Houston native, Howard University alum, and now New York Times best-selling author Michael Arceneaux opens his debut book I Can’t Date Jesus with a confession: “I hadn’t been to church in five Beyoncé albums.” He offers 15 personal essays that survey the black gay experience through the lens of religion, sex, and humor. Arceneaux, 34, will bring his book to Philadelphia on Wednesday, Oct. 24, with an appearance at the People’s Education Center. He spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about Catholicism, his family’s reaction to the book, and the importance of consent in queer encounters.
You walk us through the complexities of being gay and growing up in a black Catholic church. Can you talk about why that was so important to you?
It’s so interesting that people don’t think black Catholics exist. There was an article last year in the Atlantic that found there are actually more black Catholics in this country than the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] church. That’s just an experience that I’ve never read about. I can’t think of a memoir that talks about being black and Catholic.
A black priest even tried to recruit me for the priesthood because they know that they don’t have a lot of black clergy members. I do know a lot of black Catholics have swooped into my email, or my [direct messages on Instagram] to be like, “Oh thank you because I’ve actually not heard anyone else speak about this nightmare.” I’m sure it’s not [a nightmare] for everybody, but you know what I mean.
You wrote, “the meanings of words could transform over time — even the word ‘abomination.’ ” How do think the meaning of “abomination” will evolve?
It kind of already is evolved. There’s a great documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So and in it, they talk about those six passages in the bible that speaks about homosexuality and they contextualize it. People don’t really study the word, but if you talk to theologians and historians, they’ll tell you that abomination didn’t have the same connotation that it does now. It wasn’t as intense in its meaning. From my understanding, to compare phrases, [abomination] is like abnormal. So we think about abomination in the context of eating shellfish or mixing fabrics. So the language is the same, but it’s not stigmatized in the same [as homosexuality]. This is very intentional.
While I’m not particularly religious anymore, I do have a great respect for religion. But I think if we are to get people to live up to Christian virtues more authentically, we need to confront and interrogate these biases.
You mentioned that you speculated how much better your mother’s life might be “if she focused more on what she could change now as opposed to waiting to be rewarded for her virtues in the afterlife.” Do you think she’ll ever come around to that?
A point that I wanted to make in the book is that you have to meet people where they are and then reflect on why they are the way they are. If you love a person, have a level of respect for them. For me, I understand why my mom is the way she is, particularly her interpretation of religion, her interpretation of dogma, that version of Christianity. I understand why that works for her and has kept her going. I recognize why she is the strongest person I know and why I admire her so much.
The disconnect is that I don’t think [my mother] and people who hold similar views — very rigid, very “this is the way it is” and not allow any type of grayness — have the same type of consideration for me. I think what works for her works for her and I respect that’s where she is. I choose to live my life differently but we both love each other and we both respect where the other is. That’s the best Christian I can be.
Has your father read the book?
No. My parents haven’t read the book. Some relatives have. [My relatives] said that I was “honest but respectful,” which is the nicest cosign you can get from older Southern black people when you’re writing about personal stuff that they’d rather not know. My mom will not read the book.
In the chapter “The First, The Worst” you detail a traumatic sexual experience you had with another man. Would you say you were sexually assaulted?
I did not consider myself to be sexually assaulted, but that’s something that has come up in one or two interviews. I understand why some people might interpret it that way and I’ve never thought about it in those terms. That’s something that I’m still reflecting on. I don’t think the intent was to [assault] but it nonetheless happened. It’s an issue about consent and the role alcohol plays and how consent works in those types of situations.
I’m still kind of processing it because it’s interesting to have people ask me that, and in some cases, maybe assign that to me.
Let’s talk about gay dating apps, which you talk about in the book. Why do gay men have such a love/hate relationships with apps like Grindr and Jack’d?
To be blunt, gay sex is very much stigmatized. Whether consciously or otherwise, we’re typically conditioned to feel bad about wanting pleasure and bad about wanting sex. I actually would rather meet the person in person. Apps, in general, allow people to be colder and distant. It’s interesting because we’re all so connected but it’s easier to be distant with the app. I think apps can bring out the worst in people and they’re allowed to do that because they’re alone and don’t have to be face to face.
But if you need to use an app and you think it’s for sex, good for you. It’s not that big of a deal, ultimately.