We gay men are heroes. At least we are called to be.
From the moment of our conception, we face obstacles others do not. We are often cast outside the walls of our family, faith, and society. We can bang on the gates for readmittance, or we can set off on our quest. Most of us do a bit of both. If we are lucky, we find faithful companions along the way, companions who offer aid as we fight outer foes and inner demons. It’s tough being gay.
For my part, I sensed from early on I was not what my parents wanted. In my elementary years, my family teased me sometimes mercilessly for what they saw as feminine qualities. Years later when I finally came out, I lost family, friends, career, and more. Yet I have found patient friends and wise mentors in our tribe who listen deeply, and give me sound encouragement and seasoned wisdom.
No doubt you have your own story to tell, and I hope you’ll give me the honor of hearing it.
Yes, it’s tough. We wouldn’t make it without one another. But when a gay man succeeds in his hero’s quest, wow! What incredible gifts he brings to others. Consider Socrates, Plato, Hafiz, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Walt Whitman, Peter Tchaikovsky, Marcel Proust, Cole Porter, Aaron Copeland, Langston Hughes, Dag Hammarskjöld, Alan Turing, Leonard Bernstein, James Baldwin, Andy Warhol, Henri Nouwen, Rudolf Nureyev, and so many more. How very much we gay men have given the world!
Today the desire of many gay men is to fit in. We’re just like straight people, some say, except for who we do it with in bed. I beg to differ. Our psychology is different. Our spirituality is different. We do ourselves and the world a deep disservice if our goal is assimilation to straight culture. We are denying the genius of who we are as gay men. We are succumbing to yet one more form of internalized homophobia.
No one, in my view, has articulated the genius of who we are better than psychologist Mitch Walker. He believes we have come to a crossroads. The gay liberation movement must choose, he says, “either to renew its mandate and deepen its import by seriously taking up a gay-centered psychological method, or to creatively stagnate in the face of continued oppressive forces within and without that bitterly oppose homosexuality and the successful cultivation of better psychological consciousness overall.”
As important as the fight for equal rights may be, it is no substitute for the greater struggle, the quest for psychological and spiritual wholeness. Mitch is not alone in believing this. There are others who are pointing us in the same direction — Robert Hopcke, Christian de la Huerta, and the late Mark Thompson, to name a few.
Discovering and developing our genius — our gay-centeredness, as Mitch Walker calls it — is not easy work. It is difficult, time-consuming, costly. Like any hero’s journey, it will demand of us everything we have. But to refuse our call to quest is yet more costly. Imagine Middle Earth ruled by Sauron because Frodo refused to bear the ring to Mount Doom. Imagine the Alliance decimated by the Galactic Empire because Luke Skywalker refused to fly into the Death Star. From a psychological and spiritual perspective, we risk the same sort of ruin if we refuse our call.
The heroes of myth and legend are marked from the beginning. They often have strange stories of conception. Some, like the Buddha in Chinese legend or Jesus in the Gospels, are conceived without sexual intercourse. Others are conceived when a divine father impregnates a human mother. Some, like Moses, are born to common parents and adopted by royalty. Others are born to noble parents but end up in the care of commoners, or even animals, as did Romulus and Remus. Some, speaking of Romulus, are one of a set of twins. Others, like Gilgamesh, meet their double at a key moment on their journey.
The common thread through all these variations — natural-supernatural conceptions, divine-human parentage, noble-common rearing, and twin-double pairings — the common thread is duality. Every hero is a walking contradiction, a paradox, a conundrum. He is divine and human, earthy and transcendent, light and shadow. The hero’s journey is a dramatic portrayal of a psychological transformation in which the hero integrates or transcends the contradictory parts of himself. He begins his journey able-bodied but psychologically fragmented. He ends his journey physically wounded but spiritually whole.
Heracles is a case in point. The story of the Greek demigod Heracles, or Hercules as the Romans called him, is a classic hero’s tale, maybe the classic hero’s tale. I’ll be using his story often on this blog to anchor my reflections on our journey as gay men. Heracles is not gay, though he has more than a few male lovers. Today we would describe him as bisexual. My primary reason for using his story, though, is not his sexual exploits. It is the rich symbolism his story offers to help us visualize the vicissitude of our lives.
The story of Heracles’ conception reveals not just duality, but a double duality. There is the duality of his divine-human parentage, and the duality of his having a twin brother. The story varies a bit from telling to telling, but usually goes something like this:
The god Zeus is famous among the Greeks for having his way with any female he wants, be she goddess or human, married or maiden. When Zeus’s lustful eye falls on Alcmene, Heracles’ human mother, the god determines to have her. (To be precise, Alcmene has a bit of divine blood in her, but is mostly human.) For her part, Alcmene is deeply devoted to her husband Amphitryon and will never allow herself to have sex with another. So, Zeus devises a scheme.
Amphitryon is making his way home from a successful military campaign. Before he can arrive home to his beloved wife, Zeus disguises himself as Amphitryon. He even brings a golden cup to Alcmene, claiming it is a spoil of war. When he appears at Alcmene’s door, she welcomes him with open arms. She listens attentively as he recounts the exploits of Amphitryon as if they were his own. When night falls, she draws her supposed husband to the bedroom and delights to make love to him. Zeus is enjoying himself so much, he makes the night last as long as three; and with repeated ejaculations, he strengthens the godlike qualities of the child who will be born of this union. The next night, the real Amphitryon arrives and immediately takes his wife to bed.
And so it is that Alcmene becomes pregnant with twins, one the son of Zeus and the other the son of Amphitryon. (Believe it or not, such dual pregnancies are possible. It’s called heteropaternal superfecundation, which I’m sure is more than you wanted to know!)
From conception, Heracles has a dual nature. He is divine and human. Reconciling his god-like strength and his fallible humanity is the challenge of his life. His duality is represented in two ways. First, his father is a god, and his mother is a human. Second, he is a twin to Iphicles. In the language of myth, Iphicles represents the alter-ego of Hercules, the mirror image, the shadow — the parts of himself he must recognize and integrate if he is to be whole.
These two images of duality in the Heracles myth represent the same paradox. It is a paradox we all share with Hercules. Like Heracles, we are all both divine and human, eternal and mortal, earthy and transcendent. As the Jewish and Christian myth has it, we are made of mud, yet breathe the breath of God. We are capable of murderous rage and transcendent ecstasy, almost in the same moment. “What is man?” asked the French priest Bérulle, “An angel, an animal, a void, a world, a nothing surrounded by God, indigent of God, capable of God, filled with God, if it so desires.” How do we reconcile ourselves to all these disparate parts of our humanity? We resonate with Heracles’ story because it is our story too. Will Heracles be able to reconcile the divine and human in himself? Will we?
In Native American tribes, there are sometimes men, women and intersex persons who combine the traits and behaviors of both men and women, and in consequence are accorded a ritual or spiritual role in the tribe. It was at one time common to refer to these men and women as berdache. But the term is culturally inappropriate and seen as offensive today. Instead, native peoples of North America often describe these men and women as two-spirit, an identity ably explored by Will Roscoe among others.
I do not want to misappropriate the term. But if I may respectfully borrow it for a moment, I would suggest that we gay men are two-spirited in two different ways. Like Heracles, ours is a double duality. And in our case, the two aspects cannot be reduced to a single paradox.
We are, like Heracles and all human beings, both divine and human. This is the duality to which the Bhagavad Gita points:,
There is a double spirit of man in the world,
transient and eternal –
transient in all creatures,
eternal at the summit of existence.
We might visualize this divine-human duality as vertical.
We may also be two-spirited in the sense that Native Americans use the term. We may contain within ourselves both a masculine energy and a feminine energy. Science is showing that, on average, the brains of gay men are more like those of straight women than straight men in shape and function. For many of us at least, though our sexual morphology is masculine, our neurology is feminine. We might visualize this masculine-feminine duality as horizontal.
While these two tensions within us are not one thing, they are synergistic. When the masculine and feminine come together within us, a mysterious, spiritual power is released that can transport us from the merely mortal to the divine. So many religions and mythologies speak of this intrapsychic union of masculine and feminine as a means to transcendence — for instance, the bridal mysticism of medieval Christianity, the mysterium coniunctionis of alchemy, the Rasa Lila of Vaishnavism, the esoteric rituals of Tantrism, and of course, the Native American two-spirit tradition. It is in part our conjoining of masculine and feminine that has made us gay men the shamans, priests, and mystics of so many peoples, not to mention the musicians, artists, and poets. We are, it seems, more capable than most of ecstasy.
There’s a lot to unpack here. But we can take our time. For now, you might want to give a little reflection to the call to quest that is inherent in your gayness.
This call has been yours from the moment of conception. The god of gay-centeredness claimed you in the womb, and he will not quit his claim. He is relentlessly calling you to enter the depths of your soul, to wrestle with monsters like shame and rage, to conjoin the competing energies of masculinity and femininity, earthiness and transcendence. Transformed by that alchemy, you will become the gift that is yours alone to give the world.
This is your call to quest. Will you accept the call?