Michael Cobb’s God Hates Fags: The Rhetoric of Religious Violence – The Work of James Baldwin and His Handling of Homosexuality and its Intersection of Race and Religion
Giovanni’s Room is America’s oldest running Gay Bookstore. Although it closed briefly this year (2014), it has since reopened, and continues to serve as an outlet for work sensitive to our community. I’ve known about this bookstore since I moved to the Philadelphia area in 2000. Then, I had only a vague idea of the James Baldwin book from which it takes its name.
Baldwin’s seminal piece of gay fiction is an early example an author who showed great bravery in confronting issues relevant to the gay community, especially in an era (the 50s) when doing so was both uncommon and placed the author in a potentially precarious legal situation. This book is just one of the reasons I admire the work of its author James Baldwin.
Given how much of an icon James Baldwin is for our community, Cobb looks deeper into the author’s work—which handles homosexuality as well as issues of race, often together—in order to uncover how Baldwin often uses religious rhetoric to drive his narratives.
I haven’t read Go Tell It on the Mountain in a number of years, so some of Cobb’s points about this novel are lost on me—as is the case any time a reader is unfamiliar with the subject of an academic article. However, my familiarity with other works by the author show how the same points apply. For this reason, this second chapter was tough to work through. But a number of significant points surface, and they’re worth discussing.
Among the many points to be made, Cobb asserts that Baldwin uses “a religious rhetoric that can make the injury of race communicate the value of queerness” (67). Citing author Wendy Brown, Cobb develops this idea that “minority resistance is often articulated through injury that gives the minority a strong voice and claim through that violence” (57). For racial minorities, this literal violence speaks to what they have endured over the decades of intolerance in this country. For queers, this violence is as much rhetorical as well as physical. The rhetorical perspective is often enhanced through interpretations of the Bible, wherein people refer to a very narrow place in the Bible in order to support how being gay is “wrong.”
Both Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain serve as evidence for this argument. And if you’re familiar with these works, read this chapter.
But there is more to Baldwin, and as I read this dense chapter, I couldn’t help thinking of another famous work of Baldwin’s that would have also helped support this argument: the essay “The Preservation of Innocence” (published in 1949). This short (ish) essay provides a succinct rebuttal to those who would use the Bible to denounce homosexuality, and since it’s a fantastic read, I’ll talk about it here.
In this essay, one of Baldwin’s primary ways to argue in favor of the acceptance of homosexuality is to debunk the standard argument against us: that we are, apparently, “unnatural.” As in, God created man and woman to live one way (and not just in terms of procreating) and any action that deviates from that way is unnatural, against nature, against God.
Given how often this particular argument is still so often trotted out, it’s startling how obviously Baldwin counters it. He begins by stating living in a “natural state” is “not on the whole a state which is altogether desirable” (594). We cook our food (changing it from its natural state), use toilets (which don’t grow in nature), and have sex in private, unlike animals, who have sex out in the open, in “nature” (594). In fact, he contends (appropriately), we spend “vast amounts of energy” learning to be unnatural, and in so doing, we lose the ability to contend that being natural is the only way to live.
Basically, we’re hypocrites if we believe otherwise. As obvious as this idea is, sometimes it takes a skilled author to point it out. I wish we mentioned this important point more often, as we are forced to continue to convince people not to discriminate against us.