Art by Paul Lee
In the St. Petersburg Thunderdome, swaying and sweating and praying among the testosterone-laden ranks of the conservative Christian Promise Keepers, Donna Minkowitz experiences a revelation. “I’ve been realizing lately how cruel I’ve been to the people in my family,” she thinks. “How insanely tyrannical with my friends.” While Christian author Greg Laurie bellows to the Florida crowd about straight-male fear of intimacy, Minkowitz, the radical lesbian cultural critic disguised for the occasion as a 16-year-old boy, turns ever more introspective. “My barriers are immense; my strength is hollow. All my life, I’ve felt entitled to hurt people . . . I’ve enjoyed writing bad reviews; I’ve found it intoxicating to be hurtful in print.” But now the barriers crumble, the tyranny subsides. Suffused with “wonder and magic,” in the mood to grant and receive mercy, Minkowitz dashes down from the stands to join the men being “saved.”
There are other such moments in Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters With the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury, Minkowitz’s chronicle of her travels along the evangelical edge. In all of them, Minkowitz steps wholeheartedly into the fray, sometimes in drag, sometimes not, to consort with the people who “squeezed the joy out of life wherever they went — making sex illegal, censoring libraries, defunding battered-women’s shelters.” She rolls in the aisles with the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, a charismatic gathering so extreme even other evangelicals shun its rites. She shares family histories with public-relations people from Focus on the Family, a right-wing Christian nonprofit think tank notorious for recruiting “ex-gays” to battle gay activism. She even revels in the sacred make-overs of “Grace ’N Vessels,” an offshoot of Total Woman Ministries, where women get loving advice on beauty to better serve Lord Jesus. In almost every case, she finds common ground on enemy territory. “My own people, gays and lesbians, have been known to get pretty ecstatic,” she writes. “But I’ve also discovered that our alleged enemies, the religious right, like to go out of control and get crazy as much as we do. They just do it in their own way.”
Which is, after all, what she set out to prove. After decades of fighting “the monster” that is the religious right, Minkowitz decides to penetrate its ranks, perhaps hoping that by depriving evil of an enemy she can sap its power. With a generous spirit and an assiduous determination, she separates individual from doctrine, doctrine from politics, the essential Christian message from its societal connotations; she learns not only to accept the tough love of born-agains, but to give them her own, to turn their rhetorical tricks back around to foil them. “I really love you guys,” she says to three men from Focus on the Family who profess to love gays but oppose gay rights, “but I just really hate your sin!” The men are guardedly contrite, but Minkowitz is transformed. “Getting to tell these men my ‘wrath,’ as [William] Blake would put it, means that I can also love them without fear.”
Between forays into the enemy camp, Minkowitz revisits the land she calls her own, in which sex is both God and devil, heaven and hell; where sex is “worshipped not because it elevates us, but because it draws us gloriously down.” She recounts her relationship with Sara, the girlfriend with the “ripped jeans and an endless desire to be thrown against the wall,” recalling how “the great pleasures of hearing my hand smack against Sara’s baby-soft ass like a vulnerable drum” eventually gave way to a dispiriting lack of purpose. S/M teaches her about morality — “I certainly never thought so much about compassion as I do now, when I have regular permission to hurt someone” — but it also reminds her that power comes with crushing responsibility. “It makes me understand a great deal about men . . . the habitual bitterness in their lives; how awful it is to feel always dominant, always responsible, always to blame.” She leaves the land of S/M, she says, because as much as it allowed her to “feel the terror, to feel something, not to close off,” it did not allow her to feel honest, unsparing love.
And love — the search for it, the lack of it, its secret permutations — dominates Ferocious Romance’s narrative. Its pre-eminence in this discussion (and this book is a discussion) means that for all Minkowitz has in common with the transgressive pioneers of Sex Panic! radicals, who see sex as a door “to all the most discomfiting parts of the soul,” they fare less well in her esteem than do the Christians: “Bowing down and adoring the worm within the soul . . . is not the solution,” she concludes, finding more comfort in the Toronto Fellowship, where they “talk about what you will get if you’re not damned . . . The mother who never pulls back; the father who never deprives you of him, ever.”
Recklessly, emotionally, sometimes desperately, Minkowitz goes after that unconditional, capital-L Love, doing brief stints as a bride of Christ on the testimonial floor, quaking and hugging and falling backward into ministers’ arms. (“Somehow, in a religious movement notably dedicated to the suppression of female and gay and lesbian sexuality,” she observes, “one of the most common religious rites involves women writhing on the floor with their arms around each other, shaking uncontrollably as they beg each other to be ‘melted.’”) She never seeks salvation as a truly repentant sinner; even as she throws herself with abandon into ritual: “I haven’t really accepted Jesus, and if the Spirit thinks I have, it’s dumb.” But some kind of spirit — albeit not precisely the Christian one — does enter her, and she accepts its presence without shame. “I want to dedicate this moment to the changes I’ve been making in my life, of which I want to make many more,” she vows to herself among the men of St. Petersburg. “Maybe I ought to start a lesbian branch of the Promise Keepers.”
Later, a friend she makes through the Promise Keepers, whom she describes as “a sports editor at a major Southern daily,” refuses to “compromise” on his view that homosexuality is a sin, and Minkowitz backs reluctantly away. “Does this make my being saved at the Promise Keepers all a farce?” she asks. “Does this make my desire to know them ridiculous, and my wish to give mercy insane?” Perhaps not. But her attraction to gatherings of self-flagellating sinners does reveal something essential about the way she loves. About, perhaps, the way a lot of us love. To varying degrees, she implies, we all — gay, straight, sex-crazed or celibate — equate intimacy with torture, hatred with passion, mix up our basest impulses with purest desire. We just do it in our own way.
Minkowitz builds her case haphazardly, preferring to throw a jumble of observations, searing confessions and literary references into a chapter and let the reader derive from them what she will. But casually organized as it is, Ferocious Romance is never less than entertaining, and it’s sometimes stunning what Minkowitz dares to reveal about herself as she steps so bravely outside her own social enclave. “Looking like a woman is harder than clapping for Pat Buchanan,” she writes, owning up to her own misogyny. Sometimes she steps too far, and in her attempt to embrace the femininity she so hates and fears, Minko witz starts to sound like the proverbial Woman Who Loves Too Much — willing to take on the burden of understanding without demanding to be understood, to make excuses without being excused, to see behind the veil while keeping her own true self hidden. She seems to expect that her revolutionary empathy will yield radical change, not considering how empathy for the oppressor hasn’t done a lot to further civil rights.
But maybe civil rights isn’t the point, and doesn’t always have to be. Maybe it’s ungenerous, unfair even, to evaluate Ferocious Romance as a political document, or even a philosophical treatise, because in the end it’s really only a heartfelt, tender memoir about learning to feel and give love. The rituals of religious fervor and the backrooms of lesbian bars, Minkowitz understands, have up until now offered “a much safer space than a relationship, where the fire would be that much more searing and excruciating. Where I might hang naked on a cross for someone for God knows how long . . . experiencing the unbearable feeling of connection, the horrible dangers of trust.” It’s easier, then, to be enveloped in the presumably loving arms of the Promise Keepers than it is to stare into the eyes of a potential real-life kindred spirit. And in its messy but utterly endearing grab at redemption, Ferocious Romance proves nothing really more, or less, profound than that.