Jesus and the Michigan State University Men’s’ Room: My Introduction to Homosexuality
I attended high school in Niagara Falls, New York, in the late 1950’s and didn’t know anybody that was gay; I realize now that I probably did know gays in High school but didn’t “know” that I knew them. Nobody back then talked about homosexuality: my parents never mentioned it to me and my friends and I never talked about it; it was never mentioned on television or in the books I read. In school, during sports, and after school, we never used the words gay, or homo, even as insults, and if anybody had used those terms, they’d have had to explain to me what they meant. Although we didn’t have a single Asian student attending our high school, I knew more about being Chinese than I did about gays.
My total ignorance of gays ended during my second semester at Michigan State University. At the time, MSU tried to group out-of-state freshmen from the same state in the same dorm, and because I was from New York I was assigned to Butterfield Hall with a bunch of other guys from New York State. Back then, there were no co-ed dorms. The MSU admissions people must have thought that all people from New York were the same, not realizing that students like me from Western New York had way more in common with students from the mid-west than with those from New York City.
Like many other universities, particularly those that were state supported, MSU was experiencing an enrollment boom that necessitated placing three students in dorm rooms built for two; each room was equipped with a set of bunk beds, a single bed, three desks with chairs, and three dressers; rooms were painted institutional green or baby-shit yellow; and had terrazzo floors to round-off the stark, cold, prison cell ambiance, though prisoners had the advantage of only one or two to a room.
I arrived early for my first semester, being the first in my room and one of the first in the dorm. After unloading my meager possessions, my parents drove away as I watched outside Butterfield wondering what in hell I had gotten into. Standing in my room facing the large double window framed in pitted aluminum overlooking a massive green courtyard crisscrossed with cement walkways, a vague floating feeling reminded me that until now I had never been overnight and away from home without my parents. By the end of the next day, I lived with two roommates and an entire dorm full of guys from New York City. I might as well have been on Mars. Everybody talked fast and loud and boisterous, and was what my mother would describe as “pushy” with an in-your-face attitude and body language. I withdrew trying to discern where I fit in all the chaos, afraid the answer was nowhere.
My days consisted of attending classes and afterward working in one of the relatively quiet dorm study rooms. Butterfield was one of five dormitories that made up the Brody group of dorms, and was served by a large central building housing the massive dining hall and other activity and meeting rooms. Back then Brody was, judged by the number of daily meals served, the largest non-military dining facility in the world. I think there are few experiences as solitary as dining alone, and doing so at Brody was the equivalent of being stranded on a desert island, while enveloped by the isolating din of hundreds of yapping people. Desperate for human intercourse, I started eating supper with my roommates despite being put-off by their pigs-at-a-trough table manners and propensity to talk with their mouths full of food that often got sprayed in my direction. As you can see, I was a bit of a tight-ass.
Because of my costive adjustment, it became apparent that the salient question — -the elephant in my mind, as it were — -was “Is MSU right for me?” This got answered when I went home during semester break, and after staying out one night until early morning, my dad said that henceforth I had to be home by midnight. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” was his precise statement. “Yah, well, that’s the point of staying out,” I replied, and knew from then on MSU and I had to get along.
A guy named Jesus Machelli lived several rooms down the hall from my dorm room. He was from the Bronx and had an accent I had only previously heard on TV sitcoms. “Hey, howaya?” he would say when we passed in the hall, or met in the common bathroom/shower area that served our entire floor. I thought he spent a lot of time in the shower area slowly and deliberately toweling dry and wondered how his olive skin could look so healthy, what with it being drenched so often with all that chlorinated water. Jesus was my height, six feet, and his lean muscled torso suggested much gym time. He also had the perfect ass of a black athlete and an uncircumcised cock, which you didn’t often see back then.
One night, early in our second semester, Jesus sat at the table I occupied in the dorm study room. A blizzard dropped snow an inch an hour in the courtyard while we sat apposed reading and occasionally gazing at the plate-glass windows being continuously etched with feathered frost patters. I broke our silence with, “The patterns are pretty, aren’t they?”
“Yah, de frost,” Jesus said. “It’s nice.”
“Can I ask you a question?” I said.
Shore,” Jesus said. “Shoot.”
“How did you get a name like Jesus Machelli?”
Jesus laughed. “My Mama was Puerto Rican an’ my old man was a whop.”
That made sense but I decided to back off the personal and asked another more prosaic question: “What’s your major?”
“Pre-vet. I like animals because I’m not dat hot on people. What’s yours?”
“Pre-med. But I’m not sure how much I like people.”
Jesus laughed again, which emboldened me to ask, “Most of the time I see you in the shower room or in the laundry drying towels. Why do you take so many showers?”
A long silence ensued and the wind shifted and splattered snow and sleet on the windows.
“I guess,” Jesus replied, deliberately picking his words, “that I have a cleanliness fetish.”
“Really?” I said. “I never hear of such a thing.”
“So dare you go, an’ you had to come all dis way to find it out.”
After our first extended encounter we often sat at the same study table and although we rarely talked about coursework, I found my work easier just being with somebody I was getting to know and like. Besides, I liked telling people I knew Jesus. When we finished studying, we talked, sometimes not stopping until late at night when a winter moon cast a purled glow over snow covered Brody buildings, or stars in an Artic black sky blinked at us through the study room’s low florescent haze.
Jesus said he didn’t trust most people until they proved they meant no harm, which contrasted with my modus operandi of giving others the benefit of the doubt. I was intrigued by how his street-wise cynicism amplified his love for animals and his talk about what he would do once he was a practicing veterinarian, how he would treat dogs and cats, but specialize in rare birds. I asked if he thought he could make a living treating rare birds and Jesus said New York City, “Was fulla dem.” Jesus asked what I saw as my future and I said I didn’t know; that my parents wanted me to be a medical doctor, but I knew I didn’t want that.
We met regularly, talking about things personal, practical, and philosophical, and I could tell Jesus looked forward to our relaxed evenings as I did. At times Jesus could be circumspect about his family and friends in “the City”, but I wrote it off as being just a part of the urban wariness and caution many of the guys in my dorm exhibited once I scraped through their façade of swagger. Yet, with Jesus I could only scrape so far; when I pushed for too much information too fast, I saw anger flare from his tightened face. This happened only occasionally for me because I sensed Jesus’s boundaries, though they had changed slightly when nudged by our developing friendship. With people he didn’t know, Jesus set limits using acerbic humor, brusquely applied.
Once Jesus asked me what religion I belonged to and I told him I was raised Roman Catholic. Jesus said he was too but didn’t believe any longer. I asked why and when he said, “It’s no longer relevant to my life,” I was surprised by the quickness and surety of his answer. I said that I no longer practiced Catholicism, but was not sure where I stood on the existence of God, that I no longer bothered to give the issue much thought.
“Why aren’t you a catlick any more?” Jesus said.
“Because we are no longer required to eat fish on Fridays.”
Jesus’s large brown eyes opened wide and a smile showing his perfect white teeth cut an arc across his face. “Owwww,” he howled others in the room looked up and at us.
“Gitoutahere, you’re not serious! That seems so…so petty. I mean I expected somethin’ profound, somethin’ existential.”
“It is profound,” I said in a hurt whisper. I felt my jaw tighten and my face flush. “When the Pope changed the rules, our Bishop postponed implementing the change for a month, but the bishop at an adjacent diocese made the change immediately. It was a sin to eat meat on Friday where we lived, but not thirty miles away. I remember thinking “How could that be?
How could it be a sin here but not there? And what other sins does this…this relevance effect?”
Jesus sensed my petulance and put his hand over mine and squeezed gently. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have laughed. Did you reach any conclusions?”
Jesus continued to hold my hand past the point I expected it to be withdrawn, and what I felt him conveying was that he wasn’t just being penitent, that he really wanted an answer.
“I decided that every sin I could think of was okay to commit under certain circumstances. That what I had previously thought an absolute was not at all. That one way or another, all sin can be justified.”
“Yah, I’m okay wit dat. Hey look, this Friday is Good Friday an’ I think it’s still a sin to eat meat on Good Friday. So why don’t we grab a steak of somethin’ Friday at the Coral Gables?”
East Lansing, where MSU is located, was dry back then and the closest place to get a drink was the Coral Gables, a bar with a decent restaurant built right across the East Lansing city line. Jesus had phony ID but I didn’t, so he could order a drink while I had to watch or settle for a couple of surreptitious sips. This burned my ass because in New York the drinking age was eighteen so I was used to drinking as was the entire fucking dorm. Did it stop anybody from drinking on campus? No, it just made it more exciting because of the arrest risk.
I hadn’t had a steak since being home. “That sounds good. I’ll look forward to Friday. But you know we’ll burn in hell.”
“Only if we’re catlick, but we aren’t catlick no more so who cares. Besides, I think I can get you past the bouncers.”
To enter the barroom at Coral Gables you had to get by the bouncers. Big motherfuckers. The owner, a guy named Don Johnson, had a soft spot for ex-MSU football players with too little talent to play and too few brains to graduate, so Johnson hired them as bouncers until they landed a job at one of the Michigan auto factories or back home went into real estate where they were remembered as high school gridiron stars.
On Good Friday Jesus and I hitched to the Gables (at the time, freshmen were not allowed to have cars at MSU) and walked right up to the bar entrance where Jesus gave the beefy dude with a gut and biceps the size of my thighs his fake ID. The bouncer glanced at the ID and was about to hand it back to Jesus then looked at the ID again.
“Your name really Jesus?”
Jesus said, “Uh huh, that’s me,” and putting his hand on my shoulder, “this is my father, Joseph. Then Jesus made the sign of the cross in front of the bouncer’s face and said, “In nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spiritus Sancti.”
The bouncer stared at Jesus then started laughing, which started all the people in line behind us laughing. Jesus took his ID from the bouncer’s frisbee sized hand and we walked unimpeded into the barroom, bellied up to the bar for a couple of beers, then went into the restaurant for our steaks. When we got ready to leave Jesus said I should hitch back myself because he had something to take care of. “I’ll see ya tomorrow at dinner,” were the last words he ever said to me.
Jesus disappeared. I first noticed him gone in the shower area, then in the study room. I talked to his roommates and they said they didn’t know where he was. I asked them if they reported him missing and they said they didn’t want to talk about it, and anyway it was none of my business. I went to the dorm manager and he said he didn’t know where Jesus went, but that he had received a withdrawal form from the Admissions Office signed by Jesus.
What the hell happened? Why didn’t he tell me he was leaving? I thought about all our conversations and what I may have said wrong. Nobody had vanished from my life before, especially a friend. I finally went to the campus police and was told they couldn’t give me any information. “Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” I asked. I was ordered to leave.
The Men’s Room
Two weeks after Jesus’s disappearance a guy named Marv Berenson came to my room. Marv lived on my dorm floor and knew Jesus from the Bronx. Marv was a junior and had already been accepted to law school. He was round all over, like the Pillsbury doughboy, and wore his glasses on the end of his nose. I knew he had a good sense of humor from the times I was with him, like when a bunch of us ordered foot-long chilly dogs smothered with onions and mustard from Varsity Pizza — -Marv was always telling stories and cracking jokes.
Marv stepped into my otherwise empty room, closed the door, and said in an uncharacteristically solemn manner, “I know you are friends with Jesus so I thought you out to know. Jesus was arrested in the Student Union men’s room.”
I was speechless, but managed, “For what?”
“For solicitation,” Marv said.
Marv sat on the edge of the single bed and I took one of the desk chairs. “Let me explain,” he said in an avuncular tone. Marv’s head looked at the floor, his elbows were on his knees, and his hands were clasped. “Jesus is a cocksucker. He went to the Student Union men’s room to butt pirate…you know, solicit sex from other men, men who are homosexual. He was busted by an undercover cop.”
I sat quiet, my mind trying to wrap itself around Marv’s words. “You’re joking, right. This is a put-on, right?”
Marv shook his head.
“People actually do that?” I asked plaintively.
Marv nodded ‘yes’ then said, “I would keep quiet about this. Some of the guys around here are religious and think Jesus got what he deserves. Some even say they would have kicked Jesus’s ass if they knew what he was, and he’s lucky the cops got him foyst. If I were you, I wouldn’t make a show of concern or a big deal outta Jesus being gone. Those guys could take it the wrong way, if you know whatta I mean.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I don’t care what other people think, and I do know how to take care of myself. But still and all, I’m not going to tempt fate.” I also remembered that before I left home Dad gave me a fishing knife. At first I thought the knife an unusual going away present — -I was going to college, not the Yukon — -but then I realized that to Dad this was an important item to have. When Marv left the room I got the knife from my duffle and put it in my book bag. Dad knew.
Life Without Jesus
I periodically dealt with my loss of Jesus’s friendship, and my feelings about why and how he disappeared, by walking the banks of the Red Cedar River that cut through campus; it was now Spring and the many university gardens were struggling alive with purple crocuses and green shoots in assurance of the coming flowers, green grasses, and scented trees. I missed Jesus’s gentleness and even his cynicism. I missed how he questioned everything and seemed to trust nothing. I missed our talks.
I wondered why Jesus had to go to the Student Union men’s room to seek sex.
I remembered Marv’s comments about religious guys wanting to kick ass.
I remembered a conversation I had with Jesus during which he jokingly said, “I often feel weltschmerz.” To which I replied, “Huh?” Jesus explained it meant being weary of the world’s ills, and longing for a place he had never been.
I was beginning to understand.
I’ve heard religious people, all of them conservative Christians, say that being gay is a choice. But who would choose to have sex in a men’s room stall? You have to be driven by desperation to do something so shallow and demeaning. When I think of my sexual needs and the history of their expression, I don’t remember ever having to decide between being heterosexual or gay. Nobody chooses to risk the humiliation and embarrassment or career destruction, or being handcuffed in a men’s room and led off a criminal, unless they see no viable alternatives for sexual gratification. The violence of his arrest and the latent violence that plagued Jesus’s life must have been like living in a cage with a sleeping beast, waiting for its awakening to your presence and nature, and for its attack.
In study rooms and the dining hall I noticed the guys with the loudest opinions about Jesus expressed themselves through three of the five basic emotions of fear, anger, and disgust, and seemed to lack the ability to talk about Jesus through expressions of joy and sadness. Eventually I concluded that these self-professed conservative Christians worked with a crippled emotional repertoire because of their need for sin and sinful scapegoats.
I have come to understand that conservative Christians need gays as does any closed society whose solidarity is increased by its enmity towards those it classifies as sinners. Simply put, I think these conservative Christians need scapegoats toward whom they can vent their wrath, and the more they are threatened by what they see as a sinful world, the more they need scapegoats; they define who they are through the negative standard of who they are not. Such a religious approach has been described as “sadistic and sacrificial” where “violence becomes a sacrament by which one wins glory for oneself, one’s family, and one’s state.”
The conservative Christian need for scapegoats to strengthen group solidarity and define themselves is a result of their need for sin, and is bolstered by the enterprise of Christianity’s need for sinners and sinning scapegoats to maintain its capital flow. The early Christian Church, principally St Augustine, realized that if Pelagianism was right…that there is no original sin and people can live a sin free life…then there would be no reason to give churches money: no sin, no need for absolution; no need for absolution, no money.
Despite the fact that the central problem for every Christian is determining how to save ones’ soul, and that doing so by vilifying gays is an insult to Jesus, conservative Christians and their enterprises will have a difficult time legitimating any progress gays make, including any affirmation of same sex marriage by the Supreme Court: The costs to the individual Christian, the Christian group, and the Christian enterprise, are simply too high and are an existential threat.
My hope is that my buddy Jesus is still alive and participating in today’s gay revolution. I hope he is surrounded with friends who openly share with him experiences of joy and sadness…friends with whom he can celebrate life on his terms. As Barney Frank made clear in his book, the alternative is destructive and unacceptable:
The strain of living in the closet takes a heavy toll on your personality. And it is hard to keep the anger that should be directed at your own self-denial from spilling over into dealings with others.