They say that in polite society one should steer away from religion, sex and politics and normally in my assemblies I accept these restrictions, leaning instead into whimsy, scholarship, and injunctions on our communal life. Today, however, I’m stepping into dangerous waters – and I think it’s the right thing to do: we live in a messy complicated world and it’s not right to sit on one’s towel with a book when others are caught up in it. Besides, I’m fond of a tumble in the surf.
I’ll start by choosing not my own words, but those of Ocean Vuong – read by Rosetta:
Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade.
Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn.
Say autumn despite the green
in your eyes. Beauty despite
daylight. Say you’d kill for it. Unbreakable dawn
mounting in your throat.
My thrashing beneath you
like a sparrow stunned
Surrender, alabaster, switchblade, honeysuckle, golden rod, autumn. There’s an illustrious tradition of headteachers stepping up to say a few words and reaching for six apparently at random. I love the delight in words that’s there – relishing the richness of vocabulary is one of the joys of poetry, and poetry is, I think, the art of selecting the perfect word each time. We have rather a lot of poetry in today’s assembly so Rosetta will be popping up again to read for us, but for now a bit on Ocean Vuong: born in Vietnam to a mixed-race mother (his grandfather was in the American Navy and serving in the Vietnam war). Worried that this heritage might be recognised and persecuted under racist labour laws, the family fled to the Philippines and then to the US. He got an education – the first in his family to learn to read – and became a poet, essayist, novelist – his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has a title in which I delight.
He's also gay – which is why we’re here today – which is why we get into sex and religion – and why I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about something else and will be including rather more of other people’s words than I usually crowbar into an assembly – because we ask ourselves what I, a cis, het guy, married since he was at university, could have to say about less stereotypically straightforward sexualities. It’s not an unreasonable question – but it’s Resilience for a Better Tomorrow, a time to think about discrimination, and homophobia is a kind of discrimination that I am passionately against and so I wanted to make sure it had its place – I also think that learning about things by reading and thinking and listening is ok – you’re happy for me to teach you about group theory despite me never having been a group, to talk about the June revolution of 1832 despite my lack of direct experience – and I think that standing up against prejudice isn’t something that should be left to those facing it: it’s a responsibility for us all – even those of us with apparently boring love lives.
Another poem – another gay poet – this time James Baldwin:
The giver (for Berdis)
If the hope of giving
is to love the living,
the giver risks madness
in the act of giving.
Some such lesson I seemed to see
in the faces that surrounded me.
Needy and blind, unhopeful, unlifted,
what gift would give them the gift to be gifted?
The giver is no less adrift
than those who are clamouring for the gift.
If they cannot claim it, if it is not there,
if their empty fingers beat the empty air
and the giver goes down on his knees in prayer
knows that all of his giving has been for naught
and that nothing was ever what he thought
and turns in his guilty bed to stare
at the starving multitudes standing there
and rises from bed to curse at heaven,
he must yet understand that to whom much is given
much will be taken, and justly so:
I cannot tell how much I owe.
To whom much is given, much will be taken, and justly so – I cannot tell how much I owe. We are all privileged, by intelligence, by our access to education, by the time and place we happen to live in. I am particularly envious of all of you and the diversity of your upbringing (although I recognise that I have my own privileges). This assembly is one I could never have heard when I was your age, because my headteacher didn’t even try to talk about such things – for the very good reason that it would have been illegal for him to do so. Under a terrible piece of legislation called Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, it was against the law for teachers to teach (and I quote) the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. This remained the case until 18th November 2003 – four days before England, maybe coincidentally, won the rugby world cup. In fact, the only information I had about homosexuality growing up was from a terrifying public information campaign called “Don’t Die of Ignorance” which made the dangers of AIDS clear to a 12 year old me. I had nightmares about dying of ignorance and so buried myself in books – maybe this is the foundation of my belief that learning is amazing. I was also confused and scared about the consequences of sex – and gay sex in particular.
This was a deliberate ploy by the government – not terrifying secluded twelve-year-olds, but getting the attention of the public, because AIDS was big news and bad news. It was spreading quickly and there was very little treatment. The most striking thing I’ve read about this time was in Richard Coles’ autobiography. Richard Coles had a fairly brief but successful career in pop-music, as the more boring half of The Communards who had three top 10 hits including a number 1 with “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. In the mid 80s, then, he was living in London in an artistic, musical scene and like many of his friends was gay. He writes about going to funerals of those close to him, bright young things full of talent and potential who it seemed were there one minute and then just gone. One of our privileges is to live in a time where AIDS doesn’t threaten us in this way. You should still make every effort to avoid getting or passing on sexually transmitted diseases – be careful, use condoms, get tested if you’re not sure are the headlines but it’s not our idiom to provide extensive sex ed from the pulpit here, so I’ll move on. AIDS isn’t curable, we don’t know how to get rid of the HIV virus, but it can be treated so that it’s no longer a death sentence – in fact to such a point that the risk of passing it onto a partner is medically indistinguishable from zero so long as you take your pills – and there is pre-exposure prophylaxis, PreP, available from sexual health clinics to take before having sex to reduce the chance of catching the virus. You don’t need to be afraid, as I was, that you’ll die of ignorance, but Sex Ed does have its place – it just isn’t here.
Richard Coles has now got a more stable career as a radio presenter and church of England priest and that brings us to religion – a phenomenon that has an uneasy relationship with sexuality. Time for another poem:
Jesus at the Gay Bar, by Jay Hulme
He's here in the midst of it —
right at the centre of the dance floor,
robes hitched up to His knees
to make it easy to spin.
At some point in the evening
a boy will touch the hem of His robe
and beg to be healed, beg to be
anything other than this;
and He will reach His arms out,
sweat-damp, and weary from dance.
He'll cup the boy's face in His hand
my beautiful child
there is nothing in this heart of yours
that ever needs to be healed.
The Church of England has, for the past few years, been in a very difficult conversation with itself about sexuality, particularly about the acceptability of gay sex. In some ways this mirrors the tensions in wider society on transgender, with strongly held views, upset on both sides, and vulnerable people in the middle. Westminster Abbey, our hosts, sit quite firmly on the welcoming side, as the nation’s church, but it’s not a happy topic. That welcome doesn’t hold everywhere and the poem Rosetta just read is a challenge to some views of Christianity. Maybe the idea that queerness is acceptable is a challenge to your beliefs.
And I think that’s really difficult – and I don’t think that makes you a bad person. Believing in a god, trying to do what your god tells you is not stupid, not worse than atheism, not less. I don’t think it means your views don’t have value, that you should feel shouted down, unable to express them in our tolerant and welcoming community, but it does mean you need to think, to make sure you’re kind. As a parenthesis here, if you’re Christian and wrestling with this issue and want to talk then you’re in a similar position to me and I’m very happy to have a discussion in a smaller forum than this. If you’re non Christian, then I’m also happy to talk, but I have a less exhaustive knowledge of other holy texts.
The bottom line, the idea that should let us hold our community together is that most of the time it really doesn’t matter what anyone else keeps in their pants, and it really shouldn’t matter what they do with it when they’re in a private consensual space – that’s not my business beyond my previous recommendation to stay safe and an additional one to be kind to each other. It’s not anyone else’s business. And so if your god tells you not to be gay, and Jay Hulme’s god tells him it’s fine then you can both spin on the dance floor, or do hard maths or write poetry without your beliefs impinging on each other. He shouldn’t get into your business, you shouldn’t get into his. One can be religious without imposing one’s beliefs on others. Which brings us to our last poem, by Emily Dickinson and as far as I can tell nobody knows whether or not she was gay. When she was alive it was assumed she wasn’t because lesbianism wasn’t an accepted thing. Now we sort of assume she was because she never married and had an intense relationship with her sister in law. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business but hers, and the sister in law’s – and probably the brother, to be fair – when I say be kind in your sexlives I mean to the others in the relationship as well as yourselves. Instead of wondering, we can enjoy her words:
Forever – is composed of Nows
Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –
Forever is composed of nows – love vows forever – sex gets into the now – kindness lives in the briefly gorgeous space between and I leave you with the hope I’ve not offended and with those final whimsical few words: Surrender, alabaster, switchblade, honeysuckle, golden rod, autumn.
1. Ocean Vuong, James Baldwin and Jay Hulme have not come into my assemblies before (although James Baldwin is a favourite of Mr Grant and has appeared in several of his), but Emily Dickinson is quoted in Tradition (partly as an excuse to quote a favourite Paul Simon lyric).
2. The headmasterly list of six words is a sly reference to Dumbledore but unfortunately was inadequately researched - he only said four "Nitwit, Blubber, Oddment, Tweak."