Pillar of Salt; or, Don’t Look Back While the City is Burning (Some Notes on Religion, Queerness and the Internet at This Particular Moment in Australia)
by Anna Dunnill
Before I pitched this essay, back in June, I ran into Xanthe Dobbie at an art opening. She told me she’d just been shooting her new project The Good Book with Biblegirl_69, a web series in which she re-tells stories from the Old Testament.
I imagine at that moment my face took on an intense gleam. I began grilling Xanthe about the project: in particular, I wanted to know if she planned to include the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Surprisingly (to me), the other people we were talking to didn’t recognise the reference.
“Oh, you know,” I said helpfully, “those towns where God destroyed everyone for being gay.”
“You must know. It’s where the word ‘sodomite’ comes from.”
In order to instruct our friends, Xanthe retold the story in all its weird, rape-y, supernatural, punitive detail. Their eyes progressively goggled wider; they uttered exclamations of disbelief. I was bursting with grim delight.
At that point a couple of months ago, the marriage equality campaign was a vague background rumble. The plebiscite had been put to the Senate once and failed; no one expected anything more to happen this year. But a few weeks ago the postal survey was announced, the noise ramped up, and by the time I write this it’s deafening.
I wanted to write about queerness, religion and the internet; I did not anticipate this real-life collision.
For many of us the same-sex marriage debate primarily exists online. Daily the tide of my Facebook feed churns up profile pictures freshly stamped with rainbows; opinion pieces from one side or the other; promoted “Vote Yes!” posts with threads of venomous comments that I somehow can’t stop myself reading and absorbing. A couple of particularly poisonous street posters for the ‘No’ campaign have been photographed and posted online before being torn down - and shared thousands of times, ensuring their reach is vastly more than the few dozen people who might otherwise have seen them at a tram stop. (Ironically, many of the people sharing them, at least in my corner of the internet, are outraged ‘Yes’ voters expressing their disgust while exponentially spreading the damage.)
Sodom and Gomorrah are getting a lot more airtime, whether or not they’re mentioned by name - and destruction, it would seem, is imminent.
We are told that children will suffer at the hands of same-sex parents; they will be indoctrinated in schools by vague and threatening “programs”, implemented by the Gay Lobby. Gender will be abolished. Cake decorators pleading conscientious objection will be rounded up and…I don’t know, told to do their jobs? Key religious leaders are threatening societal collapse; others, thankfully, have formed support groups for the ‘Yes’ side. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is yelling louder to be heard.
Never before in my lifetime have queerness and religion clashed so very loudly, so viciously. The drama loops with each news cycle. I carry it around with me in my pocket. I refresh pages, comment compulsively; I lie awake at 3am, heart pounding, brain frozen on auto-scroll.
I grew up going to church. I grew up with these stories woven into the fabric of my self, the fabric of the world. I ditched church - ditched the stories and everything they stood for - when I realised I had to come to terms with my queerness.
But it’s not easy to eliminate something so foundational. I may not be religious any more but I’ve discovered it’s built in; if queerness is the warp thread in the fabric of my self, religion is the weft. Pull one thread and the whole cloth disintegrates.
Xanthe Dobbie’s practice has always examined the collision of religion, queerness, and the internet. Many of her works re-appropriate religious iconography, and often it’s Dobbie herself who stands in for saintly or Biblical characters. Unlike me, she didn’t grow up with religion, but read the Bible herself as a queer non-religious adult. She was fascinated by its stories - many of them gory, vicious, supernatural, incestuous, obscene - and the ongoing weight they carry. The oldest of them have influenced three millennia of Western history.
In The Good Book Dobbie plays the narrator, Biblegirl_69, providing us with “the religious education that you never knew you wanted”. She sits near a stained-glass window, a drink by her side, clad in a series of increasingly outrageous outfits appropriate to each story - or no outfit, in the case of Adam and Eve. Doe-eyed and charming, speaking to camera, she works her way through the book of Genesis, pausing occasionally to open a beer bottle with her teeth or take a swig of tequila, as the narrative demands.
Dobbie tells familiar stories, but includes the incest, rape and murder that the Children’s Bible leaves out. It’s a post-internet mash up of religion, art history, parody video and memes. Each short, punchy video cuts rapidly between the narrator and illustrations pulled from stone carvings, medieval manuscripts, Renaissance paintings, church windows tracts. God’s regular smiting has theme music and a flashing caption: PUNISHMENT TIME.
The series’ ironic educational tone serves to highlight the vastness of the influence these stories have had on history; unspoken, but grimly present, is the way they still press on the lives of women, queer people, anyone who is an ‘other’.
So: to Sodom and Gomorrah. You should watch The Good Book version, but in case you can’t, here’s a summary. Our lead man is Lot, the only good guy in Sodom, with a supporting cast of his wife and virgin daughters, a couple of angels he’s graciously entertaining in his home, and a pack of sex-hungry men battering down the door. (You know, the usual.) As Biblegirl_69 tells it, the mob wants Lot to bring them the two strangers, aka the angels, in order to “have sex with them up their arses”. Lot thinks that’s a bad idea, so because he’s a gold-star Good Guy, he offers the angry mob his two virgin daughters to have sex with instead. Weirdly, that part gets skimmed over when it’s retold these days.
The angels end up helping Lot and his family to flee the city of Sodom, which God obliterates in a rain of hellfire and sulphur and all the trimmings. As they escape, God tells them not to look back, but Lot’s wife can’t help herself: she looks back, and she is turned into a pillar of salt. She becomes the still point in a maelstrom of chaos.
Then Lot’s daughters conspire to get their father drunk and have sex with him, so they can get pregnant and continue the family line. The moral standards here are certainly…of their time.
We consider ourselves a secular society, but these stories’ legacy underpins our art, our literature, our movies; their tropes and stereotypes colour our perception of the world. In the past few weeks this has been strikingly illuminated. The voices that bemoan the destruction of ‘family values’ are speaking across three thousand years.
The portrayal of same-sex-attracted people as a violent promiscuous mob, bringing destruction upon themselves and the whole city through their immoral activities, is a narrative that has pretty much remained in the general consciousness. It’s a convenient cultural narrative that blames gay men for their own struggles or obliteration.
And it’s the story the ‘No’ ads are playing on. If you give them permission, it suggests, they will take over everything - you’re a good guy, but they’ll want to force their immoral behaviour upon your guests and children, and they’ll ignore your polite deflections, and you’ll have to flee the city, and they’ll destroy your marriage because your wife will turn into salt.
I don’t really have a conclusion here. The situation is currently inconclusive.
When I first wrote this, the High Court was about to hear two legal cases against the survey, and a lot of people hoped that by now the whole thing would be behind us - a chaotic and bizarre thing to look back at. Instead both campaigns have surged into battle. A few days ago, Vote No was written in the actual sky over Sydney - more than a little suggestive of Old Testament God preparing for Punishment Time. This will continue for another two months. I’m thinking I might just follow Biblegirl_69’s lead, and swig tequila until it’s over.