Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day Reflections - hospitality, queer folks, the kingdom of heaven and the communion of saints

It's All Saints Day today, a day almost over now. It's also known as All Hallows, hence Halloween, yesterday, the eve of All Hallows. The feast does coincide with the old Celtic New Year, Samhain, Halloween being the time when, as one year dies and a new one is about to be born, the barriers between this world and the spirit world is most permeable. The dead and other spirits were beleived to walk close among the living. I don't know how widespread in old pagan Europe this date was shared with the Celtic so I don't know what prompted this date being chosen for the celebration of all the saints, not to mention the following day, 2 November, the feast of All Souls, the day of general commemoration of the dead. In most of Catholic Europe, All Souls has been a time for visiting the graves of the dead. In Mexico, the tradition seems to have fused with local indigenous traditions giving rise to the Day of the Dead, which has a more festive air than the European All Souls. I must admit to being quite partial to the Mexican festival. There's been a lot of death in my life over the years, not all of it AIDS related, and given the widespread practice of cremation, there aren't any graves to visit either. I rather like the idea of an All Saints/All Souls festival incorporating Mass prayers and parties/feasting so that we can talk about our dead, celebrate our dead, pray for them, remember them.

I'm the Convenor of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Action Group in QAHC and yesterday I held a gathering of queer folks past and present who had been part of the various Queer/LGBT groups at University of Qld over the years since the first, Campus Camp, was formed back in 1973. I'm happy to say that we had between 20 and 24 people there and it was a time for telling stories. And there were a lot of stories, personal stories to tell. But in opening the gathering I also had to acknowledge two who were no longer with us, two young guys who I can still remember coming down to the old queer room, the Rona Room, back in the 90s. With one, Jason, I can still remember when he first entered the Rona Room back in 1994. That was the year when we had the (first) big influx of first years in first semester. That year was a very magical year and there were some very wonderful people I got to know in the Rona Room and still care for very much.

Indeed, with just about everyone I've gotten to know through the Rona Room and its successor, the Carden Room (yes, for some silly reason they wanted to name it after me back in 2000 - it's been rather strange hearing queer folks self-describing as Cardenites over the last few years), I feel privileged to have known them. I keep thinking what remarkable and wonderful people they all have been and remain.

I count myself very lucky when I reflect on my life. I have known and worked and played and lived with and loved and still love some very amazing people. Most of them, of course, dykes and poofs and bis and trannies. I've known and still know some real heroes. There are many people I've known since they first came out. It's been one of life's rare gifts to befreind someone coming out, to share and help and support. That was one of the beauties of the queer space at UQ, we were able to experience that over and over again. The Rona and Carden Rooms have been places of remarkable grace for so many lives and crucial to them both has been that they are places of hospitality.

I think it was in Taking a Chance on God that John McNeill named hospitality as one of the key queer (he probably would have said gay) virtues and talents. It is one of our gifts and has become so because we are required to create communities from scratch, just about, because we are not born into one already as is the case with most other oppressed and marginalised groups. We are the ugly ducklings, the odd ones out, the ones who don't belong and we know from very early on that we don't fit, we don't necessarily know why, at least not until puberty hits. So our quest is to find not so much ourselves but our own, other like us; to not be the only gay in the village/suburb/city. For many of us, it felt like being the only queer in the world. Hospitality is thus a survival virtue and places like the Rona/Carden rooms skill us in that hospitality.

When I look at all the truly beautiful people I know and have known I often have to shake my head in puzzlement. I can't help but contrast them to the homophobic slurs, vituperation I was exposed to growing up and the incredibly vile and demented homophobic stuff I see on so many websites, that I pick up on the media, that you still hear, in casual conversations overheard in buses, trains, shopping centres. Then, in my mind's eye, I look at all the very many wonderful people I've known throughout my life since coming out. I really can't understand the homophobic stuff at all. I can't see how these homophobes could really want to defame such beautiful people. I can't get my head around it. You see, if I was to be given a choice to rerun my life as straight, I would reject it because it would mean I would never have the opportunity to know such amazing and beautiful people as I have known. If this is depravity, give me more of it. The world needs more such depravity.

And you, my queer sisters and brothers, are all such amazing and beautiful people. Yeah we all fuck up at times, some of us quite spectacularly. That's life. But that doesn't change the fact that you are all so amazingly beautiful. In my farewell speech the day I finished at the old Qld AIDS Council back in 1991, I described all that community of people I'd been privileged to work with for the previous few years as a communion of saints. And they were. Hospitality was key to what QuAC did. And all the queer folks I've known are a communion of saints.

Hospitality is what makes God divine. Creation, the universe, is the supreme act of hospitality, an act of hospitality that, for Catholics, is celebrated, instantiated in every Eucharist/Mass. We queer folks have been given the charism of hospitality, well maybe it's been forced upon us but we take to it like ducks - or swans - to water. Hospitality is what makes the Kingdom of Heaven and I like to think that if you wanted to get a sense of what the Kingdom of Heaven must be like, the old Rona Room (especially the parties) and the current Carden Room are little fragments of Heaven on earth. And you are all a communion of saints.

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