Dear Reverend Lou Sheldon

A love letter, of sorts

Photo by Keith MayDear Reverend Sheldon:

I trust you've already read the book I sent you, Donna Minkowitz's Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God and Fury. Minkowitz, a former Village Voice reporter and AIDS activist, went undercover as a fundamentalist Christian to get the skinny on people like yourself, and then wrote a book about it. I'd love to chat about the book with you in person, but considering the restraining order you filed against me during my ACT UP days and the number of times I've interrupted your speaking engagements, I expect you have reasonable doubts about my sincerity.

So I'm talking with you here in an attempt to answer the question raised in Minkowitz's absorbing, witty tome: Is it possible to find common ground between someone like you—the head of the fundamentalist, Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition—and a gay-rights activist like me?

The book opens with a visit to a charismatic church enraptured with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Minkowitz is surprised by the overt sensuality of the group:women seeking peace for past abuse give themselves over to the congregation (many of them male) for healing by the laying on of hands; people dissolve into tears, praying feverishly, dancing and whirling; bodies wrap around one another tenderly; prayers are raucously spoken. In the afterglow of personal and spiritual connection at service's end, there are the contented, sweaty smiles of people exhilarated by making contact with the Invisible.

Minkowitz follows that sublimated mixture of sex and salvation with an astute dissection of the sadomasochistic tendencies within Christianity: the specter of a bloody, beaten Christ naked on the cross, "bottoming" for God as he saves us from ourselves; the communal eating of "flesh" and the drinking of "blood"; our unworthiness of God's love, that we're inherently ugly things needing redemption by a Master so far above us we can only fail trying to emulate him. What seems obvious in print is a deep, dark undercurrent I had been blissfully unaware of until I read Minkowitz's shrewd analysis.

In glorious contrast, the author then details her own S-M experiences and their similarity to religious faith: In approaching sexual or religious rapture, how often do we lose our boundaries and merge—with the other person's body or the bright, brilliant face of God? Minkowitz doesn't hide behind her often graphic depictions of sex, and her naked honesty makes for absorbing reading, full of thoughtful ideas, not the least of which is a voyeuristic peek into the velvet underground.

I get a charge out of that dark/light flip-flop myself, and while more foolish or braver people may work out power issues in the bedroom, the glorious theater of political protest is as close to S-M as I'm willing to subject myself. Handcuffs ratcheting into the soft flesh of your wrists, the slow-motion calm that happens in the midst of chaos, getting into the face of someone who may harm you . . . all sexy as hell.

Understanding this about yourself doesn't mean that you get off on barbarity, despite the fact that S-M and cruelty are often visually indistinguishable. Minkowitz knows cruelty arrives in much less obvious, often more damaging envelopes. "I've used my politics as an excuse to be vicious; I've used my experiences of oppression, personal and political, as tokens entitling me to take thousands of free punches at friends, semi-friends, adversaries, and people who just happened to be handy,"she writes. "I've enjoyed writing bad reviews; I've found it intoxicating to be hurtful in print. . . . And in my mind, everyone has deserved them. I don't need to be moral; I only need to be strong."

That moment of truth (one that sent shivers of recognition up my spine) floods into Minkowitz as she listens to SoCal minister Greg Laurie preaching about love to thousands of men at a Promise Keepers meeting. Infiltrating the meeting disguised as a 16-year-old boy, she's swept away as men admonish one another to be more loving, to confront and correct the hurt they've caused others. Minkowitz bravely dispels lefty generalizations disparaging the group as a thinly veiled movement designed to suppress women. Despite their discomfort with homosexuality and the dated idea that women have a "place," both Minkowitz and I see the respectable qualities of the organization: gentleness, kindness and forgiveness—qualities most of us desperately need.

The urge to slamdunk fundamentalists without striving to understand them is a big problem in the gay and lesbian community. I've certainly fallen prey to it, even though I'm a Christian and ought to know better. Seems part of the "victim" mentality so favored by the unenlightened is an inability to look at how they may contribute to their own "persecution." Dismissing sincere Christian beliefs—however wrong-headed or misguided—as just so much gay-bashing, without trying to understand its context or take a long, hard look at ourselves, only compounds the problem.

That struggle for self-awareness has Minkowitz seeking more personal connections, so she schedules a direct appointment with members of Focus on the Family, a conservative organization dedicated to family issues. Meeting with several male directors of the group—founder and president James Dobson noticeably absent—she has a long discussion with them about gay rights, pornography, sexuality, philosophy and politics. The chapter is a page turner, especially when one of the men outs himself to an astonished Minkowitz as an HIV-positive "ex-gay."

More astonishing is that all involved go into the meeting without clenched fists or protest banners, listening, engaging the "other" behind the rhetoric. What a gift to sit across from someone you've called your enemy, sharing your hurt peacefully with them, giving them a chance to respond and share the ways you've hurt them as well.

That moment is the selling point to me, Lou, and it made me write this love letter, of sorts, to you. In the last two chapters, Minkowitz takes an often unflattering look at her own misogyny and the way her excursion into S-M has hurt her relationships with others. Don't skip this section, Lou. What we have here is something quite precious: a person looking for grace in life, who knows the often painful, quasi-religious steps, solace and hell required to capture it.

It's no coincidence that Minkowitz follows up her S-M soul-searching with a visit to Total Woman ministries—where women shop together, dress up, apply makeup, pray and engage in "feminine" things as a way to get closer to themselves. That search for a blending between opposites, between black and white—so far from, but also so much a part of, Queer Nation meetings or lesbian backroom wrangling—is the recurring theme throughout this amazing book.

In the end, Minkowitz's journey is a remarkable one, filled with loving moments and an appreciation of religious feeling and human communion. While hardly a convert by book's end, her last words on the subject are delicate, graceful and filled with great beauty.

What about it, Lou? Can we talk? Can you trust me?

It's not just a tidy way to end a book review, it's a chance to start over.

Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God and Fury by Donna Minkowitz; The Free Press. 175 pages. $24 hardcover.

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