Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Book Review: "God Says No."

In the religious war over homosexuality, there's one thing that stands out as irrefutable: ex-gay therapies don't change "same sex attracted" men and women into "straight" men and women. (Rather, they parse the language, declaring that "ex-gay" means "not having gay sex.")

A new novel called "God Says No" by James Hannaham seeks to tell the story of a naif, Gary Gray, who makes the effort. It's a good, but frustrating, read with a compelling narrative that eschews politics and preaching, by looking compassionately at his struggle to remain true to his conservative Christian faith (and wife and daughter, the result of a youthful attempt to "prove" he could have straight sex) while battling his attractions.

Hannaham writes with colorful and careful prose that probes deeply into the psychology of his protagonist's state of mind as he enters a Christian college, juggling his "love" for Jesus and his physical attraction for his hot Caucasian racist roommate who takes an immediate dislike to the overweight, African American self-loathing closet case. After college, he engages in reckless and guilt-ridden sex in parks and bathrooms because he hates himself and he sees no alternative.

The story is alternately hilarious and cringe-worthy as Hannaham digs deeply into the psychological torment of a man trying desperately to remain loyal to his faith and his family. For people who were not raised in this Christian sect, it's a thorough and revealing insight into the psychology of someone raised in this mini-world. I remember going through all these machinations myself (which I wrote about in songs like "The Closet" from The Big Voice: God or Merman?). He stays completely in the dark on the subject of homosexuality and religion.

For people who've lived through this, a lot of this material is well-worn. Gary's worldview never widens. Rather, we stay deeply inside his naivete and ignorance, so no one should read this thinking they're going to learn how so many GLBT persons have conquered the limitations of the fundamentalist worldview. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book, as it makes for frustrating reading because this reader knows that there's so much more to life than is revealed by Gary's experiences.

Also, for those who know this path, it's the kind of story that's been told over and over in our community. But, Hannaham makes it fresh by avoiding sarcasm and judgment. And by taking a few interesting twists and turns. Gary cannot escape his world except through an extraordinary event that he seizes, which gives him a chance to, for a little while, live an alternate life.

But eventually, reality comes crashing down and, frankly, I found the ending unsatisfying. But that may have been because I wanted so badly for him to figure out that there are more choices than the limited ones he grasped. For instance, never does he look outside the religious teachings he was raised with. Never does he see any world beyond the one he was raised in.

At times, I threw the book down and felt cheated, wondering if this "idiot" was ever going to figure out that one doesn't have to live in a prison. I would not suggest this book for someone looking for a way out of the ex-gay world. There are no answers in this book. None. Gary never finds freedom. Rather, he bumbles from one lousy choice to another.

On the other hand, I know more than a few people who've been destroyed by this path. Gary, in the end, is not a bright person. In fact, he's a bit of an moron, doing some extraordinarily stupid things. He remains, to the end, shackled by the teachings he was raised with.

Survivors of ex-gay therapies such as Daniel Gonzales and Peterson Toscano have taken their stories to the web, YouTube and the theatrical stage, explaining that they spent literally tens of thousands of dollars to no avail. And, even more, peering deeply into these "ministries" to discover that the touted "success stories" never seem to be quite as successful as advertised.

But, the story remains with me. And, for those who want to know what it's like to be chained to a religious ethos that demands total fealty without answers and without resolution, you will be enlightened by Gary's pitiful and sad journey.
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