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Op-ed: Finding the Sacred in the Profane

Op-ed: Finding the Sacred in the Profane


A meditation on incarnation and the beauty of queer bodies on the 12th day of Christmas.

It's hard to get excited about Christmas as a queer Christian, when employment discrimination is being protected by a "religious" exemption, LGBTQ youth from religious homes are disproportionately cast out and homeless this winter, and certain evangelicals in the media are campaigning to kill gays to end AIDS by Christmas.

It wasn't until that afternoon of Christmas Eve, as I consoled myself with a cigar at a local smoke shop that serves medicinal marijuana users that the very stoned cashier simplified and restored this season for me. When another customer wished him happy holidays asking which he celebrates, his slurred but happy answer was, "I celebrate baby Jesus, man. I don't know if they call that Christmas or not, but I celebrate baby Jesus."

Right now I may or may not be able to celebrate baby Jesus or anything remotely "religious," but I can celebrate epiphany -- a striking realization, a reality or truth that suddenly becomes manifest, like the simple, contagious joy of the faith of a man selling weed -- who, like me, is probably too profane for most holiday churchgoers. Epiphany, January 6, is a holiday for many around the world, the 12th and last day of Christmas, commemorating the day that Christian legend recounts three wise men recognized the refugee infant Jesus of Nazareth as the prophesied Messiah ("Anointed One"), king of the Jewish people then colonized by the Roman Empire.

"Three Kings Day" is often a cultural celebration, but its spiritual import is a specific epiphany -- recognizing this commingling of the Sacred (God) with the profane (a marginalized, oppressed, vulnerable human body). In a religious context today, queerness of body is often cast as especially profane. But incarnation -- the embodiment of spiritual truth and power in human flesh -- is the central meaning of the Christmas season.

Celebrating incarnation as a person with a queer body is a revolutionary act -- like the recognition of Jewish sovereignty by foreign wise men in the Roman Empire commemorated at Epiphany. My own earliest memories of my body are profane: The dysphoric confusion, shame, and anxiety of realizing as a toddler that no one else saw me as the boy I knew I was; the shame and uncleanness of being "poor white trash" and "female" in the 1970s-era suburban Midwest, and the violent trauma of repeated sexual assault by older neighborhood boys and distant male relatives. Far from celebrating incarnation, I urgently fled toward the sacred as a means to escape my profane body, sacralizing my existence by denying my flesh through self-starvation, chastity, and self-injuring, while cultivating my mind and spirit alone.

Taking this path to its logical extreme, I became a religious scholar, transmitting to other seekers what I myself wished to be true. Following the ancient Roman orator Cicero's example that all teaching should instruct, delight, or move to action, I instructed students in the ancient view that nothing made by God is profane, hoping to move them to embrace all of life as sacred. But my living example moved in the opposite direction: I profaned my starved, scarred body with excessive self-punishment. In the last year before I came out, my body had begun to profane itself involuntarily: Chronic dehydration and malnutrition led to loss of control of my digestive functions, and I began drinking to blackout to numb the physical and emotional pain and shame.

Thus profaned even while continuing to teach sacred spiritual texts, my body was dying: To move from addiction and madness to sobriety and sanity, no choice was left but to abandon the professional and spiritual respectability I had aspired to embody and to teach -- no longer hiding what was most profane about me behind a false pretense of heteronormativity (closeting as straight). To live at all, I must live openly and consistently as the most profane and dehumanized identity in our culture -- "transsexual," "hermaphrodite" -- and loving only a man (but not as a woman), now also the identity profaned by the religious as "faggot," "homo," "queer."

Those who instruct only in the ways of the sacred -- my colleagues in church and university work -- of course found me intolerable, unbearable. Cast out of my profession after nearly two decades simply for embracing rather than denying a queer gender and orientation -- allegedly "violating Christian values" by refusing to denounce queerness as sin -- I became a teacher without students, freefalling into ever-deepening and isolating sense of my own profanity as colleagues, family, and work opportunities withdrew from my life.

Lost, angry, restless with lust, emotionally overspent, still idealistically loving only "pure and chaste from afar" like the self-deluded Don Quixote, I despaired of finding any meaning in virtuous waiting for mutual, spiritually enriching romantic and sexual love. After of increasing isolation, I could no longer sustain any hope that any other human being would ever see me as anything other than monstrous; thus I could not hope for love to receive and felt nothing to offer as a lover but my profanity.

Already profaned, I surrender to profanity: As one who practiced self-renouncing sexual purity both as a Christian and a yogi, I finally came to renounce even sexual purity itself. Deprived for so long of sleep by lust, worry, loneliness, grief, no longer able to believe human or spiritual companionship possible for me, I sought relief in the animal pleasure of gay men's naked bodies -- not, as had been made so clear to me so often, by profaning gay men's space and time with my monstrous trans* presence, but only as a silent observer from the respectful distance of my solitude.

Even pursuing "delight," that lowest form of communication according to Cicero, I tried to cling to the comfort of at least a thin veneer of respectability, seeking the work of a fellow scholar and quasi-historical film to guide my descent into these unfamiliar depths, Travis Mathews and James Franco's 2013 Interior. Leather. Bar.

Since Franco too is profaned as a scholar (in his case by allegations that he is merely a dilettante and poseur), I watched unguarded, wanting only the profane delight of voyeurism. But delight was interrupted by instruction: Franco punctuated sex scenes with scholarly warnings against uncritical heteronormativity -- a refrain familiar to anyone in studies of gender and popular culture.

Cicero explained "instruction" as most often just reminding hearers of what they already know, where rediscovery of a forgotten truth becomes a kind of epiphany. So watching Franco as a fellow professor of college undergraduates simply declare that feigned casual sex filmed pornographically is "beautiful" abruptly jolted me into recognizing consciously what somehow I always deeply knew: The profane is sacred. The sordid is beautiful. What is an "abomination" is also pure love. As poet Jan Richardson describes incarnation in her Advent poetry, our human bodies "bear the light in unbearable times" and "witness to its persistence when everything seems in shadow and grief," shining forth a fire "in love that illumines every broken thing it finds."

Perhaps then too even a body once mutilated -- still seen as monstrous, ghastly, and grotesque by some -- is also deeply human, not isolated but discovering in our very profanity how queerly and deeply we are all connected.

H. ADAM ACKLEY is a gay trans* man and single parent who now lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Ohio. Ackley is a writer, speaker, college professor, ordained minister in the historic Christian peace tradition, and consultant focused on intersections of faith, spirituality, mental health, and LGBTQ issues.

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