Don’t Dream It; Be It (text & audio)

Let’s do the Time Warp again

This morning I want to time warp back to high school. For me, that’s almost 25 years ago. I was going to Catholic school. Friends of mine were just starting to get boyfriends and girlfriends, heterosexual only, thank you. Sex was scary and sinful and forbidden. But it was also exciting, and the dream of many hormone-flooded nights.

Through most of my school years, I felt like an outsider at best, and a freak when I was being picked on. I didn’t like doing the things most boys seemed to like: sports, roughhousing, posturing. I’d been called “gay” long before I knew anyone who actually was gay. Very few people were out in those days, at least in Dayton, Ohio. It wasn’t until I went to college that I heard of anyone my age who was gay. On a campus of 6,000 students, there were two willing to go public. There were whispers about the sexual revolution, but it didn’t seem to be happening anymore, at least not in the open. It was the Reagan era, “just say no.” Don’t let it all hang out. Keep it in the closet.

Yes, I felt alone and confused and outside the bounds of society just because I like to read and play Dungeons & Dragons, because I questioned the garbage being fed to me by authority figures. How much more depressed and isolated would I have felt if I were gay, if society’s message to me was that I was disgusting, perverted, and dangerous?

The messages coming in were stressful and overwhelming: find someone to love and spend the rest of your life with; you’re not cool unless you’re having sex; sex can kill you, especially the wrong kind of sex; wait till marriage; you’re still a virgin?; don’t even think of telling anyone about that dream you had involving your best friend.

Some people say that everyone feels like a misfit as a teenager. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the guys who picked on me were being picked on by other people up the line. I do know that I felt like everyone expected me to live up to a certain standard of normality that I just couldn’t manage. And that falling short socially felt to me like torture.

I did find some friends. I felt like we were targets together rather than standing alone, but we were still outcasts. Then one sleepover Saturday night, we agreed to meet some older friends at the midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it turned out to be a light in the darkness. Those bright places often turn out to be in the most unexpected places.

SONG: “Over at the Frankenstein Place”

For once, my black thrift store trenchcoat was not a signifier of standing out, but of fitting in. I’d learned to embrace the darkness in life, and here were my people. But they weren’t moping about being outcast from society. They were celebrating. They were laughing. We first-timers were brought up front as “virgins,” and auctioned off to whoever could bid the most disgusting phrase. After a few rounds of gross-out one-upmanship, we were no longer virgins (in one sense, anyhow). Then we could settle in for the movie, and the show.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie based on a stage musical, a sort of camp sendup of the monster movies and sci-fi of the early 1950s.

Brad and Janet are high school sweethearts who are getting married. They are as normal as it gets, and they seem to have it all: popularity, good grades, true love, innocence, and of course virginity. A flat tire leads them to an isolated castle on a stormy night. They just want to use the phone, but they are quickly dragged into a party of strangely dressed, sexually ambiguous “rich weirdos,” as Brad calls them.

As the action takes place on screen, a cast of costumed fans act out the same scenes at the front of the theater. Meanwhile, cast members and fans in the audience yell out comments and gags at the screen, and bring props to use. For instance, in a wedding scene, the audience throws rice, and when a character on screen says, “I always cry at weddings,” the audience calls out “Do you laugh at funerals?”

It’s a little bit of a bewildering experience for a first timer, and one of the reasons people go back time after time is to pick out what is actually going on, picking out callback lines to shout out the next time, or even come up with something new to yell that will crack everybody up.

For those of you who’ve never been, you can get a sense of how it works from this clip from Fame.

Clip from Fame

Only five years after Rocky Horror was released, Fame was already playing off its cult status. Whether you’re an aspiring actor who worries about performing, a shy teenager who’s self conscious about everything, or someone questioning your sexuality or gender identity, Rocky is a safe place to open up and try on a role that might feel too dangerous in “real life.”

Because in 1980, or 1990, and even today in a lot of places, Rocky Horror feels dangerous. The master of the castle is the iconic character Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist who is actually an alien.

He calls himself a transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania, but that terminology was more designed to roll off the tongue and shock audiences rather that to accurately describe Frank. Just like Fame uses the word “schizophrenia” to mean “playing multiple roles,” Rocky Horror uses “transsexual” to mean something closer to a combination of “genderqueer” and “pansexual.”

Frank wears a corset and garter belt, high heels, makeup, leather jacket, feather boas. He seduces men and women, indulging every sexual whim without thought to consequences. He’s played as both hero and villain, completely free and completely queer, no apologies.

In terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, Frank is “all of the above” in everything. What he isn’t is normal, not even a shred. And Tim Curry gives such a performance that you can’t watch Frank and not want to be at least a little like him. I remember how confusing it seemed to me, a sexuality not defined by just this or just that. What was he? And what did it mean to be attracted to him, whether you were Brad, Janet, or just a confused teenager?

As the movie continues, Brad & Janet are exposed, quite literally, to a wilder sort of sexuality, and go from frightened naivete to willing participation. There’s a buildup of bedroom farce and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that leads to the big “Floor Show,” a musical number that spells out Frank’s philosophy: Don’t dream it; be it.

MEDITATION

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
This is what Frank sings out desperately towards the end of Rocky Horror.
Don’t Dream it. Be it.
I invite you to relax in your seat and take a moment to breathe……. deep…… down. 

Think back. Who is the YOU you wanted to be but were afraid to?
Maybe you were a teen or a young adult… or maybe it wasn’t so long ago…
Imagine yourself in that place or time, in that version of you.
What most holds you back? your own fears? your parents? your peers?
your faith community? societal expectations?
What does it feel like to not be the YOU you know yourself to be? 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
Do you remember the first time you went to Rocky Horror?
Or maybe it was some other outlier event or experience….
a place where you could BE whomever you wanted to be
and love whomever you wanted to love? 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
What is it like, as a misfit teenager… or adult…., to go to a place
where you can dress any way you like,
wear makeup and fishnets as a boy, or a tux as a girl,
or anything else outside the boundaries, and be celebrated for it?
A place where everyone is expected to participate, but not graded.
A place where sexuality is open and fluid and unapologetic and experimental.
A place where normals and misfits are equally mocked and equally embraced… 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
Who or what are the sparks of light that lead you out of the darkness?
that lead you back to yourself when you are lost?
enable you to be the YOU you most want to be?
is it a friend? a lover? a group? a calling that you pursue?
a camp? a family member? a faith community? 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
What other places can we come together regularly as an accepting community, participate, laugh, sing along, feel better about ourselves and learn to treat others with more compassion and more respect? 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
We can’t just dream it and expect the world to change, we have to be it.
Live our principles. One moment at a time. Day by day.
So as we breathe into this space and this moment
may we meditate on these words and what they might mean
for each of us and for our UU community… 

Don’t Dream it. Be it.
Don’t Dream it. Be it.
Don’t Dream it. Be it…… 

OFFERTORY

We UUs do a lot of dreaming….envisioning a world of peace, justice, and equality.
I’ve heard some say they feel the 7 principles are too big, too idealistic, too dreamy.
But what if we don’t just dream it. But we Be it.
What would that look like?
What does it LOOK like to BE a true place of RADICAL WELCOME?
A place where whoever you are, whomever you love, you are welcome?
Do we walk that walk everyday?
What of other dreams we have?
personal dreams, dreams for this UU block of Asheville….
how often do we talk about our dreams and forget the small ways we can BE them?
As we come to our time of Offering–
let us hold these thoughts as we hold one another with care and intention.
Let us think and act on what we can each give to this faith community,
this spark of light in the darkness
as those who wish come and silently light candles from our chalice fire.

Now I don’t want to spoil the whole movie for you. It plays once a month at Cinebarre, and they put on a great show if you ever want to check it out. But just as any transformative experience ends with the struggle of coming back to everyday life, Rocky Horror ends with the whole castle lifting off back to the planet of Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, leaving Brad & Janet behind. They are bewildered as to what comes next, how they can rebuild their lives, how they can integrate this experience into themselves.

Likewise, the audience goes back to their own lives. To me, back in those high school days, it was as radical as if the priest had given the benediction at the end of church:

If you have lustful thoughts, maybe that’s not such a sin
And if you feel a little bit gay, maybe that’s not so abnormal
And maybe you can show off a little bit, even if you’re not that confident
Maybe you can accept yourself, even if you don’t fit into what they tell you is “normal”
Maybe you can be it instead of just dreaming it.

One of the many reasons I love being a UU is that that sort of benediction would be nothing to comment on here, except you might have to explain the word “sin” to the kids who’ve never heard it before. One of my fellow OWL teachers told me her YRUU group took the 9th graders to Rocky Horror. Only UUs would do that as an officially sanctioned church event. Although Frank is not a good role model and the story is a traumatic one for the characters, it’s mostly played for laughs, and the audience participation makes it all about the fun for anyone who goes.

Elizabeth and I went to see the movie a couple of months ago to help prepare for this service, and I was afraid it would seem like a quaint relic from a bygone age. And it does, in some ways. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that because this room in this town is safe, that we’ve made enough progress. I saw a lot of high school students streaming out of the Biltmore Mall theater who could’ve been me all those years ago. For so many, the closet still seems like the safest place. For many, gender as a binary concept seems as inevitable as gravity. For so many, the loneliness can be soul crushing.

My dream is that our congregation can be as attractive to young people with questions and fears as a 40-year-old midnight movie. My dream is that our services and activities are fun and uplifting and joyful and a little bit crazy. My dream is that we’re radically inclusive and welcoming and a little bit dangerous.

Don’t Dream It; Be It

The Time Warp

*Note that Asheville’s Rocky Horror is hosted by the “Unexpected Pleasures” cast at 10:30 PM on the second Saturday of every month at Cinebarre, Biltmore Square Mall.

Photo credit: epiclectic / Foter.com / CC BY-ND