Memoir

A touch of silk

DURING THE 1970s and '80s I taught meditation in a dozen or so countries throughout East Asia and the Pacific on behalf of my guru. Although dressed in plain clothes, in most respects I lived and worked as a latter-day monk. After a three-year relationship with a brilliant young woman had failed to resolve my attraction to men, the option of celibacy required for this service was a welcome alternative; I was happy to lob sexuality into the too-hard basket.

With that issue on hiatus, I settled down to concentrate on something else; just as, in a scientific experiment, you attempt to eliminate as many variables as possible in order to focus on the element or process that you want to examine. Who or what is a 'homosexual' when he is not having sex? Is sexuality a sufficient basis on which to build an identity?

 

AT A RETREAT near Mt Fuji, I was preparing a group of aspirants for initiation into the meditation practices. When the time came to rehearse the techniques together, fewer and fewer words were necessary. The room became still and the silence thickened as we slipped into the subtle sound of the infinite. After months of talking, all the telling finally resolved into this precise demonstration of grace, where a subtle presence, smoother than anything I – its mere instrument – could say or do, drew us deeply into one original vibration, revealing itself as the deepest centre of being. Meditation is listening, inside.

I was performing the duties of an 'instructor', but this coming together was not orchestrated by me. Nor was it happening 'through' me, as some kind of 'channel'. You might say it happened around me, under me, above me, in spite of me; in fact, the less of 'me' there was, the better. That's why it was always a confronting experience, no matter how many times I convened such a session (in an average of seventy-two towns a year); I had to become virtually transparent in order to tune in to this underlying presence – at one and the same time the subtlest and the most powerful reality. 'Being', usually concealed behind the everyday business of 'doing' and all its attendant preoccupations – could then gently step forward to claim our undivided attention.

In Tokyo, a young model chastised me when I interrupted her meditation to ask how she was going. 'You put me here,' she said, quietly, 'now please leave me be…' In Taipei and Seoul young Buddhists learning the practice would affirm: 'The Buddha nature is in every heart.'

The work underlined for me the reality of a common unity at the deepest levels of human being, lying behind the multiplicity of differences inculture, religion, language, politics and class and, both in my own practice and in this wider setting, I found a deep healing of the anxiety and alienation that had been my modus vivendum, growing up as a faerie boy in Australia.

It was a rare privilege to work in this service. However, after more than a decade, I reached the point where it became necessary to face my sexuality squarely, and find out how to embrace it as a legitimate part of my life, even as I continued with the daily practice of meditation.

What I found (of course!) was that my deep and regular connection to the infinite 'self-beyond-self', 'being-beyond-doing', had not miraculously transformed me into a well-adjusted heterosexual. Now I had to find a way to re-connect with everyday society, where the normative, binary constructions of gender and sexual mores that I was familiar with from my upbringing had changed hardly at all. I needed to understand how I could reconcile my renovated awareness and my newly embraced sexuality within an Australian setting. Also, the supposed hallmarks of my alleged type were not easy to adopt, for the putative 'gay community' had its own strictures. I didn't like musical theatre, found Judy Garland excessively maudlin and couldn't cook a quiche to save my life.

 

FLASHBACK TO MY early teens: After being accused by a relative of being a 'homosexual', I resort to science to gather information on my 'condition'. Furtive research in a public library uncovers the term in a volume by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. This is what I have to go on:

'von Krafft-Ebing, R 1924. Psychopathia Sexualis with especial reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study. Only authorised English adaptation of the Twelfth German Edition. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Company.'

I flip to the index at the back. There I am, right after 'Hermaphroditism, psychical':

Homosexuality (vide Antipathic sexuality), p. 286

Homosexual feeling as an abnormal congenital manifestation

followed closely by:

Hysteria

then:

Ideal sadism, 118
Impotence, 13
Immorality, 502
Incest, 612
Injury to women, 105
Insanity among the Scythians, 302.

So that's the company I keep… Then follows a lengthy entry on 'pederasty', and various references regarding:

Pathology, special, 462
Psychopathological cases, 554
Sexual instinct, homosexual, 282
– perversions of, 79, 462

I must be seriously sick. Flicking back to the listings for 'sodomy', I go to page 561, where the German expert has listed kindly for my perusal:

7. Unnatural Abuse (Sodomy).

7(a). Violation of Animals (Bestiality).

So this is my condition – a 'mental condition', in fact, an 'abnormal perversion'. I am not so much a legal problem, I see, as I am a specimen for the scientific study of 'Inverts'.

If scientists already know me better than I know myself, are they telling my future, too? On page 573 I find that for 'many neuropathic individuals' (and 'Urnings' are almost always 'neuropathic', apparently): Before them lies mental despair, – even insanity and suicide, – at the very least, nervous disease; behind them, shame, loss of position, etc.'

Nothing to look forward to but despair, insanity and suicide? I search out 'neurasthenic' in the index, and flip through some case studies. For example, 'hysteria gravis': '…there was no amnesia. Thoroughly virile. Decent appearance. Genitals normal. Short imprisonment.'

Imprisonment! But you said I am not a criminal, I am an 'irresponsible insane person'. Even before being identified as a psycho-medical disorder it appears I have already achieved the status of criminal offender – now a sexual, medical and social outlaw. Moreover, I have already found my way onto the path to perdition, for on page 447, I read: …puberty teaches the youthful sinner to know his true sex soon enough… The homosexual act committed after puberty has set in, is the decisivestep in the wrong direction.'

A moral outcast, too. Even the scientist names me as sinner.

I needed a new narrative, a less pathological model to understand myself and my place in the world; one, too, that could integrate the healing instigated by the sustained practice of meditation. A myth to sustain me in (post)modern times and reclaim my faerie wings.

THE NEUROLOGIST OLIVER Sacks has written that each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative', and that this narrative isin fact us, our identity. Were I to sift through the events of my life, could I recuperate experiences of wholeness that had been effectively edited out, according to the dominant narratives that structured meaning in my Aussie milieu?

The dominant cultural expectations of what it might be possible for a marginalised 'homosexual' to know arepart of a complex economy of power, produced by what Michel Foucault calls 'regimes of truth' – power/knowledge relations that constitute 'a set of rules by which truth is produced' ('The ethics of the concern for self as a practice of freedom'). In sociologist Peter Berger's terms, any 'threat to the social definitions of reality' is neutralised by 'assigning an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken-seriously cognitive status, to all definitions existing outside the symbolic universe'. That symbolic universe characterised me as a religious pariah and within the dominant paradigm, any knowledge or insight gained by the 'homosexual' from his practical training in an alien religious tradition (that I came to value highly), might be easily dismissed.Drawing on spiritual resources in the pursuit of self-knowledge, this non-conformist faerie thinker was rehearsing what Judith Butler identifies as 'unforeseen and unsanctioned modes of identity', effectively disrupting authorised versions of masculinity and the various disempowering constructions of the 'homosexual' as religious (and psycho-medical) pariah.

The faerie feels his wing stubs tingling.

But how to construct a new imaginary that could accommodate all aspects of being, including those ruled out of bounds by the toxic metanarratives of a buttoned-down, homophobic culture?

Erich Fromm, who was one of the first in his field to address the relationship of psychoanalysis to the practices of Zen Buddhism, has helped me understand how dominant metanarratives occlude the possibility of a faerie man recovering meaning. In his long essay 'Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism' (Harper & Row, 1960), Fromm wrote:

[E]xperience can enter into awareness only under the condition that it can be perceived, related and ordered in terms of a conceptual system and of its categories. This system is in itself a result of social evolution. Every society, by its own practice of living and by the mode of relatedness, of feeling, and perceiving, develops a system of categories which determines the forms of awareness. This system works, as it were, like a socially conditioned filter…

And, he asserts, 'experience cannot enter awareness unless it can penetrate this filter'.

 

WHEN I WAS growing up, religion was part of a sociological system of inclusion and exclusion, gathering some within and others outside the fold. Apparently, in this set of narratives, 'God' is the biggest homophobe of all. Years of deep meditation practice had reinforced my connection with the underlying Ground of Being (Tillich) and also shown me a new way to conceive of my life, yet I kept running into this entrenched exclusivist, divisive discourse. Many of its proponents had even lost sight of the religious origins of their prejudice and happily carried them forward, now armed with the medical discourse that would characterise me as a 'developmental failure'.

I lived and worked for a long time in the United States, where a radio talk show host with a huge listening audience – one Laura Schlessinger, whose PhD was in physiology and whose moral teaching derived, she said, from her instruction by Jewish rabbis after her conversion to that faith – described gay people as 'biological errors'. The US military launched a marketing campaign inviting young people to 'become all that you can be' in their ranks, that is of course only if you were heterosexual, with queer folk somehow rendered incapable of being all that theycould be.

These toxic narratives were profoundly disempowering for queer folk struggling to recognise a positive life path of growth and integration. Suicide rates among the young continued to be much higher than for straight kids. On an internet discussion board devoted to the promulgation of Christian values that I came across on Compuserve, a serious discussion was going on discussing whether gays should be 'put to death', as per Old Testament teachings, while the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church maintained a website directing his faithful congregation to opportunities for picketing the funerals of gay men with hate-filled signage proclaiming that 'God hates fags', citing Leviticus.

None of this religious framing rang true to the insights gained from my dedicated meditation training, tested not only within the setting of my guru's ashrams, but nearly twenty years of working in the 'real' world, in television production in Melbourne, Sydney and Los Angeles. Where, then, were the mythic stories that would cast my life's potential in a more positive light?

I recall a time when I was working with a kindly Indian saint, dressed in saffron and his head shaved. He had been asking me to explicate the meaning of texts from the Christian New Testament. This turned into a hilarious exercise, with mixed results: I would read a verse and try to explain it, whereupon he would begin to expound at length on its meaning from his own store of wisdom. After half an hour of earnest effort he gave up, expostulating: 'Bah! You need to read the scripture of your own life!'

Just what would I find if I began to sift through my own life history? It wasn't hard to recognise the value of years of daily meditation practice in the very focused environment of the ashrams, and I went on to test its value in the 'real' world, working in TV. But I wanted to see if I could recover other parts of life experience that had been filtered out by the social world of my upbringing, experiences that were not supported by conventional, hegemonic religious and psycho-medical discourses that operated in my culture.

Looking through some of the turning points in my own lived experience I started to re-examine some of my earliest memories, the very first of which began to carry me beyond the conventional framing. Here's the first pointer that I uncovered:

In the formal sitting room, the curtains are drawn. Thick carpet and upholstered furniture muffle all sound. The boy seeks out this place to be alone. But first he goes to the room across the hall, to the cupboard where his mother's dresses hang, bereft of form.
He climbs into the wardrobe to reach for one of these that is special to him; dappled yellow, flecked with green, it glows. Clambering down from the cupboard, he slips the gown over his head and it hangs loose around him, its folds cascading onto the floor. Silky texture is cool where it skims his skin.
Women's voices murmur in the kitchen, off.
Suitably attired, the boy returns to the sitting room, where he twirls slowly in the half light, head cocked, gazing down at the skirt as it rises around him in the air. Entranced by its golden glow, he settles down to sit on his heels, spreading the ample folds of fabric in a perfect circle around him on the floor.
Eyes closed, he rests in peace, ears singing in the silence. Dust motes float, lazy, in the light.
Sometime later, he returns the dress to its waiting place.
But one day, when he reaches into the cupboard, the cool fabric isn't there to meet his touch. He wants to catch the magic feeling – wrap it around him, disappear. He tries the cupboard again, but no matter how carefully he repeats his actions he fails to make the dress appear. A heavy feeling, like dread, drags in his chest.
Another day: he's in the washhouse, in the back yard. A copper tub squats above the fireplace where they boil the water to wash the clothes, on Mondays. Sifting through the ashes, he finds the charred remains of the dress… this lovely thing banished to dirty dust in his hands.In the fowl run a hen murmurs cluck cluck, slow. The heaviness returns to roost in him as, inside the house, a door clicks shut.

This faerie had his wings clipped. His initiation into gender was an exile into a life of insidious shame. But what level of awareness had he been invoking with his private, atavistic ritual? In his Edenic state he was an inhabitant of a primary state of undifferentiated unity that preceded the bifurcations of the secondary development, gender.

It would be years before sexuality a third state reared its ugly head. So I ask: Can you erect a building with only a second and third storey? How will it stand? Trying to develop an integrated identity without the fundamental, primary state becomes problematic. Rootless. What was 'queer' about this child was his perverse recall of an original homeland that the combined coercive forces of Family, Religion, the Law and Medical science were configured precisely to make him forget.

 

WORKING IN LOS Angeles in the '90s I meet an anthropologist named Walter Williams who has done field work among indigenous people in North America and further afield. He is particularly interested in the early reports of contact between the explorers, traders and missionaries of colonial times with 'two-spirit' figures (in earlier times known as 'berdache') who exhibited attributes of mixed gender.

Approaching his informants as an 'out, gay' anthropologist, Williams earned their trust and in some situations he was introduced to living exponents of the tradition who were otherwise hidden, denied or suppressed, post colonisation and the shame-filled impact of Christian missionaries. Inspired by Williams, I start to dig into the large body of ethnographic literature to do with cross-dressing as an aid to accessing altered states of consciousness among shamans in various parts of the world. Such work opens up the possibility that at different times in different cultures the value of such 'gender deviance' might have been construed in positive terms. Williams quotes an informant from this tradition, a Hawaiian mahu, as saying: 'On the mainland [referring to the United States] the religion doesn't allow a culture of acceptance. Gays have liberated themselves sexually, but they have not yet learned their place in a spiritual sense.'

From their own re-examination of shamanistic practices, Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis suggest: 'It may be that men whose sexuality is ambiguous, or who are marginalised because of sexuality, are in a position where they must attend to levels of meaning that escape from or that are not obvious to those privileged by dominant discourses of gender.'

In his study of the 'gynemimetic' shaman, William Dragoin writes of the 'associated talents' of sexual inversion, which include ecstatic trance, and he proposes that:

contrary to the idea of illness or defect…such an individual might better be considered talented or gifted, with a readiness to learn to enter a trance state or a native ability to readily alter ordinary states of consciousness, and in so doing become the ecstatic visionary…to become the shaman for one's people.

Dragoin concludes that such individuals have been a part of non-literate societies for many millennia.

What was the three-year old faerie boy doing then, wearing a yellow dress and going into trance, in suburban Western Australia, pre-1950?

Ruth Benedict also considered the significance of the North American 'berdache', observing that a culture may 'value and make socially available even highly unstable human types'. If such a culture chooses to treat the 'peculiarities' of these types as valued variants of human behaviour, Benedict finds that the individuals in question might 'rise to the occasion' and perform useful social roles without reference to the 'usual ideas' of the types that can function in our society. Further, she points out, those who 'function inadequately' in any society are not those with 'abnormal' traits, per se, but may well be those 'whose responses have received no support' from the institutions of their culture; those whose 'native responses' were not reaffirmed by society.

This kind of re-framing adroitly finesses what I call 'Fromm's filter effect', and allows me to re-incorporate aspects of my experience in the recuperation of a fully integrated self.

When I listen to Dr Williams introduce some of these findings to a roomful of queer folk in a meeting room in West Hollywood, the effect is electrifying, as we recognise what it might have been like to be welcomed into and respected rather than shamed by our tribes (to the mutual enrichment of us as individuals and to the collective). I begin to understand that the constructions produced within the social and political contexts of one's time are ideologically charged and quite particular artefacts of culture, politically and epistemologically constructed at any point in history. They are not universal laws of a putative 'human nature'. Stepping outside of the Abrahamic traditions to learn of other possibilities of meaning and knowing, constructed with different values by other cultures, helps me to destabilise the presumed authority of forms of knowledge that might be politically powerful now. Those approved, culturally sanctioned ways of knowing are arranged to switch off certain neural pathways as prohibited, no-go zones.

Much later, at a conference of Asian and Pacific scholars in Sydney I felt a similar frisson when a professor from southern India described the androgynous Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara, a Siva/Sakti representation that blends male and female elements in a kind of holographic representation of divinity.

Faerie men have to dream their own mythologies.

The amnesia induced by my initiation into gender has been alleviated by years of sustained meditation practice, re-introducing the numinous aspects of being into conscious awareness. May I now respectfully propose that if queer folk centre their own self-narratives strictly around the genital expression of sexuality they are at risk of losing the fullest apprehension of their faerie potential which, from my experience, can be reclaimed without in any way repudiating our sexuality.

 

THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE is irradiated with energy, and this includes me, too. Using the techniques of meditative introspection over more than four decades now, I can withdraw my attention from the densely trivial preoccupations of everyday life into communion with that original source of being, in the same way that the focal length of a lens can be shifted to reveal deeper layers to the field of perception. The sense of 'coming home' that this process releases is saturated with peace. The boy in the yellow dress was at home with this state but was shamed and sent into exile from his original homeland.

While continuing to respond to the challenges of everyday living, this inward re-focusing has been awakening previously dormant pathways of perception and knowing. Now, through writing my own life, with the missing parts reinstated, I am engaging with a reclamation project that is profoundly healing. In a paper for Theology and Sexuality, Peter Savastano says that 'queer'men are forced to 'forge a diverse array of spiritual practices, re-interpret or invent alternative sacred myths, produce their own mystical writings, and form diverse intentional spiritual communities'. Perhaps they might even become what Savastano calls virtuosi 'in the holy art of bricolage'.

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