Shame On You

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. If this blog had a soundtrack it would be Evelyn Champagne King, 1978, “Shame.” (Yeah, I'm listening to it again while I write. Listen along!)

You can see him, can’t you? That skinny gay kid with bad Barry Manilow hair, dancing in front of his mirror to the eight-track tape….

Maybe I’m thinking about shame because I spent some time in my childhood home earlier this year, sleeping in that bedroom. (The mirror and the eight-track player and the Barry Manilow hairdo are gone now.  It gets better.)

Maybe it’s also because this is Gay Pride week in Columbia—rainbow banners on every street.  Pride is supposed to be the opposite of shame, a way of reclaiming as good an identity that has been, in the past, pathologized, demonized, stigmatized. (I do love those rainbow banners. I remember how excited we were, when I was on the Pride planning committee years ago, and that first gay pride street banner went up. We kept driving by it, smiling.) Pride is shame turned inside out. (A list of Pride events can be found here.)

Mostly, though, it’s because I’ve been working with the Sebastian art show, which I wrote about in an earlier blog. The beauty of the vilified.

Shame is a fundamental emotion of our childhoods—I think that it is amplified for some gay and lesbian kids. Therapists like to draw a distinction between shame and guilt: guilt is what we feel for something we’ve done or haven’t done, but shame is what we feel for who we are. It’s connected to our identities.

Shame can’t be erased or excised or purged. Nope, the residue of it sticks to us, no matter how much we try to wash it away, pretend it's not there. All we can do is transfigure it in some way, use it, understand it, recognize it, learn from it.

And write about it.

So in my poems about Sebastian, I was thinking about how and why we learn from shame, from the ways we’re shamed and the feelings of shame and the ongoing effects of shame. I don’t have answers; I was thinking of my poems as gestures, provocations, explorations, attempts. I was thinking about Sebastian and John O'Hara and Pinhead and Debussy and archery books and ampallangs and the Cowardly Lion. (Dorothy yells at him, “Shame on you,” before he breaks into his song: “It’s sad believe me, missy, when you’re born to be a sissy….”)

I wrote a series of poems or prayers for Sebastian. Here’s the last one of the series:

For Saint Sebastian

Arms, be bound. Legs bound, rope wound.

The rope that binds is shame. The arrow is shame, the bow.

Shame is a wound, shame is a caul. That we may learn the eloquence of shame.

That we may learn that the arrows do not kill you.

The tree stiffens the spine. The arrows do not kill us.


I’m still listening to Evelyn Champagne King. I know she’s singing about something else, but still, those lyrics sing for me. “Gonna love you just the same. Mama just don’t understand….”

- Ed Madden


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