Out of the Lords Closet, revisited

So I picked up the GQ profile of Kirk Talley in the airport on my way to the beach (which, by the way, was absolutely glorious … I got to sit by the sea, but before the sweltering heat made its way east). The article did a good job of finding the points of tension and contradiction in Talley’s life and story and letting Talley, for the most part, talk his way through and around them. If it’s difficult to tell, at times, whether the writer thinks Talley is a victim of a backward religious culture or if he’s a spiritual masochist who insists on subjecting himself to the rigors of a religious life that his very being contradicts - well, that’s probably because Talley himself seems uncertain of the answer. From what he says, Talley appears to envision himself in a kind of existential exile. Having experienced congenital feelings of same-sex attraction at the same time that he feels deeply bound to a life of evangelical faith and religion, he’s paralyzed by allegiance to competing worldviews: “The gays want me to wave the rainbow flag … and the Fundamentalists want me to denounce homosexuality completely. I don’t want to do either.” The real question is why?The piece is strongest when it lets Talley address this conundrum himself, though sometimes I felt like Talley ends up raising more questions than he answers. Indeed, I found his take on sexuality and faith muddled and at times virtually impossible to translate into any functional theory about the nature of existence - what the philosophers and theologians would call ontology. On homosexuality, Talley is a tangle of ontological cross-purposes:

“It’s not wrong,” he says, his voice rising, warming to the testimony. “It just is.” Amen, brother.
“I don’t think temptation of any sort is wrong.” Preach it.
“Yielding is a different story.” Glory to God.
“The only perfect person is Christ.” Amen.
“We all have struggles.” Praise the Lord.
“Mine just got into the papers.”

I could do without the wink-and-nod knowingness of the author’s half-mocking call-and-response embellishment, not least of all because the rhetorical setting the writer is conjuring up here comes out of a black gospel tradition that is absent from white evangelical Protestantism in all but a few particularly expressive strains of Pentecostal worship. But this is perhaps the inevitable misapprehension of someone who assumes too much about the world she’s describing or plays a bit too ham-fistedly to the audience she’s writing for - this is GQ after all. [Sidebar: Speaking of misapprehension, the title of the piece, “Out of the Lord’s Closet,” seems just plain wrong to me. In the evangelical Protestant context in which Talley lives and works, “the Lord” doesn’t have a closet that gay guys can come out of (for a taste of what I mean, see the AMGS thread that’s trundling along more or less in full toxicity mode … and, by the way: bravehost blogger, here are those sharks I was talking about). And, too, Talley really hasn’t come out in the first place. It might be more accurate to say he was outed and then sort of reclaimed some of the prerogatives of the closet in an attempt to rehabilitate his career and faith. But then that’s the kind of nuance that headline pithiness resists. The title seems to want to evoke the paradoxical and contradictory quality of Talley’s life and career, but it’s precisely the kind of thing someone who doesn’t fully “get it” would write or say.] What’s so striking about Talley’s comments are not anything that he says exactly (this notion of being born into a life of temptation and sin is almost as old as Christianity itself), but what he doesn’t say: Why doesn’t he have any sexual desires that he can act on?

It’s one thing to be beset by temptation (straight, gay, or whatever). But Talley here seems to make the “temptation” (to have sex with men or form deeper relationships with them) synonymous with “sexuality.” It would be like saying that “heterosexual” was all about avoiding adultery. In this view, the fall into sin seems to mean some people can expect little more than the latter-day life of a eunuch, of denial and unsexual relationships. “Burying yourself alive,” as the GQ article aptly puts it. As it applies to homosexuality, it’s unclear how this squares with the evangelical rhetoric of choice, of choosing to be gay. Is one a homosexual only if one CHOOSES to act on the desire or temptation? And if the answer is yes - if a gay person is only a heterosexual with no will power and not enough prayer - then it would seem that Talley’s “restoration” ought to culminate in a functional straight relationship. Of course there are plenty of case histories in the textbook of gay reparative therapy that its proponents like to cite as dispositive evidence of the success of ex-gay treatment (for an alternative take, see here). But in Talley, we have someone who, upon the best evangelical pastoral authority, has submitted himself to the redemptive power of God, and yet this seems to mean a life of asexuality, bereft of the till-death-do-us-part companionship that those same evangelical authorities assure us God has ordained from the foundations of the earth for all people to enjoy who submit to his will. Talley has submitted, so why the celibacy (he says he hasn’t had a relationship with anyone that included sex since his marriage ended in 1986)? Is God not always able or willing to accomplish a restoration to heterosexuality? Is there scripture that would explain or comprehend Talley’s plight - the plight of a repentant gay “sinner” who is stuck between his “sin” and the normative world of procreative heterosexuality?

If Talley himself has come to any conclusions about these problems, he doesn’t say or hasn’t said, preferring instead to highlight those aspects of his life and history that reinforce a narrative of human failure forgiven and forgotten (at least by God). The GQ profile seems to suggest that no matter how immobilized he may be or feel as a quasi-gay man in a professional and religious world that has no place for “quasi” anything, Talley has decided to remain connected, however tenuously, to gospel music and evangelical Christianity: “Talley understands how his life appears to those outside his faith,” as the article says, “how he may be seen by gays as a coward or a fraud. But he is not terribly concerned with those opinions because he is not on the outside. Talley is a southern gospel singer. And he is a man of God. And in neither place is there room for love between two men.” Even the meanness and rejection he faces from evangelical and southern culture are at least familiar and more predictable than the life that would await him beyond.

Perhaps this is the best someone like Talley could hope for - a kind of stoic surrender of the self to a God and other Christians who may love you but will still damn you for feelings and a sense of yourself you’ve done nothing to cause or create. “It just is,” as Talley says. Calling this “temptation,” as Talley does, allows him (I think I’ve said this before) to craft a story about growing up gay and Christian that reinforces what his audiences already wanted to believe about homosexuality and Christianity without forcing him to get more explicit his political or theological views. But Talley’s talk of temptation seems to address a certain set of private ambivalences as well. To collapse the meaning of “gay” into the idea of “temptation” and “sin” seems to allow Talley to make sense of his experience within the only theological framework and religious world he’s ever known. This system and world may have no other response to situations like Talley’s than feeble comparisons to alcoholism or drug addiction or criminal pathology, but it’s all he’s got. At 47 years old, it’s probably more feasible to come to some tentative terms with life as it has existed for the past four decades than to pull everything down around you, set it aflame, walk away from the burning mess and start all over again. By positioning himself as the spiritual victor over his own baser, gayer self, Talley appears to have found a way to redirect attention away from the abominable conversation-stopping, career-ending nature of his “perversion” and focus instead on the reinvention of himself through Christ - from public pariah to a prophet without a home.

Email this Post

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Gospel Planet » On mainstream media and gospel music on 03 Feb 2007 at 12:16 am

    […] Occasionally someone gets it right. The GQ article about Kirk Talley a while back, though imperfect, struck me as very thoughtful and an honest effort to capture the complexity of the situation. And too, I’m not sure one should hope for much more than occasional successes anyway. Still that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to read an article like the Country Weekly Bishop piece, which is especially dissatisfying, not only for the profile-by-numbers approach of the writing but also the have-it-both-ways logic of portraying Bishop as the prodigal come home and yet just assuming that all your readers are in on the open secret of Bishop’s “prodigality.” […]


  1. Jeremy wrote:

    Do you know how I can find a copy of that article on Talley? GQ magazine’s web site doesn’t have it in the archives.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked * Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.