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Sex, the body, Walt Whitman and songs of ourselves

 Brandon Ambrosino’s favorite picture of Walt Whitman, Samuel Hollyer’s surprisingly modern 1854 steel engraving of a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison. Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery.

Brandon Ambrosino’s favorite picture of Walt Whitman, Samuel Hollyer’s surprisingly modern 1854 steel engraving of a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison. Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery.

I remember once reading an article about Novak Djokovic – an earthy guy (must be being born on that Taurus-Gemini cusp), who doesn’t mind expounding on sex and who said, “It’s what God put us on this earth for.”

That stopped me cold, because if there’s one thing you very rarely read, it’s a sentence in which God and sex team together. The Bible tells us to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, but let’s face it, we’ve been defining the conditions of the multiplication ever since. It really has applied only to heterosexual couples who don’t use birth control. Everyone else can forget the multiplication, let alone the filling and subduing.

Religion hasn’t always been hostile to sex, particularly the goddess movement. But the sky-god faiths, especially the Abrahamic ones, seem determined to control women’s bodies.

I must confess that as a practicing Roman Catholic, I, too, bought into the notion that sex was somehow dirty unless it was in the strict confines of a birth-control-less marriage. But as I became more educated, I realized that this wasn’t about sex or religion but sheer economics. The more big families were tied to a house of worship, the more people, money and power it had. It was in the Church’s interest, for example, to look down on gays, unmarried women, married priests and small families, because these demographic groups upset the power dynamic in yet another game men play. (And it is a male game. No major religion is headed by a woman.)

All of which brings me to the American poet Walt Whitman, who apparently was gayer than a ribbon at a Civil War parade and whose homoerotic poetry was celebrated in Brandon Ambrosino’s piece in the June 29 New York Times’ Sunday Review, “Be Not Afraid of My Body.”

He quotes Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”: “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” Must be, because according to Christianity, God’s only son assumed one.

For Ambrosino, just coming to terms with his gayness as a teen, Whitman was a revelation.

“When Whitman first passed me by, I was afraid of both of our bodies,” Ambrosino wrote in The Times’ piece. “When I first placed my trembling palm upon his naked text, I felt ashamed; and yet I couldn’t pull away.

“Walt Whitman was my Adamic other, and as he approached, he beckoned me to touch him, to embrace him, to lay hold of his language, to seize his rugged, electric self in all of its untamed authenticity.”

Wow, good stuff. In “Water Music,” my four gay athlete heroes find their Adamic others unashamedly and yet remain profoundly tied to Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy and Judaism. One of my friends who read the book and had a real aversion to it balked at my describing it as a spiritual work. But I think sex can be part of spirituality. At one point, though, one of the characters, perhaps anticipating my friend, asks another if they’re hypocrites, considering how they love.

“God is love” comes the reply, “or at least he ought to be.”