Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Next Question” please

about being gay and Buddhist

originally publsihed October 23, 2006

Here is the remnant of a tired, oppressive conversation that just refuses to die. It runs something like this: despite what anyone says and despite any appearances to the contrary, we queer folk are really OK. Believe me--I really, absolutely, don’t have to wear a dress.

I went to the website of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore a few weeks ago, and clicked on a link to a talk by the Venerable George. There we were, stuck again, and this time nailed by the authority of the Dalai Lama:

“When the Dalai Lama was in the US, a lot of journalist likes[sic] to ask him about his views on gay monks and gay Buddhists. He told them, ‘Some are monogamous and some are predatory, just like heterosexuals, next question?’”

And then I was subjected to some pious words about how great it is to have bad karma because it gives us so many opportunities to practice. My heart sank.

There’s nothing objectionable in the short quote from His Holiness, or George’s answer--I am certain George exactly matched the nuance of the questioner. I’ve met George and found him an engaging, balanced, and well trained monk. But the sole focus on the prohibitory precepts leaves so little room for the expansiveness of practice that a gay person’s spiritual life could die before it begins to breathe on its own. The reality is that, for most queer folk, being predatory has never been a concern--being subjected to a peculiar set of sexual judgements, however, seems to be part and parcel of our lives.

This myopic view is frustrating, and if I take it to heart, I could be outraged or offended. The never-ending cycle of sexual considerations is never satisfied which is not surprising. But more troubling, it does not point to liberation.

It really is time for a “new question,” and let’s get creative and redirect our energy and practice to re-frame the entire conversation.

I want to step back and try a different portal -- Art!

Watching Ric Burn’s PBS documentary Andy Warhol, I felt that I understood Warhol, his gayness, his art, his insight, in an entirely new way. And in the same moment, I also saw one of my Buddhist heroes, Issan "Tommy" Dorsey, as never before--again unexpected. Although I had known and lived with Issan in the last three years of his life, confident that I had fully experienced his zen, art opened another door.

And this became the place where I began to dig into myself to explore sexuality and practice.

At eight Warhol wrote a fan letter to Shirley Temple, she returned a signed photograph, and he wanted to be Shirley. The commentator said this began his fascination with ‘fame’ -- not his homosexuality. He began his Marilyn Monroe series on the night she died. His self-portrait in drag shows a connection so deep that we begin to see how his portraits of Monroe allow us to see her in an unexpected way, a glimpse that would have remained hidden without his art.

[I spent the better part of two days in 2002 at the Warhol Retrospective at MOCA LA. It was almost overwhelming to see so much of his work together. I am going to post some of the work I saw here. Online can only give a taste of its power.]

Was there ever a question that Warhol was not gay? Of course not. Was there ever a possibility that he could be other than gay? I’m not going to waste time with a really dumb question. Can this apply to gay men who aren’t effeminate and don’t do drag? Of course. Just sit down and begin to see who we really are, say who we really are, and we won’t waste the Dalai Lama’s time either.

In the “real” world, “passive” men, a word often used to describe Warhol, get chewed up and spit out. At major openings where he was definitely the star, he tended to fade into the background. But he missed nothing, observing, recording, understanding who people were, what made them tick, seeing their deepest needs. Then he used the simplest, most straight forward means that he’d mastered--photography, silkscreen, printmaking--and we saw a depth and detail to the people and objects in our world that we never would have noticed if left to our own devices.

Issan Dorsey was no wall flower. He loved to perform, to make people feel at home, to laugh-- far different than the reports of Warhol’s being stand-offish. Warhol’s drag was an artistic, perhaps personal, experiment. Issan loved drag as a spectacle, even beauty, though undoubtedly it was connected to understanding himself.

I knew Issan’s spontaneous humor first hand. It was genuine and infectious. We are told that Warhol could be funny at times, with friends. I have a feeling that Andy was guarded, or that the people around him as he ascended the celebrity ladder protected him in much the same way that they protected him from drugs. Issan too had a small army of fierce protectors. I know several of the temple guards personally. He welcomed their good intentioned efforts when he needed them, but he kept a large arsenal of one liners to fend them off when best intentions became meddlesome and oppressive.

Both men had complicated relationships with drugs, their own drug use and that of their addicted friends. Warhol said publicly that a half of a diet pill was enough for him. Issan loved drugs, but took great care to check that appetite for the sake of his practice. Both were comfortable with drug users and did not shy away from any part of the drug scene. Both men saw lovers and important people in their lives overdose and die. Both, in some ways, preferred the downbeat company of druggies to the polished world of art collectors, museum curators, high-church Buddhists, or the “A-Gay List.” I saw Issan totally at home in both worlds, with anyone and everyone in the room, blending discordant personalities, and invisibly negotiating ancient animosities. I talked with him on several occasions where I felt as if he were walking with me through the dangerous mine fields of my own mind, easing my own fears.

Paying attention to details, being interested in others with no judgment or preconceptions, all point to an ability to get inside someone else's skin with compassion and love (and I am thinking particularly of the dark places that we try to hide). Does it come from sharing a deep sense of being an outcast? Does it originate in “passive” observation? Is it transmitted by the gay gene as well as working with skilled teachers?

I have no answers. There are no easy answers. But this exploration is far more interesting to me than checking myself against standards of sexual conduct which prejudice gay men and women.

I will sit, I will look at art, and I will make art.

No matter how repetitious they may appear, each can of Campbell soup is a unique experience. What can be more Buddhist?

For those with eyes to see, let them open to our ordinary world.

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.