Soulfully Gay: How Harvard, Sex, Drugs, and Integral Philosophy Drove Me Crazy and Brought Me Back to God. By Joe Perez. Boston, Mass. and London: Integral/Shambhala, 2007. xviii + 328 pp. $16.95 (paper).
This autobiographical writing by a formerly Roman Catholic, gay, Harvard and University of Chicago Divinity School graduate reminds this reviewer of two interrelated themes. The first is that of exile/homecoming (to use philosopher Sam Keen's rendering). The second is that of transformation (in light of Rowan Williams's recent, controversial idea that any rightful use of "inclusion" as a value in the church must also imply acceptance of an initially unplumbed process of spiritual journeying toward an unknown congruence with God's will). Sotdfully Gay does seem to transverse what Keen calls a "graceful" movement from an experientially "dis-eased present" (in which temporality is experienced as "in exile" either from the present, by unproductive repetition of life-patterns, or in the present, to live only as if there is no tomorrow), toward a "vibrant present" (in which life is lived as a "gift" of "presents" enacted in the "presence" of God as revealed in self and in others). Rightfully done, a totally honest, self-critical reconstruction of one's past can allow for such a transformation into a creatively productive "open future."
Through a trying journey from a very sheltered, middle-class Roman Catholic family life toward incrementally growing self-awareness (first as a merely "different" sensitive boy and then as a "gay" young man), Perez was attached to religion early on. Just as he was matriculating in his first year at Harvard, his beloved oldest brother Bobby became ill with AIDS, a fact which caused his family finally to admit to Joe that his brother was gay and had even attempted suicide earlier. Perez was thus, in his second year at Harvard, "divided between studies and brooding over the dramas of my family life" (p, 12). His academic interests drifted from philosophy to psychology, and the end of the first semester was marked by his first transcendental experience. Later, he shifted his final undergraduate study to comparative religion, and further, by his senior year, was more openly acknowledging to himself and others his homosexuality. Despite his increasing interest in religion as a field of study, Perez states, "as I came out of the closet, the need to try and reconcile my homosexual desires with Christianity faded, for the religion of my upbringing no longer seemed credible enough to warrant the effort" (p. 18).
Yet, delving into graduate study at Chicago brought a different attitude into consciousness. Hence, Perez started to read widely on homosexuality vis-à-vis religion, and was oddly attracted to the "most subtle" of the "conservative" writers on the topic, in that both the "liberal" and the "liberationist," "queer theory" theological writings struck him as either shallow or pessimistic. "Gradually, I came to realize that the allure of these conservative religious beliefs was not what they said about homosexuality's meaning but that they were able to talk about homosexuality as something that held a rightful purpose in a meaningful and ultimately good universe" (p. 20).
His faith in this irenic Platonic view was subsequently challenged by his own HIV-positive diagnosis at twenty-four, shortly after his brother Bobby's death from AIDS in 1991. "Facing the prospect of death at a young age, I wanted so much to experience everything that I hadn't yet. I wanted to find true love. I wanted to do great things. I wanted to be somebody. …