A Reflection by Dean Nathan LeRud
Last Friday, as the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the constitutional right women have held for fifty years in this country to make their own decisions about their bodies, Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in his concurring opinion that this ruling unlocks the door that Christian conservatives have been hammering at for as long as I’ve been alive: that family planning (Griswold), non-procreative sex (Lawrence), and marriage equality (Griswold) are next in line.
It’s convenient when the people who are opposed to you—to your body, to your desires, to your very existence—are so clear in their stated aims. It’s a kind of grace, in a way, because it’s so honest, so nakedly blunt. Justice Thomas, like the five justices who voted with him, is a practicing Christian. I’m not his pastor but if the traditions that bind us as brothers have any meaning at all he is part of my Body, just as I am of his. I made a promise at my baptism to protect and uphold his human dignity. I wonder what his thoughts are concerning mine.
When I came out, a timid and devout college student who wanted desperately to be a priest, Gay Pride represented precisely the kind of gay I didn’t want to be – the kind of gay I was pretty sure the church would never let me be: loud, boisterous, effeminate, pushy, hypersexualized, and embarrassing. Queer.
So I lugged this body of mine around, with a heavy dose of guilt, for years. It’s primarily served, in somebody’s memorable words, as the vehicle to drive my head around. The times when other parts of it (the ones below the waist) have come alive were frequent, furtive, glorious, and filled with shame. This is what generations of so-called sex education have done for us: taught us to be ashamed of our bodies and their desires.
When they started coming for our bodies, they started with bodies that didn’t look like mine: bodies of women, whose flesh has borne since time immemorial the projected fears and desires of men. Those sites of pleasure, those zones of control, this contested and fought-over terrain of breast and stomach and labia and uterus.
It started with abortion rights, but let’s not kid ourselves. Justice Thomas and his cronies are telling us exactly the future they imagine, and it’s not a kind future for those who walk through the world in a body that society genders as female, or a body that society can’t gender at all in the traditional ways.
They’re coming for black bodies, and for brown ones. Gunning them down in the streets, executing them over minor traffic infractions, incarcerating them, policing them, attempting to re-enslave them. They’ll come for the queers next – that’s already started. It started in classrooms, in all the places you can’t teach Critical Race Theory, all the places you “can’t say gay” anymore.
It’s bodies, all the way down. When Christ is resurrected from the dead, he stands back up in his old body, scars and all. Jesus is a body, from beginning to end: a body that is gendered and policed and legislated, that is radicalized and tortured and brutalized, that experiences desire and pleasure and friendship and love.
This is what Pride means for every body threatened with torture, brutalization, government regulation or simply a growing cultural disgust. Our bodies are holy: there is nothing shameful about them. They’re not designed to be hidden away as secrets. They belong to no government, they belong only to the One who made them and called them good. They’re all we’ve got, and the weird and uncomfortable and deeply unscientific promise of the ancient Christian tradition is that—for better or worse!—we’ll get them back someday, warts and all. So what are we going to do with them?
I don’t feel a lot of hope today. I feel, instead, a queer kind of anger. I used to think that putting on a speedo and marching down Main Street was something flamboyant gay men did for attention. But now I see it for what it really is: a finger in the eye of every kind of evil, corruption and pious pretense.
You can legislate rights, but you can’t legislate pleasure. Even if you outlaw it, even if you make it all criminal again – even if we have to go back to cottaging, hooking up in urinals, back alleys and dark rooms, even if we have to set up an underground railroad to get women the abortions they need – still, our bodies belong to God, who tells us they’re perfect no matter what a governmental institution or a church tribunal might say. That’s not hope, that’s just determination.
Civil Disobedience is a thing. It’s what happens when you put your body–the site of your pleasure—on the line for justice. “Silence equals death,” the AIDS crisis taught a whole generation of queers that mantra. It’s time for us to learn it again.
(Published in full on nlerud.substack.com)