Why Did Andrew Caldwell’s Ex-Gay Video Go Viral?

Andrew Caldwell.

Still from YouTube. 

It’s been an interesting few weeks in the world of “gay” viral videos. First we met 15-year-old Brendan Jordan, whose refreshing, unapologetic queerness (and local news video dance-bombing) earned him Internet fame and a spin on the daytime talk show circuit. And now we are dealing with Andrew Caldwell, a 21-year-old man whose exuberant declaration of having been cured of homosexuality was met with much jubilation by attendees of the Church of God in Christ’s 107th Holy Convocation … and much chuckling by the gay blogosphere.

While the figures in these videos are very different—Jordan openly and happily identifies as gay, while Caldwell continues to assert he is ex-gay—I can’t help but consider them together in terms of the response they’ve generated. In both cases, bloggers and commenters have exhibited a striking tendency to refrain from really addressing what, exactly, is so appealing about the clip: The reason for the video’s virality feels as if it lies just beyond the frame. I previously argued that Jordan’s allure lay in the trouble he caused for contemporary ideas about “respectable” gay behavior; he combines the sweet of entertainment with the salty bite of transgression. But what about Caldwell? His virality stems from an altogether more knotted mess of cultural issues, and the ways we’ve tip-toed around that mess reveal how our modern theology of outness and visibility may not be as simple as advertised. 

But first, a recap: In his testimony, Caldwell exclaims: “I’m not gay no more! I am delivered! I don’t like mens no more! I said I like women! Women, women, women [mumbling]! I said women! I’m not gay! I will not date a man! I will not carry a purse! I will not put on makeup! I will love a woman.” The presiding pastor praises this announcement and invites congregants to celebrate God’s power along with Caldwell. The pastor eventually gives him $100, because the Lord told him to. Also important: Caldwell is dressed rather flamboyantly, in purple and mustard with a printed jacket. His bowtie looks like something previously owned by Quentin Crisp. And in his comportment, it is neither rude nor inaccurate to say that he presents as somewhat effeminate.

Watching all this, it is easy to understand why an out gay viewer might have trouble settling on the appropriate reaction—so much is at play. First, there’s the religious celebration of ex-gayness, which is noxious, but not really surprising. But within that context, we’re shown a man who, despite or perhaps because of the words coming out of his mouth (women, women, women), seems very gay, at least in the sense of cultural markers. We all see this and recognize it, and yet the current political paradigm of self-declaration discourages defining gayness in those terms (at least in public), so we’re left in sort of a strange position. Do we believe Caldwell, since he is very defiantly not “out,” or do we go with our gaydars and continue to consider this man a homo (and perhaps even a con artist) despite his protestations? Where do we place him, and how do we relate to his situation? With pity? Anger? Laughter?

Tellingly, most seem to have gone with their guts, and the laughing option seems to have been the most popular. When the gay blogs initially covered the video’s viral breakout, most posted it with little commentary other than a general suggestion that this object was patently risible. And why not? The “church queen”—the closeted gay man who sublimates his sexuality in service of the church, often in an artistic capacity like choir director—is a familiar and oft-derided figure. His open-secret, self-sacrificial lifestyle choice reads as pathetic from the (secular) out point-of-view, and so giggling at him is easy. Caldwell’s specific example is all the more potent, given his sartorial boldness and the effervescent worship style common to many predominately African American churches. (That’s as far as I’ll get into processing the racial politics of this video’s popularity, but suffice it to say they play a part here.) Remix parodies of the testimony arrived right on schedule, and the standard response has converged on an “oh lord, look at this queen” head shake.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to finding Caldwell’s video darkly amusing for these reasons, but I think we need to challenge ourselves to do more with it than that. Clay Cane, BET.com’s entertainment editor, is right when he criticizes both the church and the Internet’s (i.e. our) approach to this young man. Speaking on Huffpost Live, Cane said that he hopes Caldwell “is on suicide watch,” adding that “the way that he is being shamed in the public, and the way he was being shamed in that church, is really heartbreaking to see.” Cane is hard on the “black church” about its role in traumatizing gays, calling it “true, deep violence,” but he also condemns those mocking Caldwell as participating in his abuse.

I certainly agree that chuckling at this video is not so functionally different from shaming Caldwell for his sexuality and that care is warranted, especially considering his recent claim that he was molested as a child (an event that he unfortunately connects to his sexuality). But I diverge from Cane in identifying where, exactly, that laughter is coming from. Cane suggests Caldwell’s femininity is the joke, but I’m not sure that’s right. So much of the response to this video (among the gay community, anyway) has felt giddy in that way people get when they are actually anxious about something serious. So what are we nervous about?

The formula of “visibility equals political progress” has been wildly successful for the LGBTQ movement. However, it has tended to require that queers model their self-expression and negotiate their relationships in very specific ways in order to be included in the progress. But Caldwell’s case reminds us that many people feel they cannot follow that model for a range of legitimate reasons. The church community appears to be important to this man, and it is clear that he cannot be openly gay and remain a part of this particular one. Nor, it should be said, can he find shelter in the church queen archetype; the success of the gay rights movement has had the consequence of making those kinds of previously tolerated roles increasingly untenable. But considering his effeminacy, his faith, even his blackness, would the mainstream gay community be any more welcoming? Given what we know about the historical treatment of those issues “over here,” I am not at all sure of that.

In the end, I wonder if we are not so much embarrassed for Caldwell as we are embarrassed that people like Caldwell may see so little of value in current gay culture that denying themselves in order to find acceptance where they can is an appealing option. This video introduces us to a fellow queen who is hurting, and on some level we realize we can offer little succor without doing violence to other aspects of his personality. And so instead of blushing, we laugh.