Two years this week I confessed to ELLE.com readers that I harbored a love for the young gay writer, cultural critic, and political commentator, Michael Arceneaux, which bordered on inappropriate. Inappropriate given that he is gay and my junior by a decade, and that I am a happily married, straight woman. It was the massacre of 49 people in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub that forced me to reflect on how easy it was to make Michael my safe date while forgetting how fragile safety is for people of color who live at the intersections of Southern and queer identities.
After that, “dating” Michael got more complicated, but I didn’t stop. Because I just can’t stop dating Michael Arceneaux.
Of course, dating me was not Michael’s problem. As he explains in the title of his forthcoming book, I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, Michael Arceneaux’s challenge is that he can’t date Jesus.
Michael and I haven’t had a proper date in ages, so this conversation-about the book, his new advice column, the next book project, and why he doesn’t do “sad gay”-will do for now.
MHP: Why can’t you date Jesus?
Arceneaux: Because I plan to have sex. The title comes from a conversation I had with my mother, who is very religious. My mother understands that I was born gay-she does not think it was a choice to be gay-but she does believe it is a choice to act on it. My mother is very smart, thoughtful, and loving, but I find that religion can take the most intelligent parts of her and warp them. There is a theological argument to be had about being gay, but I have found that trying to have that argument with people who believe their religion is opposed to gay identity is too hard. It tends to dismantle too much of who they are as people. Easier to just clarify, “I plan to have sex, so I can’t date Jesus.”
MHP: I mean, that is clear, but I know you also thought about being a priest.
Arceneaux: For like one second. I met a black priest as a kid who said he saw something in my intellect and spirit that would make me a good priest. But that did not last. Not even a day. As a gay black man what I needed to be able to say was, “Your idea of God makes me not want to live.”
MHP: Ouch. Typically you neither talk nor write about your experiences in those terms. Do you remember what you told me when we first met?
Arceneaux: I don’t do sad gay.
MHP: Right. No sad gay. What does that mean for you?
I don’t want people to consume our suffering. I am not tragic. I don’t want to be pathology porn so I don’t write it.
Arceneaux: I don’t want to talk about pathology all the time. I want to talk about pleasure and fun and joy and sex. There is pressure in public space to force queer people to only discuss sex as trauma, disease, fear. But sex can be good. It can be ridiculous and hilarious. The same thing is going on with African American memoirs. Everyone wants us to lean into the saddest parts of ourselves and our communities and tell the world how awful it is to be black right now. I don’t want people to consume our suffering. I am not tragic. I don’t want to be pathology porn so I don’t write it.
MHP: This is one of my favorite sentences in your book-“I didn’t forget anything that happened, but making the conscious choice not to cling to the past as much was helpful.” It felt like you were giving us a methodology for avoiding the tragic memoir format.
Arceneaux: I try to tell the truth. I don’t avoid the hard parts of my life. There are hard parts.
MHP: It seems home was hard and is hard. You are from Houston and clearly have a complicated relationship with the city.
Arceneaux: I am rarely home but I am always repping. Going home is still painful for me. The wounds are real and the trauma opens again. But in other ways, Houston is everything. Being from Houston is an identity and I hope I never feel totally disconnected. If you are from Dallas-who cares? But Houston is just so black. It manages to be country and urban black at the same time. H-town is Beyoncé and UGK and Selena-all those things. I had to deal with family and school drama about being gay. The city’s blackness also meant I never felt limited in who I could be in my life. My dentist was black. My doctor was black.
These days I only go back in the summer, because the men look better in the summer. And damn, I love a country man. I miss places where I can see a black man in Jordans riding a horse down the street.
MHP: Amen! This brings me to your humor. As you point out, the black tragic is big business, but so is the gay clown. How do you ensure you are not the funny sidekick of your own story?
Arceneaux: I am definitely not a sidekick. Ever. I am the hero and I am funny.
MHP: You really are. I can’t stand it sometimes. Do you know I still check your Twitter feed every day for the morning jig?
Arceneaux: The jig is important. I never danced publicly until I came out. My dancing would give me away. Dancing publicly is freedom. The morning jig is a space to shake the stress, the armor. I don’t want to lean into being cranky and cynical. I turn on the music and dance to get into the space of hope. Smart. Funny. Ready.
MHP: Ready for what? What is next?
Arceneaux: Next is-make this book a best seller so I can pay off these student loans.
MHP: Your New York Times editorial about student loan debt is genius. My favorite line: “Every time I fork over another payment, I think about all of the other ways I could have financed my education. Why didn’t I take more part-time jobs? I was in Washington-why didn’t I try to date some closeted politician and be his well-compensated secret? Or spend more time at the campus gym and land a job stripping?”
Arceneaux: Good, because if this book is not the bestseller, I am working on the next one, and it is all about the difficulty of trying to be an adult while struggling with loans.
MHP: They will both bestsellers.
Arceneaux: From your lips to our God Beyoncé’s ears.
Arceneaux: Bless my heart.