Homoeroticism and Christian Doctrine: A Talk with Novelist Henry Flesh

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Henry Flesh

What inspired you to write
something so sci-fi in nature as Michael?

I don’t really see
Michael as science fiction, particularly since there’s no actual
science involved in it. Rather, it’s a fantasy, somewhat mythical, a homoerotic
take on contemporary Christian fundamentalists’ eschatological theories
of the end of the world. At first glance homoeroticism and Christian fundamentalism
would seem to have little in common, yet to me there’s a definite link.
Look at some of the art that depicts a biblical Judgment Day. It’s full
of extremely erotic–and homoerotic–images: naked male angels and archangels
accompanying a handsome, somewhat feminine-looking Jesus; nude men writhing
in pain and ecstasy as the world ends and they meet their fates.

Then there’s the idea
of Rapture, something not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but that has become
dogma to some fundamentalists. The word "rapture" itself has sexual
implications, although I feel that this connotation exists only subconsciously
in the minds of people who have such beliefs. (I mean, many Christian fundamentalists
are nothing if not repressed–not to mention homophobic.) I think that religious
dogmatism is a by-product of sexual repression, a theme I dealt with, too, in
my first novel, Massage. In Michael I made the sexuality overt
by having Stephen, my protagonist, make love and ejaculate as he is raptured.

I’ve been in Jungian
analysis for years, and naturally this has had a strong influence on me, especially
in my approach to dreams and myths. That’s why I said that Michael can
be seen as somewhat mythical. Dreams are an even stronger element in the book:
the further into the novel you go, the more dreamlike it becomes. Indeed, some
might see it as the fever dream of a very sick man approaching death.

Was there something you’ve
experienced in your life that helped you make a connection between sexuality
and religious fundamentalism?

Actually, there was. When
I was a child growing up in a small town in southwestern Ohio, the only openly
gay man I knew of was a very handsome black man, Tommy, who also preached at
the local African-American Baptist church. He loved telling me fire-and-brimstone
stories of the end of the world. Once I went to one of his sermons, in which
he recited by heart the Judgment Day section of James Weldon Johnson’s
God’s Trombones
, a 1927 epic poem that consists of seven sermons as
they would be given by an African-American preacher. Tommy’s beliefs comforted
me at the time, when my parents had just divorced and I was suffering a lot
of bad stuff that was going on in my home. I totally connected with his religious
faith and at the same time with his sexuality (he was very camp)–something
that I sensed at the time (I was around seven or eight), though I did not yet
know what a homosexual was. I think these memories might have been one of the
kernels that helped me imagine Michael.

Tell me something about
the illustrations. They certainly add a lovely quality to the book.

I’ve always loved 19th-century
novels, which were often illustrated, and particularly liked George Cruikshank’s
drawings for many of Dickens’ novels. When I was planning the production
of Michael, I showed Cruikshank’s stuff to a good friend of mine,
John H. Greer, whose work I had long admired, and asked him if he could do similar
things with the illustrations for Michael. I think the drawings he created
are brilliant, and his sensibility seems so in touch with my own.

Michael’s story
seems like a metaphor for the "death" of the gay community from the
AIDS epidemic.

In fact, I saw it as a metaphor
for the aging process and for death in general. With Michael I tried
to face many of my greatest childhood fears. There was the end of the world
as described by Tommy, a fear that was exacerbated by the widespread terror
of nuclear war that existed in the 1950s and 60s, a terror I certainly absorbed
as a child. Beneath it all was the sense of abandonment that I’d experienced
when my parents divorced and that Stephen feels in the novel.

In addition, as I wrote
Michael I was trying to deal with some things that I was going through
then, fears having to do with my approaching 50–in a gay community and
an American society that is often ageist–and with my own mortality. It’s
like, as you get older, you realize how little time you have left to deal with
some of the "stuff," dilemmas that you’ve experienced all your
life; you begin to suspect that you’ll never "solve" certain
things, or even completely understand them.

Do you feel the gay community
has really absorbed yet the enormity of the AIDS crisis, especially how it has
devastated the arts community?

Most middle-aged and older
gay men certainly see it, since it has affected every aspect of their lives,
the arts and everything else. Nothing has been untouched, and it’s highly
unlikely that anyone who lived in an urban center at the height of the epidemic,
in the 80s and early 90s, didn’t know someone who died of AIDS.

I’m not so sure about
younger people. Being younger than I am, you might have a better idea. A lot
of kids in their 20s seem to me deeply aware of the crisis. Others, though–at
least on the surface–act remarkably blase and don’t appear to give
HIV a lot of thought. There are, of course, drugs that exist now that weren’t
around 10 years ago, and they’ve helped thousands survive. Even so, they’re
not a cure, and we don’t know how long they will remain effective. In addition,
though the crisis in Africa is as bad if not worse than it’s ever been,
I don’t think most people–young or old, queer or straight–give
this much consideration. George W. Bush and Ralph Nader certainly didn’t
talk about it much.

What impact has winning
the Lambda Literary Award had on you? In what way has it affected your life?

I was, of course, thrilled
and honored when I won, and the high that winning it gave me lasted for a while.
But then time passed, and all the things that I’ve always dealt with remained.
I was still me, and my life was basically the same. And, paradoxically, getting
the award made me question myself: Did I deserve it? Would I be able to write
again? And would what I wrote be any good? I struggle with these things every

You’ve just gotten
back from Crete, and I know from our conversations that you used to go there
a lot. What’s the attraction for you there?

This last time I went to
research a new novel, part of which takes place on Crete in 1979, when I was
first there. I wanted to replicate as much as possible what I’d experienced
back then.

Of course, that wasn’t
possible. Crete has been totally developed, and a large part of it ruined. The
fishing village where I used to go is now a tour-group hell. I did manage to
find a place on the island that was at least relatively unspoiled, and I got
a great deal out of the time that I spent there. In fact, I started writing
a new novel during my stay. But I don’t know that I’d go back any
time soon. Every place seems to be getting so overly developed and Americanized

I’m not sure exactly
what it was that initially attracted me to Crete. It was almost like an instinctual
feeling that I got at some point, like when I saw a film or maybe talked with
someone who’d been there, I don’t really remember. But I went along
with my instincts, and the experience was great, kind of magical. I want to
recreate what I went through as much as possible in the novel I’ve just

There’s a book party
Michael this Thurs., Nov. 30, at Tonic (107 Norfolk St., betw. Delancey
& Rivington Sts.), 7 p.m. Henry Flesh will read; there’ll be an exhibit
of John H. Greer’s illustrations for the book; and the bands Deni Bonet
and Clem Snide will play.