Monday Feature by Michaela Kahn: James Baldwin, Homosexuality, and the Terror of Love

James Baldwin, Homosexuality, and the Terror of Love –

Following in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting I was surprised at the media and politicians’ initial insistence that the act was one of “terrorism” rather than a hate crime. It seems that we would rather believe that our “enemies” are some mysterious and incomprehensible group far away – a group that infiltrates our sleep and attacks in the night, rather than acknowledging that the demons that haunt America have been bred right here. We’d rather look to terrorism than connect this shooting with the other 1,000+ domestic mass shootings over the past 1200+ days, because terrorists are associated with wars, and wars with weapons, and the thought that we are arming our own people to commit mass murder is just too frightening. The thought that this is going to keep happening, with more children dying in schools, doctors in clinics, Muslims in mosques, blacks in churches, shoppers in malls – is something we’d rather forget.

James Baldwin is a writer who I found early on. To me his homosexuality was never really something separate from the rest of who he was. For me his relentless humanity was his most salient characteristic, along with his narrative skill and his undying compassion for his characters.

I found an interview of Baldwin, recently, where he talks about homosexuality in the context of his life, work, and America. Some of what he said felt so appropriate for the times, I wanted to share just a few pieces.

From “James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations” with Richard Goldstein.

Goldstein asks Baldwin about the risk that he took and the difficulty he must have had in writing Giovanni’s Room at the time he did (1956). Baldwin says it was tough, but that he had to clarify something for himself…

Baldwin: Where I was in the world. I mean, what I’m made of. Giovanni’s Room isn’t really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It On the Mountain, for example, is not really about a church, and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody…

Goldstein: But you didn’t mask the sexuality … And that decision alone must have been enormously risky.

Baldwin: Yeah. The alternative was worse.

Goldstein: What would that have been?

Baldwin: If I hadn’t written the book I would probably have had to stop writing altogether.

Goldstein: It was that serious.

Baldwin: It is that serious. The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t even know if it’s the most important part, but its indispensable.

Goldstein goes on to ask about how difficult it was for Baldwin to personally face his homosexuality and states that he doesn’t believe straight people understand how frightening that process can be. Baldwin replies …

Baldwin: It is frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility…. The terror homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Goldstein: Have you got a sense of what causes people to hate homosexuals?

Baldwin: Terror I suppose. Terror of the flesh. After all, we’re supposed to mortify the flesh, a doctrine which has led to untold horrors. This is a very biblical culture; people believe the wages of sin is death. In fact, the wages of sin is death, but not the way the moral guardians of this time and place understand it.

Goldstein: Is there a particularly American component of homophobia?

Baldwin: I think Americans are terrified of feeling anything. And homophobia is simply an extreme example of American terror that’s concerned with growing up.

To me Baldwin’s points – about hate coming from fear of love, fear of intimacy, fear of growing up – ties in to the reactions we’ve been seeing around the country in the wake of the Pulse shootings. Love vs. Hate. The hateful church group who picketed outside of the funeral of one of the victims – confronted by the mass of counter-protestors, many in angel costumes, who descended to entirely block them out, singing “Amazing Grace”. The self-righteous rhetoric of pundits and the gun lobby – juxtaposed with the massive flood of images on social media of couples kissing.

So in this sense perhaps the shooting at Pulse was an act of “terrorism” — an act born from the terror of love. In which case it is up to us to face our fear, be brave, and love as fiercely as we can.

To read the rest of this great interview, click here: