Queerness as Holiness


This is a brief talk I gave at the First Presbyterian Church of Beacon as part of their first Pride Service, June 26, 2022.

By Donna Minkowitz

Since I first felt the power of queerness in my life when I was 14, it has seemed to me like a kind of fierceness, a kind of fire, the sensation that radical joy is worth fighting for, that sex is worth fighting for, that the funky beautiful intoxicating overflowing life force inside yourself is a thing to defend, a thing to show, a thing to love, a thing to refuse to squash or strangle or imprison within gates of adamantine iron.

I’m here to speak on behalf of of that life force.

As a young adult in the 80s, I was part of the first generation of activists to reclaim the word QUEER for ourselves. Some of the stronghearted holy power of queerness comes across in these lines that the gay singing group The Flirtations used to sing, which were written by a black gay British man named Labi Siffre:

the higher you build your barriers
the taller I become
the more you refuse to hear my voice
the louder I will sing

“When they insist we’re just not good enough,” the song says, “just look em in the eye and say/We’re gonna do it anyway! We’re gonna do it anyway!
Anyway!

And that my friends, is the buoyant, ever-defiant power of queerness.

This fiery joy is also what our queer brother the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he spoke of Jesus metaphorically as a falcon:

“I caught this morning morning’s minion,
kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air
, and striding high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!
Then off, off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind…
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh air, pride, plume here/ Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous. Oh my chevalier!”

For that is queerness too, the wild life force that refuses to give in to narrow demands of propriety. Queerness is also the ecstasy Hopkins is invoking in this poem, and the willingness to embrace wild, unchained beauty even when it might be socially or politically dangerous, because all beauty and pleasure comes from God, in fact, as Hopkins is suggesting in this poem, it IS God.

Beyond this, queerness is the radical belief in the goodness and innocence of pleasure, and I am thinking of myself at 14, discovering kisses and affectionate touch, discovering hands shoulders long hair and bellybuttons in all their sweetness and goofiness.

The queer life force within me has saved me so many times, it saved me as a teenager when the enlivening, flowering beauty of puberty gave me a power to stand fast against the violence I was experiencing at home, as a young and as an older adult when the sunny queer force in my blood gave me hope and creative power that always let me sail past depression and obstacles.

Thank you very much for inviting me here today to your beautiful congregation to speak about the connection between queerness and holiness.
And thanks to the supremely alive, defiant queer life force inside me that keeps my blood flowing. Thank you.

Next Lit Lit: Shaina Loew-Banayan!

NEXT LIT LIT: chef/writer Shaina Loew-Banayan, who just got a glowing review in @newyorkermag, is our featured author Fri. June 3, reading from their tough, tender, lyrical memoir Elegy for an Appetite. I’m so excited about this! It’s a memoir about, among other things, being a chef and someone who is crazy about food who also has an eating disorder. 7PM @howland_cultural_center in Beacon, followed by our regular awesome literary open mic. 477 Main St. in Beacon NY.
All of the advance signup slots to read in the open mic are full, but if you arrive by 6:30 you have a good chance of getting a spot! See you there! #beaconny #beaconnewyork #openmic #foodwriting #hudsonvalley #literature @cafemutton #hudsonny

Donnaville: Work in Progress

Hey there! I thought I would describe to you what I’ve been working on since late fall of 2019. It’s a new book called DONNAVILLE, and it takes place in a city that is, yes… the city of my mind. You know how the poet Delmore Schwartz once wrote, “The mind is a city like London/Smoky and populous: it is a capital/Like Rome, ruined and eternal,/Marked by the monuments which no one/Now remembers”? This book imagines that city, er, my city — the little citystate of my mind.

You know how Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Look it up, it’s a terrifying poem.) Well, sometimes Donnaville feels a little bit like that, because its central location is a prison, and one of the two main characters is the Jailer, who is also a janitor and torturer.

You know how Denise Levertov once wrote to a lover, “You invaded my country by accident/not knowing you had crossed the border./Vines that grew there touched you”? And then she tells him, “I invaded your country with all my/’passionate intensity,’/pontoons and parachutes of my blindness./But living now in the suburbs of the capital/incognito, my will to take the heart/ of the city has dwindled. I love its unsuspecting life,/its adolescents who come to tell me their dreams in the dusty park…”? Well, Donnaville is also about that, what happens when people approach the “countries” of other people’s minds, and try to have relationships with them. When different countries (or citystates), in other words, try to get together.

So, I have finished preliminary edits. It will be a long while before this book is out, but if you want to read some short excerpts, you can read them here, here, here , here, and here. Hope you like! 🙂

Vote For Me!


Edited on April 20: oh my God, I’m a finalist! Truly did not expect that. If you want to, please vote for me to advance further. For this readers’ choice award, people actually get to vote once a day!

Okay… For the very first time in my life, I get to say, “Vote for me!”

I’m thrilled to have been nominated for Chronogram Magazine’s annual award for the best author in the Hudson Valley 🙂 This is a readers’ choice award, and finalists and the winner are determined by whoever gets the highest number of votes. It’s the absolute truth to say I would be honored if I got yours.

Just to refresh you, I am the author of two award-winning and critically acclaimed memoirs. I am the founder of the Lit Lit series in the Hudson Valley, the winner of a GLAAD Media Award and Radcliffe College’s Exceptional Merit Media Award, and a writer who has gone undercover to write about white nationalists and the Christian right.

Everyone is allowed to vote, whether you live in the Hudson Valley or not.

You can vote for me at this link. (Please just scroll down slightly from the Artist category where this page begins, to the Author category where I am.) Many thanks, and if I win, I’m giving out pie!

Lit Lit, the New Reading Series

Image: Poet Addison Goodson reading at Lit Lit.

Update: the next Lit Lit will be Friday, June 3 at 7 PM, at our regular location, the Howland Cultural Center. We are thrilled that Shaina Loew, author of Elegy for an Appetite and chef/owner of Café Mutton  in Hudson, will be our featured reader this month and sign books!! Advance open mic signups are now closed.  Proof of vaccination is required at the door.

For more info, click here.

Hey everybody! I’m thrilled to announce that I will be hosting Lit Lit, a new monthly literary open mic at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, 477 Main Street on the first Friday of every month.

Come and read your work of any genre. Or tell a story, or perform your writing!

We would love to hear you. Or if that’s not your bag, just come and listen — we would love to have you do that, too!

You can sign up to read on the night of the event. Everyone gets five minutes each. Sign-ups are first-come, first-served, and we will take readers until we run out of time.

Wine, beer, soft drinks and snacks will be available by donation.

Seriously, I’m excited about this. Donna

Therapists (Jailbreak Part 4)

This is excerpt number four of my memoir in progress, tentatively titled Jailbreak. “The jailer” and “the harlequin” are both parts of me. You can find out more about the jailer here and the harlequin here. In the quatrain that opens this piece, the harlequin is speaking.

I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit

This confidence inside me my old therapist thought was a liability, my craziness talking. A lying dodge. On the whole she seemed to prefer the jailer. She and the jailer would have long conversations together. She never addressed the harlequin because she did not like him.

Therapy session between me and Robin:

Me: So.

I always start with So because Robin makes me start the show each time. Neither of us will ever say anything, the whole time, unless I begin. I hate the responsibility, and the bleakness between us, this room in which we seem locked together for 45 minutes at a time, a dungeon I pay to enter. Robin looking at me dryly as if I still haven’t learned anything in the 20 years I’ve been coming to see her.
Sometimes she actually says it: How long have you been coming to me, Donna?
Me (variously): Five years. Nine years. 19 years. 20 years.
Robin: Then why are you still doing X bad thing?

***
Maybe the harlequin didn’t like Robin, either.
Me/Harlequin: “I sometimes wish our therapy were more playful.”
Robin: “Therapy isn’t play. It’s hard work!

***
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Robin: “Yes you do!”

***
The harlequin ignores Robin, bides his time. Feeds me under the snow, through my root system, feeds me like birds at his many feeders, shines dazzling sunlight on me even in winter.
***

I’m sick of you wasting away without me, my love. I’m sick of you locking yourself in the dungeon to work. I miss you.
***

I will give you custard apples
and I will give you tajines warm with cinnamon
I will give you walks in the mountains
and I will give you a dog

Today I am not happy with everything E does and it makes me fear that my love is a farce. Would someone who really felt a lot of love be annoyed by her partner nervously going on about Trump when we’re having dinner at a new friend’s house? Be afraid that her partner sounded awkward and unconfident? Look at her partner’s face and think that she looked tired?

Why does E stir up the judge inside me? The judge rants, in my head, about E’s nervous boring chitchat. About something rude she said to Fred.

The jailer wants to break the house to bits, kick down the beautiful floorboards and mix them with dog shit, with peed-on papers from the doghouse, smash in the windows, sledgehammer the mirrors, destroy the furniture we built together and the art we put on the walls and shatter glass until it is so dangerous in here I have to leave.

***
The jailer resents E. He’ll be sitting there hammering more sheets of lead onto the cells and her voice will waft over and he will want to take his hammer to E’s lack of confidence and her belief she’s ugly. Put E in the deepest, dirtiest, most toxic dungeon cell, the saddest, scariest one and he will take his hammer to her and wipe out, wipe out all the awkwardness and the self-hate.
***
Did Bob invite us to dinner not because he likes us but just to get information on the outré sexual subculture that we have been involved in and he has not? Does he really enjoy our company? Does he think we’re cute? Does he think of us as boring?

This reminds me of the time I was eight and I thought my best friend Julie only liked me because I bought her bubblegum. She didn’t have any money, and I had some which I wanted to share. I liked her, and we hung out all the time, but I was afraid she only liked me for my money.

Now I realize Julie liked me for myself. But before the age of 12, I was certain that none of my friends liked me for me. I was sure they were with me only to get something from me. I often told them so and their feelings were hurt.

 

Divine Mother/Siren Song

The divine mother finally
comes to me
finally speaks

[it has taken me 56 years
to rip the wax out of my ears

I stuffed them with so long ago
I was terrified of hearing her lush
candy tones]:

I want to rub your shoulders
Oh lay down lay your head down on my breast
I want to feed you
I have the food right here
a tunafish sandwich and
a meatball one

and I have roses for you so you will always know
how wonderful you are

my delight, my little cookie
my bright animal
my brave girl
full of fire

and I will spread around you all that you might ever have needed
all you might ever love

Darling

[the smell of perfume around her. Silk scarf
the color of saffron, I can almost smell the spice
coming from her hands and her words
as she speaks
she is intoxicating]
I will never leave you

[please.
I cannot take
your betrayal.]

The mother’s nipple is bright red and her breasts are apple blossoms. The nipple in my mouth is sucky sucky delight I do not need anything more.

This is from my new work in progress, a memoir that is mostly in prose. The book is tentatively titled Jailbreak. You can find additional excerpts here, here, and here.

The Harlequin


    1. This is Part 3 of my memoir in progress, Jailbreak. It’s a memoir set almost entirely within my own mind, where all the different characters are parts of me. You can find parts one and two here and here.

The harlequin moves through the quiet streets, body like an acrobat. Like a soft snake, like water, effortlessly, as if tumbling, unseen unless he wants to be. He moves through the tourist crowds around the plaza, he slips past cops, he slides into the jailer’s ugly living quarters to observe my hero:

Even lying in bed the jailer is rigid, his face is tensed and white. His ears are live for the threat, he cannot stop listening. His shoulders are taut as he tries to see if he can hear the whores outside the window, their possible cavorting. He projects his awareness out the window, wishing his ears were very long and he could stick them out into the night and have them reach, reach into iniquity and monitor it at every moment.

He hears nothing.

The harlequin pirouettes over to the jailer’s bony body and smiles at him, unseen. He straddles him on the iron bed and sweetly thumbs his nose.

***

I have no idea where the harlequin came from.

I can’t even say how long he’s been with me. From birth, I would have said, but I don’t know if I’ve been able to escape that long.

I remember at age 5 the yeshiva principal said on the PA system that one of us had done something terrible to the school bathroom and if we were the one who had done it, the school would know.

I was scared. Even though I hadn’t done anything to the school bathroom, I was afraid that somehow the school knew that I had.

I went home and asked my mother if the yeshiva had called.

***

Did the harlequin join me at age 8? At age 12?

When I’m on the cusp of changing, at age 12, I stand in the elevator of our apartment building in Coney Island with a magic marker, terrified by my own capacity to do evil. The elevator of our housing project is yellow and my marker is blue. And I make a mark with it on the elevator, because I am an evildoer.

***

The harlequin whirls through my brain, I can barely see him. He is lying to my mother, telling her he loves her beyond anyone, beyond anything, for all time. He tells her this because she forces him. But also because it’s better to lie, to turn colors, than to stand there and be punished and to suffer.

***

The jailer speaks:

Who was that?

I was being rubbed all over with oil. They were teasing me with long feathers.

So many of them were touching me. Then her big hands came and it was only her.

***

See the harlequin lying his head off. See him going through walls. See him getting me the hell out of there.

***

“Sit down RIGHT FUCKING NOW and write your book!”

Who is this part of me who orders all the other parts around like it was some kind of fucking monster?

Shut up and write.

***

The harlequin moves through the soft fields, lands empty of everything but alfalfa and barley. Wildflowers under his feet reminding him of the seeds he planted long ago, everywhere. Some things take a long long time to bloom. There is an abandoned gas station, a big oak, shanties and a hanging tree. He will go where he needs to go, anyplace that souls are caged. Bees move around the terrible little buildings where hundreds squeezed into the spaces meant for five.

He finds the children hiding in the crawlspace and sends them leaping over the field.

***

The jailer visits the harlequin in prison.

Now the harlequin is a tall young man with blonde hair down to his waist, vines curling around his neck and sliding down his whole sweet body. He is wearing a dress.

The jailer comes in with two guards and addresses his victim:

“You’re not impossible to look at.”

The harlequin says, “The god gave me my looks.”

The jailer: “You know what they say happens to effeminate men in jail.”

The harlequin: “Nothing will happen to me. I am in charge of whoever touches me.”

The jailer: “Your rot will not infect us!”

***

So, all that was more or less from The Bacchae, a play that has been performed many times in my own mind. But when The Bacchae‘s not playing, the harlequin has short dark hair or a shaved head, he wears pants or he is naked like the elves who help the shoemaker. He blends into his surroundings so well he’s hard to see. Or he is hard to see because he moves so quickly. Or his nude body is dark in the darkness. Or on a gray day he’s the color of water. Or if you see him in the sun, he’s colored like white light, all the colors together.

***

Who is the harlequin?

Let us spy on him at home, something no one else has done to date. His home is a black cave. There are no windows. The cave is round, like a nut. Huh, maybe the harlequin lives in a nut. It is also a Faraday cage.

A Faraday cage is an enclosure that prevents electromagnetic energy from getting in. It is not, properly speaking, a cage but a protected sphere. Nothing can hurt him here.

The harlequin speaks: I’m in my nut. The walls are beautiful and black, and I can see nothing. There is nothing to bother me. The black walls shine. There are no doors. Where I live is like a jewel.

In his round home, the harlequin lies gloriously naked and spreadeagled. There is just enough room in his shining black jewel to stretch out his arms and legs in every direction. He believes he draws energy into him from the universe, but in fact energy is precisely what cannot get inside these walls. There is also no food, there is no water, and there is not a soul to talk to. There is not even a bed. All it is is a round box.

***

When I’m in fifth grade, I have a recurring fantasy:

First my eyes pop off, then my nose. Then all my teeth pop out, softly and easily. There is no violence or sickness to any of this, only sweet relief.

Then my ears come off. It is so peaceful. Then I put my head under a hill, forever.

***

Starring as Dionysus in The Bacchae, the harlequin spends less than 15 minutes in the jailer’s cell. The prison crumbles from the ground up, earthquake splits the stone floor and the walls tumble. The harlequin elegantly steps out of the mess

***

I’m just seven hours old
Truly beautiful to behold

And somebody should be told

My libido hasn’t been controlled

You know nothing about me, Minkowitz. Or you do know but you’ve forgotten: it’s a long time since you were 12, or 15.

I am delicious
I am seditious
super nutritious
super pernicious

I have diamond hoops in my ears and I’m 7 feet tall.

I’m just a sweet transvestite from Donna’s brain, and I am the motherlode, baby.

I have always been here feeding you.

***
He has been here, a wall of fruit and water, a rising wave of wine, since I turned 15. He has shown me storehouses and greenhouses, he has been the corn secretly growing, the peach and walnut trees rising up to take care of me, he has been the milk and honey.

What, are you afraid you’ve wandered into the wrong narrative? Are you afraid I’m talking about religion now?

The god inside me is part of me.

***
I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit.

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