Badpuppy Gay Today

Wednesday, 19 March, 1997

MALCOLM BOYD: Survival With Grace

by Mark Thompson

 

"This is a homosexual bar, Jesus. It looks like any other bar on the outside, only it isn't. Men stand three and four deep at this bar--some just feeling a sense of belonging here, others making contacts for new sexual partners. This isn't very much like a church, Lord, but many members of the church are also here in this bar. Quite a few of the men here belong to the church as well as to this bar. If they knew how, a number of them would ask you to be with them in both places. Some of them wouldn't, but won't you be with them too, Jesus?" ____________________________________________________________________

This audacious meditation from Malcolm Boyd's much praised collection of prayers, "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?", speaks not only for the gay everymen in the bar but of the author's yearnings as well. Bridging seemingly irreconcilable differences--the sacred and the secular, the political and the personal---has been his life work.

As a gay man who has happened to be an Episcopal priest during the past four decades, Boyd has taken Christianity's central metaphor of death and resurrection quite literally to heart, having shed old personas numerous times in pursuit of a more authentic self during the course of his seventy-four years. And, as is his wont, this famous "disturber of the peace" has laid bare many of society's conventions that would keep others from doing the same. Whether inviting Christ down off the cross and into the underground of gay life, or seeking dialogue between the races, or preaching non-violence in a war-torn world, Boyd has strived to unite fragmented pieces into wholeness.

The well-known-author-activist-clergyman came to his avocation through a need to heal himself. Born June 7, 1923, as the only child of a well-to-do Manhattan family, Malcolm grew up feeling lonely and isolated. "A chauffeur taught me how to read the face of a clock and how to tie my shoelaces," he explains. But the gulf separating him from other children could not be attributed to class differences alone. "I've never felt in one sense like an earthling," he continues, "I couldn't share my feeling of alienation, or explain it so I just went off by myself."

When Malcolm was ten his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a few years after that to nearby Denver. Ever the loner, the precocious youth spent Saturday mornings checking out books at the library and listening to the weekly broadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera. The afternoon was spent at the movies, where he sat enthralled by the fictions of Hollywood's golden age. "I had a super-active imagination," he says, "so the movies deeply affected me. I always had to modify my behavior in order to get along in a social situation. I could never be myself." In a way it was a life in training for the queer man of the world to come. "I was more worldly than the other boys--I read The Nation and The New York Times, wrote op-ed pieces for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News--but in another way I wasn't," he candidly states. "I was sophisticated and very gifted, yet I played a role. I had a mask."

Malcolm's sense of confinement continued throughout his college years at the University of Arizona. Upon graduation, he headed for Hollywood, looking for a fresh vantage and a job in communications. Boyd was hired by a top Los Angeles advertising agency and given an NBC radio show to produce. Ambitious and driven, his star never stopped rising. During the next few years, Boyd became recognized as one of the entertainment industry's brightest young players, working at studios as various as Samuel Goldwyn and Republic Pictures, and he eventually ended up as film legend Mary Pickford's partner in their own independent production company.

Still, for all of his worldly success, Boyd knew that something inside was far from resolved: his lifelong feeling of otherness, of being an actor in somebody else's script, persisted. He unexpectedly found clarity one night in 1951 at a raucous Hollywood party. The room was filled with famous faces, everyone slowly getting drunk. Standing aloof, Boyd suddenly knew that if he stayed in Hollywood, he would end up like the people in the room. The subsequent announcement that he was leaving the film industry to enter into the Episcopal priesthood made the front pages of Variety and the Los Angeles Times. "People were terribly shocked; nobody believed it," he says. "They felt it was a publicity stunt, or I'd lost my mind and was having a nervous breakdown. It didn't make sense to be giving up that kind of a career." But sincerity, even in Hollywood, apparently won out. At Boyd's going away party at the glittery nightspot Ciro's, columnist Hedda Hopper reported that everybody present, including the bartenders, bowed their heads for the Lord's Prayer.

After three years in seminary, Boyd was ordained a priest. Though he continued with graduate theological studies in Europe and the United States for three more years, he did not begin duty as a parish priest until 1957 in Indianapolis. It was a role the frank and outspoken clergyman would not hold long. The civil rights movement was gaining visible momentum, and rather than offering Sunday platitudes to a comfortable congregation, Boyd wanted to join that struggle. He spent the next several years in Detroit as a college chaplain and as a civil rights volunteer in the South working for social justice---marching past angry bigots, learning lessons of non-violence from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., firsthand. The anti-Vietnam War movement was soon propelled on its fiery course, and here, too, Boyd took a stand, speaking out on campuses, in coffeehouses, and even from within the Pentagon itself. He was arrested many times for his efforts and earned the appellation "rebel priest."

In 1965 Boyd put all that he felt and had discovered into a book of plainly written prayers. It spoke directly of the zeitgeist of the time, the fury and pain and dislocation so many Americans were experiencing. "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?" was hailed as a modern classic and made Boyd an international celebrity overnight. Although in one sense, the book was a message for others to slow down and let Jesus catch up, Boyd didn't slow down at all: the next decade was filled with more books, television talk shows, impassioned opinion pieces and public appearances. As he had been in Hollywood, Boyd was now the Episcopal church's rising wonder: a principled advocate for change, a trusted confidante of the secure and powerful. He remained true to his ability to hold the center among widely divergent forces. But despite all the changes and successes, he was still trying to catch up with himself, with the inner self so acutely known in his boyhood, the one who never quite felt like "an earthling."

Then in 1976 Boyd felt it was time, and he announced his homosexuality in a New York Times interview. The gay movement was in its nascent stages, and he wanted to join. Neither the gay movement nor the church--nor the world, for that matter--quite knew what to do with this self-outed celebrity. Too open for religion, and too religious for being gay, Boyd now found that more doors had closed than were opened. He had no choice but to keep on running.

I found Malcolm momentarily resting one balmy February night in Los Angeles in 1984. I was visiting the city for only a day on a business trip, and my employers, The Advocate, a (then) San Francisco Bay Area-based, national gay newsmagazine, had booked me a room at a somewhat notorious gay motel with which it had an advertising trade arrangement. I checked-in late in the day, grumpy and tired, and I was less than pleased to find a note from a mutual friend announcing that Malcolm Boyd was also a guest of the establishment. I called and introduced myself, saying I would stop by his room for a few minutes to say hello. Shortly into our visit I learned that Malcolm was seeking refuge there, having just walked out of a relationship turned sour and with no other idea of where to go.

We were polite, yet we found each other engaging. What was meant to be a brief encounter stretched into a couple of hours. Though we never expected it, those two hours have become a relationship that has endured for the past 14 years and, as far as we can see, to the end of our days. In so many ways, we could not be farther apart: one from the East Coast, the other from the West; one an Episcopal priest, the other an eclectic blend of pagan-Buddhist-Jungian; one entering into his eighth decade, the other barely in his forties. Yet, somehow our life together as a committed couple works. Every person has the capacity to die and be reborn many times in a life. Malcolm has exemplified that for me simply by being who he is; I complement him in this fashion by always reminding that the work of a gay soul in the making is never done.

____________________________________________________________________ (Mark Thompson, for nearly two decades a Cultural and a Senior Editor at The Advocate, is the author of "Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature," a book about sixteen writers, healers, teachers and visionaries, from which this essay was drawn. (Harper San Francisco) He has edited an earlier book with equally spirited themes, namely "Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning" as well as the famed coffee table book, The Advocate's 25-year History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement, "Long Road to Freedom.." (both books from St. Martin's Press). Thompson's new book will also be published by St. Martin's Press in October, 1997, and will be titled "Gay Body." St. Martin's Press has just published "Two Hearts' Desire: Gay Couples on Their Love," by Michael Lassell and Lawrence Schimel. In the pages of this new anthology, Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson express their inmost thoughts about the ongoing love they've shared with each other.)

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