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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Jasper says, "Arms be bound with rope and shame"

One thing about Jasper, he gets his hands dirty. Sometimes he comments about the art he sees and hears, but sometimes he’s got his hands down in it, making something. So sometimes we’ll write about what we’re doing.

So: I’ve been cutting up Jesus. Will I go to hell for this?

I’m working with a collaborative of artists –visual artists, filmmakers, performance artists—on a show called Saint Sebastian: From Martyr to Gay Starlet. The one-night-only gallery show will be Sept. 1 at Friday Cottage Artspace downtown (1830 Henderson). (Yes, we know, we know: same night as First Thursday.) The event was planned in conjunction with SC Gay Pride on Sept 3; the idea was to add an art element to the week of events.



The show, conceived by Alejandro García-Lemos and Leslie Pierce, explores the quirky iconography of Saint Sebastian, martyred twice (the first time didn’t work—Saint Irene pulled all the arrows out), his eyes always raised to heaven but his body writhing across this history of Western art in masochistic ecstasy. How does a Christian martyr become a gay icon? What is it about his story, his image, the representations of his martyred body? (The publicity art—which juxtaposes a male pin-up with stained glass, by Leslie Pierce—captures, I think, some of the weirdness of this icon.)

There’s a great image of Sebastian in the Columbia Museum of Art. The Virgin and Child are pure Byzantine, blue and gold and flat, but Sebastian is looking over the Virgin’s shoulder like the Renaissance, naturalistic, a real body, the cords of his strong neck.

The Sebastian show will include visual art, performance art, photography, film, a small souvenir chapbook of original art and poetry, a DJ, a cash bar, and a couple of boys standing around with arrows.

I’ve been writing poems about Sebastian—some about the image and history, some responding to specific works by the other artists. The interactions and collaborations have been rich and rewarding. (Note to self: there should be more interdisciplinary artist collaborations. Such a great way to generate new work.) A film visually responds to a poem which responds to a print, the film incorporating a voiceover of the poem and the imagery of the print. A photo documents a performance art piece which uses a poem which responds to a print (the poem projected—performance art into film—onto a male body).

I was asked to turn a small room into a poetry chapel. I’ve got icons, prayer cards (with a prayer to Sebastian.) Among other things, I wanted some prayer banners. My partner found some huge folk religious art canvases at a local auction—interesting because the artist was painting traditional Christian images, but clearly had a special interest in the textures of men’s bodies—the veins on arms, the carefully painted chest hair on an apostle. (And that carefully draped loincloth across the fisher of men, looking so like a wardrobe malfunction about to happen, the hand of Jesus so carefully positioned there, as if he’s about to rip it off.)

So for the banners I cut up bodies—Jesus, apostles, thieves on crosses. Something wicked and vaguely erotic about it. Disembodied arms. An arrow (real arrow) in the side. Wrists bound with golden rope. A prayer. “Arms be bound with rope and shame.”

-- Ed Madden