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Mar 16, 2012

Peter opines on "Bill Cunningham New York"

This has been a somewhat heavy week topic-wise here at MPB, I recognize. 

Rather than plan, I just take my inspiration from whatever I happen to be doing or thinking at the moment and then, in roughly an hour or so, turn it into a blog post.  If my thoughts are sometimes scrambled or unclear,  I look to you, my readers -- many of whom have thought about these issues in far greater depth than I -- to contribute your wisdom in a comment, for which I am always grateful (and always read even if I don't often respond).  Anyway, I hope those who prefer lighter fare will bear with me for one more day.
Having placed a hold on a library copy of the 2010 documentary (directed by Richard Press) about New York Times fashion/society photographer Bill Cunningham, I was able to pick it up and watch it yesterday evening.  So that's what's on my mind today.

Friends, one of the great privileges of writing a blog is the opportunity to feel known.  Whatever a blog's theme or focus, inevitably you're writing about yourself.  I consider feeling known and (hopefully) understood, to be one of life's great satisfactions.  (Since it is through our connections with others that we develop a healthy relationship with ourselves.)  You don't have to look far to realize that many of the people our culture idolizes for their outward success and social status are, paradoxically, lonely and lost.

I've always been leery of people who seem unknowable or emotionally inaccessible because, in my experience, they are often deeply wounded, and as a result, are highly likely to wound others, however unconsciously.  Their inaccessibility mirrors their own alienation from themselves.

One of the wonderful things about the times I grew up in -- I'm speaking specifically about the Sixties and Seventies -- was that it was a period that supported personal growth and consciousness-raising.  Whatever excesses occurred that make that period easy to parody, it truly was a time when many people who had never been encouraged to explore themselves were able to do so, especially -- though certainly not limited to -- those involved in the feminist and gay liberation movements.  It was an era when Gestalt therapy (which I've been deeply involved with both as a peer counselor and client), EST, and all kinds of self-help and support groups flourished.  However incomplete or imperfect the results, it was a time of healing.

Back then, many were reacting to institutions of authority, aka "The Establishment," which they felt had betrayed them, through events like the war in Vietnam, institutionalized racism and sexism, etc.  Many gay people were reacting to the church -- the Catholic church in particular -- which preached that homosexuality was a sin and that "practicing homosexuals" would burn for an eternity in hell.  This had a profoundly wounding effect on gay people who were raised Catholic, and it was an act of courage to reject the church's teachings and stand up for oneself.  I was not raised in a religious household, but the gay Catholics (and many Protestants) I know have suffered tremendously at the hand of the church.  We may live in more progressive times today, but when it comes to homosexuality (and so many other issues), the Catholic Church at least, hasn't budged.

I bring this up because religion and sexual identity come up in Bill Cunningham: New York.  Although the topics are treated gingerly (and fleetingly), they weighed heavily for me while I was watching the film.  Again and again we see how Cunningham takes pride -- one might call it excessive ego-investment -- in his outward simplicity/self-effacement/self-denial.  He rejects or dismisses offers of food, paychecks, awards, recognition, again and again and again.  And he talks about this endlessly, which raises red flags of the lady doth protest too much sort.  It feels gratuitous.

Toward the end of the documentary the filmmakers (very tentatively) ask the octogenarian photographer about his personal life. None of the "talking head" contributors presented as Cunningham's friends know anything about how he lives or where, his background, his personal life, etc.  (At the time the film was made, Cunningham was living in one of the fabled rent-controlled studios atop Carnegie Hall, home to many artists over the decades, and were about to get evicted (though relocated locally). Cunningham's studio had no kitchen, the bathroom was down the hall, but he was fine with it -- in fact, it's a point of pride.)

Anyway, the filmmakers ask him about his personal life and it turns out that, yes, the deeply private former milliner and Harvard University drop-out is gay, and that his early interest in fashion was a concern to his family.  (We don't hear much about his family background.)

When asked about his religious practices, we learn that he goes to church every Sunday; this has always been profoundly important to him, he needs it.  He is then asked point blank if he has ever had a romantic relationship and he answers, rather defensively, no -- it simply had never occurred to him you see, it wasn't something that was ever discussed in his family, and anyway, there would never have been the time, he was so busy with his work, his work, his work!  Ten seconds after which he begins to cry.  And then he perks up, the jolly mask returns, and it's like the previous moment had never happened.  (How interesting that at a birthday party given in his honor at the Times, all attendees are wearing Bill Cunningham masks, in tribute.)

I've known two men roughly Cunningham's age -- both devout Catholics -- both gay or bisexual, both accomplished and renowned (one a poet, another a musician), both charming and beloved, both born into privilege.  But they both are/were (one has since died) haunted by guilt, shame and on some level, regret.  Both missed the opportunity to live fully authentic lives, in part due to church doctrine they were unwilling to challenge.  Surely they were aware that many others of the same generation had found the strength and courage to resist the ignorance and reject the lies.  But not they.

I strongly recommend Bill Cunningham New York to those interested in fashion or simply the life of a highly creative person.  As a strongly anti-establishment type, however, I had a hard time ignoring the fact that this talented photographer and long-time fixture on the fashion scene is a big believer in the authority and prestige of the Catholic Church, old-money New York Society, and the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times.  

You may see it differently, but this was my take, and what I found most interesting -- and sad -- about this film.

You can read more about Bill Cunningham here and download the film on Amazon here.  Tomorrow we will return to our regular programming.

Have a great day, everybody!


  1. How do I express how sorry I am that organized religion has let such large sections of the population down in such profound ways. I was not raised in any one particular denomination, and made a choice when I was older. Dissent ripped apart the denomination I joined; one group stayed and hasn't progressed, the other left (and me with it) to form a group that is more open; but is still not perfect. Each time we let ourselves use religion as an excuse to hurt others, we miss the point of faith and diminish ourselves and our God.

  2. What a sensitive and interesting take on this topic, P. I haven't seen the doc so I can't really comment but I wonder if you think his OTT austerity is the expression of guilt about his sexuality? Any way you slice it, it is very sad. If you can't be who you are, what joy is there in life?

  3. I love what Marilyn just said- "Each time we let ourselves use religion as an excuse to hurt others, we miss the point of faith and diminish ourselves and our God." It sums up my view well. I am a conflicted Catholic. In general, I no longer look to that community for guidance- it seems like we don't actually believe in the same God some days. I am so sorry for what your friends went through. I can only pray (and act accordingly!) that one day the need for the jolly mask, or the whatever mask so many people need to wear, is gone.

  4. I'm a big fan of TED talks, and usually put one on when I'm doing something routine at work. Today's featured talk was by researcher Brené Brown, who talks about how vulnerability is courage, and shame keeps us from living authentically. Funny to move directly from that talk to reading your usual, you've gotten me thinking!

  5. SeamsterEast@aol.comMarch 16, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    I too left the Catholic Church of my upbringing because of my sexuality, and I'm straight.

    I was taught in grade school that sexual thoughts (the word "sexual" was not uttered, but "keeping company" was the term used from my grade school days) were "impure". (Trust me, early grade school kids have what are to them "sexual" thoughts. Just ask a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds at what age THEY had their first such thoughts.) Later (about the time I noticed girls started wearing training bra's) and continuing, I was taught that to have sex was a Mortal Sin unless you are married to each other, including not to be married until tomorrow morning.

    Now, I'd seen a couple of marriages that didn't seem all that comfortable and cozy, so marriage as a pre-condition for sex strained my concept of a Just Universe. The Just Universe put the sex there, so how was it possible the Just Universe also decried it was a transgression for which the punishment was eternal damnation in the fires of Hell?

    At this point my life I realize Karl Marx was right. Religion IS the opiate of the people. And most generally, religious anti-sexual's don't seem to have attractive lovers, if they have a lover at all.

    I am sorry Mr. Cunningham lived inside a White Chalk Circle of someone else's design. Sometimes to step over that chalk line takes a bit of one's skeleton with it.

  6. Wow. I watched the Cunningham documentary last week and reacted with similar distress to the self-abnegation of Cunningham. His lifestyle is literally monk-like. That moment when he breaks down stopped my heart -- the regret and shame is palpable in a horrifying way. I was raised Catholic and left the church as soon as I could -- because of my gender, maybe, mostly because I couldn't "get it". I'd even say that I was never "in" enough to really "leave". I always felt it was a big lie and a scheme, even sitting in a pew with my feet not reaching the ground. I too grew up in the 60s and 70s and at that time, feminism was one of those things that really swept me up when I was a young person. ERA, Choice, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" -- those were so important to me as a young woman. Now I've raised 3 kids , with joy and no regrets as far as their lack of religious teaching. Even though my parents and siblings were scandalized by my (and my husband's) choices. Watching Bill Cunningham -- one has an eerie feeling of that emotional/sensual straight jacket he's wearing and, while feeling great admiration as well as tenderness for him, you almost want shake him at certain moments in the film. I, too, know men a generation or more older than me who have designed elaborate triangulations to make peace with their homosexuality. One cousin literally adopted his much younger (adult) lover to soothe his . . . conscience? I don't really know how it made sense to him. But what is the eeriest thing here is that your reader Another Sewing Scientist brings up the Brene Brown TED talk, which I've been watching the last week several times to incorporate it in a training I'm doing for teens on empathy and outreach -- Brown's is a really compelling talk and does make one think about how we numb ourselves to cope with disappointment, rejection, and shame. Worth watching. Thanks Peter (and that other Sewing Scientist), I always have a wonderful and inspiring time here on your blog.

    1. I remember in the '70's that some gay/lesbians would adopt their partners in order to have the legal rights that married people had. Say one partner got sick the other could make decisions for the other and the partners could also inherit when the other passed. Creative use of the law.

  7. bravo! A BEAUTIFUL post, and so true: "it is through our connections with others that we develop a healthy relationship with ourselves."

  8. I was raised in a very traditional, devoutly Catholic household (I consider myself "in recovery"), and much of this rings true.

    As you say, "Since it is through our connections with others that we develop a healthy (and I would add "or unhealthy") relationship with ourselves." And I'm guessing that his early connections with others and the values that were instilled taught him that being gay was a cross to bear and should be a source of shame for him, and acting on his urges would be tantamount to committing a mortal sin. Someone truly devout, as it sounds like he was, would see self-denial (emulating Christ's suffering on the cross by living an ascetic life) as the road to salvation.

    My point is that you have to recognize the lie before you can reject it. And someone truly devout may see a lie as truth. He certainly lived it, which is sad. No one should go thru life without love.

  9. That movie BROKE my heart. I wept for him - so deeply repressed, monastic, solitary, and ultimately terrible alone and largely unknown. But the work! The eye! The heart! The passion! He wouldn't be the first to sublimate his desires into his art, and surely he won't be the last.

    And maybe its because still so fresh for me, but this piece reminds me of my very recent breakup with my very stoic and emotionally distant ex. This haunted me: "I've always been leery of people who seem unknowable or emotionally inaccessible because, in my experience, they are often deeply wounded, and as a result, are highly likely to wound others, however unconsciously. Their inaccessibility mirrors their own alienation from themselves." Truer words, Peter. Truer words.

    ps. Really loving all your insightful commentary this week. You are rapidly turning into one of my favourite sewing bloggers.

  10. This is such a wonderful post, and the comments (along with the ones on your last post involving women's oversexualization by certain modern magazines) are enlightening and a joy to read. I love coming here because it feels like a close circle of considerate friends!

    Like a lot of the others here, I was raised Catholic but couldn't "get into it". My mom was an ex-nun and her big goal in life was to raise kids in the church. When I was 16, the boy I was dating "convinced" me to have sex - way before I was ready emotionally - and even though I really didn't want to, I went through with it. It was demeaning and sad, and made me feel terribly guilty and depressed. I had nowhere to turn talk to anyone about it. However, when my mother found out I had had sex, she took me to confession the next day and told me in no uncertain terms that I had to confess my sins. It was the last confession I ever attended, and the last time I really considered myself part of the Catholic church. The way I was brought up, though, convinced me to stay in an abusive marriage because my mother hated the idea of divorce; I did eventually leave, but even having seen the bruises, my mother still hated the idea of a divorced daughter.

    It's sad because religion can bring so much peace and hope to people if done right, but it's so rarely done right. It seems to be less a place of inclusion and more a way to put others down (whether they're gay, transgender, bisexual - hell, any sexual - divorced, female, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, another type of Christian, etc.) so people can feel more secure in their own religious choices. I envy people who believe in something greater than themselves, but I just can't force myself to believe in a god who would hate anyone he's said to have created in his own image.

    My mother hasn't come to terms yet with the fact that none of my kids are baptized. I can't bring myself to tell her that I don't want them growing up feeling guilty for being human and less than perfect. At the same time, I refuse to look down on people who are religious if it brings them joy and peace, and if they don't use it as a tool to condemn others. If it gets you through the day and doesn't hurt anyone, I won't be the person to try to stop you!

  11. I recently watched the movie and had the same reaction you did. It is so sad that Mr. Cunningham, who has so much to be proud of, is instead consumed by guilt and shame. I don't want to make that assumption, but it does seem that way. I am about same age as you and I was raised Catholic in the Midwest. Did 12 years of Catholic school. Luckily, my school was pretty progressive, lots of guitar masses and self-awareness teaching, and even sex ed. We were never told that being gay was wrong, I don't think it ever came up. It is really too bad the church has gotten more conservative over the past 20 years instead of changing with the times. I no longer consider myself a Catholic because I disagree with everything they do these days.

  12. Very well spoken, Peter.
    I get lots of flack for many for being a ''church lady'', but I'm cool with that ans will answer any questions they have. I was raised catholic, and that was just too much and my mom was less that thrilled when I decided to be a generic christian.
    Religion is all about people, not God, and I agree that when people use religion as an excuse for bad behavior, they are totally missing the point.
    Is homosexuality a sin? No
    Is having same sex sex a sin? biblically speaking, yes.
    Are people of faith suppose to ostracize and treat people who are different poorly? NO, that is the opposite of what Jesus teaches.
    I have to answer to the Almighty for my sins, and I got plenty, so unless what you are doing directly affects someone else's freedom/rights, I don't think we have the right to intervene.

  13. I saw this documentary and found his life a little disturbing. He seems to move through life without any deep personal attachments but is consumed by what he does as a photographer. If he's relatively satisfied with that, I'm OK with that and I can't find any real fault with his decisions. He's obviously very eccentric and he's not hurting anyone. He's allowed to lead his life just the way he wants.
    I just hope he has no real regrets.
    We live our lives in the moment whether consciously or not but in the end we're really just specs of dust in the endless cycle of time.
    As they say on "Absolutely Fabulous"-" Do your best, darling".

  14. Love the post, and others' replies. I am straight, married, and Protestant, going to a Catholic church. Church for me is about people being kind and supportive, having quiet time praying, and having an interesting priest. He is trained as a therapist, and is very caring. I have had a huge amount of trouble in churches, because of so many reasons. One being separated from a severely abusive man, and losing my children. But, I also got support. Now I get the same 3rd degree from some because I am married to a good person, and happy. What it is is that people who hide behind facades do not like people who are honest, and willing to be themselves. One priest said about making choices - does it give life? I think this is a good way to judge our choices. Also I go to church to sing, because I love singing, and am usually in the choir. Now a soloist by default. On the lighter side, some rumours about me are quite nasty, but the latest one is that I am 52. This is actually a "compliment", as I am 62. Creative people disturb people who are unhappy and static. Cathie, in Quebec.

  15. Wow. What an amazing post. How wonderful that you’ve created an atmosphere where we can all discuss things openly as friends.

    As with others, your statement really resonated with me, “I've always been leery of people who seem unknowable or emotionally inaccessible because, in my experience, they are often deeply wounded, and as a result, are highly likely to wound others, however unconsciously. Their inaccessibility mirrors their own alienation from themselves.”

    I haven’t seen the film, but how sad that so many people have suffered so much guilt. In fact, some guilt is so deep that there is no conscious awareness of it, but it can bubble up and affect our lives negatively nonetheless.

    I was raised a Catholic, though our household was not religious. After living in a convent during the early part of her life, my mother was something of a cautious Catholic. She always had faith, but was very aware of the darker human side of the church. She wanted me to know the good teachings, but tried to steer me away from a life of “religion.”

    No problem there. I left the church and stayed away for decades. I had no intention of returning. I was very much a part of the women’s movement -- almost militant about it. I also dabbled in EST, “New Age” and all kinds of self-help. I found much that was good in all of these.

    But I’ve also seen all of these things -- as well as religion, atheism, and just about any-ism -- used as tools to divide us. Any of these things can be used for good or for bad, depending on the hearts of the people involved.

    To me, all this divisiveness seems to be the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.

    I’m back to church -- yes it is my opiate, as SeamsterEast said -- but I don’t agree with everything that they teach. People have a right to be who they are, as long as they are not harming anyone, and I think no human has the right to judge.

    Joseph Campbell said (and I’m paraphrasing) that it is very hard to move away from the beliefs and philosophies with which we were raised. They are so deeply ingrained in us.

    I think it takes great courage. Sometimes more courage than some people believe they have.

  16. Lately, I often wonder whatever happened to empathy. I hear so frequently one group admonishing another group or individual on they should go about x, y, or z. It reads more like an attempt to control someone else’s life (i.e. the appropriate hobbies, how or what to sew, how to think, or how they should be “gay” etc.).

    I’m aware that there are “Professional Gays” out there. All of their friends are Gay, they work for a Gay company, only patronize Gay establishments, and are completely immersed in a Gay world. Sometimes I find their attitude toward “non-professional gays” a little condescending (people should come out at certain time, in a certain way, dress and talk in a certain way, believe in a certain way).

    Being gay is only about who I love and nothing else. It does not define me as a person. There are as many was to be gay as there are people in the world. The idea that there is a right way, or wrong way, or just ONE way is silly. Everyone has to find their own path at their own pace. Many come to the point in their life where they embrace being gay, while others will be aware of it, but deny it. Is someone wrong to live a non-gay life because of values they hold dear? I have not seen this documentary, but it feels a little cruel to criticize a man for his choices in life because his values are different than ours.

    I think people do they best they can. Their choices certainly may not be ones we would want to make, nor the outcomes of these choices ones we would like. They do what they do based on what they are equipped to handle. Who are we to say that his era afforded him opportunities that should have led to different choices? Again, I have not seen the documentary, but I’m cynical enough of the media’s ability to edit and if not take scenes out of context, at least skew them to their advantage. I’m sure everyone has regrets in life. Does this man’s reported regret of a loveless life outweigh the satisfaction he feels with every other area of his life? It’s not for me to judge. Is there such a thing as a life without any regrets?

    What if everyone kept the laser beam of condemnation (disguised as good intentions or pity) focused on themselves? Am I doing the best I can? Am I living up to my values? Am I truly honest with myself? Would anybody have time to evaluate and eviscerate anothers' answers to these questions?

  17. Interesting take, Peter. My father (though not religious) still felt the need, in the 70s, to conceal his sexuality, marry a woman, and pursue a "normal life." While I can't exactly regret his decision (I wouldn't be here otherwise), it came at an intense emotional cost, for him and for the rest of us in the family; the wall he built to protect his inner identity blocked out all of us, not just my mother. The closet hurts so much more than just the person in it. At least in my parents' case, the secret came out, and both are now in new, happy, honest relationships---and I am so happy for both of them.

    I'm an atheist, but my exposure to religion growing up was all the sort of mild "God is love" liberal variety---the more hardline, damning aspects of biblical literalism still kind of shock and horrify me. Hard enough to grow up having that kind of indoctrination laid on your back, never mind internalizing it and taking it with you through eighty years or more...

  18. Wow....GREAT subject. I am a practicing catholic who has NOT seen the documentary. My catholic upbringing was in the 70's, in what appears to be a liberal environment hearing some other accounts here. Our faith was based on love, acceptance and sacrifice for the betterment of others (which makes me a very liberal Christian--weird no?). That being said, I walked away from the church more than once. Walked out on more than one sermon back in the 80's and early 90's admonishing homosexuality (often by priests, that to my estimation, seemed very homosexual--oh the hypocrisy.) Not that I took personal offense, per se, as I'm straight, but it was just so WRONG! (In fact, Jesus never discussed MOST of the issues the religious right seems to be getting their panties in a knot about these days--just sayin')

    How one chooses to reconcile themselves, who they are, and their religious view is very personal. we shouldn't judge, not even that. Even though I don't agree with much of catholic doctrine, I find my personal relationship with God is formed through my catholic faith, and I'd prefer not to be judged on my duality. By the same token, I will try not to judge others,even if their choice of religion seemed to keep them from experiencing the fullness of life. We are all formed by the choices we make, and free will is God's greatest gift to us--would you have it any other way?

  19. How ironic... I have just finished watching this very film this very evening, and (never having found this blog before) decided to search for something on making a man's suit... and this is the post that I found!

    It was interesting to me that upon being asked if Bill had ever had a romantic relationship *in his life*, his immediate response was, "you want to know if I'm gay?" And yet it was the question about his religion that made him take that looooooooong pause to answer.

    I was also touched by his speech when he was decorated as an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters... "If you seek beauty, you will find it."

  20. I was never raised in any religion and to be honest sexual differences was no big deal in our family. Our uncle was very flamboyant. He was gay. He never said he was, and nobody ever asked him. We just knew, and he knew we knew. It was OK for everyone. My cousin lived with her "best friend" for years. She was also gay, but it was never spoken. Nobody ever asked her if she was ever getting married, or tried to hook her up with a guy, or ever mentioned her future with regards to motherhood. It was just the way it was. Everyone knew but never said anything. This was back in the 70's. Today I am sure they would have no problems talking about it.

  21. I grew up Catholic. I consider myself a recovering Catholic. I currently attend Seaside United Church of Christ, which is an open and affirming congregation (meaning everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, is welcome to worship with us.) I couldn't stay Catholic after I studied the history of the Church. It has so little to do with Christ's words. Things like "judge not, lest ye be judged."

    One of my best friends from high school was gay. I didn't know what "gay" was, but Ken was delightful, more fun than any two other people I knew, and always had the best ideas--like adding foil gift wrap to the newspaper confetti for the football games, so it would sparkle under the lights. He passed, from AIDS, in 1987, when he was 30. His partner passed a year or so later. When I get to Heaven, Ken'll be waiting with confetti that has foil in it.

  22. Interesting how many artists in the west have been attracted to catholicism- think of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. A feminist writer I know went from being a lapsed protestant a catholic. I asked her why and she said that catholicism was the christian tradition that left most room for the contradicitons inherent in being human. I asked about how she reconciled her feminism with the official catholic attitude to contraception and the ordination of women. She said she had raised the same issues with her local priest who smiled gently and said that he personally did not always take completely seriously what came out of Rome. I hope Mr Cunnigham has found a priest like that.

  23. I am a long-time Christian, and generally conservative. I, like the church, am conflicted on the subject.

    When the Bible mentions gay acts, they are a bad thing.

    However, the teachings of the New Testament are also clear - love one another; accept all of God's children into your community; God is generous with his love to all of his children. Jesus was criticized for being friends with sinners, and I like to think that included gay people.

    So how does the church balance these teachings on sin against love for all sinners? I don't know the answer.

    I would hope that if Mr. Cunningham entered my church on Sunday, we would accept him for who he is - another child of God.

  24. How well this ties into your previous post ("Exotic Costume Patterns"). The issue is bigotry. And so often, unfortunately, the bigotry is laid at the feet of men in power. How fearful are they of losing their authority that they must condemn and hate that which they see as undermining their position. Nearly always the underlying subject is sex, which is why their views resonate with so many people, who blindly follow their "reasoning". The most infamous of all of course, was Hitler. But various Popes have much to answer for, as does, most recently, the Taliban, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and all who feel that their views must also be your views.

  25. My daughter once wrote, in a Religion exam at her Catholic school, ''If God was real I wouldn't like him."

  26. Maybe the issue isn't the views of the Catholic church. I have a friend who I have known for years who has a job & does a lot of civics work but has spent his entire life (he's in his mid 50's) living with his parents. No one can recall him dating someone of either gender ever not even in his 20's. Some people are gay or straight but have very little actual sex drive and no interest in being in an actual relationship. Maybe Mr. Cunningham's like that.

    1. You maybe right about him... anyway.... fantastic documentary about mr. Cunningham.

  27. With respect, I would urge people to never ever confuse religion with an authentic, sincere and personal relationship with our Creator. They are completely different things. AND at the same time, do not discount the incredible impact these religious organizations have in a most positive way (think disaster relief, orphan care) because of how some have grossly mishandled the human heart. Churches are made up of sinners and just like in any other environment, there are people who have more maturity and those with much much less.

  28. Peter, you have created a sewing circle with polite boundaries, but where nothing is off limits. Thank you.

    These replies have been amazing. Insightful, damning (pity the Catholic church), come-what-may, but all erupting right from the core of each contributor.

    As I see it, whether it's religious constraints, strict community norms, family and peer pressure (or some likely combo) - they are ALL examples of invasive boundary issues, and they effect each of us differently.

    Frankly, we've lived in a sexual police state for centuries, and there are many who cling to the preservation of such a construct. These are people who like, need, and who's very plasma is...[wait for it, wait for it...] CONTROL.

    Some of these people are running for President of the USA, and TOUT the repeal of equality for women and LGBT people as a good and necessary goal [justify by inserting scripture here].

    Is it really much of a stretch to have your world view maligned when raised in, and surrounded by, messages which are steeped in the underlying tenet, "You are wrong for being!"?

    The gay suicide rate, the reparative therapy scams, and the standard issue ridicule/isolation/ostracizing by the judgment peddlers - are all symptoms of tacit and active forms of repression in full swing.

    The, "It Gets Better" campaign is long overdue. I like to think Bill Cunningham and every older GLBT person, living or not, helped to bring about a piece of the change we're experiencing today.

    Every cause has taken decades of organized efforts to reach fruition, and were preceded by individual's acts which catalyzed the organized efforts.

    Like all celebrities, there is a person behind the persona. Like all of us, Bill Cunningham has sculpted a life with what was available to him. Like all lives, his life is what it is. My summation is "creative life force with an unconventional personal life". Happy for his contributions, and looking forward to many more of them.

  29. I was raised in a Catholic school in the 70s - 80s in a small town in France, i.e. about as backwards and conservative as you might think, and yet... the younger nuns who taught us religious education were heavily progressive, influenced by the late 60s, early 70s schools of thought. In essence, they taught us to disregard the Old Testament as hooey (OK, they didn't phrase it that way...) and instead concentrate on the Gospels - with the words of Jesus in our lives, we would be on the right path to perpetuating a tolerant, loving society, mindful of both others and ourselves, was their recommendation to us...

    I appreciate that not all religious institutions were as liberally minded, even in the 70s, and I think I got lucky. But fast forward to the present day and I am absolutely appalled at how the Catholic Church is being encouraged by its prelates to revert back to the bastion of bigotry and hatred it once was. There is a battle currently raging in the UK over the issue of gay marriage, and the fire and brimstone that is being spewed out by the Church as it opposes the issue is deeply shocking and deplorable.

    I have a few friends who are both gay and staunchly Catholic, and they've barely set foot in a Church since the dreaded Benny XVI was elected pope. Good for them, but I feel for the younger generations growing up in staunchly Catholic households/ institutions where such vitriol and stupidity is allowed to mould their minds. At this rate, the Catholic Church will be able to congratulate itself on forming a whole new generation of screwed up kids (justifying it all the while as the word of God).

  30. Maybe the church speaks for our hearts, what we would like to see happen, so it wounds most painfully when it is wrong. Mr. Cunningham takes wonderful photos, and may or may not have had a personal reason for his life choices. Like others have said, we should celebrate that we have him, and try to be loving and affirming to everyone we know, especially young people. I am straight, a longtime amateur Bible student, and a member of the United Church of Christ, an open and affirming church. We agree to disagree, and have members who feel more comfortable with the Old Testament fire & brimstone, and others who prefer Jesus' Way of the New Testament. We have discovered some of the pain that exclusion inflicts by listening to our gay members.... so we need to do better.

    I especially appreciated the comment above about there being more than one way to live, to make choices, to express sexuality, and to find the holy. Isn't it also possible that Mr. Cunningham is quite shy? How much of his personal life is our business?

  31. Wow. Awesome post and comments.

    I differ with you, Peter: I think we have to have a healthy self-love (and confidence) before we can connect with others in a meaningful way. There are all kinds of "codes" out there for us to accept or reject, both of which take courage in some measure. Sometimes, however, we use our acceptance or rejection of religion, ethnic stereotypes, sexual mores and political ideaology to shield us from things/people/ideas we lack courage to allow into our lives. Sometimes we use food or sex or drugs or spending or work to numb the pain of it all. And sometimes we regret not being able to muster up the courage to love ourselves for what we are.

  32. Great post, Peter, but I have to admit that I saw that bit of the Bill Cunningham documentary a bit differently. When watching that segment, what hit me was that there are two things that Bill wants to be part of -- the Catholic church and a meaningful romantic/sexual relationship -- and those two things are at odds for him. He can't have both and still be true to himself. He shouldn't be expected to change his sexuality to have a relationship the church approves of, but he also shouldn't be expected to change his honest religious beliefs. The one can be as intrinsically a part of a person as the other.

    Bill, as a thinking adult, weighed the one against the other, and came to the decision he came to. He's had many decades to change that decision, but the fact that he hasn't speaks to me of a faith so genuine that he's willing to live like a monk to be true to both his faith and his sexuality -- better to forgo romantic relationships than to be dishonest to either part of himself. Many of us would have come to a different decision, but this was Bill's decision, and I respect it.

    What saddened me about his story is how alone he is, with no significant other to share the years with. But at the same time, the movie was also a testament to the power of friendships that span decades. Bill has friends, people who know him and who love him -- and love him not because they are *in* love with him and him alone, but love him because he is Bill, and Bill is worth loving, even with his faults. I can't help but love him a little myself, too.

  33. I saw the film when it came out 2 years ago, and although I can understand your reaction, mine was different. It didn't even cross my mind to feel sorry for him or that he was living a lie or anything along those lines. Certainly there are always things about which one has regrets and feels sadness -- and that moment in the film when Cunningham tears up was perhaps representative. I think that's simply part of life -- one inevitably must make choices and wonder whether they are the best or right ones. Overall, he seemed to me, as presented in the film, a remarkably happy person. It's not the kind of life that most people would find congenial, but it has suited him.

    btw, when I saw it at a film festival, the filmmaker was there, and he told us that Cunningham never saw the footage and had no interest in seeing the film, saying something like, "You kids do what you want."

  34. Very interesting posts of late, Peter.

    I read Tim Gunn's book this past year and he also decided to refrain from any kind of a relationship for many years. It had nothing to do with religion. Rather, it was a personal choice to be celibate.

    Now, I haven't seen the film but let's not forget that Bill Cunningham lived in a country where he had free choice. It is human nature to make ourselves happy and I'm sure Bill Cunningham was no different. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it and it isn't up to us to judge him - or the reasons behind his choice whether it be emotional distress or religion or whatever. He was an adult. He made his choices. We may not agree with them or fully understand them but they were *his* choices.

    So, before anyone jumps on the blame the religion bandwagon, remember that he had a choice on how to live his life.

    I've known people like Bill Cunningham - shy, unassuming, quiet, withdrawn. It had nothing to do with religion or whether they experienced some past emotional distress. It was just their personality.

  35. I love your posts, Peter, so thank you for your deep thoughts as of late. I also read that bit of the documentary quite differently. I have known several rare people who have made kind of lifestyle choices that are a bit austere, almost monastic, and it feels very true to them. Perhaps personal growth or finding oneself, or even being free, is less important to them than being in the service of art, community or a spiritual calling of some kind. Although I am not Catholic, I highly respect those who make vows whether lay or professional to live simply and singly. It has its own gift, challenging I know in our society. We don't have many roles in our world for mystics and "seers" and it seems like he is one of them.

  36. It is such a beautiful movie for what he DOES NOT say. My heart went out to him when he started crying- so many years of oppression and guilt. So much distraction from feeling. It was a sweet film and I'm glad they didn't push the point. He is an amazing man- kind, austere and talented.

  37. I get Bill. He either gives up his beliefs, or moderates his sexuality. Both impossible tasks. He's opted for Eternal Life and therefore sacrifice, rather than an authentic existence (as you say) in this life.
    He is quite aware of the cost of this decision - to make it bearable he has neglected areas of his life where honest sexuality is vital - ie all areas except work.

    1. Actually, you said it far more succinctly than I :)

  38. Sarah C, I think you are talking about asexuality.
    remember alone doesn't mean lonely.

  39. Hi all, I'm here because I stumbled across this doco the other night and as a devout believer (but not Catholic) it has really had me thinking.

    Jesus left us with one final over-arching commandment when he left this earth which in many ways both encapsulates and then supercedes the 10 commandments and all of the other laws of the Old testament. He said to love one another as He has loved us, which means with unending depth, to the death. (Maybe you can tell that I am a thinker but not a hater) So, christian hatred of the homosexual lifestyle has never sat well with me, even though God the Creator specifically says not to engage in homosexual practices. Now for someone born with a love of the same sex this appears to be a heavy sacrifice, an unbearable burden, and one that I could not bear. But Christ also told us to take up our cross (of suffering) in this life for riches in the next. (Some will say, quite sensibly, that this is the Church's main method of control)

    But what if, just what if, Bill Cunnigham has chosen to shun all these things; physical love, intimacy, riches in order to honour his God. Yes, like a monk 'chooses'. Is this not his choice? I watched that doco puzzled and the key word search that led me to this blog was 'bill cunningham gay celibate christian life of honour'. Is it concieveable that this man has borne his heavy burden of suffering and that God the Father has seen his life and blessed him richly with unbelieveable passion, health, energy, success and great honour (and a deep joy). Has Bill Cunnigham received some of these heavenly riches in this life? Has he been blessed for this choice made out of love for his God.

    I think I sound like a raving religious lunatic right now. But he made me think, and in retrospect and his life has put me to shame.

    Please don't hate what I have said, but please help me think it through. Is it not possible?


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