When “Winsomeness” Fails

When “Winsomeness” Fails July 24, 2022

1997: Men wave rainbow flags from a Jeep during the London Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride event in London, England.

What are we talking about when we talk about “winsomeness?” There’s been a lot of Discourse around the term in evangelical spaces. But is it even a thing, or are objections to it purely performative in-group signaling? And to the extent that it is a thing, might it be a legitimate thing that arose in response to a legitimate rhetorical need? These are some of the questions raised in a recent Twitter thread by Matthew Lee Anderson. He writes:

If we are to properly understand the role “winsome” plays in evangelical discourse, we might need to see what *it* was responding to. What were the forms of Christian expression that made the term attractive? That’s the historical question. The normative question is: were those forms of faith *worth upholding?* Did the leaders of those institutions engage in commendable speech? Only if we ask such questions can we really know how to *morally* evaluate the “winsome” discourse.

He then suggests that we should get specific and discuss examples. Specifically, we should open the floor for discussion about Christian speech around homosexuality.

In his thread, Anderson specifically points back to certain comments made ten years ago by Ron Baity, a pastor who was honored by the Family Research Council for his work in defense of traditional marriage. Anderson argued at the time that Baity’s award should be rescinded, because it had been discovered that a number of his sermons employed some very harsh, blunt language on homosexual depravity—language that has tended to typify a preacher of Baity’s age and cultural context. “It is one thing to object to homosexuality,” Anderson wrote then, “it is another to do so while shifting the tone of our voice away from the good news. Baity not merely shifted his tone:  he began singing in an entirely different register.”

In his (now paywalled) Christianity Today article “How We Got the Equality Act,” Anderson similarly criticized a 1992 pamphlet by psychologist Paul Cameron, written and widely distributed in Colorado to coincide with the clash over nondiscrimination ordinances. Titled “What Homosexuals Do,” the pamphlet provided a graphic, statistically grounded walk-through of various gay sex acts and their consequently extreme health hazards. It does not mince words in evaluating this “unsanitary insanity,” freely availing itself of adjectives like “disgusting” and “stupid.” Anderson takes it for granted that this pamphlet was outrageously offensive, that its distribution is a stain on the record of Christian socons, and that Christians today should denounce it in the strongest possible terms as sub-Christian speech. If we now find ourselves in a fight for our religious liberty, then he suggests it behooves us to think carefully about what past choices might have kindled the fury that burns so hotly against us today. (As a side note here, Paul Cameron was no beacon of light in the sexual revolution generally, to put it mildly. He is known for his suggestion that teens experiment with heterosexual “sex play” short of full intercourse as a way of ensuring they cemented heterosexual instincts. One can only assume the various Christian organizers who touted him simply never did all their homework there. If Anderson wanted to underscore this, he would have a fair point.)

So, that’s where Anderson sits. Before I engage with him, I want to say I actually appreciate his demand for specificity. I myself am always beating the “Be specific, use examples” drum, so I’m glad he shares my preference for dispensing with generalities in these kinds of discussions. As it happens, I think the particular topic he’s chosen is interesting and worth tackling head-on. It’s something I’ve spent years researching, thinking, and writing about, not just abstractly but interpersonally, getting to know real people who have been deeply entangled in the gay lifestyle. It’s also a timely topic, as 2022 has brought a fresh wave of virulent disease which is all but exclusively affecting gay men. One particular Twitter thread has been making the rounds, allegedly by a young gay fetish actor/prostitute who decided to grace the world with his lurid adventures in contact tracing. I’m still not 100% sure the whole thing wasn’t a troll. Then again, one of my friends used to be a porn actor, so I wouldn’t be too surprised. More on him in a bit.

I want to begin by “steel-manning” Matt Anderson. That is, I want to do the opposite of straw-manning: I want to consider the best version of his own argument. So, let’s honestly ask and answer the question he wants to raise here: Can we agree on any examples of speech by Christians, from a pulpit, that went rhetorically beyond the pale in addressing homosexuality?

I think so. An example that stands out in my mind is Charles Worley, a Baptist pastor in North Carolina who once announced he had “figured a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers.” He envisioned rounding them all up and quarantining them inside an electric fence, “50 or 100 mile long,” feeding them via helicoptered food drops. Keep them locked away from society for long enough, he figured, and “in a few years, they’ll die out. Do you know why? They can’t reproduce!”

It’s almost comically bad, like something out of a Coen Brothers movie. One wants to start laughing, then apologize for laughing. Not that Pastor Worley is wrong to be alarmed and outraged at the societal effects of gay activist propaganda. But we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. If he wants to revert to an Old Testament way of handling these things, Worley might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb and propose we revive stoning for all promiscuity. That would be extreme, but it would be consistent. This was not consistent. This was a disjointed rant.

In that same Yahoo! story, Worley is quoted together with a different pastor who suggests fathers should give their little boys “a good punch” if they manifest “girlish” behavior. Another obvious example of something specific beyond the pale. (Though, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve noticed some men of a certain generation can be weirdly callous about violent dark humor in general. They just find the idea of fathers punching or slapping their kids funny. God knows why. I’ve just seen it before. Which excuses nothing, only contextualizes comments like this in a broader generational pattern.)

Finally, the story quotes the target of Anderson’s original criticism, Ron Baity. In this company, Baity actually comes off as the least extreme. His pull-quote is that we “went down the wrong path” when we did away with anti-sodomy laws. Again, this sentiment isn’t necessarily surprising for someone Baity’s age in Baity’s context. But I do agree with Anderson that it should be left behind. I say this even though I’m not really outraged by the suggestion that, say, mass orgies should be legally discouraged. I think that was a good thing, actually, in a context where all manner of perennially illegal activity was routinely smoked out along the way. Still, C. S. Lewis was right when he pointed out that blanket anti-sodomy laws created “a blackmailer’s paradise” in their day, which simply begat more corruption, to say nothing of the hypocrisy when they were inconsistently enforced.

What about some of the other quotes from Baity that should have disqualified him, in Anderson’s judgment? He points to a Daily Beast article by Kirsten Powers with “the sordid details.” The most frank quote is that “two men or two women wanting to slobber over each other” is “worse than sick,” something “even maggots” wouldn’t do. Baity also says that homosexuals “can’t reproduce, so they recruit,” and that their brains are “warped” and “twisted.”

All harsh words, to be sure. But Powers’s reactions make it clear that she regards any strong statement highlighting the perverseness or abnormality of gay sex acts as “hate speech.” And here is where, assuming Anderson meant to sign off on Powers’s evaluation, I part ways with Anderson.

It is one thing to say that Christians should have the capacity to sing in different “keys” as the context calls for it. Jesus himself displayed the full range of emotions—angry, sarcastic, sorrowful, playful, gentle—according to the dictates of the moment and the circumstances of the particular people he encountered. If Jesus could do all this without sacrificing the convicting potency of the gospel, so can we. But it is another thing to declare forbidden keys. This is what Anderson does. He declares the key of “Homosexual acts are insanely disgusting, and their perpetrators degrade themselves while corrupting the society around them” to be forbidden in polite public society.

I don’t. I believe there is still something to be said for retaining a healthy disgust at “What Homosexuals Do.” Even if the route I’ve taken to reach that conclusion does look rather different from Ron Baity’s.

Some research background will be clarifying here. Early in my formative years as a social critic, I discovered the memoir writing of then-Catholic blogger Joseph Sciambra. Born in 1969, Joseph spent the 90s fully immersed in the gay scene, in the Castro district of San Francisco. He entered that world as a desperately lonely, obsessive-compulsive, porn-addicted college kid who thought he might find something resembling love. Needless to say, he did not find love. In his writing, he held nothing back about what he actually did find, which was nothing short of demonic.

I already held strongly conservative views, so I didn’t need to be convinced of anything. But Joseph’s unvarnished memories were still a shock to my system. They were almost unreadable. They were horrific, and painful, and sad. And yes, at times, they were disgusting. By his own admission, they were disgusting. By his own admission, he and the other men in this lifestyle were degrading themselves on a daily basis. Sometimes they tortured each other. Sometimes they engaged in bestial role play, where they literally lowered themselves to the level of dogs and pigs. They did all this because, to quote gay journalist Randy Shilts, “there was nobody to say no.”

Joseph will say he arrived on the scene at the worst possible time, when AIDS had already ravaged the wave of men ahead of him. At first, he avoided the riskiest behavior out of fear, but his addictive drive would eventually prove stronger. Meanwhile, the scythe kept swinging. In one memory, he recalls accompanying a friend to the bedside of a dying ex-lover. The withered man opened his eyes and said, “I must be dead, because this is hell.”

Randy Shilts’s 1987 book And the Band Played On remains the definitive history of the epidemic, a work that met with controversy in its own day because it dared to suggest gay men might be free agents who might bear some responsibility for their own sickness. Books like Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots pre-dated the epidemic, but they were similarly controversial. It must be emphasized that Shilts, Kramer, and other provocative gay voices were hardly penitent. Many of them would throw themselves into AIDS activism, and in a tragic irony, Shilts himself would succumb to the disease in 1994. But if these voices were impenitent, at least they were honest. Joseph admired them for this, and to this day he laments to me that nobody seems to have replaced them. (Among millennials today, Chad Felix Greene or Josh Slocum might come closest.)

Joseph also took some literary inspiration from Andrew Holleran, author of cult classic Dancer From the Dance. Years later, I would discover Holleran myself and incorporate his thought into some of my own writing. When Joseph came full circle and became one of my readers, he told me he nearly “jumped out of his chair” when I quoted Holleran. Few people still do. There’s a reason for that, just like there’s a reason nobody quotes Larry Kramer, whose novel characters famously uttered dialogue like this:

I don’t want a friendship with you! That’s something else entirely. You don’t f**k with your friends. And every faggot couple I know is deep into friendship and deep into f**king with everyone else but each other and any minute any bump appears in their commitment to infinitesimally obstruct their view, out they zip like petulant kids to suck someone else’s lollipop instead of trying to work things out, instead of trying not to hide, and … unh … why do faggots have to f**k so f**king much?! … it’s as if we don’t have anything else to do … all we do is live in our Ghetto and dance and drug and f**k … there’s a whole world out there!

This was the world Joseph opened up to me. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.

But Joseph was able to do more than Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran. Because unlike them, he was looking back at all this over his shoulder. He had found his way out into the light—marked, scarred, traumatized, but miraculously alive. Nevertheless, he is haunted:

I am haunted by the dead. Yet, these are not literal specters, but the unshakable impressions that long departed friends left upon me. Sometimes, I will hear a song that we both liked, or I will unintentionally drive by the place we met, or I’ll inadvertently come across an old photograph of us together. Hating them all for leaving me, without thinking, I tear it up and throw the pieces in the trash; only, five minutes later, I am dumping everything out of the wastepaper basket onto the floor and haplessly trying to find every last fragment. At these moments, I can’t stop crying.

In a video on his YouTube channel, Joseph returns to Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood for a short reflection, rainbow flags fluttering in the wind behind him. He remembers his generation’s most idolized porn star, Joey Stefano, who accrued wealth and fame in glossy “A-list” material while Joseph fought for scraps with other B-listers. To make ends meet, Joseph used to hustle in the parking lot where he shoots the video. One night, he remembers seeing a familiar face among the low-rent cruisers: Stefano. “Here was the prince of porn … picking up guys in a parking lot off Santa Monica Boulevard … And Wow, I just thought. He’s not happy. He’s gotta be here too. Why is he here?”

“You can have everything in the gay world,” Joseph concludes, his voice heavy with sadness. “And you still won’t be happy. You end up here, in a parking lot, going home with anybody that will love you. Or that you think will love you.”

Joey would die of a drug overdose at age 26, alone, in a sleazy motel room. You won’t find a headstone if you look for his grave, because the original was so defaced by vandals that it was removed without replacement.

By far, Joseph’s most popular videos on his channel are simple slideshows memorializing some of the faces of AIDS, including pornographic actors. Collectively, these have racked up millions of views, with the most popular earning 1.5 million alone. I remember wondering what point these served when I first found them. I have always shied from sentimental gestures around the epidemic. I have tended to think “memorials” are best reserved for men who have done something worthy of them, like actual fallen soldiers in an actual war. But these men—what did they do? They sinned abominably, then died painfully. That’s all.

But I knew Joseph, and I knew that his work was anything but sentimental. And I came to think these tributes were more than merely sentimental too, particularly in the way he framed them with passages like these words from Ecclesiasticus: “And there are some, of whom there is no memorial; who are perished, as if they had never been; and are become as if they had never been born.”

In comments for the 1.5 million-viewed video, one woman is surprised to see a face she recognized, a talented actor friend who died before reaching the stardom that probably would have been his given a few more years. She writes, “It was as if his story, his history, his life had been wiped away. But somebody remembered him – YOU remembered him!”

Was this “winsome” of Joseph? I don’t know. I suppose I find myself searching for a better word. A more adequate word. A word capable of bearing an unbearable weight.

Joseph would find some sympathetic friends, but he would never receive any real institutional support from the Catholic Church. He would never have anyone to help him edit or sell his memoirs. He would never have a calendar full of speaking gigs. Eventually, he would leave Catholicism altogether, heartsick at the corruption that seemed to wrap itself around every pillar. He now practices Eastern Orthodoxy and runs a small podcast. We have a conversation on his YouTube channel. It’s gotten about two thousand views.

Whittaker Chambers once wrote, “I have always seen all life first with pity.” This is what Joseph taught me. But, like Virgil, he had to lead me through hell.

So, do I think Ron Baity should have been canceled? Do I agree with Matthew Anderson that the Family Research Council should have rescinded his award for campaigning in favor of traditional marriage? To return to my steel man, there are lines Baity could have crossed that would have tilted me in Anderson’s direction. But even if I disagree with Anderson in point of fact, it’s safe to suggest that Baity could have learned to play more fluently in more keys. It’s not unreasonable to look back at Baity’s generation of preachers and say there are things we can take away, and other things we can leave behind.

At the same time, to the extent that the rescinding of that award would have signaled a forbidden key, it would not have been a good thing. It is not a good thing to silence harsh truth about hellish things. It is not a good thing to make healthy shock the enemy of love. When a fetish actor in a pig suit gets on Twitter to boast about every orgiastic, kinky step on his way to contracting monkeypox, some strong words of frank revulsion are wholly merited—indeed, they are positively invited. Though if I had to guess, Anderson would probably censure Rod Dreher’s reaction with the same tone he used to censure Ron Baity ten years ago.

Incidentally, that thread has since been deleted, and the fetish actor’s account locked. People can draw their own conclusions from this. I’m still inclined to think that it was real. As Dreher independently notes at the bottom of his post, it read all too similarly to one of Joseph Sciambra’s nightmares. Perhaps the difference between someone like Sciambra and someone like Dreher, or Baity, or even me, is that Sciambra is that rare tender soul like Whittaker Chambers—a soul that seems incapable of not feeling pity, at all times, with every fiber of his being. This could be called a blessing or a curse. Whatever you call it, I don’t have it. Most of us don’t. Perhaps it would be better if more of us did.

There is also this further comment from Pastor Baity, which he offered by way of clarification in the wake of the controversy around his remarks: “If it were possible for me to rephrase my words to be in a manner in which the truth would not have been so easily misconstrued, I would do so. I apologize for any of my words that might have distracted from God’s Word. However, truth in any format often causes offense. Going forward, I will continue to stand for Biblical truth and will continue to strive to communicate these truths with His love.” Anderson found this inadequate. Other readers can make their own evaluations. I choose to take Baity at his word that, as the Daily Beast quotes him, he has never meant to imply that he “hated homosexuals.” He simply “wants them to be saved.” “If they get saved,” he notes, “they would quit being homos.”

At this, Kirsten Powers sniffs loudly. But I suspect Joseph Sciambra would laugh louder.

Browse Our Archives