When I was in high school, I spent hours hunting for any hint of homosexuality in music, poetry, art—all the places people drop their hints. Is this guy singing, “Once a lover, and his last”? Is the “Oscar” he name-checks...our Oscar? In seeking precedents, my friends and I were trying to figure out what possibilities our futures might hold. Slowly, we built an imagination for ourselves: an extremely mid-nineties imagination, overrun with drawling, white British men and violent death, but a treasury and an ancestry nonetheless.
A few years later, I discovered the Catholic Church. Even at that time there was already talk of a distinctive “Catholic imagination”; people threw around words like “incarnational.” I fell in love with the Church and was baptized in 1998. The Church, my beloved, is bigger than “the Catholic imagination.” I hope I didn’t swoon for that abstract and desiccating daughter of the critical class. But even this abstraction holds some truths and beauties behind its facade. And only now, decades later, I’m realizing how much “the Catholic imagination” and one familiar form of queer imagination have in common. These traditions don’t simply overlap because Oscar Wilde and Steven Patrick Morrissey happened to be baptized in the Church (if such a thing could “happen to be”). They overlap because queer culture preserved and exemplified countercultural truths and unwanted beauties. What I found in the Church was at once strange and familiar—and the familiarity, more than the strangeness, was the result of my experience in queer cultures. You may shape your tongue to Church Latin only to find that the words come out in Polari.
The first overlap I noticed was, of course, the Church’s sensuality. Even before I became Catholic I noticed this insistence on the meaning of the body—“meaning” in the sense that the body could be interpreted, that you could not only feel it but understand it (or misunderstand it). But also “meaning” in the sense of importance: the body means a lot. In high school, I wrote a self-indulgent short story called “The Church Is the Body” about a congregation that rejects a woman due to her chronic illness. This is the teenage victim fantasy, I know. But where did I get that title, and why did I like it so much? I hated the gory paintings and statues in Catholic churches, which is weird since “morbid” and “masochistic” have never been terms I use pejoratively. But I loved reliquaries. I didn’t even love them because they were comic (“Look, they put a foot in a foot!”). What I loved was the luxury and tenderness poured out on corpses. The bodies by themselves are enough to love. The febrile insistence on the flesh: the marble flesh of statues, the wounded flesh of martyrs, both changed and somehow justified by the sacred Flesh broken between our teeth. To encounter the Catholic Church is to touch and smell and taste; to shiver.
So too in the queer world. If you are suspected, taunted, targeted for violence, denied jobs, harassed, and made to doubt yourself because you have what others consider the wrong sensual reactions—if you react with longing and surrender to the wrong physical forms—then your own sensory reactions will become an object of your intense study. As you try to understand why the physical world doesn’t mean to you what others think it should (why do certain physical forms glow red-hot when you’ve been told they should be dull to you?), you spend a lot of time observing, assessing, and contemplating your own responses to physical forms. The physical world is now a problem to you. Your skin, so used to blushing at the wrong times, in the wrong presences, now brushes against the world always ready to react. You begin to interact with the physical world with an intense awareness of your own capacity for arousal. You are pretty much on high alert all the time, and it’s confusing and terrifying and also very hot.