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Goodman: Words of a Queer Spirit

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Pictured Roger Goodman. Photo by Tracy Baim.

From his presence at the Stonewall riots in 1969 right up to his current work as a spiritual director and workshop facilitator, Roger Goodman has remained true to his belief that GLBT people are a 'unique tribe' created for a purpose. He has lived through socially turbulent times and his personal journey is a true chronicle of the obstacles that have strewn the path to recognition, pride, and equality for gay Americans.

As a student at Oberlin College, Goodman came out in 1964 and subsequently challenged his professors when they would not discuss the homosexuality of certain writers and artists. In the '70s he worked with the Gay Liberation Front in Cambridge and Boston, where they provided shelter, food, and counseling to young gay men living on the street.

Here in Chicago, he obtained a M. Music from Nothwestern University and a M. Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary while also helping found Bonaventure House, a living facility for people with AIDS. He was himself diagnosed with AIDS in 1995. For 30 years he also was a concert harpsichordist, but his playing days are now over. He has decided to pass down his beloved instrument to a talented former pupil.

Today his work within the community is keeping him busy and focused on his life-long pursuit: empowering GLBT people to understand their collective history and find their own spirituality. He is even writing a book on the topic, which he intends to publish under the title A People for All Time: Thoughts of a Queer Tribal Elder. Goodman occasionally preaches at Broadway United Methodist Church, where his next engagement will be Wednesday, June 23, 7:30 p.m., 3344 N. Broadway.

Marie-Jo Proulx: With the Religious Right mounting a campaign against same-sex marriage; faith-based initiatives ignoring AIDS education; and certain Catholic Bishops refusing communion to openly gay parishioners; how difficult is it to convince GLBT people that spirituality can play a positive role in their lives?

Roger Goodman: I think it's very difficult. I think that the pain that we experienced in our places of worship as children and adolescents was so severe, the spiritual bashing that we took from the pulpit was so bad that when we left religion, we also left our spirituality in the pews. Because people tend to equate religion with spirituality. … There are very courageous queer people who have stayed … believing that their physical presence within that institution is going to eventually change [it]. … I am a member of the community of Broadway United Methodist Church. I am not a Methodist. I will never be a Methodist. Methodists are rabidly homophobic and they have just codified their homophobia at their last general conference a couple of weeks ago. … But I find at Broadway a spiritual home because … of Pastor Greg Dell … whose God is a God of justice. …

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A lot of the sadness for me around spirituality and queer people is … that we are peace-makers. … We look at the world differently because we're outsiders. … I think that our purpose is cosmically important and it has to do with the way we love. … The way we use our bodies to express love can be a way to God. … It is a mystical road that the mystics sought and couldn't find because of all the taboos against body. … Queer people have gifts that we have been given by the Creator because we can change the world. I believe that's why we're here. … The hierarchies of the religious institutions have it so wrong … cataclysmically wrong. … They are so afraid of us … that they use the Bible as a weapon of mass destruction. … There is nothing that is anti-homosexual [in the Bible]. … My whole theology of Jesus is based on the fact that he was a sexual being … and that he loved sexually both men and women. Certainly he loved Mary Magdalene, there is no doubt in my mind that they had a sexual relationship. Certainly he loved John and there is no doubt in my mind that they had a sexual relationship. …

[Queer people] have been the spiritual pillars of tribes and clans throughout the ages. Look at our own native people, we were called different names by different tribes, one of the names was berdache, the people who were born with both a spirit of male and female in one body and they were set aside as sacred, treated with great respect and honor. In the religions that were matriarchal, we were sacred people. It was not until the patriarchal religions came into being that we started having a hard time. It was from that point on that our spirituality started to be stolen from us. As GLBT people we have a responsibility to find our spirituality and to … know that we are being lied to and to find the truth in the esoteric words of Jesus, the Buddha, …, which are only words of love. …The whole man-woman, black-white, either-or, dualisms that we were all brought up with, as queer people we don't have to engage in those. Transgender people now are teaching us so much … Those dualisms are made by men. … Men say that we are sinful, that we are an abomination, that we have no place in Creation, … and they're all straight men. And straight men have the power in this world.

MJP: How and why did you get involved with the Broadway Methodist Church?

RG: Pastor Greg Dell and the Church figured out that it is possible to covenant with the community without covenanting with the denomination, which is what I have done. … That puts me now in a politically difficult situation. … To be honest, I am struggling with it. … I am part of a program at Broadway called Candidates for Authorized Ministry, which is for people who have been denied ordination and feel a call to be ritual elders. … God has called me to do this to gather community and create change particularly through my queer spirit. …

I went through a seven-year process for ordination and was unanimously recommended by the [awarding] body of the Diocese of Chicago. … Normally that would have been rubber-stamped by the final committee, the Bishops' Standing Committee, but it was stopped in '91. I was treated with great spiritual violence. … It was horrible, a two-hour tribunal. … Yet immediately after me, they started ordaining openly gay and lesbian people. … I led my people within the Episcopal Church of Chicago to ordination but was not permitted to be ordained myself.

So I'm in this program at Broadway, which is allowing me to preach and where the community has lifted me up and said we recognize that you have gifts. … That community is prophetic. If you look around, it is the world, … all colors, varying cultures, different kinds of families, it is as the world should be. I went there because of Greg, his reputation. A man who was suspended from his ministry because he married two gay men. …

MJP: If you were invited to be on the President's Special Committee on HIV/ AIDS, what would you recommend?

RG: My first recommendation would be money. I would like the President to go ahead with what he promised for world AIDS relief. … He has given a pittance compared to the promise. … He's not going to do it. He doesn't care. … He is filled with such hatred because of his own religious convictions, which are essentially fundamentalist. … And [I would ask] that a lot of that money be appropriated for our own country. We're in trouble, ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) is in trouble. There are waiting lists for people to get medication. … There should be money for education … to talk about condoms and safer sex. … It's difficult now even to write grant proposals. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) can't write a grant proposal if it has anything to do with sex education. So there's no money for that. You can't write a grant proposal for research if you have to talk about men having sex with men. That's not allowed.

My recommendation would be to recognize the absolute reality that AIDS in this country is still epidemic. … The drugs that we have control the disease to an extent. People are still dying due to complications from AIDS and now they are dying from complications due to the medication. So there has to be research to produce less toxic drugs to control the disease while we look for a cure. But unless grants can be written using language that refers to sex, there isn't going to be money to do that.

MJP: What do you consider to be your most important achievement?

RG: Probably surviving. I met death three times in the '90s and survived each encounter. Before AIDS, my largest accomplishment was changing people's hearts, teaching people how to see who they really are and how to love themselves and I did that as a teacher and a concert artist. … I do that now as a spiritual director. I've had my practice since 1987. The majority of my clients in the '80s were gay men with AIDS who were facing their mortality and had no spiritual foundation from which to die. A large part of my work is to bring to consciousness the natural spirituality of queer men and women. … Today my clients tend to be queer or seminarians who are struggling with their sexuality in terms of the ordination process.

I want to talk a little about Stonewall because it has reached a place of unconscious in queer culture. What happened in New York in June '69 was an act of revolution … and it was started by street transvestites … the drag queens who had nothing to lose are the ones who finally said 'no' to the oppression. … We need to know that the reason that we can have the bars in Chicago that we have today is because there was a Gay Liberation Front in Chicago that challenged organized crime, which owned the bars. We put our lives in danger. … Before, the [gay] bars were dark, sad places … there was no dancing, no food, no conversation, no pride, no humanity. The year after Stonewall, we took the bars back from the mafia and made them our own. … And now we can celebrate our queer lives and laugh.

Contact info: roger@queerwitness.com , www.queerwitness.com , (773) 267-5810.

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