“This is a Homosexual Bar, Jesus”: Malcolm Boyd, 1924-2015

 When I was in college almost fifty years ago, I remember being mildly embarrassed for Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd. I felt that Boyd was trying much too hard to be hip and “with it” in his best-seller of 1965, Are You Running With Me, Jesus?  It seemed to me that these were prayers the likes of which no one should ever admit to praying, let alone publishing.

There is no snob like an undergraduate snob. I thought the riffs in Running were pretty bad; they were pedestrian and sometimes cloying, as in:

—”This is a homosexual bar, Jesus. It looks like any other bar on the outside, only it isn’t.”

—”What was Hiroshima like, Jesus, when the bomb fell?”

—”I know it sounds corny, Jesus, but I’m lonely.”

—It’s morning, Jesus. It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again.”

—”The masks are on parade tonight, Jesus. The masks are smiling and laughing to cover up status anxieties and bleeding ulcers. Tell us about freedom, Jesus.”

— “It’s a jazz spot, Jesus.”

— “Look up at that window, Lord, where the old guy is sitting.”

— “This young girl got pregnant, Lord, and she isn’t married.”

— “I see white and black, Lord. I see white teeth in a black face. I see black eyes in a white face. Help us to see persons, Jesus.”

But hey: it was the Sixties, after all, and there was plenty of schlock to be had all around. Boyd was in pretty good company in that regard (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, anyone?).

I knew that Father Boyd had been a Freedom Rider, and I gave him points for that at least.

QxtjhX5yFnFAeJanH7Q0YiFli-bQs0Fa6F1fKqbRCgRidAGMnzyQWkW6LgU27gxw5VPfeqTnS3Mdj5Qqu_dnYY0KNV6B83l2XE4=s0-d-e1-ftAnd then I stopped paying attention. I vaguely remember him coming out in the middle of the 1970s and thought little of it at the time. I paid no attention at all to his early advocacy of a compassionate response to AIDS. Until I came to Los Angeles and discovered that Boyd was still around and holding court as writer-in-residence for the Episcopal Diocese here, I would have told you—if you had asked me—that Malcolm Boyd was dead.

And now he is dead, with substantial and respectful obituaries published in the LA Times and New York Times. And now I’m thinking what a remarkable and brave thing it was for such a well-known church leader to out himself 1976, just at the point that Jerry Falwell was about to launch the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant was preparing to unleash her virulently homophobic “Save Our Children” campaign against Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

You can say, and I might agree, that it’s relatively easy for a well-born white male like Boyd to come out. But the reality is that most queer church leaders of that era–however fearless these same leaders may have been in other arenas—not only didn’t identify themselves as gay or bisexual but even made a point of emphasizing their hetero bona fides. Case in point: Boyd’s powerful one-time patron in the church, New York Bishop Paul Moore, Jr.

Another reality of that era is that Boyd’s declaration made him unemployable within the Episcopal Church for several years. It cost him many friendships.

Today when sexual difference is totally accepted and embraced and seen as a significant strength within such rising movements as #Black Lives Matter, it’s almost hard to recall a time when the disclosure of sexual difference could lead to disgrace and to severe social exclusion.

It was pretty tough for seven lean years—Boyd called these years his “wilderness period”—but Malcolm Boyd was resilient, pugnacious even. He had a mischievous twinkle that you could still sometimes glimpse even in his very late age, as in this video clip.

Boyd once told an interviewer that “my very integrity as a human being needs to include my freedom to explore who I am both spiritually and sexually. Not just to explore, but to practice.”

Integrity: being whole. Keeping all the pieces together. Being firmly rooted and standing fully upright like that famous tree planted by the water in Psalm 1: that tree shall not be moved.

What I am saying—and here I am embarrassed for myself, not for Malcolm Boyd—is that I always knew this diminutive priest was quite the character. Everyone knew that. What I didn’t get about him, and should have realized much sooner, is that he also had quite the character.

Rest in peace, feisty freedom fighter. The world still has need of more like you!

15 Comments

  • Of course he would have to be an Episcopalian…

  • conjurehealing@gmail.com' conjurehealing says:

    What a brave and remarkable soul. Thank you for this reflection on a life lived in truth and honesty to one’s Self.

  • Many people forget how hard it was, not too long ago, for gays. i war born in 1969 and came out in high school, which was hell. just a few years later, literally like three, high school foot ball players were befriending the out gay kids, which would never have happened, and never was it seemingly possible to ever happen, a few years earlier when i was in the very same high school. i still have the emotional scars from all the physical and verbal abuse i survived, both from other students and some teachers, this is what motivates me to remind people, when i can, that any minority has a history of those who “walked” before them and suffered for their freedoms. so many people, (mainly can most are not minorities) do not understand this. From union organizers to woman’s rights and from freeing slaves to gay rights….and everything in between, if you are part of any minority “class”, please keep the memory of those who lived, suffered, survived, which helped make life better for you. The most disturbing to me is conservative Christians who seem to forget and not know that their very lives have been a reality because of liberals in the past, which has helped every minority, even in Christianity, to not be persecuted, oppressed and even killed.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    I was just going to write the same thing. Thank you.

  • dakotahgeo@hotmail.com' George M Melby says:

    😉

  • He’d probably love what ECUSA has become, what with Katherine Jefferts-Schori’s married gay bishops and the drunken demolition derby her clerics seem to be running.

  • williameburns@verizon.net' William Burns says:

    “Today when sexual difference is totally accepted and embraced”

    This is a bit of a rosy view.

  • gmclnewsletters@gmail.com' Geoff McLarney says:

    One of these things is not like the other …

  • Both are the results of insular and trend-chasing ‘leadership’ more interested in pandering to the fashion of the era than preaching the faith.

  • gmclnewsletters@gmail.com' Geoff McLarney says:

    Remember this, guys: recognizing a place for gay people in the body of Christ is just the first step of the slippery slope to DWIs. You can’t parody this stuff.

  • LOL, yeah because making an openly gay married man a bishop and ‘recognizing a place for gay people in the body of Christ ‘ are the same thing.

    Jefferts-Schiori put fashionable thinking and identity politics before prudence and virtue. Seems to me she reaped precisely what she sowed…

  • gmclnewsletters@gmail.com' Geoff McLarney says:

    Episcopalians have married bishops, so I’m not clear what the issue would be. Unless you _don’t_ actually think gay people have the same place in Christianity as others.

  • Your assertion that recognition of gay marriage is required to give gay people ‘the same place in Christianity as others’ is questionable, considering how whole dioceses are leaving the denomination over the issue (and being sued by Jefferts-Schori for their troubles).

    According to this, Jefferts-Schori has spent $40 million forcing her transgressive, non-Christian agenda on her recalcitrant flock: http://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2015/3/15/heres-a-hot-story-many-have-missed-cost-of-those-91-episcopal-church-lawsuits

  • gmclnewsletters@gmail.com' Geoff McLarney says:

    Well no, the church recognizes other people’s marriages, so it follows that “the same place as others” by definition means recognition of their marriages. The dioceses and parishes that are leaving are doing so because they _don’t_ want to accord an equal place to gays and lesbians.

  • Paul,

    You’re a little light on logic here: how does what your “whole dioceses” are doing affect the truth or falsity of anything “Guest” writes here? Or are you backing up your clam that what he says is “questionable” because somebody other than you might question it if they were here?

    I don’t know what that would mean. What is there that’s not questionable?

    If the truth or falsity of gay marriage is not a questionable, uh, question, why are you questioning it so energetically?

    -dlj.

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