Michael Cobb’s God Hates Fags: The Rhetoric of Religious Violence –Religious Rhetoric in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer
Even though I’ve studied literature for decades (both in my undergraduate and graduate work), I still marvel at what a close eye for detail can reveal in a writer’s work. When that investigation uncovers important messages about sexuality in general and ideas related to homosexuality specifically, I’m even more intrigued. Even more interesting is discovering how well an older work still conveys a relevant message today, for often the most spot-on cultural commentary comes through literature.
In his third chapter, “Like a Prayer,” Michael Cobb devotes most of his attention to analyzing specific literature through a queer lens in order to uncover messages regarding homosexuality. It’s all interesting, but for my purposes here, I won’t rehash most of it, in part because it doesn’t serve this blog’s purpose.
One discussed work, however, does—and what he has to say gets a little dense. He analyzes Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (100), which Cobb finds both “contemporary and explicit about its homosexual content” (100). In this 1958 play, Mrs. Venable “laments the loss of her child, Sebastian, a poet, to the perils of dangerous sexuality, but a sexuality that she had had the ability to control, participate in, and describe to others” (100). According to Cobb, in the play, Mrs. Venable uses her attractiveness to attract men for her son’s sexual pleasure (100). This rouse is designed to keep her son’s sexuality a secret, and her drive to keep this secret sealed even after her son’s death (as a result of pursuing this sexuality), leads her to consider silencing another character, who threatens to expose Sebastian’s truth.
Even more significant than the content for Cobb, however, is the language the characters use to process key events and details: religious rhetoric. Mrs. Venable suggests that Sebastian’s “sexual pursuits were actually searches for God” (106). Sebastian has perhaps also internalized this belief, for in a key scene, as he and his mother are sitting on a beach. There, they observe newborn (hatched) turtles fighting to reach the sea for the first time before flesh-eating birds devour them. Some are unsuccessful, and their deaths are rendered explicitly. Reacting to this scene, Sebastian exclaims: “now I’ve seen Him” (106). This line suggests that Sebastian understands God to be destructive, for he sees the scene as “natural.”
In a telling response to this line of dialogue, Mrs. Venable says that her son meant that “God shows a savage face to people and shouts fierce things at them, it’s all we see or hear of him. Isn’t it all we ever really see and hear of him now?” (107). Clearly, she’s trying to understand her thoughts about God and how this impacts how she processes (and supports) her son’s sexuality. If the only message she heard from the Church was an intense denouncement of her son’s sexuality (and therefore her son), of course she has—unfortunately—developed a menacing view of Christianity.
Given the era in which this play was written (and set), it’s easy to understand why a mother who loves and accepts her gay son would see so much anger from God. During this time, to be openly gay was not only illegal in most of the country but also dangerous. These anti-gay attitudes were supported—often—by religious beliefs. So, here, a literary work was trying to openly court this problem, and in doing so was quite brave.
Yet, as I read through Cobb’s analysis of this and other literary works in the chapter, I couldn’t help fixate on this line from Mrs. Venable. Almost 60 years after this play, with so much shifting of public sentiment to now support gay rights in general and gay people specifically, I still hear—in person and through media outlets—far too much angry religious rhetoric aimed at gay people. And when the rhetoric also leads to continued acts of violence against gays and lesbians (for example, a recent gay bashing in Center City Philadelphia), I can’t help wonder why that hasn’t changed.
The title of Cobb’s book tends to rub people the wrong way, for they feel it misrepresents God’s love, compassion, even for gay people—for whom the Bible is often used against. God, in fact, does not hate us. Cobb understands this, and this chapter, as well as others, is not addressing all Christians, nor is he suggesting that God feels this way. Rather, the people who so vehemently denounce homosexuality are a minority within Christianity. The issue is that this minority is both loud and influential, for it they weren’t, there wouldn’t be a need for literature to continue to argue against all the religious rhetoric used against us.