Michael Arceneaux talks sexuality, religion, race in ‘I Can’t Date Jesus’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

From the inclusion of Beyoncé in the subtitle to the mention of the Pappadeaux restaurant off 610 in the dedication, “I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé” by Michael Arceneaux is, while not quite a love letter, a sort of begrudging acknowledgment of the experience of growing up in Houston.

Arceneaux’s book is a collection of essays exploring what it is to be a Black gay man in America — recounting memories and experiences from childhood to adulthood, from humid Houston to Harlem. His writing style is deceptively casual. It is not unusual to find oneself well into a passage before realizing the extent to which Arceneaux has relied on the ease of his conversational voice to cushion the inherent shock that accompanies self-revelations. It is only when still reading, chapters later, that the full weight of previous statements begins to hit you.

For example, in one of the chapters, Arceneaux recounts his varied success with barbers over the years and around the country. From beginning to end the main delivery of this story is through self-deprecating jokes at all the times he put his hair, rather literally, in the wrong hands. In the midst of his chagrined recollections, Arceneaux leaves space to acknowledge one of the other difficulties he faced each time he set out to find a new barber — mainly that these spaces were often hypermasculine in a way that was homophobic either overtly or because of the prevailing tendency to approach people as straight until proven otherwise.

So Arceneaux takes the time to explain ways in which the barbershop was difficult for him while also reiterating the fact that it very much is and has been a space for Black men to share community.

To describe this as more than just a narrative about his sexuality veers too close to this rather stale and overused response to LGBTQ+ narratives. So while it is, strictly speaking, true that “I Can’t Date Jesus” is about more than Arceneaux’s experience as a gay man, it is true in that he is recounting the way he has been shaped by all the communities he’s belonged to, whether by choice, association or birth. Consider the title “I Can’t Date Jesus” and how it is a statement that can only be made from Arceneaux because of the way in which he approached relationships, viewed his sexuality, and was raised by a strictly observant Catholic mother.

“I Can’t Date Jesus” is unflinchingly personal in a way that leaves room for the reader, and even Arceneaux himself, to wonder just how much personal insight into one another we can be expected to give and receive.

In the opening chapter, Arceneaux writes, “This book is about unlearning every damaging thing I’ve seen and heard about my identity and allowing myself the space to figure out who I am and what that means on my terms.” This objective results in a disarming self-examination of what it’s like to wrestle with a tangled mess of identities in an attempt to find cohesion. “I Can’t Date Jesus” does not set out to be a source of answers or guidelines for navigating being a Black gay man raised on Catholicism in Texas — because there are no guidelines. This more than anything lends the book a level of palpable sincerity.

Arceneaux is able to write about how it gets better, but he does not shy away from the fact that better does not undo the hostility and shame he encountered in his childhood and, though to a lesser extent, today.

“I Can’t Date Jesus” is an impressively insightful examination of the intersection of race, religion, sexuality and culture. Most memorable by far is the way in which Arceneaux poignantly portrays the conflicting emotions that Southern LGBTQ+ individuals experience.

Arceneaux’s ability to articulate the most complex, messiest parts of identity in a way that is simultaneously nuanced and straightforward makes this a read more than worth mentioning.

Danielle Hilborn covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].