• Grace Oliver

Queer death

The hate that is homophobia, like anti-semitism, is an expression, if not a creation of sick


Anti-AIDS activist David Kirby, near death, lies in bed with his family by his side in Ohio, 1990. Photo by Therese Frare

Nazis first came for homosexuals and then for Jews. Their ideology fed off Christian culture - it did not invent the hate. The British Empire similarly, upheld by the Church of England, fostered ‘straight’ hyper-masculinity, consciously or unconsciously, to aid its navy and army invade almost every country in the world - the stiff upper lip that characterised a ‘real man’, an inhuman person that did not own up to its feelings and could not cry. Secular music-hall humour traded the dark predatory fantasy of a ‘straight male’ whoring drunk - the measure of masculinity precisely given by the number of beers consumed for the number of women laid. Oscar Wilde’s death following two years of hard labour was just one instance of a queer murdered by ‘moral’ British institutionalised homophobia.

There are many kinds of queer death: torture and assault by homophobes; major depression

especially among homosexuals and transexuals leading to suicide; imprisonment and physical torment by subjection to violent sexual abuse from inmates; self-destructive behaviours driven by repressed emotions, and then for a time when AIDS was not understood, the horror of death by the blood born virus, HIV. The culture of ‘queer death’ continues to be driven by misguided Evangelical preachers and the teaching of the Catholic Church, whose distorted notion of the Christian Gospel demands abstention from queer sexual love, and for Catholics in particular, no purchasing condoms of any kind: the act of the purchase itself being an admission of unnatural love, lust and sin (alienation from God).

In this reflection on Queer Death, I return to memories given by a lesbian Radical Faerie from her years of nursing homosexuals in their final months before dying of AIDS. These are my words inspired by her memories.

‘In the very fragility of life, flesh at its weakest and close to death, for those open to experiencing sacred ground, there is a possibility of stumbling upon the vista of a larger environment, one of mystery that, far from emptying value to a dying body, fills it with preciousness beyond words. The body remains a body but it manifests and reveals what can only be called an encounter with the sacred. There is a beauty, purity and enchantment in the dying body - a very mortal being on the verge of coming to its end - yet in it mortality creates a space that is ‘real’ - a sense of being on holy ground. Here the language of love finds itself at home.’

What I took from her words was that love is uniquely the language of the holy; where its first and final words are those of the queer shrine of holy love: Let love be love! It is a truth, of course, not just for queers but for us all. Her memories of queer death points to the religious nature of death that is common to us all, just by being human.

If queer death through its sufferings brings us to the mystical bank of the River of Sorrows of

which human history is made up, [as does being at the foot of the Cross of Christ], so also it begs the questions that the disciples Jesus were overwhelmed with before their encounter with the Resurrected Christ. The horrors of crucifixion for all those deemed a threat to the Roman Empire are not so different to those experienced throughout out history by the embattled queer community from ‘straight’ male culture and religion.

HIV is a recently evolved virus from Africa, carried by Haitian research workers to the USA, a

blood-borne virus that enters us through direct infusion of sores, used injection needles or carried from mother to baby in the uterus. Its expression in AIDS is pandemic; the cause of more than a million deaths in 2016 alone. Is it God’s judgement on promiscuity? Almost half of the population of Kinshasa in the Congo, where heterosexual prostitution was rife, had AIDS at one time. Ironically, that part of Africa continues to have vast mineral resources creamed off by Western corporations and banks, leaving the indigenous people bereft of their traditional culture and financially too poor for an adequate health service. Mercenary armies keep the area unstable and impoverished. Just as masochistic testosterone-fuelled masculinity delights in war games and horror movies, so the wagging fingers that delight in pointing blame on the victims of HIV perpetuate the institutional assault on the poor, the

weak, the blood spilt in the quest for diamonds, profits, oil, gold, copper and international slavery.

The religious hypocrites alienate us from God, but if we will go down deeper in our reflection, as with the lesbian Radical Faerie, we realise that the cause of our horror is the ground of sacredness itself. It is the intrinsic sacredness of existence and of life that give the trumpet cry against all that is evil - it is the light that shows up the shadow side of our humanity. We come to realise that the sacred ground of existence is also the ground of hope of a new and better day, the hope and content of justice for a new tomorrow. It is the light of the Moon in the dark, the glow of the light of love reflecting the light of the Sun when the dark seems doubly dark. When we are present to an AIDS victim in their suffering, in love we can go down in our imagination to the river of human suffering that engulfs us, as Moses did when the Israelites were pursued by the Pharaoh and his armies, to look for a pathway through the waters, an opening that will bring us to the other side.

We accompany those suffering in their Death-in-Life, so as to transition and pass on. We are carried by the Spirit of Life-in-Death, the holy power that carries us across and draws us onwards to the mystical Land of Promise, the Holy Land of vision that envelops us.

Here is also the insight that queer theory offers theology. Life and death are not binary opposites. Death is a falling from one level of material organisation to a lower one - a natural and necessary part of life. Death by fungal and bacterial growth is a necessary part of life - without them there could be no ecology, no environmental support of life that builds up new generations of life out of the decomposition of older generations. The pain is inseparable from the joy that comes with new life. This insight is captured in the colours of the Pride flag. Sexuality, nature, love, harmony, and spirituality are refracted colours of the rainbow as sunlight passes through the waters of joy and sorrow that is life. When we cook our food and then metabolise it in our bodies, the life that has become our food is decomposed to become the constituent parts of new life, our life, the energy that constitutes the ongoing dance of life as it flows through us and from us to others.

What the Sabbath story of Moses and the Children of Israel tells is the prototypical meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ, and thereby our story in as much as we embrace it. It is the faith that this Holy Journey is not one that simply goes in circles going nowhere, but a spiralling journey that will bring a day in time when evil will be no more, when love that is experienced in the dying AIDS victim's eyes becomes enshrined in a new way of living, a day when ‘Love is Love’ defines every moment of our existence.

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