When I heard the news of the shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, I thought of Sanctuary. Located in a deconsecrated church on West 43rd, Sanctuary was one of New York’s earliest and most influential gay clubs. The DJ booth was placed on the altar, and when light began to shine through the stained glass, the revelers would shout. I never saw the club, but Tim Lawrence’s religiously aware history of dance music, Love Saves the Day, took me to it and to countless others. All those clubs were sanctuaries—not just “safe spaces,” but sites of transcendence, places where heaven might touch down and lift man up.
Many people wanting to express sympathy for the gay men gunned down at Pulse have denounced religion. They apparently do not know how much of what they admire in gay life is covertly religious, a borrowing from Christianity that points back to it source. Dance culture was built by choir kids and altar boys, black guys and Roman Catholic ethnics from the outer boroughs. Though these young men came together for drugs and sex, they couldn’t quite shake religion. They indulged in things they should have renounced, but they longed for transcendence. This is why they danced to songs like the Mighty Clouds of Joy’s “Mighty High,” Eddie Kendrick’s “He’s a Friend,” Gloria Spencer’s “I Got It,” and Phyllis Joubert’s “Stand on the Word.”
Miguel de Unamuno defined the mystic as one who feels an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of his desire and the smallness of reality. Gay people, who can’t find a place for their desire in the order of nature, enjoy a painful kinship with the mystic. Their desire, like his, is not fit for this world. They can try to remake this world, or they can look to another. Perhaps, like the rest of us, they attempt both.
There are two groups of people who say that religious people are obliged to hate and kill gays: salafists and secular liberals. Neither can recognize the possibility of a faith premised on the love of sinners. Liberals are less dangerous but more annoying in their petulant insistence that gays should marry and Christians should bless their unions. In time, both gays and Christians will refuse this charade, knowing that gays will never be normal and neither, queerly enough, will Christians.
No, homosexuality can never be normalized, nor Christianity stripped of its strangeness. Real solidarity of the religious and the gay will emerge not between the well-scrubbed and presentable gays and the supposedly religious who are just liberals in clerical drag, but between the promiscuous and disreputable gays and the religious nuts who scandalously “stand on the word.” Such an outcome will dismay anyone committed to liberalism, with its sneaking hatred of difference and the divine, but it will be a relief to everyone else. Homosexuality is not the only thing that our society has forced into the closet.
A mural at Sanctuary showed angels and demons engaged in unholy acts. The mural has been painted over by now, and it would be tempting also to whitewash the fact that the approach the club made to the divine ended not in prayer but in blasphemy. Yet those two opposite acts have something in common that our broad culture notably lacks: an acknowledgment of the divine. It is on the terms offered by the divine, terms of sin and repentance, love and forgiveness, that we will come together—not on the unfabulous secular terms of tolerance, non-discrimination, and indifferent affirmation. It will be easier for us all to find a sanctuary if we first acknowledge the holy.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.