Friday, June 24, 2022

Un-Churched

 


I could begin with an anecdote about some lovely old Methodist ladies I knew growing up. It's true, I knew 'em and they were nice -- mostly. Likewise the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Episcopalians, and a few of the Baptists. The Church of Christ were pretty quiet back in the day but about as close as we came to charismatics. That was pretty much the Sunday menu in my hometown. There were options though. There were at least three different Methodist scrums in the area and two Presbyterian, one rich and one poor, likewise the "nice" Baptists and the ones with the roadside sign on a wheeled trailer. There was certainly nothing new in the way of church then; no big-box mega-dudes, no non-denominational services outside of a Kiwanis meeting. Evangelists were on the Sunday morning tv or in tents. Most people you were likely to know were affiliated, however lax in attendance. And if you were new to them, people asked. Not if but where you went. If they knew your grandma they didn't have to ask. If you got the denomination you could pretty much guess the congregation by either the person's shoes or a rough idea of their address. Hilariously, "mixed marriages" tended to be described as such for pairing unalike Protestants, i.e. of different denominations, or even congregations. Catholics married Catholics, so far as you could tell. There might have been a Christian Science reading room somewhere. Never went in. Amish sold us our eggs and cheese. Mormons were as exotic as Marduk -- or atheists. Of Jews I knew not a one until high school.

I might also describe Bible Summer Camp as I went to more than one, or I might write about the night I answered an altar-call during a revival. I was probably twelve at the time, eleven or twelve. I could talk a bit about helping the Gideons hand out New Testaments to unsuspecting Cub Scouts, or describe the house and yard in town completely covered in Biblical quotes on hand-lettered wooden signs, or try to reconstruct my treasured conversations with a Presbyterian minister who was a lovely man, a history buff, and the father of a friend. (We talked about Churchill mostly, not God.)

When I think about it, and I do still think about it, my time amidst the Christians was by and large not an unhappy experience and I suppose I must say now that I still count Christians, active Christians among my oldest friends. So far as I can say, religious faith is for me no bar to friendship and affection. One can be as I am and still love some of God's people. 

The problem here is how to get in without making a scene. Holidays are best, but Easter isn't good. Too high, too holy, too near the cross. It ain't just chocolate bunnies and egg hunts. I almost hate to say it, but Christmas is about the only way to do this without undue fuss, so with apologies to the churched and the unfaithful equally for going to Bethlehem maybe one time too many, Christmas it is.

Nobody's made to feel funny at Christmas Eve Mass. As I understand it, this was often the one night, or one of two that Father saw one's actual father in church. Same in my grandmother's congregation at Blacktown Balm Methodist, membership more than one hundred, attendance more usually fewer than fifty. But come the Christmas Eve pageant and farmers nobody'd seen outside the feed-store or the auction-barn cleaned their boots and put on a starched white shirt. Oh, there were men who went every week, mind. Retired fellows, lonely, men of a specially pious nature, coupled mostly but a few single, some even of a marriageable age. We'll get back to the last directly, but for now it's worth mentioning just how a rare a single man was at church. Considering the to-do that was made about them, it's clear why the shy ones might have avoided being regularly on the Sunday rolls. Come Christmas week though and you'd have thought church was as popular as a dog-race or a dice-game. Christmas, everybody's welcome. Put it another way, come Christmas there's nearly no way to put anyone out.

Christmas pageants proper have had their day in American literature and deservedly so. Who doesn't feel for the kid who has to be a sheep? Shepherds in bathrobes, towels tied on their heads, three kings in paper beards, angels in wire-hanger-wings? A real baby in the manger sounds better than it ever proves to be and Sunday school classes aren't generally known for their production values, but there is certain magic to any dress-up involving little ones, just as there is real charm in children's voices raised imperfectly in familiar song. And then there is the text:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..."

 Great lead. Good stuff.

In my time I have been to Christmas services, not counting straight-up concerts, in probably two dozen different churches of various denominations and in at least four states. It's true that I haven't set foot in a church save for funerals for a decade or more, but there was a time when I made a point to wander into one church and another, famous and not, and I counted myself specially lucky if I hit a holiday service; fewer questions and reliably better music in my experience. Generally I'm a Gospel fan but not much for hymns and nothing is so likely to make me pray for death as the feeble wheeze of contemporary "praise songs." (If Gospel is greens, think unsalted kale chips.) Christmas music I love.

Yes to the secular -- the novelty numbers excepted -- but much as I love my chestnuts roasted on an open fire and my sleigh-bells ringing, I also love sacred music and the Christmas calendar. Sing-along Messiahs have rather ruined some of the fun, but generally everything is better in Christmas robes. Choral glories, boy soloists, women's choirs, pipe organs, here a Gay Men's Chorus and there a full orchestra & Handel or Vaughn Williams, and I am made happy. Not a snob. I also love kids at the railing trying to keep time with the piano and an unsuspected Irish tenor in the back pew belting gesu bambino over the congregants cowed heads. Sacred music of nearly every stripe is better somehow in a crowd. There is a freedom in numbers, a sense of occasion and anonymity that loosens inhibitions. A crowd can communicate and amplify joy as well as drown out the sharp sopranos. 

This would be why I've avoided Easter here, as the solemnity of The Passion quite rightly colors even the most innocent, most sincere exuberance in The Resurrection. Church Easter is adult. Christmas is simpler. 

So here's my thought. If you are unchurched, like me and or an atheist or LGBTQ+ or in any other way -- like me -- outside of Christianity, consider attending a Christmas or a Christmas Eve service. Depending on the size of the congregation, and the location, no one or nearly no one will question your presence there. And if they do, for the most part all you need to do is not explain yourself over-much. Say you're just glad to be there. Tell whoever is asking how much you appreciate the atmosphere, compliment the pastor or the priest, wish every one well and a Merry Christmas. Worse comes to worst, all they can do is ask you to leave, but I bet they won't -- not at Christmas. 

Now, why would you want to do any such thing as go to church at all let alone Christmas Week? Because we all of us need to understand something. We need to know, to be reminded what it is to be safe in church. That's it. Just that. One cannot know from just the one visit what it is that makes someone we either do not know or the people who may choose not to know us go to church. We may remember church fondly or not, may have once been a part of rather than apart from the religion around us. We may think we understand what other people see in it. May not have a clue. For some of us even crossing that threshold may be braver than we are prepared to be or it may be something we have vowed to never do again. We may have tried entirely too hard for too long to either conform or to understand and make others understand why we cannot. One may have been tested too much, lost too much, or we may simply not much care. I get any and all of that. Frankly I am weary of trying to understand the people who do not try to understand me. Too much of my life has been wasted on the extension of sympathy to those who are overtly hostile to my happiness and well-being or who would deny my very existence. My general rule nowadays is, sadly, fuck 'em. But to be and to feel safe in a place that does not really welcome you is powerful. It isn't about them.

Doesn't much matter where, to listen to music together is powerful. To listen to poetry together is powerful. To be in community is human. Sometimes it is good to be in someone else's. But specifically to be with other people who do not know us as we know ourselves, who would reject us, who may have hurt us, and to be in that moment with them anonymously but without dishonesty can be liberating. To find them as near to their best as you are likely to get and to see them happy and even happy to see you, and then to go back after into your own life unharmed re-establishes the possibility of safety elsewhere. I could tell you that this is a chance to appreciate your common humanity but that's as maybe. If you grew up in anything like the same America I did and you go to church at Christmas time, you may find you will have a good time, and you may also find as I did that you need never spare these people another anxious thought. You may disagree. 

Christians can still hurt you. Some of them, in some places the majority of them intend to. Just today they have undone fifty years of established precedent and reverted to an interpretation of the law and of the nation that refutes the autonomy of women's bodies. A sitting Supreme Court Justice in 2022, a black man, felt empowered to suggest that states have the right to go even further backwards and undo my marriage, deny access to contraception, and restore sodomy laws. Privacy is not recognized in the Constitution these people read. The enemies of progress, of science, of the separation of church and state, the enemies of federalism and of secularism won today and they did it if not in the name of Christianity then in defense of their personal religious beliefs and at the expense of reason, compassion, and the majority opinion in this country. The only rights that matter to these Justices are the right to make money and the right to impose their vicious, thoughtless, ugly religion upon the faithful and the heathen alike. The angrily, proudly churched, if not The Church, won, and we are reminded again that we are all of us at the mercy of their wrathful, rigid, and angry little god.

I can't say that I've lived through worse, though I am old enough to have lived through Bowers vs Hardwick in 1986, which said I was not safe in my own home from being prosecuted for having sex with another man, but I also lived through Lawrence vs Texas in 1996 which overturned that ruling. 

Personally I have survived the junior high school teacher who told me that "people like that" meaning people like me killed themselves to spare their families shame. I've survived the churches that told my friends I was satanic and told parents that their gay children are abominations. I survived the bullies who put me in a trash can and rolled me down a hall, who regularly shoved me into lockers and called me a faggot and once drove my bike off the street and into a metal fence. I survived the gang of kids who threatened to throw me off of the Tenth Street Bridge for being gay and "against god."

I saw friends get secret abortions and others struggle to escape their abusive homes, churches, parents, partners. I've seen the damage done by the churched at every level of our civil society and I've been told, time and again that the fault was mine for not trying harder to understand why they hate me and wish my friends dead so as to save imaginary innocents.

For every Christian I've seen do a good deed from faith, I've seen movements rise from those same churches intent to do me harm, to deny my rights as a citizen, to control and oppress women, to expel the exile and the refugee, to laud the rich and reward the greedy and to perpetuate racism, violence, and ignorance. For every kindness that came from faith, I've seen the same pieties warp, and cripple, and confine. I would today be done with the lot. I would be grateful to escape for good and all the frame in which this hateful, hypocritical mob will insist that I see my own country, my place.

 So why on earth should I be thinking about Christmas? Because I am trying to cede these people as little of my country, my history, and my own autonomy as possible. I don't need to be told again that not all Christians are this or that many Christians are that and that I mustn't judge these because of what those do. I know all this. I no more need my Christian friends to justify their faith to me than I still feel the need to talk any of them out of it. Believe just as you like. Talk about it or don't. Apologize or defend or argue just as you feel the need. I am not your enemy. See to your own house. Maybe don't argue the prejudices in my atheism or try to dissuade me of my anger or calm my outrage and you'll have more time to fight your fellow Christians for the truth as you see it of Christ Jesus. Maybe you can wrestle the Cross from those who use it as a bludgeon. Maybe not. Not my fight.

Once when I was in college I went to a mass at a Russian Orthodox church. Their Christmas falls on a different day and I didn't go knowing this but instead just followed a crowd into a service. I was dressed okay. No intention of causing offense. Not there to mock but to watch. It was all very moving and beautiful. The music was simple and wonderful. Only time I remember priests singing well. It smelled wonderful, everything glittered and shone. Everyone was incredibly nice to the boy who only spoke English.

Years later, in San Francisco I went one Sunday to Mass at a famous Mission church. It wasn't Christmas time, but not long after and there was still something festive in the decorations and the atmosphere. I heard Mass in Spanish for the first and only time, which frankly made it sound lovely, and heard contemporary church music which was just as disappointing in Spanish as in English. Everybody was nice.

I went once with my Grandmother to a Christmas service at her church long after I knew I had no need of it nor any church of my own. The service was much as I remembered it. The minister was shockingly a woman and more shocking than that, clearly of my own tribe, though no one would say so. Kids still sang at the railing. It was very much as it had always been. I felt fine while I was there and grateful when it was over, just as I remembered. I saw at least one single man there still of a marriageable age, not coupled, with what appeared to be his parents. He made rather a point of not making eye contact with me and I felt for him.

Again, I mention these examples not to reassure any one of us that we are really welcome there. I do not believe that we are, not as we are, even if you might believe as I no longer do. You may feel differently. You may know better. I only want to share my own experience and to suggest what I learned which is this: not only did the roof not fall in, and I did not catch fire but I found to my surprise that I could enjoy being there as myself and be unchanged in both my convictions and my person. I was safe even there just as I am. I could be touched and untouched, in their company but not of it. I could appreciate the occasion, the music, and even the company and then walk away. That is what I learned -- finally -- in church.

Maybe it would have been different on any common Sunday. I might have heard a sermon again on my sinful nature. I might hear another homily defending unironically the suppression of birth control and abortion as a holy mission to save lives. I might be asked why I was there with the same suspicion of heresy that forbade me from entering a beautiful little wooden church in Orange County, California. All of those experiences I have also had, and today they feel far more representative of the churched than my more pleasant memories of Christmas Eves past. Both I know are true. 

I would like to say that the churched have no power over me but that is not true. The truth confirmed again today is that they maintain a power disproportionate to their numbers and their right. It is a power I am confident that they plan to exercise again. They must be resisted. They are wrong in fact and in law. They hate me, and probably you too if you are reading this. They will shake your hand and then cut it off. I am reminded today just how conditional is their much vaunted love.  

I want nothing more to do with them, just as they have repeatedly shown they want nothing from me save my obedience or failing that, my nonexistence. Today I wish not one of them well, these churched and churlish bigots. Not one. More than ever I wish them and all their works, their churches and little god gone. Allow me my anger. Unlike those six pious liars I can and will do no one harm for the sake of my personal feelings. Again unlike them I will not pretend to neutrality. I cannot forgive them. Remember? I am not a Christian. I am not obliged. 

Maybe by Christmas I will want to sing again rather than scream. Maybe by then I will again feel the urge to wander into a church. Maybe not. Maybe by then I will feel strong enough to walk among the churched and feel safe within myself and among them. Maybe not. They are again doing their level best to make me unwelcome. Should I not judge them by their deeds? Ought I to take them at their word?

Perhaps they have finally taught me how to hate. Wouldn't that be a pity? Come Christmas we'll see.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Remembering a Boss

Richard Labonte

We were asked to contribute 100 to 150 words to a memorial for Richard Labonte, the man who hired me to manage A Different Light Bookstore in West Hollywood years ago. I was suggested as a possible contributor by a mutual friend. The job and the bookstore are now long gone and Richard had long since retired back to Canada. Other than irregular communication on social media, I hadn't seen the man for twenty-five years. He had announced his diagnosis in February and then in what seemed a very short time thereafter I read of his death. 

Another death nearer to home intervened and I neglected to write anything about Richard until I was reminded of the deadline. Turns out I don't know what one hundred words looks like. I sent something off in an email as quickly as I could and heard back the following day from the editor, who had very kindly shaped what I'd written into something of a serviceable length. (Not the first time an editor proved helpful. That of itself is something of a tribute to Richard's memory as it was as an editor of countless LGBTQ+ books that he may well be best remembered.)  

Now that's done, I thought I might share what I'd written without the necessary constraints of the published memorial. I would add the caveat that my acquaintance with the great man was professional rather than personal and as noted, brief. Once I was hired to manage the West Hollywood store, Richard returned to his other responsibilities in San Francisco. We spoke regularly on the phone, though it was just as likely that I would speak with his business partner Norman, himself busy at the branch in New York. Truth is that I'd never had a manager's title in a bookstore where I was left so much alone. I saw either man only when business brought them to the door, though this happened more than one might think. They both still had deep roots in the Southern California gay community. In addition to their guidance, and Richard's advice in particular, I was very lucky to have joined a well established and very professional crew at that bookstore. 

I was less lucky in my timing. It was a difficult period for independent bookstores -- but then when is it not? I've been a bookseller for more than thirty-five years and it has always been so. In the nineties we were still most worried about the chain bookstores, but the internet was already starting to undermine the bricks and mortar business model. It was getting particularly hard for smaller, specialty shops. When I started there were enough women's bookstores to have their own review. LBGTQ+ shops were open then on either coast and there were more than a few in-between. The anonymity of ordering online would undo nearly all of this.

I was only in at the end. It wasn't easy. I am grateful though to have been there at all. For that opportunity I have to thank Richard LaBonte. Here then is more than I wrote or would say anywhere but here.

Gallantry isn't a very common adjective in the book trade, or anywhere nowadays come to that. It has the musty smell of a page from Walter Scott. The word is to do with gentle manners and good graces, but it has a martial tune; to be described so one must be not just polite but brave. I can't think of a better for my old boss.

He hired me largely on the recommendation of mutual friends. I think I must have looked pretty good on paper. I had some management experience, knew books and bookstores, but I was still young and Richard had no reason to know me from Adam. I knew something of him of course: writer, bookseller, award-winning editor, already something of an √©minence grise. (Now I think of it, he was younger then than I am now. Sobering thought.) My friend B. had made me aware of the job opening and it was his enthusiasm and his letter of recommendation that carried me there. The rest was up to me. As it turned out, I very much wanted the job on offer, very much wanted to work at A Different Light Bookstore. 

Almost every independent bookstore will talk a good community game at some point, even if the only community being served is, say, Historical Romance fans in the greater Loveland suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. (Those non-Historical Romance readers in Mariemont don't know what they are missing, and frankly they can go suck eggs!) Community is born of  affinity, but sometimes it is necessity that makes us. Richard was one of the people who made A Different Light. There was a growing need for access to our literature, our art, our voices, to each other, and for safe and sober places to find ourselves and one another. A Different Light didn't come from the community, it helped to make that community just as it was intended it would, and the bookstore helped to sustain our community for three decades. Richard and his partners, their employees, their customers did that. How could I not want to be part of that?

It seemed the decision would be Richard's to make. The interview turned out to be mostly lunch, the first of many. I did my best to be charming. I don't know that I was, but I tried. Richard ate his lunch. I wouldn't say he was immune to charm, but he must have been used to it by then. He'd seen much brighter lights than mine, met every LGBTQ+ writer alive and had doubtlessly dealt with many real dazzlers for many years. As I remember it, I was sweaty in the Southern California heat, breathless from nervously chain-smoking all morning, and more than a little intimidated. Richard was quiet, even when he did speak, which wasn't much. In fact he seemed quite shy. He smiled. He squinted. He listened. We ate. I talked too loud, and too much, about too many things. He paid for lunch. We walked back to the bookstore and he shook my damp hand. A day or two later he hired anyway.  

That job was rather a leap for me and right into deeper waters than I knew. The company, like so many other independent and specialty bookstores at the time was not in a great place, or rather it was in three great places: West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York, and that may have been at least one too many. The rents must have been increasingly prohibitive. Bookstores have seldom made anyone rich, even or particularly the owners. Still, it's been a living. Times were changing. By the late nineties LGBTQ+ books could be had from nearly any mainstream book retailer. The internet was already starting to let people buy books anonymously. Not even your postal carrier had to know you were reading books about, well... us. Of course A Different Light, in all it's incarnations was never just a bookstore. Community center, news vendor, host and town-crier for community events, the welcome calm between bars and dance clubs, the place served more purposes than common commerce.  I was reminded of this every day. (Why were we hosting an event for a ventriloquist? Did we not anticipate complaints from half our patrons when we agreed to the art show featuring paintings of big rainbow-colored penises? Do we want to stay open after hours so a porn company can film a scene involving Billy Dolls coming to life at night and, well, fucking?) I quickly learned that managing a bookstore that was so much more than a bookstore to so many, on and off the payroll was complicated. Richard was one of the people to remind me, more gently than most, of this fact -- and no, he didn't think we should let them film a porno in the store, even for an impressive fee, thanks. 

I don't think I've ever worked for anyone less likely to fire people, return an unsold book, or concern themselves about the dusting. Every manager has his or her or their darlings, staff and stock. Richard seemed to find very little unforgivable in either. Perhaps he was a different person in Silver Lake, where the first store had been, or in San Francisco where he spent more time when I worked for him. Don't know. It is important to say here that even in the atmosphere of mutual respect and support which he had done so much to cultivate, and even with the aging back-stock of self-published zines and more marginal titles from increasingly obscure sources, he was not a sentimentalist. His belief in the potential contributions of everyone to the greater good, his insistence on supporting and serving the community was completely sincere. He could also read numbers. When the time came, as it came more and more often during my tenure to let someone or something go, he never shirked. When there was anything particularly unpleasant that needed doing, he invariably offered to do it himself. I will admit that sometimes I let him.

First of many lessons from Richard? Trust that you can do what's asked of you. Having his trust and advice made a great difference, but he allowed people to do their work. Also? Everything worth doing is collaborative, one way or another. Maybe that's the same lesson. Our working relationship wasn't that long -- I've worked in the bookstore where I am now for nearly twenty years, and worked in my first for more than a dozen -- but it would take more space than I have to detail everything he taught me in that time. More than anything he was an example to anyone and everyone who came within his influence on how to be decent. He was a perfect example of why kindness wasn't a weakness, that one needn't be loud to be heard, that honesty should never preclude compassion. More than once it only occurred to me after we'd hung up the phone that I'd just had a sound thumping -- and deserved it. We never had anything between us that could be called an argument, let alone a fight.

He was a gallant man. I suspect the word would amuse more than please him. He had no pretentions, at least none that I ever saw. He said more with a glance and a shrug than anyone I ever met. He would look away, brush up his beard with his fingers, and listen always before he spoke. I learned that what he said mattered, but you had to get close to hear it. Always worth it. He was an entirely reliable wit, in his quiet way. About a famously difficult local author he once told me I should remember how hard it must be for this person to wake up every day "and not be an enfant terrible anymore -- at sixty five." 

My last year at A Different Light Bookstore was a bad one. Staff reductions, an actual flood, endless road construction in front of the bookstore, there was a lot with which to contend. With Richard's approval I gave an interview to a gay magazine describing the company's financial problems and the need for greater community support and the pull-quote of mine that they used? "Thank God for porn!"  To be fair, at that point videos and magazines were paying a lot of the bills we could still pay, but I was not terribly popular with some of my employers after that. Beyond what was happening in the company, my best friend died from what we used to call "AIDS complications," hours after I left his bedside in San Francisco and drove back to Southern California. I'd gone into debt, living in a motel during the week and learning to drive on the weekends, at thirty five, in order to commute the forty-four miles each way each day. Bought my first car. Had to do "debt consolidation," and attend what I couldn't help but call "failure school" wherein we learned that capitalism was good, we just weren't good at it, yet. I nearly died myself from a burst appendix. Took weeks to recover from the emergency surgery that put twenty two staples in my gut. And I came back to work just in time to find the store that I managed was being sold to someone I did not know, someone who lived "just around the corner," someone who would not require a manager, thank you very much, at least not me.

My time with Richard ended pretty much that same day. Not his fault. He was exceptionally supportive throughout and was always quick thereafter to offer support and a letter of recommendation and the like. For a long time I could not face any of the people I'd worked with at a Different Light. I let myself feel humiliated at what I could not help but see as my failure to make a go of it there. Stupid of me, all things considered, but it was what it was. I like to think I would know better now, but I don't know that that's true.

I do know that I remain genuinely grateful for the opportunity to work in that bookstore and for that man. 

One last lunch, well before I stumbled away. We were sitting in one of those open-air-dinning arrangements every other restaurant on smoggy Santa Monica Boulevard seemed to fancy lent their over-priced lunch menus an air of Parisian sophistication. We ordered immoderately for the first and only time. We had time. Richard and I had just had an unsurprisingly blunt conversation about the money and such. I was moaning about trying to staff a booth or restrict access to our tiny bathroom during Pride, etc. Richard asked me what I was reading. We talked about books. He told me stories I will not repeat, not because he was unkind in talking about anyone but because I like to remember that conversation as rather special. He talked about himself, about his favorite authors, about why he continued to read new work all the time and not just for the anthologies he edited. He talked more that day than any other I can remember in his company. I remember thinking even as it was happening that here was a man who knew more, who had read more than I ever might and yet it could all be so easy because his curiosity was genuine, his enthusiasm unchecked. He asked my opinion because he valued it. I wish I'd made notes. We laughed. I was dazzled, frankly.

I remember now what an impossible time that must have been for him professionally and personally. I cannot imagine how many demands must have been made on his time, how many people he had to worry about, what he must have been thinking about both before and after our lunch. That lunch was a gift. It was something I needed. What did the man have to set aside to give me that? And yet it was not forced or rehearsed or timed. Perhaps another lesson learned? Maybe the same one, again.

So, what have I learned? Well, I'm still at it, Richard. I am still trying to be the bookseller he was, something like as kind, nearly as honest. I like to think he would applaud the effort, even if he would probably demur at taking any credit. I think I've got this right when I tell you, he was a gallant gentleman. I will miss him being in the world. I will remember his example. Would that we all might.