Gerard Cabrera: gay author discusses his novel, 'Homo Novus'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday October 11, 2022
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author Gerard Cabrera
author Gerard Cabrera

In his eagerly anticipated debut novel, "Homo Novus" (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2022), gay writer Gerard Cabrera takes us back to the late 1980s, a time when AIDS was still a death sentence and the pedophile priest scandal that shook the foundation of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts hadn't yet become front page news. The main characters in "Homo Novus," Linus (a reprehensible priest) and Orlando (a young and likeable seminarian), two men at very different stages in their lives, become entangled as they navigate the lethal and tragic times.

author Gerard Cabrera  

Gregg Shapiro: Gerard, "Homo Novus" is your debut novel. How long did it take you to complete it?
Gerard Cabrera: I began working on "Homo Novus" in 2009, during the Great Recession. I became unemployed and was out of work for the first time in my life. I had always identified with having a job, and so I had to ask myself a lot of uncomfortable questions, including, who am I? It was an identity crisis!

You've had short fiction published in a variety of literary journals. Did any part of "Homo Novus" begin as a short story?
"Homo Novus" went through different stages. First, it was a caper with lots of characters and a sort of comedy centered around the kidnapping and re-education of a closeted gay priest by former students...still a good idea, I think. But when I workshopped it at Bread Loaf, the feedback I got was to pare down the number of characters and focus on one relationship, and that is what I did, or tried to do, with "Homo Novus."

Like the character of seminarian Orlando, you are from Springfield, Massachusetts. How much of Gerard is in Orlando?
Well, in as much as any gay boy thinks it would be fun to dress up like that and be onstage with all that music and theater and magic and attention [laughs]! Seriously though, very little of me is in Orlando. There are overlaps, of course, in things such as places in Massachusetts and Puerto Rico, and the experience of going through an intense Catholic gay adolescence in an all-boys high school. But Orlando is Orlando.

"Homo Novus" is the second book I've recently read, including John D'Emilio's "Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood," in which being gay and Catholic are central. Do you think the Catholic Church will ever come to terms with its gay parishioners and what is your current religious status?
I am looking forward to reading his book. It sounds great. But to answer your question, unfortunately, no, I do not think the institution at this time can come to terms with any kind of human diversity outside of its traditional definitions. It has boxed itself into a corner ideologically and even those who would want to be more flexible find the weight of change too heavy.

Let's take someone like the current pope, who is considered progressive or liberal. Even he can't seem to do it. For example, his encyclical on the environment was a genuinely important piece of advocacy. There is so much discussion about non-exploitation of resources and respect for the natural diversity of our world, and everyone's obligation to protect and nurture this diversity. And yet, the argument does not get extended to its logical next step, human diversity as it is expressed by the LGBTQ+ community.

Had you considered the priesthood?
Yes, I went to a minor seminary, a high school for boys who want to become priests. These kinds of schools exist less today, for good reason, although I'm pretty sure the fantasy of becoming a priest, which is not unique to gay boys, still exists. Any boy who experiences adolescent awkwardness probably thinks about it at least once as a way to explain and escape from their own normal growing pains. But a sex-segregated religious environment is probably not the best place to work those things out! This is something I tried to bring to life in my novel. In "Homo Novus," Orlando and the other boys feel the allure, are drawn to a feeling of mystery, and of being gifted somehow. All children are gifted, of course, but they are easily exploited. Adults are another story.

Linus, another character in "Homo Novus," is an older priest with AIDS. Am I correct in saying that this is not a subject that has been written about that much before?
Yes, you are correct. There is some writing on this, but not that much, as you say. I do think there has been more memoir and journalism on clergy with HIV/AIDS. Some of it is quite good and some is sensationalistic, and there are studies and surveys about gay priests. This certainly overlaps with AIDS. And if you ask around you can always hear stories about gay priests, priests with AIDS, and predator priests.

I heard a story myself about one of my favorite teachers in high school, that he died of AIDS. I can't confirm it. As in "Homo Novus," there is a lot of secrecy around both gay priests and AIDS, disguised often as protecting privacy, but really it is about shame. By way of example, even the characters in "Homo Novus" can only speculate and gossip about the private lives of other priests.

In addition to being addressed in "Homo Novus," AIDS has been a popular subject in gay fiction in 2022, appearing in new books by John Weir, Andrew Holleran, Bill Konigsberg, and K.M. Soehnlein. Why do you think that is the case, and what do you think it means?
I've got all those books on my list and am looking forward to reading them! I wasn't aware that AIDS had stopped being a popular subject in gay fiction. It seems to me a foundational event, like Stonewall, and even if it is not explicit, I always feel its presence. One reason it might be having a resurgence is that writers of a certain generation are looking back, some maybe for the first time, and trying to reckon with that history.

But I think COVID, too, has brought AIDS/HIV back to the surface, especially for those who lived through that pandemic in the 1980s and '90s. There are so many uncanny parallels, all frightening, especially the disproportionate effect on marginalized people, and the negligent preparation and response of government. I lost an aunt to COVID in the early days, before the vaccine. No one knew what to do. Orlando, in "Homo Novus," wonders what to do if he tests positive.

"Homo Novus" also deals with the issue of ephebophilia, in other words, pedophile priests, a crisis that had its epicenter in the Boston-area. The Catholic Church somehow survived, but do you think it was changed in any way, or is it still business as usual?
I'm not an expert in any way, but I think, ultimately, the problem remains. There have been attempts at reforms, but fundamentally, it is stuck in the same rut. This abuse is a symptom of the Church's deeper issues. As long as the Catholic Church remains hostile to human sexual, gender, and affective diversity, this problem is going to continue. Attacks on transgender people is good evidence of this.

Early in the book, there is a reference to Rock Hudson's death, which puts the book in 1987. Additionally, there are mentions of gay bars popular in Boston in the '80s, including Buddies, Chaps, the 1270, Sporters, and Haymarket. As I recall, you were living in Boston during this time. Please say a few words about what you recall Boston being like for queer people at that time.
Looking back, I think it was an exciting, but dangerous time. Ronald Reagan was president. AIDS, homophobia, apartheid in South Africa, war in Central America, sodomy laws, discrimination, but also lots of protest and community organizing.

I came out in my junior year of college and helped run the lesbian and gay group on campus group my senior year. We hadn't added the B or the T or the Q yet. I'm old [laughs]! I volunteered at Gay Community News on Thursday nights, mailing out that week's copy when plain brown envelopes were a real thing, not just a joke about receiving "adult material."

In 1985 I organized a protest against Eddie Murphy's AIDS jokes. We got coverage on "Entertainment Tonight," if you can imagine. And I received death threats. I learned a lot from that experience.

Coming from western Massachusetts, Boston was the big city to me. I loved it. There were so many bookstores and movie houses. I could take the commuter train and get off in Cambridge. My favorite places to go were Harvard Square and Central Square. I could also take the T and go in to Boston. There were lots of bars and clubs and places to hang out.

Glad Day Bookstore was a great place, and when I could find a ride with friends, the 1270 had a college night and Haymarket was great for Saturdays. The Napoleon Club was a special place because a classmate of mine played at the piano bar and I could bask in his celebrity. And they had a disco named Josephine's, naturally!

If there was a movie version of "Homo Novus," who would you like to play Linus, Orlando, and Eric?
That's a tough one. Hmmm. Linus: Kevin Spacey. Orlando: Bad Bunny. Eric: Harry Styles.

You currently live in New York and work as a lawyer. What do you like best about where you live?
I moved to New York City in 1989 during a telephone strike and during the election that finally toppled Ed Koch. There were subway tokens and pay phones on the corner. I miss the pay phones a lot. I had no job, no apartment, and no money. So far so good—I'm still here!

I've worked all over the city, but these days, I work downtown, and I love being able to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge every day. And it's still a treat to eat my lunch in the park, on my bench, and watch my beautiful fellow New Yorkers. I work in New York City's family court. It's fast-paced, stressful, and overwhelming sometimes, but incredibly rewarding. And the folks who do this kind of work are heroes to me.

Have you started working on or thinking about your next book project?
Yes, I have been working on a collection of short stories for a while, which I started during the pandemic lockdown period here in New York City. It's roughly based on V.S. Naipaul's "Miguel Street." I also have some other ideas.

Gerard Cabrera will discuss his book with author Huascar Robles in-person and online, Oct. 29, 4pm PT, hosted by the Bureau of General Services: Queer Division in New York City.

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