Kirk Talley’s new website is up (contrary to what his latest e-letter said, the address is still www.kirk-talley.com), and the most interesting new feature by far is the lengthy testimony Talley has posted about his sexuality. Personal narratives - the interesting ones anyway - always present an interpretative pickle for readers, since the very act of making meaning out of one’s own life inevitably pits the autobiographer against himself: set over against the desire to tell a compelling story about yourself that will contribute in some way to others’ understanding of you is the deep private impulse to justify, to explain not just what you did and how it happened but why things are the way they are. Personal narratives are then, in important ways, about the writer’s effort to fashion an internally and externally coherent self from the flotsam and detritus of everyday existence - to shape the one-thing-and-then-anotherism of ordinary living into A Life, with a recognizable beginning, middle and end. In the process, things get distorted, left out, glossed over, massaged, embellished, diminished. Not necessarily out of some intentional effort to mislead or prevaricate. Memory, after all, is a tricky business and when put under great strain of the sort that Talley has endured for decades now, it’s not surprising if recall gets pitted against the ego and its perfectly understandable (indeed downright healthy) need to salvage a meaningful tale from a difficult life full of what may seem in the experience of it like meaningless suffering and pain.The trouble for someone like Talley is that by all of his own accounts, he seems to have internalized the self-repressive rhetoric of a southern culture deeply opposed to what the sociologists might call “non-normative” gender roles and sexual orientation. One striking thing about the new testimony on his website is the way Talley marshals his own experience to explain how he could have lived for so long divided against himself. Starting when he 15, Talley recalls “I really had no one to talk to about [same-sex attractions and feelings]. I had never even heard of such a thing, much less have anyone to confide in about it, so I kept it all hidden inside.” Much later, after his ordeal with the extortionist has forced him out, he talks to a friend, who “worried about it for weeks, in fact he worried so much that he ended up in the hospital nearly having an emotional breakdown, simply because he didn’t know how to help me. So it was obvious again that I shouldn’t tell anyone.” Of course it’s possible to explain these kinds of anecdotes as pre-emptions, anticipations of his hardcore critics, who like to try to discredit mid-life coming-outs by pointing to decades of closeted living as evidence of a proven, if fraught, track-record of normalcy, against which to compare the new “dysfunction” of homosexuality (nevermind that these same critics usually try to discredit people who come out early in life by saying it’s a phase or a product of a decadent culture or a gay agenda or those brainwashers on cable television). But it’s pretty clear that even if Talley is trying to disarm his critics (which is a smart thing to do, by the way), he also clearly attributes a lot of significance to his cultural context as a shaping force in his life and identity. I grew up in a culturally conservative environment, so I kept it all hidden inside. My sexual orientation really freaked some friends out, so it was obvious again that I shouldn’t tell anyone.
This is an interesting move for someone like Talley who aligns himself with (though never explicitly mentions) ex-gay thinking and behavior. In fact, Talley’s leveling a pretty pointed critique of the conservative Christian culture he continues to remain ambivalently a part of. Had his religious and social community been more willing to confront questions of sexual identity and encourage more open discussions of sexual orientation, Talley suggests, he might have been able to head off his same-sex inclinations earlier, have gotten them under control and led a much less complicated life. You don’t have to buy that argument to appreciate its force. By positioning himself between “sinful” homosexual feelings and identifications on one side and the rigid puritanical moral code of southern evangelical culture on the other, Talley manages to evince the requisite compunction for sin central to his return to the fold while also refusing to fully humiliate himself in front of his worst critics and assailants. The splinter in your own eye, and all that …
Honestly, it’s hard for me to know how to take this kinda thing. On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic to what is obviously Talley’s genuine struggle to reconcile the values of many in his community of family, friends, colleagues, and fans with the demands of his innermost self. On the other hand, for someone like Talley who by most accounts has been free to make many of the choices common to self-determined adulthood, “I was just following moral orders” is not a get-out-of-responsibility-free card, even if you’re gay in the American evangelical south.
It was, for instance, no doubt difficult for Talley to go to the authorities when he was being extorted, and it doubtless took every bit of the courage Talley imputes to himself to have “[taken] my chances and contacted the FBI” even knowing “the consequences” to his career and life. But where, it seems fair to ask, was that courage before he was backed into a corner by an extortionist? Countless gay people have confronted the irreconcilability of themselves in religious communities hostile to homosexuality. They have tallied up the costs long before they were facing imminent exposure by criminal enterprise, and they have insisted on the importance of honesty for themselves, of refusing to “pass” or fake it or put themselves through hell to protect heterosexual comfort zones in their churches, schools, workplaces, and homes. Whether or not you condone the “the lifestyle,” it’s hard not to appreciate that this takes courage. And even though I don’t buy the “logic” of ex-gay or reparative therapies and am deeply suspicious of the motives of many reparative therapists and ex-gay advocates, it still has to take no small amount of courage for someone who doesn’t want to be gay and is willing to submit to ex-gay therapies to stand up and say “I’m gay,” even if it is for the purposes of being de-gayed. Certainly more courage than is required to out yourself to the authorities when you faced imminent exposure from an extortionist anyway (which is not to say Talley shouldn’t have gone to the authorities; only that the courage of that act is distinct from the widsom of it).
And so we’re back to the inescapable contradictions of personal narratives. I have given this so much attention because it strikes me as one of the rarer moments when the private and public intersect dramatically and significantly, moments that speak directly to the way moral and religious meaning gets made from all too human experience - both the meaning Talley makes of his own experience and the meaning we take away from it. Thus, Talley’s testimony warrants attention on a number of levels. First there’s the story Talley tries to tell, about the bitter harvest of a sexually backward culture, about his path being pre-determined by the conspiratorial forces of sin or religious ideology. Then there are a few of the more salient facts of the matter in Talley’s case (which Talley glosses, to say the least). These would seem to demonstrate what Talley’s testimony evades: Talley appears to have actively pursued a double life of sorts for a variety reasons. In the context of his own writing about himself, it’s clear that many of these reasons were and are agonizingly human, probably pretty common, certainly ample cause for fellow feeling from straights and gays alike. The difference between “what happened” strictly speaking and the meaning Talley makes of those events measures the degree to which it is impossible to say for sure if Talley’s method of dealing with his sexuality was morally justifiable. Talley certainly seems to imply that to a certain extent it was (and for the really hardcore folks out there who need more proof of repentance, there’s the creepy exorcisim thingee that Talley redescribes); in fact, one principle object of the testimony seems to be to make precisely the point that there was a good reason for the way he acted, that he was justified - to others yes, but perhaps also to himself. Which just goes to show, I think, how Talley’s testimony, like all personal spiritual narratives, registers (in William James’s wonderful phrase) the truth it helps to create.Email this Post