“I dare to ask you, the experts of journalism, for help: Help me to narrate this process for what it really is,” Pope Francis told a delegation of Italian journalists on August 26, 2023, regarding the Synod on Synodality. The journalists had come to the Vatican to award the Pontiff the “It’s Journalism” prize for his efforts to promote truth and justice. While certain voices are concerned about where the Synod may lead, Francis took this meeting as an opportunity to urge journalists to depict “reality” when reporting on this process, which he sees as important for the Church and the world.
The Synod on Synodality on the future of the Church was initiated by Pope Francis in 2021. It has featured a diocesan and continental phase where Catholic faithful all over the world were able to share and discern on how they see the Church today and in the future.
The next phase is coming soon, in October 2023 with a General Assembly in Rome, and then another meeting in 2024.
An “urgency of constructive communication”
Pope Francis started his speech to the journalists by highlighting that he does not usually accept awards, and did not do so even before becoming Pontiff. However, he accepted this one because of the “urgency of constructive communication” needed in society, “which fosters the culture of encounter and not of confrontation.”
He thus told the journalists he had a “request for help.”
“But I am not asking you for money, rest assured!” he joked. The Pontiff called on journalists to help him “narrate” the Synod on Synodality “for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories.”
“Someone said: ‘The only truth is reality.’ Yes, reality. We will all benefit from this, and I am sure that this too ‘is journalism,’” he said, echoing the title of the prize he received.
“Precisely at this time, when there is much talk and little listening, and when the sense of the common good is in danger of weakening, the Church as a whole has embarked on a journey to rediscover the word together,” the Pope said, explaining how in October bishops and lay people will come together for the Synod. “Listening together, discerning together, praying together. The word together is very important.”
No one is excluded
The Pontiff acknowledged not everyone may be enthusiastic about the Synod, but emphasized why he believes this process is fundamental for the Church’s future and has roots dating back to the end of the Second Vatican Council.
“I am well aware that speaking of a ‘Synod on Synodality‘ may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public. But what has happened over the past year, which will continue with the assembly next October and then with the second stage of Synod 2024, is something truly important for the Church,” he said.
“Please, let us get used to listening to each other, to talking, not cutting our heads off for a word. To listen, to discuss in a mature way. This is a grace we all need in order to move forward,” he added.
“And it is something the Church today offers the world, a world so often so incapable of making decisions, even when our very survival is at stake. We are trying to learn a new way of living relationships, listening to one another to hear and follow the voice of the Spirit. […] That word of the Gospel that is so important: everyone.”
The four sins of journalism
The Pope also underlined that journalists play a crucial role in a society where “everyone seems to comment on everything, even regardless of the facts and often even before being informed.”
He encouraged them to “cultivate more the principle of reality – reality is superior to the idea, always.”
He identified four “sins of journalism” that reporters need to be aware of : “disinformation, when journalism does not inform or informs badly; slander (sometimes this is used); defamation, which is different from slander but destroys; and the fourth is coprophilia, that is, the love of scandal, of filth; scandal sells. Disinformation is the first of the sins, the mistakes – let’s say – of journalism.”
“I am concerned, for example, about the manipulations of those who interestingly propagate fake news to steer public opinion,” he said. “Please, let us not give in to the logic of opposition, let us not be influenced by the language of hatred.”
In the Aug. 21 letter, Archbishop Heiner Koch assures the Berlin archdiocese’s priests, deacons, and lay pastoral workers that he will not take disciplinary action against them if they bless couples “who cannot or do not want to marry sacramentally.”
In the almost 2,000-word letter, he offers a detailed explanation for his decision, which he says he has taken in view of strong disagreements within the archdiocese, which serves around 373,000 Catholics.
What does Archbishop Koch say, exactly? What’s the context? And what will happen next? The Pillar takes a look.
What’s the context?
It’s probably best to start with the context, since that is where Koch’s letter begins. He notes that since Germany’s “synodal way” formally concluded in March, Catholics in the Berlin archdiocese have been discussing how to implement its resolutions.
Among the documents endorsed by participants in that initiative — which brought together the country’s bishops and select lay people for three years to discuss hot-button issues — was one entitled “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other.”
The four-page text called on Germany’s bishops “to officially allow blessing ceremonies in their dioceses for couples who love each other and want to commit themselves, but to whom sacramental marriage is not accessible or who do not want to enter into it.”
The document underlined that “this also applies to same-sex couples on the basis of a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality.”
The resolution contradicted a 2021 Vatican declaration, approved by Pope Francis, that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”
Alongside the synodal way, there are two other contextual factors worth mentioning.
First, Berlin is often listed as one of Europe’s most welcoming cities for people who identify as LGBT. The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, described as the world’s first LGBT rights organization, was founded in the city in 1897. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the annual Berlin Pride parade in July. In 2022, Koch appealed for forgiveness for homophobia in the Church, a gesture that nodded toward Berlin’s position as a global LGBT center.
Second, German Catholic media are currently giving ample coverage to a situation in the Archdiocese of Cologne — another city with a strong LGBT presence — in which a pastor claims he was reprimanded after he held a blessing service for “all couples who love one another” at his parish in March — Archdiocesan authorities dispute his account.
The German dioceses of Münster, Aachen, and Essen — located within the ecclesiastical province of Cologne — reportedly responded to the case by declaring that they would not impose sanctions on priests conducting similar services. So the question of disciplinary action is topical in the German Church.
What does Archbishop Koch say?
Koch notes in the letter that he is committed to implementing the synodal way’s resolutions in the archdiocese, as long as they do not “go against the intentions and instructions of the Holy Father.”
He says that not long after the initiative’s final assembly, debates broke out in the Berlin archdiocese over the resolution on same-sex blessings.
“The proposal to introduce blessing services for couples who love each other and who cannot or do not want to marry sacramentally in our diocese has triggered controversy and discussions, some of which were conducted with great severity and strong emotions,” he writes.
Koch, who has served as Archbishop of Berlin since 2015, says that while the discussions were marked by “great love” for the Church, “not infrequently the conviction emerged that only one’s own point of view was suitable to protect the Church from dire consequences.”
Koch then lists the reasons why some Catholics in the archdiocese oppose the blessing services, followed by the reasons that others support them.
He notes that opponents believe that same-sex unions are not ordered to God’s plan as inscribed in creation and fully revealed by Christ’s Incarnation and therefore cannot be blessed. He cites the Vatican’s 2021 declaration in a footnote.
The archbishop then says that supporters’ “well-thought-out” arguments include the conviction that the Church is always developing in the knowledge of God, and that it should recognize through blessings the good elements in committed partnerships, such as love and fidelity.
He notes that Amoris says that same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage,” and he suggests that Amoris also gives local churches “a great deal of latitude in dealing with people in so-called ‘irregular’ situations.”
Koch argues that Francis’ oft-cited statement about the Eucharist in his 2013 apostolic exhortationEvangelii gaudium — that it is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” — also applies to other sacraments, including marriage, “and yet even more so to a sacramental such as blessing.”
“Every blessing promises God’s grace and help to us people who are and remain weak. Blessing therefore does not have the meaning of ‘legitimizing, endorsing, approving,’” he writes.
“As the blessed, we all remain guilty people who need God’s uplifting grace for our life’s journey. This basic statement connects all people, even those who ask for blessings for their relationships that have not been or cannot be formed sacramentally.”
The archbishop then sets out six points which can be summarized as follows:
Given the sharp disagreements over blessing services, each priest, deacon, and full-time pastoral worker should “make a carefully considered decision for themselves.”
As long as there is no ruling apart from the Vatican’s statement in 2021 (which the letter mistakenly dates at this point to 2022), the archbishop will not himself preside at such blessing services.
He notes that the German bishops’ conference is seeking to “intensify talks” on the topic with the pope and officials such as the incoming Vatican doctrinal prefect Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández, who has “shown himself open to consideration of a blessing if it is designed in such a way that it does not create confusion regarding the essential difference with the marriage of man and woman.”
Koch confirms that “as long as the status quo exists,” he will not take disciplinary action against those who preside at blessing services in the archdiocese.
The archbishop says he expects others to respect the decision of each priest, deacon, and pastoral worker for or against blessing services.
The issue of blessing services should not be used “for political or media purposes.” Neither supporters nor opponents should present themselves as being superior “in the congregation, in church committees, in the press, etc.”
Where there are differences at a parish level, within a pastoral team or a Church institution, Koch expects leaders to seek a solution by following his guidelines. Where they cannot reach an agreement, they should approach him for help.
Koch ends the letter by saying that what he has outlined is “a pastoral path, not an administrative or legal one,” inspired by the statements of Amoris laetitia.
“As there are reasons for and against blessing couples who love each other but do not want to or are unable to marry sacramentally, I would like to encourage you to weigh this question in a nuanced way and to decide responsibly,” he writes, adding that he hopes the archdiocese will “succeed in preserving unity in diversity.”
Given the Archdiocese of Berlin’s prominent position in the German Church, and the worldwide media attention given to German Catholicism during the synodal way, Koch’s letter is likely to be studied by Catholics around the world, including at the Vatican.
Viewed from another angle, the letter shows the deep divisions within the German Church. When four diocesan bishops refused to fund a committee intended to implement the synodal way’s resolutions, it was clear that the initiative had split the country’s episcopate. Koch’s letter underlines that there are also profound — and perhaps irresolvable — differences within dioceses, not just between them.
Looked at from a wider angle, the letter suggests that the Vatican is sending mixed (or perhaps not easily intelligible) signals about same-sex blessings. Through phrases such as “as long as the status quo exists” and references to Vatican talks, Koch appears to imply that the topic is in flux.
The Vatican made no public comment when the Belgian bishops issued a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples in September 2022. Following the synodal way, the German Church is expected to publish a manual including blessings for same-sex couples. The pastoral care of Catholics who identify as LGBT is likely to feature prominently in discussions at October’s synod on synodality in Rome.
These factors may have been on Koch’s mind as he drew up his guidance, which doesn’t seek to resolve any of the current controversies but rather pleads for a “live and let live” attitude within his archdiocese.
The question is whether his appeal will be heeded — or, perhaps more likely, dismissed as insufficient by all sides. Regardless, the reaction will surely be watched closely in Rome as it grapples with “preserving unity in diversity” on a global scale.
Pope Francis has blasted the “backwardness” of some conservatives in the U.S. Catholic Church, saying they have replaced faith with ideology and that a correct understanding of Catholic doctrine allows for change over time.
Francis’ comments were an acknowledgment of the divisions in the U.S. Catholic Church, which has been split between progressives and conservatives who long found support in the doctrinaire papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, particularly on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
Many conservatives have blasted Francis’ emphasis instead on social justice issues such as the environment and the poor, while also branding as heretical his opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive the sacraments.
Francis made the comments in a private meeting with Portuguese members of his Jesuit religious order while visiting Lisbon on Aug. 5; the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, which is vetted by the Vatican secretariat of state, published a transcript of the encounter Monday.
During the meeting, a Portuguese Jesuit told Francis that he had suffered during a recent sabbatical year in the United States because he came across many Catholics, including some U.S. bishops, who criticized Francis’ 10-year papacy as well as today’s Jesuits.
The 86-year-old Argentine acknowledged his point, saying there was “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” in the U.S. church, which he called “backward.” He warned that such an attitude leads to a climate of closure, which was erroneous.
“Doing this, you lose the true tradition and you turn to ideologies to have support. In other words, ideologies replace faith,” he said.
“The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong,” he added. “When you go backward, you make something closed off, disconnected from the roots of the church,” which then has devastating effects on morality.
“I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals,” that allows for doctrine to progress and consolidate over time.
Francis has previously acknowledged the criticism directed at him from some U.S. conservatives, once quipping that it was an “honor” to be attacked by Americans.
— From sensational memoirs to sublime poetry, Douglas Stuart, Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín and others share lesser-known books about queer life that deserve to be classics, introduced by playwright Mark Ravenhill
It was a mention in a David Bowie interview when I was 15 that led me to William Burroughs’s 1971 novel The Wild Boys, bought in a secondhand bookshop in Brighton with money from my paper round. I was confused by Burroughs’s cut-up style and his jagged apocalyptic vision, entirely different from the Dickens and Shakespeare that we’d been introduced to in school. Here was a world of dissident queer teenagers, of lurid sex. I was puzzled, embarrassed, titillated. I carried the book in my school bag – a concealed weapon – and, when I was sure that I couldn’t be seen, read a few pages at a time.
Growing up a young queer in the early 1980s, I was a sleeper agent in an enemy territory: identity concealed beneath a carefully constructed alias, cautiously speaking an alien language, waiting for a sign from the mother country, unsure if the war would ever end. The only place to find a coded signal of resistance was in the pages of a book.
Homosexuality was partly decriminalised in 1967. Outside of a few big cities it made little difference to most young queers. No “out” politicians, sports people, entertainers. No visibly queer teachers, neighbours, family members. Queer existence remained stubbornly and, it seemed, eternally taboo.
Films and plays were watched with an audience: the possibility of giving yourself away with a response that was too great or too contained was terrifying. And the television – placed in the living room, watched with the family – more frightening still. A book – concealed in the bottom of a bag, hidden underneath the mattress – was the only place to find companionship: with the author, the characters. But also with another reader, who I imagined I might one day meet. And surely one day all we queers would meet: there couldn’t – could there? – be more than a few hundred of us in all the world. Any book that whispered of queer lives was greedily consumed.
Arriving in London in the last few months of the 1980s, I discovered that there were more than a few hundred of us and that books still had a potent force. Shared among gay friends, we could celebrate our growing confidence and visibility with new work from Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson, develop a camp sensibility by quoting to each other lines from EF Benson and Ronald Firbank, imagine that London could become the queer Arcadia depicted in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
As we moved towards assimilation in the 1990s, Dennis Cooper’s George Miles novel cycle was a reminder that sexuality was still transgressive, that desire remained a dark and disruptive force. Cooper’s world of teenage erotic brutality, summoned by a spare, blank prose, was not something to be seen reading on a tube train or in the work canteen.
In 1993, my partner spent the last few months of his life in an Aids hospice, the Lighthouse in Ladbroke Grove. (A few years later, and just before the arrival of new life-saving medication, I spent several weeks there myself.) Tim was very weak, leaning on a stick, his face concealed beneath purple lesions, his eyesight dimmed. We gathered with 20 other patients to hear a poetry reading. I hadn’t heard of Thom Gunn before but as he read to us from his collection The Man With Night Sweats I discovered a voice that expressed the pain and the dignity of our lives, that gave a classical weight to our contemporary experience, that acknowledged our shared history and imagined our uncertain futures, and explored the body’s potential for joy and suffering. The lonely reader had found their community.
Debut novel Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker prize; its follow-up, Young Mungo, was published last year
The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp (Flamingo)
This is a book that has fallen out of our consciousness and I think it could help many people today. It is best known for its sharp humour as Crisp charts his emancipation from a dull suburban childhood and begins his journey to become his authentic queer self. But it’s what lies underneath the humour that stays with you. He is incredibly composed about the everyday humiliation and hostility he faced from the “decent” folk who, feeling threatened by him, would kick him on the street and feel morally justified in doing so. In this time of continued hostility towards trans people, I really appreciate the enormous bravery it took for Crisp to be himself. What enormous courage to be gender nonconforming in 1930s Britain in the face of such mockery and loathing. There is a wonderful scene (look away if you don’t want me to spoil it!) where Crisp is sitting on an empty bus and, when an Australian soldier boards and sits directly behind him, he expects more public humiliation. Instead, the soldier takes out a comb and begins to gently brush Crisp’s lavender coif. It’s a such a tender moment and a reminder of the kindness and connection that is possible between all of us.
Author of Rainbow Milk
Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill (Penguin)
The hugely influential gay African American poet Essex Hemphill died of Aids-related complications in 1995, aged 38, just one month before the launch of protease inhibitors – early antiretrovirals – which might have saved or at least prolonged his life. Simply, Hemphill is the bridge between James Baldwin and today’s celebrated Black queer writers and theorists. In the writings and radical cinema he left behind – including collaborations with Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied (1989) and Isaac Julien in Looking for Langston (1989) – he provided subsequent generations with evidence that we lived and loved, and of our fight against the effects of intersecting white supremacy, racism, homophobia and heterosexism. Gay American men had barely one decade’s grace between the liberation movement and the beginning of the Aids crisis, which Hemphill wrote about as vitally as anyone. Ceremonies (1992), an anthology of poetry and essays, captures Hemphill as sensual, mournful and brilliant but is out of print, with paperbacks currently exchanging online for well over £100. It maddens me that such landmark Black works languish in the archives, available only to a select few and distant from the public consciousness.
Author of Detransition, Baby, which was nominated for the Women’s prize for fiction in 2021
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann (Coffee House Press)
In this book-length essay on the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, dotted with portraits of the author’s friends and lovers in New York, Chicago and rural Tennessee, Fleischmann records an era in queer life (the Obama years) – but is unconcerned with rehashing the normal cliches and battles of that time. Fleischmann is non-binary, and their gender is a major subtext of this book, yet, to my recollection, the word “trans” appears nowhere in the text. This omission is typical of the book’s sly approach – both political and stylistic. Rather than seeking to name or identify themselves in any reducible way, Fleischmann – through incident, thought and character – reveals how it feels to inhabit their gender, how to look for love or beauty or humour with other people of indeterminate or unnamed genders, and how to do so with the same fine clarity with which Fleischmann themself might describe a work of art.
Crime writer whose books include The Wire in the Blood, The Distant Echo and 1989
Sisters of the Road by Barbara Wilson (Avalon)
Barbara Wilson translated her love of mysteries, her work as an activist and her experience as a member of a print collective into a trilogy of lesbian mysteries notable for their wit, intelligence and the quality of her prose. She was part of the so-called “feminist new wave” of crime fiction that brought us writers such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. But Wilson was committed to showing a spectrum of queer lives and the bonds between those who live them, and in Sisters of the Road, the second of these, she tackles head on the issue of violence against women. Its ending shocked me when I first read it, but I understand why she made those choices and, rereading it, I remember all the reasons I loved it. Wilson went on to found Seal Press, a feminist publishing house in the US, and has written another series of engaging and smart mysteries featuring translator Cassandra Reilly.
Novels include Daughters of Jerusalem, which won the Somerset Maugham award, and most recently The Exhibitionist
Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Random House)
You don’t have to love poetry to love Frank O’Hara. Because, although his poems are brilliant, cultured and beautiful, reading them can also feel like messaging your funniest, busiest yet most joy-inducing friend, with whom you’re a tiny bit platonically in love. Celebrities, sandwiches, Manhattan, buses, cocktails, music, kangaroos, sex, anxiety, death and the joy of life: the intimacy and freshness of his direct, seemingly casual poems can win your heart with even a swift first reading. And, with every rereading, you discover more subtlety, more beauty. This is exemplified by my favourite of my many favourites of his poems, Having a Coke With You. It’s not only its narrator’s passion for art, the colour orange and yoghurt that delight me, although that’s obviously a full house. It’s also that O’Hara encapsulates, better than almost anyone, the thrill of intimacy when in public with your beloved, and how you feel sorry for everyone who doesn’t love them too. And if that isn’t the definitive gay experience, what is?
Novelist, playwright, poet and critic whose books include Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary and The Magician
The Trial of Father Dillingham by John Broderick (Abacus)
John Broderick was born in the Irish midlands in 1924 and died in 1989. In his novel The Trial of Father Dillingham, published in 1981, Broderick sought to dramatise the love between two middle-aged men, Eddie and Maurice, in contemporary Dublin, where they create a sort of family with two others – an ex-priest and an ex-opera singer. The value of the novel is the way it normalises the gay relationship. Broderick is determined not to make his characters alarming, or damaged by their sexuality. Nor are they angels. There is an element of dullness and ordinariness about them that is unusual in a novel of that time that has homosexuality at the forefront. Although homosexuality was illegal in Ireland then, the cops tended to leave gay people alone. All you needed to do was to remain invisible. Broderick’s novel is an important document that dramatises hidden gay lives in the Dublin of 40 years ago.
Debut novel The New Life was published this year
Frank Sargeson’sCollected Stories, 1935-1963 (Penguin)
Frank Sargeson’s short stories are conversational. Chatty, even. We are buttonholed by first-person narrators, or we listen to the back and forth of others. The prose has the plain informality of vernacular speech, more particularly the speech of the ordinary, working-class, usually male New Zealanders Sargeson liked to write about. Or so it seems: there is in fact a subtle modernist magic being worked, with rhythm, repetition, redundancy. And this superficially meandering conversational prose is what creates the deceptive logic of these stories, whose meanings and (sometimes shocking) denouements emerge from the effort, sometimes painful and always inadequate, to communicate. In 1929 Sargeson had been convicted of committing homosexual acts, and he wrote under an assumed name (he was born Norris Davey in 1903) to avoid being connected with his past. Occasionally, though, we get the unmistakeable sense that it is the author, and not just his character, who is trying to convey a reality resistant to capture by words. “What I want to tell,” the narrator of one story begins, “is about how I sat on a hillside one evening and talked with a man. That’s all, just a summer evening and a talk with a man on a hillside. Maybe there’s nothing in it and maybe there is.”
Theatre director, playwright and author of novels including Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and Address Book
Nocturnes for the King of Naples by Edmund White (Picador)
In 1980, when I was living in a bedsit and “gay” was a word still largely spoken between contemptuous inverted commas, a chanced-upon newspaper review alerted me to the existence of an unknown American writer whose third book had just made it to the UK. I can still remember the amount of nerve it took me to walk into the nearest bookshop and order it; I can still remember how, when it arrived two weeks later, this slim volume looked and felt like a missive from another world. That copy’s dark red covers are faded now, and its pages are badly yellowed, but I still find every one of them astonishing.
In just eight short and shimmering chapters the story weaves eight discrete episodes from a young man’s history of love and lust into a pattern that is by turns filthy, elegiac and intense. Simply, it had never occurred to me that gay life could be this beautiful, or this real. Two years later, Ed’s bestseller A Boy’s Own Story changed everything, and kicked in the doors for the rest of us – but this is the one that kicked in the doors of my heart.
Her debut novel, Exciting Times, was published in 2020; The Happy Couple is out in May
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Penguin)
Every few years, I revisit James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. Depending on what I’ve been up to, it’s seemed to me like a continental expat novel, a Paris-specific novel, a sexual/existential-crisis novel, or just a book that makes me feel things. (Which is a feat; thank you, Irish repression.)
I sense that Baldwin wrote with an awareness of how his sentences both looked and sounded. I rarely subvocalise when I read as I’m quite a visual person, so I enjoy Baldwin’s prose in the shape-based way that I sometimes lose myself in poetry – but when I do say his words to myself, they’ve got musical value, too. Also, it’s impossible to dislike messy gays. Well, some people find that very possible indeed – but Baldwin’s not writing for them. So intimate is Giovanni’s Room that despite Baldwin’s momentous reputation, a small, frightened part of you still feels like his very first reader.
Author of poetry collections Hera Lindsay Bird and Pamper Me to Hell and Back
I Remember by Joe Brainard (Notting Hill Editions)
I remember reading I Remember. I’d just fallen in love with a woman for the first time and was thoroughly intimidated by all the super-serious lesbian poets, with their vague mythical allusions and female griefs. But reading Joe Brainard was like coming home, albeit to 1940s Oklahoma. Brainard, an artist and writer (who died of Aids-related pneumonia in 1994) was one of the lesser-known New York School poets, described by almost everyone as “magnetically nice”. This magnetism is evident in every line of his groundbreaking autobiography, a book-length prose poem composed of statements beginning “I remember”. The power of the memories is cumulative. They’re associative rather than chronological, veering wildly between the sentimental, the transgressive, and the hilariously banal (“I remember reading once about a lady who choked to death eating a piece of steak”). The book is a fascinating account of growing up queer in 1950s Tulsa (Liberace loafers, cinema handjobs, “playing bridge with Frank O’Hara. (Mostly talk.)”) but it’s also full of the texture of life, the pointless, intimate, half-remembered details that never usually achieve biographical status. I Remember is one of the most genuinely delightful and moving reading experiences I’ve ever had, rich with kitsch, generosity and deadpan wit.
Author, playwright and academic whose novels include How to Be Both, the award-winning Seasonal Quartet and Companion Piece
The Evolution of Darkness by Rebecca Brown (Small Press)
Back in the mid 1980s, sitting on a train, I read a book of stories called The Evolutionof Darkness by the way-too-undersung US writer Rebecca Brown. It was her first book, and so good, strange, heady, visceral, unlike anything else, that when the train pulled into King’s Cross I didn’t realise it had stopped. I hardly even registered people around me getting off.
Brown’s first novel, The Haunted House, was also very powerful, and these books, in a decade when things were politically very pressurising and dark for LGBTQ+ people, gave me a sense that it was possible to challenge that dark, meet it head on and write anything and everything.
Author of Elmet, which was Booker-shortlisted, and Hot Stew
HERmione by HD (New Directions)
It is strange how a book can appear at just the right moment. I hadn’t read HERmione until a copy landed on my doormat last year, sent by its latest publisher, New Directions, with an introduction by Francesca Wade. It was as if, nearly 100 years ago, HD (whose full name was Hilda Doolittle) had given voice to my own reflections and adorned them with the sylvan aspect to which my own writing is frequently drawn. “Her Gart went round in circles” runs the opening line, and Her (short for Hermione) does indeed perform pirouettes – emotional; psychological – in this autobiographical novel. Her mind turns to the woodlands of her native Pennsylvania, which contain circles, too: tree rings, fairy rings. Circular thinking, dislocation, entrapment: these are the themes of a novel detailing HD’s own early adult life, her poetic and queer awakening, and her struggles to be heard over the cacophony of her volatile fiance, Ezra Pound, and her enigmatic lover, Frances Gregg. Written in 1927, by which time HD was living in Europe with her female partner, Bryher, HERmione remained unpublished throughout the author’s life and was found among the papers she bequeathed to Yale University in 1960.
Model whose memoir Transitional was published this year
Venus As a Boy by Luke Sutherland (Bloomsbury)
My all-time favourite book. I’ve read it cover to cover so many times I’ve lost count. It’s a beautifully immersive and twisted fairytale about a mysterious queer sex worker who is gradually turning into gold in a Soho flat and who can give people orgasms where they see heaven. It opened me up with respect to gender and sexual orientation.
I spent a lot of my childhood living in a dream world because I didn’t feel as though I fitted in. The way Sutherland writes about themes of gender, queerness and desire, wondrously expansive and otherworldly, was exactly what I needed in my late teens. It’s taught me to remember the effect we can have on others and made me believe in magic.
Author of poetry collections Physical, Pandemonium and Playtime
Say, Spirit by Alex/Rose Cocker (Girasol Press)
Recently I’ve been working on a programme for BBC Radio 4 about Michelangelo’s poetry; it wasn’t something I was much aware of before. As part of that process I chatted with Alex/Rose Cocker about their inventive translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets. Say, Spirit, published by Girasol Press, interrogates notions of voice and translation – three invented personas rework the hard stone of the originals, revealing new layers, carving out new ways of looking at love and the body and the self. When Michelangelo’s poetry was first published, the same-sex love of the sonnets was edited out, which makes a project like this feel even more vital, and it deserves lots of readers. “Remind me, friend; why I wake; / why this world, though it troubles us, / is worth our trouble still”, ends one poem. Discovering a book like this is worth waking for. It’s a reminder to keep digging into, and conversing with, our history, so we continue to move forward.
Journalist, screenwriter and author of Clean, Meat Market and Wonderland
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt (Cipher)
A gleefully twisted little oddity from a small indie press, Tell Me I’m Worthless follows two young women, Alice and Ila, who are both dealing with considerable trauma following an encounter in Albion, a haunted house, some years earlier. Rumfitt, an emerging talent from Brighton, uses Albion as an allegory for fascism; the house a worsening tumour at the heart of society. Once friends, Alice and Ila, scarred by their night in Albion, find themselves on opposing sides of the “trans debate” – both convinced they were raped by the other. The only way to know what happened for sure is to return to the house of horrors. Let me be clear, this won’t appeal to everyone. Tell Me I’m Worthless revels in its own nastiness, but Rumfitt is first and foremost a horror writer. There are loving nods to Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, but Rumfitt is altogether more rebellious. I very much look forward to her follow-up Brainwyrms later in the year.
Award-winning Makar (National Poet for Scotland) and author of fiction and nonfiction including Red Dust Road, Trumpet and Bessie Smith
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (Penguin Classics)
In an interview in Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s 1995 documentary about her life, A Litany for Survival (the name of one of Lorde’s seminal poems), Audre Lorde said presciently: “What I leave behind has a life of its own.” Yet even she, pioneer that she was, would not perhaps have foreseen how much her ideas about poetry (“poetry is not a luxury”); about politics, about race (“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”); and about sexuality have entered the public consciousness. Lorde, who would have been 89, has had to wait nearly 30 years for her work to be made widely available in this country through the beautifully produced Penguin Classics series. But she had first been published here by Sheba Feminist Press, back in 1983, and among black and white feminists she had a huge and admiring following. The wisdom of her words and her essays, collected in Sister Outsider – and in Silver Press’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You – have acquired even more weight over the years.
Her poetry, in particular The Black Unicorn, is still as fresh and vital as it was when it first appeared. “See me now / your severed daughter / laughing our name into echo / all the world shall remember.” Lorde’s work can be read as a unified whole. The poems, the essays, her “biomythography” Zami, all in active conversation with each other. Lorde believed in naming herself, and in living a life that led by example. When she had a mastectomy, she refused a prosthesis. To complement her newfound lopsidedness, she wore one stud and one dangling earring. The Cancer Journals, another extraordinary book, was way ahead of its time. For every challenge, Lorde chose a different path. She said: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Her work still sizzles. She’s still got the spark.
Novelist and critic whose books include The Friendly Ones, The Northern Clemency and To Battersea Park
The Last Enchantments by Robert Liddell (Appleton Century)
Nobody who reads one of Robert Liddell’s entrancing, elegant, observant and deeply painful novels can understand why he’s now so little read. He was much rated by his contemporaries, an intimate of Ivy Compton-Burnett, a giant of the time, and also of Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, whose reputations have grown steadily. He was the epitome of the upright, public-spirited, homosexual expat, conducting a distinguished career from Alexandria and Athens – two of his best novels are about life in Alexandria, with illicit passion throbbing under the restrained surface. The Last Enchantments ought to be a classic – it’s been called the best novel ever written about Oxford. It celebrates ordinary social irresponsibility, giving in to comfort and kindness, and deplores the cruelty carried out when people want to save face or impress their community. It’s about a celebrated scandal of the time, when a woman who had married extremely well consigned her elderly mother to the workhouse out of parsimony. It proceeds from delicious light comedy to terrible tragedy with a sure step. I think only a gay man would have had the patience to observe all these character types, and render them with such unforgettable, catty clarity.
Essayist and author of Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography
Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett (Serpent’s Tail, available on worldofrarebooks)
So often, boy-meets-boy narratives take place in some remote manor or tent, as if romance only occurs far from the madding gay crowd. In Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, love is a group activity. In the nocturnal underground of 1980s London, Boy, raven-haired and ravenous, finds the handsome video store clerk known as O (for “older”). Their courtship seems to involve every punter at the unmarked bar they frequent. The proprietress constructs elaborate wedding rituals, making believe before legal same-sex marriage. The social circle extends to proto-gay ghosts, well-wishers and voyeurs from across history who gather around the matrimonial bed. Bartlett conjures ageless sensibilities while unblinkingly depicting a moment of relentless assault on gay men. I am spellbound by this novel’s heady mix. The characters anchor in a saturnine yet sparkling city, learning to trust in the frisson, discovering intimate surrender as an act of defiance.
Debut novel At Certain Points We Touch was published last year
My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel (Grove Press)
The Chilean artist and writer Pedro Lemebel was, to say the least, expansive: amorphous across both gender and genre, making live performance, writing crónicas and reading on the radio, talking about himself, herself, in terms that might make a contemporary (white) readership squirm. And rightly so – Lemebel’s critique of the western colonisation of sexual identity was almost as vicious as it was of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Despite a 2020 movie adaptation directed by Rodrigo Sepúlveda, Matador remains horrifyingly under-read, which really is too bad because it is a superb novel: astute, grimy, raucous and tender. It’s a love story, a political memoir, a defiant act of speculative fiction. Much like the author, it’s sui generis.
South African author whose most recent book was The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers
The Quiet Violence of Dreams by K Sello Duiker (Kwela Books)
When K Sello Duiker took his own life in 2005 at the age of 30, he was the brightest young star in South African literature. If his prize-winning debut, Thirteen Cents, is a taut picaresque about street kids, then his second novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, is a sprawling bildungsroman. Set in Cape Town in the first years of democracy and told through a multiplicity of voices, Quiet Violence has come to define queer black South African identity for an entire generation, and has inspired other works, from art exhibitions to theatre. Duiker’s Cape Town holds both the optimism of a new society and the dangers of a white supremacist order that refuses to die. Negotiating this, and the demons of a violent apartheid past, is Tshepo, an ingenuous cosmopolitan, who loses himself in a mental asylum and then finds himself working as a rent boy in a (very idealised) massage parlour. Quiet Violence is messy but filled with unforgettable characters and language. It lives with me, as it does with so many South African readers. It deserves a wider global readership.
Debut novel Mrs S will be published in June
La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc (Dalkey Archive)
In her preface to La Bâtarde, Simone de Beauvoir references a line from a letter once sent to her by Violette Leduc: “I am a desert talking to myself.” This is a beautiful summation of Leduc’s narrative style, in which she is always the desirer, her love so huge that a novel is the only place it has left to go.
Described at its release in 1964 as an “autobiography”, I doubt it would fall under the same category now. Everything is extracted from her world and then amplified – her childhood, her work, her affairs, her crushes. La Bâtarde is pure gay sensation. Her writing showed me it was possible to bring text close to the body. Almost every sentence is immediate, devastating and nonstop. Each time I read it I learn something new.
For the past 22 years, Ed Gavagan has been in what he calls a race against time.
Seeking justice for the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager and later disclosed as an adult, Gavagan watched the man he accused — a Catholic priest — grow old while evading repeated efforts to hold him accountable. He even wrote to Pope Francis asking for his help.
When he heard Joseph Hart, the former bishop for Wyoming, died Wednesday, Gavagan was left feeling like he should have done more to pursue justice, he said. At 60 years old, with decades between him and the abuse, he had to remind himself that what happened was not his fault.
When justice feels unattainable, “it’s just awful,” Gavagan said. “It’s layers of misery on top of injury on top of distrust.”
Hart, who faced multiple sexual abuse allegations found credible by the Diocese of Cheyenne, was 91.
Hart served as bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 to 2001. Men first came forward with allegations of abuse in 1989.
In 2018 the current bishop, Steven Biegler, announced that an examination initiated by the diocese and conducted by an outside investigator concluded Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming. A month later, the diocese — which confirmed Hart’s death in a brief statement Thursday morning — reported a third abuse allegation against Hart that it deemed credible.
Hart, through an attorney, repeatedly denied abusing any children, and police investigations from 2002 and 2018 did not result in criminal charges. A Vatican investigation later exonerated Hart of multiple child sex abuse allegations, while finding other allegations could not be proven with a “moral certitude.”
The Vatican did rebuke Hart, however, “for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips.” It further rebuked him for failing to “refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to numerous accusations against him and the civil and canonical investigations and processes being conducted in this regard.”
Biegler, for his part, continued to support Hart’s accusers.
“Today, I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” he said in a statement at the time of the Vatican’s decision.
Before coming to Wyoming, Hart served as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976. Starting in 1989, multiple men accused him of sexually abusing them as boys while a priest in Kansas City, according to the Cheyenne diocese. While church officials at the time dismissed the allegations, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnson in 2018 found the allegations to be substantiated, according to reporting from the Kansas City Star.
The diocese there reached financial settlements with accusers in 2008 and 2014 based on allegations tied to Hart and other priests.
In 1976, Hart became an auxiliary bishop for the Cheyenne diocese, then became bishop two years later.
In 2002, Cheyenne police received a report that Hart sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s both in Kansas City and in Wyoming. A detective interviewed the accuser, but the prosecutor in the case, then-Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan, cleared Hart of wrongdoing, stating the allegations were “without merit.”
The survivor, who later identified himself as Ed Gavagan, said it felt as if the detective had made up his mind before the interview began.
‘A black mark’
Upon hearing the news of Hart’s death, Gavagan processed his feelings by writing his own obituary for the late bishop, which he shared with WyoFile.
“May the numerous district attorneys and the special prosecutor along with the police departments in Cheyenne and Kansas City as well as the FBI in both cities bear his dying without accountability as a black mark upon their professed missions to investigate crime, uphold the law, and confront evil,” Gavagan wrote.
“Chilon of Sparta, quoted in 300 AD, said that we should not speak ill of the dead,” Gavagan concluded. “In Hart’s case, remaining silent would be complicit. We must speak up, those institutions must listen and do better.”
Gavagan heard the news from his sister, who still lives in Cheyenne. “She’s lived there her whole life. As soon as anything happens, she gets the word.”
But that responsibility shouldn’t have fallen to his sister, Gavagan said. “I’m pretty disappointed that the diocese didn’t call me or text me to let me know.”
Biegler took over as bishop of Cheyenne in 2017. He ordered a new investigation, which found “substantial new evidence” while also concluding the 2002 investigation was flawed. A diocesan review board concurred with the new investigation’s findings that the allegations against Hart were “credible and sustained,” according to a diocese announcement from 2018.
By then, Hart had already been restricted by a past bishop from celebrating public liturgical services. Biegler extended that restriction.
The Diocese of Cheyenne also passed along the results of its investigation to authorities in Cheyenne, and police there launched a new criminal case. Detectives ultimately recommended prosecutors pursue charges against Hart, but the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office, which handled the prosecution, declined. They informed Gavagan that they thought Hart had victimized him, but did not believe a prosecution of the then-retired bishop would be successful, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. Documents later revealed a rift existed between police in Cheyenne and the prosecutors in Casper.
Hart’s death ended any opportunity to hold the priest accountable in the mortal world. But Gavagan’s strongest emotions have less to do with the former-bishop’s actions and more to do with the response he got when he reported the abuse. “I’m over Hart,” Gavagan said. “It’s about the institutions now.”
Without justice, that leaves “a lingering question in the air,” about whether to believe the victims, Gavagan said. “It seems incredible to think that they all were lying, but if they weren’t lying then how come nobody ever did anything?”
Gavagan’s daughter is 14 years old — the same age he was when he says he was abused — which adds another layer to the pain he already feels about the lack of justice.
“What I have said to people is that you’re always going to have a bad cop, you’re always going to have an incompetent doctor, you’re always going to have a pedophile priest, it’s the world, it’s humanity, it’s people,” Gavagan said. “But what you hope is that the good cops root out the bad cops and stand up for the honor of their badge and their commitment and their mission.”
Gavagan was featured in the 2021 Netflix documentary “Procession,” which centered on several men who said they were sexually abused by priests as children. The film was screened in Wyoming at events hosted by the Diocese of Cheyenne.
Hart declined to speak to a Star-Tribune reporter who sought an interview at his home several years ago. His lawyer, Tom Jubin, steadfastly denied the abuse allegations and accused the Cheyenne diocese of “engaging in a smear campaign,” the newspaper reported.
Jubin did not respond by press time to an email seeking comment for this story.
“There’s a profound disappointment in the fact that he as a person didn’t make the attempt to find a just reconciliation,” said Darrel Hunter, another of Hart’s accusers. “As a religious leader, [he] didn’t attempt to make any kind of an amends for his behavior.”
Hunter, who knew Hart from his time in Kansas City, accused the priest of abusing him when he was 12 years old in 1959. He’s now 75 years old.
“For years, I’ve held the idea that if Jesus Christ walked into the Vatican today he would have some tough questions for the people that are there,” Hunter said. “His question would be, ‘what was it that I said, that made you think that this is what I meant?’”
Rather than defend the vulnerable, the church has protected the powerful, Hunter said.
“If you’re supposed to love God and love your fellow man without any qualifications, I don’t think that they’ve succeeded at that.”