Becoming an author has been a long time coming for Michael Arceneaux. In fact, despite a recurring column for the digital magazine Into called “Dearly Beloved,” his personal blog “The Cynical Ones” and articles published everywhere from the New York Times to the now-defunct XOJane, he “never wanted to be a full-time writer,” he said.
The goal was to be a talk show host who happened to write books and that’s why his friends used to call him Donahue and Bryant Gumbel.
But with the release of “I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I've Put My Faith in Beyoncé,” available July 24 (Atria), part of that dream is coming true.
“It took longer than I thought, kind of like waiting on a Beyoncé album,” he said. “But this is a much stronger book because of it.”
“I Can't Date Jesus” is a collection of essays written with Arceneaux’s trademark humor and unflinching frankness about his journey of self-discovery and acceptance. The 200-page easy read, written in a style that’s been compared to Samantha Irby and David Sedaris, reveals how the Houston native came out to his mother, laid down with a dog and got up with fleas and how he’s dealing with the current White House administration — the leader of which he calls Tangerine Mussolini, Sweet Potato Saddam and Mandarin Orange Mugabe, all in chapter 15. And, of course, he explains why Beyoncé is his “Lord and gyrator.”
Ahead of the book’s release and an Aug. 9 book signing and conversation with Janet Mock at Barnes & Noble at The Grove, The Times spoke with Arceneaux about his debut memoir, learning to accept himself as he was born and his favorite Beyoncé album. He also gives us a review of her recent joint album with Jay-Z.
How did you get to the title, “I Can’t Date Jesus?”
That’s a chapter related to my mother who understands that one is born gay but as a devout Catholic, follows church doctrine in that, “I know you can’t help it, but maybe you should not act on it.” So the chapter refers to a conversation we had a few years ago where she mentions me being intimate with another man and that if something happened and I got hit by a bus, she wouldn’t know where I was going, [to heaven or hell]. And I told her, “Well, I can’t date Jesus. What do you want me to do?”
I chose the title after I finished the book.
Have you given her an advance copy to check it out?
No. And it’s not that I’m afraid. As I write in the book, you've got to meet people where they are and you can’t, sometimes, change people’s opinions. Often when you think about coming out to your parents, there are two things that can happen: either they completely ice you out or they welcome you with open arms, maybe not immediately but eventually. With me, I’m in a gray area… and sometimes that gray area is all you’ll get, so sometimes, you have to create your own closure.
I don’t know if she’ll read it. I do know select relatives will be reading it because they told me... If I thought her reading it might lead to a fruitful conversation where we could have closure, I would’ve sent her an advance copy.
Unlike so many other forms of black art, the book transcends pain and struggle and comes out on the other side with humor. Was that intentional?
That’s kind of just who I am. I’m always making some kind of joke. If I wasn’t able to laugh at things in my life that have happened, I would probably be dead. I was just being myself in the book and wrote the book I wanted to write. And when you talk to black people and black queer people, they love humor. It’s not always a struggle. There’s a lot of joy and light within our community.
In the book, you talk about self-acceptance and coming to love your looks and your identity. What did that process look like for you?
I just came to realize that if I can be critical of other people and their work and projects and actions, then I should be self-aware and self-critical. And not in any detrimental way, but I should be able to analyze why I act the way I do and why I do certain things. I couldn’t really afford therapy, so I had to be my own Frasier. I found my inner Iyanla [Vanzant].
I’ve always wanted to make people laugh and think with my work. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be more secure and not carry much baggage. There’s a Mary J. Blige song called “Baggage” many people probably don’t remember, but I didn’t want to be that song. It’s a bop, but I don't want to be it, and that prompted me to do the work.
When did you first confess Beyoncé as your Lord and Savior Beysus Christ?
I’ve been with Beyoncé for over 20 years. It was during Destiny’s Child, and I would see her and be like, “Oh my God! Look at her.” I’ve loved her since “No No No.” That’s why I sit at the higher echelon of the Beyhive.
What do you say to the few people out there who think she’s overrated?
You’re a liar, and God is not in you. I pray for your recovery.
She recently released “Everything is Love” with Jay-Z. What are your thoughts?
I will acknowledge that I was a little doubtful about a joint album because I’ve been struggling with forgiveness of him because he cheated on Beyoncé. But I will say that it’s a Beyoncé album featuring her husband and he manages to keep up with her. But she out-raps him. I love the album. It’s perfect for summer. It’s the soundtrack for the book release.
What’s the best Beyoncé album?
I think self-titled is her best, but “B Day” is my favorite.
I’ll accept that answer. I’m partial to “4.”
I knew you were going to say that. “4” is a great album. I actually love all her albums, except one. You know which one…
Is there something you want readers to take away from the book?
I want people to leave with their own lessons, but I hope it speaks to anyone who has struggled with coming to terms with who you are meant to be versus who you were taught to be. There are a lot of people who have read it who aren’t anything like me that can relate to the part about religion or the part about issues with their parents, and there are so many books I’ve read from people who look nothing like me, but I was able to pull something. But you don’t often say that about a black queer person, especially a southern black queer person who doesn’t come from money. There’s very few of us out here in these spaces. I just hope people laugh and they think, and hopefully, I'm speaking to people who don’t usually feel heard.