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Boswell Reviews


Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell New York: Villard Books, 1994, 413 pp., $25.00.

Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey by David Schneider Boston: Shambhala, 1993, 239 pp., $13.00.

Lee, Rand, Book review.., Vol. 17, ReVision, 01-01-1995, pp 39.

By Rand B. Lee Rand B. Lee is a writer and lecturer specializing in issues of male incest, life-purpose clarification, and intuition development. An amateur garden historian, he is founder and president of the American Dianthus Society and co-editor of The American Cottage Gardener, a quarterly. He holds a B.A. in religious education from The Washington Bible College. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his blind husky, Moon-Pie.

These books, as different from one another as night and day, disturb in precisely the same way: by presenting the vision of an exuberant homosexuality embedded within traditional religion, neither doing violence to the other.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe is a scholarly history presenting solid documentary evidence that same-sex union ceremonies, suppressed since the fourteenth century, were once common in the Roman Catholic Church. Street Zen is the biography, by a man who knew him, of a much- honored gay Buddhist priest--a former transvestite, prostitute, thief, and junkie--who died of AIDS in 1990. Boswell's history demonstrates the astonishing elasticity with which normative moral sexual roles were viewed by Christians throughout the first millennium of Church history. Schneider's biography shows the vitality with which a marginalized population can infuse a religious body once it overcomes its prejudices enough to admit them to its ranks.

Both books have much to offer the holistic thinker, even one who is neither Christian nor Buddhist, as this reviewer is not. Just as most Westerners now assume humans can thrive only by exploiting nonrenewable global re-sources--despite the testimony of millennia of evolutionary experience and the mounting scientific and technological evidence that such ongoing exploitation is neither necessary nor possible without making the planet uninhabitable-most Westerners assume that same-sex attraction is incompatible with deep spiritual practice or social stability, despite the fact that all three have coexisted in the experience of millions throughout history. Deep ecologists, scientists engaged in "pure" research, and gender workers all know well the dangers of rigid conceptual categories; anyone interested in mental cross-training will find Boswell's history and Schneider's biography welcome category- smashers.

Both authors build their books with immense care. The multilingual Boswell quotes exhaustively from ancient documents throughout his heavily foot-noted text, beginning with an exegesis of how words we translate as love and marriage were used in the Greco-Roman world; moving on to exploring and comparing Greco-Roman heterosexual and same-sex unions; then examining how Christianity affected Greco-Roman pairing attitudes. Only then does he analyze specific heterosexual and same-sex ceremony documents. And Boswell warns the reader repeatedly of the dangers of projecting onto ancient cultures (1) "the virtual obsession of modern industrial culture" with romantic love and coupling patterns; (2) "the almost universal [modern] expectation that romantic love and marriage are inextricable, causally interrelated, and largely coterminous"; and (3) "the salient horror of homosexuality characteristic of the West since the fourteenth century."

The backbone of Schneider's religious biography is numerous personal interviews with people who knew Tommy (later "Issan") Dorsey, first in his days as a professional drag queen, through his time at Tassajara, to his stint as abbot of San Francisco's Hartford Street Zen Center and founder of the controversial Maitri Hospice for AIDS patients. While providing abundant evidence of Dorsey's enormously nurturing personality and love of disciplined service, Schneider is careful not to idealize him. Schneider does not spare us Dorsey's salty speech ("Issan rhymes with piss on," explains the newly named abbot), his smoking, his kvetching, or his unsaintly death. Nor does Schneider gloss over facts he appears to disapprove of, such as Dorsey's relationship with James, his addicted younger lover, and with his teacher, Richard Baker (who is repeatedly quoted in the book). When Baker, the Zen center's abbot, resigned in 1983, having admitted to sexual impropriety and neglect of his religious duties, Dorsey refused to vilify him and in the end also left the center, actions which, Schneider makes clear, continue to baffle many of Dorsey's admirers to this day.

Both authors possess an unemotional style, perfectly suited to their sensational material: Boswell's book is as free of gay polemic as Schneider's is of hero-worship. The works are not without flaw. Boswell' s attention to detail, though laudable in a scholar, is at times excruciating for the lay reader; I kept losing the thread of his arguments. At one juncture of Dorsey's story, Schneider feels bound to warn us that worse is on the way, which seems insulting both to his subject and his readers. And while one comes away with a very clear sense of what it was like to know Dorsey as a transvestite junkie and a reasonably strong sense of what it was like to work with Dorsey in the Zen Center kitchen, one comes away with very little impression of what it was like to sit under Dorsey as a student.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe shows us Western culture in transition from an expanded spiritual consciousness of human diversity to a severely limited one. Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey shows us one man's role in igniting a new expansion.