank, with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. We are all the same, of this generation. We are the last of our kind……In her was — not a person but a whole kind of person — the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania — and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. ….. she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue

The rabbi is wrong on one count, when he says that “such Great Voyages…do not any more exist.” The entire play, of course, is the story of many Great Voyages: Louis’s transgression and his attempt to overcome it, Joe’s emergence from the closet, Roy’s journey to what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country,” Harper’s growing self-confidence and assurance, culminating in her night flight to San Francisco; and most importantly, Prior’s voyage to Heaven and back, his painful decision that he does indeed want more life. The play is a voyage in the political sense, too, documenting the struggle for full citizenship by gays and lesbians and by people with AIDS

RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ. Please, mister. I’m a sick old rabbi facing a long drive home to the Bronx. You want to confess, better you should find a priest.

LOUIS. But I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Jew.

RABBI ISIDOR CHEMELWITZ. Worse luck for you, bubbulah. Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.

Kushner has said that at a time when an inadequate health care system and longer life expectancy are forcing more and more Americans to care for aging or sick relatives, he wanted to dramatize the simple truth that not everyone is a born healer and caretaker.

A review of the film version is here

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Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand by Liz Lightfoot

outspoken(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

LGBTs need to be wary of religion with its oppression. Many wonder why anone should have anything to do with it. Yet it was the Church of England, through Archbishop Michael Ramsey, that moved the debate in a positive direction towards decriminalisation in the 1970s. Yet creeping fundamentalism has moved the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction since then.

The Anglican Communion is supposed to be engaging in a ‘listening process’ with individual members about their personal journeys. Lambeth Conference bishops had committed themselves to this over twenty years ago but there is little evidence of any enthusiasm on their part. Said: one friend who had participated in a listening exercise in New Zealand: ‘To be honest, I feel a bit cynical about it. It sounds a little bit like a lot of people sitting around and having an academic discussion about wounded people like me.’… The listening process to me seems more of a monologue than a dialogue: more about gay and lesbian people having to listen while fundamentalists talk.

I thought the New Zealand church was quite progressive. After all, they commissioned an out gay priest, Jim Cotter, to update their liturgies. However, homosexuality there wasn’t decriminalised until 1986. It also seems that LGBs are sometimes barred from license or ordained ministry even if they are not ‘practicing’.

Some of us are guarded in what we say about Nigerian and Ugandan Anglicans for fear of being accused of racism but others speak their minds: those African churches are just a joke. They have no concern for human rights. It’s almost like gay and lesbian people are less than human because they seem to turn a blind eye when they’re getting killed off.

LGBT people with church connections either choose to leave the church or to stay and wrestle. It’s not an easy choice: ‘Some truths are not worth the pain they cause. Others might be necessary for the pain they can prevent.’ — Herbert & Irene Rubin, Qualitative Interviewing. The Art of Hearing Data

 Many have prayed for help but the answer has come through the people God has put into their lives. Our local branch of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has been discussing its future and concluding that their work is no longer needed. This book suggests that they are mistaken.

The author has a very detailed description of her methodology in compiling the experiences of LGB in the church or those who have left it. Her interviews are lengthier than many other, similar, studied, so I feel more empathy with the people involved as I felt I knew more about them as rounded people than simple their ‘issues’.

I guess it depends what type of church one experiences but: One person, appalled that I had not walked away from the institutional Church, remarked with feeling: ‘You haven’t lived it. You’re green. The Church is completely corrupt. There is no one of any integrity left in it.’

And liberals don’t always attract: In some ways I have more respect and more time for the quite hardcore Christians than for the ambivalent ones. I’ve sort of ended up in the wishy-washy end of the Church and it’s not probably where my heart really is. I’m mildly infuriated by the people who are happy with gay people because they’re so apathetic that they haven’t really thought it through. You know, they don’t think morals matter very much or they don’t think God really cares what we do. I can’t quite understand it. I feel more comfortable with people who have a passion for social justice and liberation as gospel values that Jesus calls us to.

Ex-gay movements tend to quote the theory of Elizabeth Moberly about same-sex parent deficit but: Edward has always felt ‘different’. And has been aware of being attracted to his own gender as far back as he can remember. ‘And that was before my father died which I always like to point out to people because I’m aware that some people would take the view that I’m gay because he died when I was young.’

For those who say that marriage is the cure: While Edward had always wanted children, the birth of the couple’s first child triggered what Edward described as a period of ‘severe and debilitating depression’. Despite the joy of becoming a father and the love he felt for his son, it represented a point of no return. ‘Looking back, the depression was all about realising that there was no way … I was fully committed now. I was a dad.’ Antidepressants helped.

Many evangelicals like to be ‘helpful’ because they believe they ought to be but, deep down, aren’t happy with the ‘issue’ and certainly don’t want the church to change its official teaching: no matter how friendly and loving they are towards me personally, and how inclusive they believe themselves to be as a community, they’re still signed up to a branch of the Church that openly discriminates against gay people.

For gay evangelicals, there is a fear because it is likely to be liberals who help them. If they accept such help from liberals, will this lead to their adopting other aspects of liberal theology and will the edifice of their faith unravel?

Of alien churches: It was full of all these wonderful things they were involved in and I was sitting in the pew wanting to put my hand up and say, ‘Hang on a minute! What is going on here? You are involved in all these incredibly marvellous things out there … out there. But what about in here? What about what’s going on inside this building? There’s no social justice here! I’m not regarded as equal, nor is Eleanor. That’s why you don’t have any other gay people in this church. We’re the only two. We stuck it out here for five and a half years, until you made it too difficult for us to stay.’…. She sums up what leaving the Anglican Church has meant personally: So that was a huge grief for me and the cost for me has been enormous. It really has, it’s been huge. And I even stop some Sunday mornings, still, and think, `They’ll just about be doing the Affirmation of Faith now or the Peace, or the Great Thanksgiving will be going on …’

Are ‘traditionalists aware that their view causes suicide attempts: There are many in this book: I said to the psychiatrist one day, ‘I took two bottles of sleeping pills. I shouldn’t even be sitting here.’ Two bottles! One bottle you’d think would do the trick. I wanted to be doubly sure. But I was up walking around when I came to. I wondered if someone was there — had someone picked me up and started walking me?

I was in and I was out of consciousness when I was driving from the park to the hospital. I’d driven on the wrong side of the road with cars coming up and tooting at me. I turned into a one-way street the wrong way, parked my car on the road and walked into the hospital. I don’t know why I had gone there. I tried to leave and that wasn’t going to happen. It was all happening on auto-pilot and I wasn’t … harmed.

The psychiatrist said, ‘You don’t always get to choose your time. Sometimes you just have to live on.’ That kind of struck a chord with me. I made a serious effort to kill myself and I managed to live through that and to be thankful for that. I learnt some good techniques to calm me down and to put me into a more positive frame of mind…..I’d left the Church and taken up all these other pastimes — lots of drinking and partying and not paying rent. That leads to sleeping in a park until a place is open that can help you sort your life out.With emotion, he re-lives the experience: Lying on a park bench because I’m too exhausted — I don’t want to go to sleep because I’ve got nowhere to sleep that’s safe or warm or dry, particularly.

But I felt God’s love there. I almost felt an arm around me. I almost felt God’s embrace at that time. It was cold and uncomfortable but I felt the presence of God there and I felt him saying, ‘I’ll be with you but you know that it’s because of you, that’s why we’re here tonight. I’m as cold as you are.’ Feeling God’s love for me at a point that low kept me going and has kept me going because at that point I wondered if I should just jump off a cliff. God said, `No, of course not. It’s a beautiful world. And you’re still in it. All you need to do is sort out the issues that you’ve got and I’ll be with you. I’m with you now.’ Not words, I’m not hearing words, I’m just getting a feeling. That feeling has saved my life, and brought me back up out of the darkness.

Of evangelical styles of leadership: ‘smarmy’ is the word that comes to mind. And they came across as arrogant and patronising.

Counselling is usually thought of as being non-directive (except for fundamentalist schemes who tell you what the Bible says) but sometimes there is benefit from a little direction: My counsellor had shared his own story which was very similar to mine. He had done a PhD in something and ended up coming out because of the stress associated with being in the closet and the way it made him feel in himself, I guess, and then growing through it and becoming a counsellor. The conversation represented a turning point for Matthew.

If you want a relationship blessing, be aware: So we naively went to Chris, thinking, ‘Look. They have St Francis’ Day services where they bless rabbits and pets and dogs and donkeys and whatever I mean, this was not going to be an issue to have a relationship blessing.’ Naive me.

 One potent review said: I am the husband cast aside during Lightfoot’s ‘crisis of sexuality’. There is absolutely no acknowledgment in the book of the pain and anguish caused to me during her process of coming out, which (more than incidentally) led to me being pushed out to the edges of the lives of our children. The book presents a narcissistic Christology that bears little relation to the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

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Seeking the Truth in Love – Michael Doe

STTIL(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Michael gives a neutral, gentle and fair-minded guide to different shades of opinion.

The book arose out of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Michael had been asked to head up a working party on ‘human sexuality’ (in practice, this was about homosexuality – there wasn’t one of ‘animal sexuality – though from what some of the African bishops said, you’d have thought there was.) It recommended the passing of Resolution I.10 which included: We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.

Unusually, the recommendations of the working party were overturned. Tensions had been brewing for some time. Conservatives in the ‘global south’ had produced a hard line statement against homosexuality (and there is evidence that some wealthy North Americans had bankrolled their churches and provided them with heavily biased information.) (Now, most aid pouring into Uganda is from faith-based charities and this probably panders to a continuing narrowing of belief in which progressive voices ate unheeded.)

The first we knew of this was on teatime television news on a hut summer’s Friday in August which showed Nigerian Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma confronting Richard Kirker of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement outside the Conference, performing an exorcism and praying that God would ‘deliver him’ from his homosexuality.  Kirker said afterwards, “it was threatening – he was waving his hands in my face and it was very hard, in fact impossible, to get a word in edgeways.”

That evening, I was with a friend in the garden of the Hope and Anchor pub in Clifton/Hotwells and heard some young men from a nearby table commenting on this event. What interests me is that some years ago these lads would have condemned gays. Now they were condemning the church as a laughing stock. This culture change and how we deal with it is at the heart of this book.

Right Reverend John (Jack) Spong of Newark, New Jersey told the Today programme that the way society views homosexuality had changed in the last 25 years. “We’re living in a world of vast cultural differences.

These are the difference that Bishop Michael spells out. He stands by the ‘three-legged-stool of Anglican divine Richard Hooker – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (including the experience of homosexual and lesbian Christians). This is important because the global south settles everything by an appeal to (their understanding of) scripture alone, which isn’t the classical Anglican way.

One of the prime-movers was Gregory Venables, bishop of the Southern Cone but he speaks for a diocese the size of a small parish. Then again, so do most of the American, progressive bishops. By contrast, the Nigerians and Ugandans account, numerically, for a majority of Anglicans worldwide.

Bp. Michael explains that the then Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, speaks powerfully, with authority. Exorcisms are something he performs routinely as a leader. He later called gay men ‘worse than dogs’.

In Uganda, one story looms large in the collective psyche: in 1886, a group of young male Christians martyred because they would not submit to sexual advances of king Mwanga’

From their perspective, we in the West have gone astray into liberalism and sexual immorality. They accuse us to continuing imperialism in seeking them to follow our supposedly more advanced culture. The Archbishop of Uganda said, ‘They have turned their backs on the Gospel the missionaries brought to Africa. It is now our duty to uphold it.’

As well as being accused of cultural imperialism, we are open to accusations of racism if we point out that clergy training in Uganda does not deal with stuff which is standard in England. Some biblical teaching is done by two newly qualified primary school teachers and no staff would question the literal interpretation of the six day creation or the historical existence of Adam and Eve

The Ugandan bishops said that ‘Uganda stands on the Biblical authority and accepts that homosexuality is a sin which could only be adopted by the church if it wanted to commit evangelical suicide.’ In our Western world, the opposite is true. Those young men in the pub, which I mentioned earlier, would dismiss Christianity as unjust, even evil, in their treatment of a minority group. It is akin to condoning racism.

Ugandan bishops have supported the introduction of draconian laws against homosexuality. Bishop Chukwuma said’… this is the voice if god talking.  Yes I am violent against sin.’

Bp. Michael explained that ‘as many as one third of all youth suicides in the United States are committed by homosexual persons, and more gay and lesbian young people in New Zealand died at their own hands than of HIV/AIDS at the height of the epidemic in that country.’ p. 81

He quotes the late (evangelical) Michael Vasey “for countless gay and lesbian people the Bible has brought death, not life. Many speak of the Bible as a ‘six-gun,’ a pistol loaded with six texts that are used as bullets— Bible bullets—to kill lesbian and gay people in a contest about whether they can be full members of the community of faith.” P. 85

He tells stories of pastoral encounters which have made him think.

Throughout, he manages to avoid saying exactly where he stands. His final chapter, ‘Where now?’ urges us to be honest and consistent in our use of Scripture (having taken delight in pointing out one or two evangelical inconsistencies in earlier chapters), to be critical of what we have received from history, take seriously modern knowledge which former generations did not know, and to treat homosexuals and lesbians with the respect and love they are entitled to in Christ.

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Canal Street Gothic – D. Thame

CTS(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I lived, very briefly, in Manchester and got to know Canal Street fairly well. This book reflects my feeings about the various bars and the characters who frequent them fairly well.

John Walker of Pink Ewe books says: In 1990 the area around Canal Street really was gothic – in a scary way – for many gay people. James Anderton+ wasn’t making life much fun. There were deaths – not least that of Albert Kennedy. The Manchester-based youth homelessness charity founded in his memory is 21 years old this year, too. Now David’s book asks if it might be gothic in other ways….

He also wonders: Has Manchester’s gay village – the oldest and biggest in the UK, and 21 years old this year – produced any other literature? Unlike London – which has Alan Hollinghurst, Jonathan Kemp (Manchester born but a chronicler of the capital) and many others – has the city yet inspired a gay writer of note, except Russell T Davies of Queer as Folk fame? Is the gay village just about beer and fun, has it any other legacies in the arts?

My book group loves Hollinghurst but this author isn’t in that league. Nor is he as good as Kemp, who I like but my group loathes.

Nevertheless, we get a good picture of the sort of people who hang around this are, less than a square mile, and of the suburbs from which they come. Their different lives, some genteel, others rough, are well-portrayed. They have interconnections with each other and from a distant past about which they probably know nothing.

+ the chief constable who spoke of ‘gays swirling round in a cesspit of their own making’ – until his daughter came out)

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Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World – Janet E Cameron

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)CTATEOTW

Set in a small-town Nova Scotia in the 80s, its hero is Stephen Shulevitz. It is far more complex than a simple coming of age novel and probably more true to real life because of it. (SPOILER ALERT: there is an open ending rather than a ‘happy ever after’ though you suspect he will be happy.) Literature and music are the constants that you can take with you when you leave or stay with you if you are stuck.

His straight best friend Mark grows up dyslexic and abused and learns quickly to be the toughest kid in the playground. Stephen also has to deal with his mother Maryna, who is dreamy, disorganised, and stuck in a dead end job in a small town – the one bright spot in her life seems to be her son. Stephen’s father Stanley is a self-absorbed academic who remains irritatingly calm in a crisis, especially if it’s one he’s created himself. Then there’s Stephen’s big-hearted, Goth-punk friend Lana, with an unfortunate crush of her own.

There is a string of absent fathers and inappropriate relationships. In a small town you don’t have much choice and there are always those who can’t wait to leave and those who are too scared to leave. His father is an ageing hippy and teacher: my father was home, in his corduroy jacket with the patches on the elbows, a sheaf of folders under his arm….. his beard was getting out of control again…..someone tall and twisty, long arms and legs and bright brown eyes, with wiry dark hair he’d gather in a ponytail or carry in a cloud around his head. His friends called him Spider. He insisted I call him Stanley or Stan. No father names. He wanted everybody to be on an equal footing in this family, he always told me. ‘Like friends.’

Some friend – he walked out on his family and phoned to speak to his son after many years and didn’t even recognise his voice because it had broken – duh – that is what happens to teenage boys but his dad had preserved him in aspic.

When he’d walked out he stupidly said: ‘Maybe it would be better for all of us if you let him forget me,’ he’d written. ‘Kids bounce back fairly easily, don’t they?’

His advice on bullying was more than crass. It was harmful: `Ignore them,’ he’d said. ‘Just ignore them.’

The rest of my parents’ advice was stupid. `Laugh it off,’ my mother told me. ‘They’ll respect you if you can laugh at yourself ‘ `Next time they insult you, agree with them,’ said Stan. `I read somewhere that when people call you names, they’re really talking about themselves. Maybe try telling these kids that.’

 The mother is nicer but still stupid: Mom, I smoked up. I smoked, you know, marijuana.’ She was staring at me again. I pretended she wasn’t. `Oh, Stephen. Already?’ My mother shook her head, like she was looking at a licence application that she couldn’t bring herself to rubber-stamp. ‘No, no. Fourteen’s way too young. Your brain’s still developing. And your body. You should really wait until you’re in college.’…. ‘I guess Stan wasn’t much of a role I model, huh? Always toking up in front of you. But at least it’s better than drinking. Or this.’ She held up her cigarette with its curl of smoke land glared at me. ‘I never want to see you with one of these, ever. Understood?’

The loss of a childhood friend is more poignant than adults realise: I’d known Dylan for as long as I’d been able to form memories. How could she be leaving, just because her mom and dad felt like living somewhere else?

The author understands the real function of school correctly: Most kids saw high school as a place for having fun and being with your friends, and the stuff you were asked to do in classes was like rent — you paid it so you’d be allowed to continue to stay there, and to keep the authorities off your back.

The teenager, after self-harming in attempt to cure his homosexuality and the lack of real concern from adults, describes ‘normal life’ thus: And so we got set back on our little clockwork paths and went ticking on with our day, my mother and me. Continued with everything, as if we were normal people. People who remembered nothing.

 He also has OCD: At the top of the basement steps, I had to sit for a minute and count backwards from a hundred in French.


“ ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ That’s what people will tell you. That’s what people will tell you when they want to say, ‘Your problems are stupid, your reaction to them laughable, and I would like you to go away now.’

‘Oh, Stephen, for God’s sake, it’s not the end of the world,’ my mother will say, over and over, in tones of sympathy or distraction. Or sometimes plain impatience. 

So of course if she’s ever running around looking for her keys and cursing, I’ll always tell her, ‘It’s not the end of the world, Mom.’ And if she’s really been pissing me off, I’ll scoop the keys up from wherever she’s left them and stick them in my coat pocket. Then I’ll settle back to watch with a sympathetic expression while she tears the house apart looking. Lost keys? Not the end of the world.

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Annabel by Kathleen Winter

annabel(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

Intersex is my ‘new issue’. As my church wrestles with, and fails to come to terms with, homosexuality, I am being told that my thinking is too ‘binary’. Intersex leads to a whole new set of considerations.

I was alarmed to find out that the surgeon had never done this operation before and I wonder whether surgery is done for the sake of the baby, so that s/he won’t be made fun of. Or for the adults, who need to define everything: to annihilate all questions…….It’s a tiny ruler.’ `It is. See?’ He pointed to a mark three-quarters of the way down the phalometer. ‘If the penis reaches or exceeds this length, we consider it a real penis. If it doesn’t meet this measurement, it is considered a clitoris.’ Jacinta strained to read the tiny marks. ‘One point five centimetres?’

The descriptions of people and landscape are lyrical and haunting. There’s a clash between Inuit and Western (Canadian) civilisations. Hoewever, the Inuit lived very close to nature: And if you were one of the Innu or Inuit those days, you had no need of cinema. Cinema was one of the white man’s illusions to compensate for his blindness. A white man, for instance, had no idea of the life within stones…. This whole religion, Jacinta thought — and Treadway knew without thought — depended on people more than people depended on it. You didn’t need it unless you did not have the land in your heart; the land was its own god.

You can’t escape mysticism by living in that place: They did not know that her idea of resurrection was different from that of the Church, as were her ideas of Christ, of light, of immortality and holiness. Christ, for Thomasina, was not so much a person as an opening in the grass, a patch of sun, a warm spot in the loneli­ness. She had never been a person who respected stained glass or altars. That butterfly’s small early wings were her stained glass. That patch of earth, peeping through the melting snow, was her altar. Her mother had not called her Thomasina for nothing. ‘If you were a boy,’ her mother had said when she was young, ‘I was going to call you Doubting Thomas, after the disciple who wanted to see Christ’s nail marks with his own eyes. But you were a girl. So I called you Doubting Thomasina.’…. a woman who would not turn to page 254 of the Book Prayer and recite, ‘Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin . . .’ What kind of words were these to start off a baby’s life?

The author confuses lecterns and pulpits – pulpits don’t have eagles.

Don’t hospitals vet the material they leave in waiting rooms?: Jacinta looked at a Paediatrics Today magazine lying on a table. On its cover was a photograph of a baby with tubes coming out of its nose, arms, and head. Why did hos­pitals think people coming in with their babies wanted to look at magazines like that?

The husband and father is a distant man but reliable, and even likeable if you like the strong, silent type. Though taciturn, he champions his son: Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. `When?’ asked Treadway. ‘When is the Lord planning on getting around to it? Because I can have it done by this time tomorrow.’

Like me: Treadway was a man who did not like talking on the phone. The phone was for getting information across that could not be exchanged in any other way. It was the new form of telegrams.

Wayne starts to dream that he is a girl. Before that: `I told Dad you were calling me Amble and he said he didn’t like it.’ `Don’t worry. I’ll only call you Annabel when there’s no one else around.’

In early adulthood, after thoughts of suicide: Years of hormones had made him angular, and it occurred to him that he wished he could stop taking them. He wanted to stop swallow–mg them every day and having them alter his body from what it wanted to be into what the world desired from it. He wanted to throw the pills down a toilet ….. He wanted to throw the pills away and wait and see what would happen to his body. How much of his body image was accurate and how much was a construct he had come to believe?

One intriguing detail –you can’t keep cows in Labrador so have to use Carnation Milk.

And something I didn’t know – there’s a Cabot Tower in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, situated on Signal Hill, built at the same time as the one in Bristol UK.


`It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta’s breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life or death. Women look through the opening because something might be alive in there.’

`Only in wind over the land did Treadway find the freedom his son would seek elsewhere.Treadway was a man of Labrador, but his son had left home as daughters and sons do, to seek freedom their fathers do not need to inhabit, for it inhabits the fathers.’

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Becoming Nancy – Terry Ronald

BN2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

The late 1970s are captured very well, with the trendy teachers, the Anti Nazi league, Rock Against Racism, Blair Peach, Abba and cheesecloth but there’s still a secondary modern school and an unusual one at that as it has a Sixth Form. The tastes in furniture reminds me of Paul Magr’s ‘Strange Boy.

Boys growing up uncertain about their sexuality had no role models. Larry Grayson, in Crossroads,is emulated by the hero of this book but most young men found him deeply alienating. They couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’ if they weren’t camp. Interestingly, the hero’s family have no illusions about Grayson being celibate: a notion most of his fans believed so as to not be shocked that they liked someone who did ‘naughty things’.

It’s a bit liker many American coming out stories where the effeminate boy has a girl as his best friend falls for the jock. The boy also has an acid tongue when critiquing the fashion disasters of some of the girls and the women.

There’s a highly unprofessional and unlikely parents’ evening. However, at the time, the trendier teachers did offer cigarettes to `heir pupils – in school.

There’s a husband who insists on eating the same meal on each particular day of the week and hates his routine being altered – like the husband in the film Shirley Valentine. This is the husband who nicks things – the family get a new dishwasher only discover that there are some plates already in there when they plug it in.

There’s a marvellous vignette of tap room conversation: The two of them have been getting right up my nose for the last hour – putting the world to rights, as they saw it: what a marvellous bloody job Mrs Thatcher is doing, and what was the point of women being liberated when they spent most of their free time looking through catalogues at saucepans.

BN I had to look up ‘”kushdi”= cool.

And I think he has confused Melksham (Wiltshire) with Meltham (Yorskhire)

But it was a good read and will have you singing along to the show numbers from Oliver for some time afterwards.

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Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

EW(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is one of her best books, in my opinion – or maybe I am more used to her style than I was thirty years ago when I first read anything by her.

The phrase “excellent women” describes the sort of do-gooders who hang around anglo-catholic churches and other organisations doing menial tasks to give them some reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Some call them ‘holy fowl’. In the trade, we call them ‘clergy creepers’ or ‘cassock sniffers.’ Usually unmarried and not employed, a dying breed now that women tend to go out to work. To the narrator, the term conjures up virtuous dullness.

Many of these women lost sweethearts in World War One so we do well to be a little sympathetic.

Most of Pym’s novels are full of them, which maybe why her books went out of fashion for a long time. Yet Pym manages to make them constantly interesting despite their dull lives.

There is gentle satire in church functions, jumble sale etiquette and ion the passage about those attending the scholarly meeting at which Everard Bone delivers a paper. Their pomp and pretense of the audience and their questions and discussion are affectionately presented.

Marriage is a prevalent theme throughout this book. In 1950s London, being unmarried over the age of thirty dubbed a woman as a spinster with little to no hope of ever catching a husband. Mrs. Morris’ opinion that it is unnatural for a woman to live alone, Everard Bone and William Caldicote’s observations that excellent women such as Mildred should never marry, that marriage is for women who are less sensible and not as capable as Mildred, are typical views of the time. Mildred may be partly flattered to think that she is an excellent woman but also disappointed that men do not seem to see her as “the marrying kind.”

Many of Pym’s books contain anglo-catholic clergy, with their acolytes (literally their altar servers whose sexuality is ambiguous, to say the least), the spinster old ladies who have crushes on them and somehow they are ‘safe’ as Father isn’t the marrying kind but who are shocked if there is some romance going in because they resent that the Father’s time is being devoted to something other than the church the clergy are expected to remain available at all times. For more on the anglo-catholicism in this book see this

Mildred wasn’t used to dressing well and making up. As she observes other women, all dolled up, she remembers the biblical phrase ‘All flesh is grass.’

She has a conventional view of appropriate behaviour. She is shocked Helena Napier does not believe in performing any sort of domestic chores. Mildred was raised to believe that a woman’s duty is to her husband and the home.

She believes that women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time, should devote themselves to taking care of others.

She thought that it would be inappropriate for her to become the Malorys’ tenant because she is an unmarried woman and although Winifred lives in the house, Julian is an unmarried man. The only reason Allegra Gray’s presence is appropriate is because she is the widow of a fellow clergyman.

When she meets Everard on the street, she is embarrassed that she is not wearing stockings or a hat and tries to avoid meeting his gaze.

Who knew: learned that a package or envelope sealed with white of egg cannot be steamed open.

The description of the lunchtime service on Ash Wednesday suggests that Pym didn’t do her research very well. The description of office workers leaving early to get back to work is accurate but not the notion that Mildred had her lunch first. If this service was a mass with ashing, she would have gone fasting. If not, when did she go to mass with ashing, since evening masses were virtually unheard of in those days?

I am always amused when the hymn ‘Hail thee, festival day’ comes round with the Vaughan Williams tune. Not only is one walking in procession but also trying to fit words with differing numbers of syllables into an impossible tune. Interesting that Mildred had the same problem back in those days. Perhaps Ralph enjoys the joke he has played on us all.

Of church being dull in August: Sundays after Trinity; even the highest church could not escape them and it was sometimes difficult to remember whether we were at Trinity eight, nine or ten. (Not so – what about the feasts of the Transfiguration and Assumption?)

People talked of ‘Roman fever’ and of ‘going over to Rome’ yet Mildred rightly observes that some of their buildings lack pulling power: Not here, I thought, would one be senti­mentally converted to Rome, for there was no warm rosy darkness to hide in, no comfortable confusion of doctrines and dogmas; all would be reasoned out and clearly explained,

There’s a humanist memorial service – rare back then. As was the attitude with which I fully concur: `Missionaries have done a lot of harm,’ said Mrs Bone firmly. The natives have their own religions which are very ancient, much more ancient than ours. We have no business to try to make them change.’

After reading this book one is bound to agree with the sentiment behind Rocky’s question: ‘Why do churches always have to be arranging bazaars and jumble sales? One would think that was the only reason for their existence.’


“I sometimes thought how strange it was that I should have managed to make a way for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive,”

“No answer seemed to be needed or expected to this question, and we laughed together, a couple of women against the whole race of men,”

“You should see my bedside table, such a clutter of objects, cigarettes, cosmetics, aspirins, glasses of water, the Golden Bough, a detective story, and any object that happens to take my fancy,”

“I hesitated at the top of the stairs, feeling nervous and stupid, for this was a situation I had not experienced before, and my training did not seem to be quite equal to it,”

“I lay awake feeling thirsty and obscurely worried about something,”

“I could see very well what she meant, for an unmarried woman with no ties could very well become unwanted,”

“Life is disturbing enough as it is without these alarming suggestions. I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman,”

“I accepted the compliment as gracefully as I could, but I was sufficiently unused to having anybody make any comment on my appearance to find it embarrassing to have attention drawn to be in any way,”

“My heart sank as I recognized familiar landmarks. I could almost imagine myself a schoolgirl again, arriving at the station on a wet September evening for the autumn term and smelling the antiseptic smell of the newly scrubbed cloak rooms,”

“I went back to my flat, puzzling a little about this friendly overture. I was sure that she did not really like me, or at best thought of me as a dim sort of person, whom one neither liked nor disliked, and I did not feel that I really cared for her very much either,”

“Inside it was a sobering sight indeed, and one to put us all in the mind of futility of material things and our own mortality,”

“I’m not used to going into public houses, so I entered rather timidly, expecting a noisy, smoky atmosphere and a great gust of laughter,”

“I noticed a group of priests looking down on us from the upper deck, and I felt that somehow the Pope and his Dogmas had triumphed after all,”

“The truth was, I thought, looking once more at the letter on my desk, which would not now be finished tonight, that I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens as the nobler language of our great hymn writers put it,”

“I began taking off my apron and tidying my hair, apologizing as I did so, in what I felt was a stupid, fussy way, for my appearance. As if anyone would care how I looked or even notice me, I told myself scornfully.”

“My normal appearance is very ordinary and my clothes rather uninteresting, but the new dress I had bought showed an attempt, perhaps misguided, to make myself look different,”

“We were, superficially at any rate, a very unlikely pair to become friendly. She was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt.”

“She was dressed, as usual, in an odd assortment of clothes, most of which had belonged to other people. It was well known that Winifred got most of her wardrobe from the garments sent to the parish jumble sales, for such money as she had was never spent on herself but on Good – one could almost say Lost – Causes, in which she was an unselfish and tireless worker.”

“I suppose I had taken to using a little more make-up, my hair was more carefully arranged, my clothes a little less drab. I was hardly honest enough to admit even to myself that meeting the Napiers had made this difference and I certainly did not admit it to Dora.”

`A tolerable wine, Mildred,’ he said, `unpretentious, but I think you will like it.’ `Unpretentious, just like me,’ I said stupidly, touching the feather in my brown hat.'”

“I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us–the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”

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Vintage: A Ghost Story – Steve Berman

VAGS(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I don’t normally read ghost stories but this one sounded attractive – a gay coming out story with a difference.

I also don’t know much about Goths though I was sympathetic to those few whom I taught.

It is rare for me to read an entire book in one sitting, though I did with this one.

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A Secret Edge – R Reardon

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)ASE

There are lots of coming out stories but this one is different in that a Hindu is involved and the author knows her stiff – that ancient Hinduism accepted a ‘third sex’ but that Western attitudes have infiltrated.

Like most of these American coming out novels, there’s lots about friends coming round to help with homework and with ‘jocks’ on sports teams.

The title is a reference to the idea that fathers somehow suspect their sons are gay but don’t quite know how to deal with it, as if their son has some sort of ‘secret edge’ on them.

I suspect that nobody quite knows how many young men take knives to school for protection.

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