Romoeroticism for Straight Guys

In Crisis Magazine, Eve Tushnet argues that the Catholic Church has something unique to offer gays and lesbians besides guilt and self-loathing. For one, it offers physicality — bells, smells, images and “the hint of cannibalism” in the Eucharist — bound to appeal to those persecuted for their bodies’ own strange habits. For lesbians in particular, it offers love-objects that Protestantism withholds.

“Catholic lesbians,” she writes, “can yearn for Mother Church; we can yearn for the Virgin. Catholicism offered same-sex attracted women the images of womanhood that helped them render their desires sublime. Beatrice makes sense not only to Dante but to me.”

Tushnet goes on to talk about chaste, intimate friendships between living people. But I want to stick with Mother Church and the Virgin for a moment. Certain people have always found it possible to attach to something non-human. In an address to West Point cadets, General MacArthur swore that his last thoughts before crossing the Styx would be of “The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.” (He meant the Corps of Cadets — not, God forbid, the Marine Corps, though that has its own crop of devoted suitors.) National mythmakers exploit this possibility by personifying nations as beautiful women: Columbia, Britannia, La Marianne, Rossiya-Matushka. By custom, ships — which until fairly recently were fitted out with goddess-like figureheads — are referred to as “she,” and thought to be worth the price of a life or two.

But making that attachment exclusive is pretty rare. No one who’s even heard of Olongapo or Angeles City can doubt that sailors, for all they may love their haze-gray mistresses, enjoy a little variety in the form of something smaller, warmer and softer. In medieval times, the Virgin might have struck the average person as a fit object of cathexis, but I’m a 21st-century guy — keenly, morbidly, gleefully aware of my own sexuality. Converting those thoughts and energies into a higher passion for a protean figure with a title like Tower of Ivory seems as futile and unfulfilling as marrying the Eiffel Tower — something, I believe, a few aspies have actually done.

No, Catholicism may be generous to gay women and straight men when compared to Protestantism, but compared to the deal offered by the general culture, it leaves us SOL. The real winners, it has always seemed to me, are straight women and gay men, because they have the figure of Jesus. Devotion to Jesus for them should require less in the way of a moon shot than devotion to Mary requires for us; Jesus is indisguisably carnal. It’s His Body and Blood that are consumed at Mass, after all. Artists depict His corpus not bundled into some Galilean abbaya, but in a very brief loincloth. If anyone needs reminding, the popular imagination gives Our Lord the build of a light-heavyweight boxer.

When my mother was growing up, the nuns who taught her in school insisted that Jesus was the only person in the history of the world who was exactly six feet tall. Everyone else who claimed to be was either a hair more or less, whatever their drivers’ licenses might say. It’s hard not to see this as a sly, or perhaps an unconscious, attempt to eroticize Jesus by making Him into the ideal guy, a pin-up, so to speak.

Could another form of sublimation exist in the form of a man-crush? By that I mean the idealizaton of one man by another man who has no specifically erotic interest in him. I’ve been having these for as long as I can remember — for example, on Jack Dempsey, who reigned as world heavyweight champ from 1919 through 1926. Nor am I the only one. In the documentary Kings of the Ring, two male commentators, each apparently uninfluenced by the other, compare Dempsey to a panther. Indeed, he was sleek and beautiful in his person, unpredictable and violent in his art. If Dionysus and Apollo managed to have a kid together, that kid would be the Manassa Mauler himself. Next to him, Ali looks like an eighth-grade candidate for Ritalin.

But here’s where it gets tricky: far from stopping at idealization, man-crushes typically involve an element of identification. If you were to peep through my blinds while I was re-watching the fight where Dempsey won the belt from Jess Willard, you might well end up treating yourself to the sight of me bouncing around the room in a crouch with my hands held low. If you were very lucky, you’d see me straighten up, throwing a cool glance over a squared shoulder as Dempsey did, once convinced his work with Willard was done. If you can’t be an athlete, my operating principle seems to go, don’t be an athletic supporter; instead, soar into an ecstatic state where the line separating Self from Other dissolves. It’s more fun that way.

This kind of temporary merger is harmless enough when its object is a long-dead prizefighter who, almost as a caveat on the vanity of human wishes, lost his title to a drab challenger and retired to open a steak house. But overidentification with a Messiah is a different story. Consciously striving to imitate Jesus is admirable; taking satisfaction in belonging to the Body of Christ is par for the course. For a priest celebrating Mass, I suppose, some self-forgetfulness is only fitting. But for the average layperson, going whole hog into the skin of the Paschal Lamb means planting a foot on the slippery slope toward total jibbering, bug-eyed lunacy.

Not to mention ridicule. Upon reading that Elvis, probably tweaking on Benzedrine and fool’s gold, told hairdresser Larry Geller, “Jesus Christ literally exploded in me. I was Christ,” A.J. Jacobs pulled a facepalm. “If [Elvis] was going to compare himself to a religious figure,” he wondered, “why not try Buddha? At least they had the same body type.” God, spare me that, please.

In the end, I suppose guys like me have no choice but to envy imaginative women and gay men and high-minded lesbians. For the wicked like us, there is no rest, and no short cut. All that Catholic sensuality and physicality boils down to seeing Jesus on the cross, knowing He has the eye of every woman in the room, and knowing we can’t really complain about it because He deserves it for being that damn much better than we are. Faith means learning to love the sand kicked in our face.

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