Journalist Michael Arceneaux is a bit of a comedian: he’s no stranger to snarky comments, his writing is peppered with funny pop culture references (“I hadn’t been to church in five Beyoncé albums!”), and as we sit in the conference room at his publisher’s office, there’s a smile on his face. But it’s not just any smile: within it lies a confidence earned by having decided not to be defeated by his past.
Arceneaux, who was born in Houston to a deeply religious Catholic mother and a father prone to what he describes as “alcohol-induced rage,” knew from age five that he was gay. But witnessing his family’s homophobia following his uncle’s death from AIDS and living under his mother’s religious restrictions rendered him closeted and conflicted for many years.
He began writing for a living after graduating from Howard University and moving to Los Angeles, and it was five years after he’d come out to everyone else in his life that he finally came out to his mother. And he did that only because he’d written an article in Essence and wanted to warn her before she saw it. Arceneaux recalls her saying, “I know you didn’t choose to be gay, but if you have sex and then you [die], I don’t know where you’re going.” He says his first thought was, “Well girl, I can’t date Jesus!”
That response became the title of Arceneaux’s debut book: I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé (Atria, July), a collection of candid, humorous yet deadly serious and introspective essays in which he chronicles growing up, coming out, and dating, and his career arc, set against the backdrop of restrictive religion, a turbulent home life, and pop culture. Arcenaux says his journey of self-discovery required “unlearning every damaging thing I’ve seen and heard about my identity, and allowing myself the space to figure out who I am and what that means on my terms.”
One of the things he explores in the book, he says, is “what do you do when you have to create your own closure with people whom you love but who you feel have damaged you or done you wrong, or whom you have a chaotic history with? That experience was traumatic enough to live and make peace with, but it’s another thing to bare your soul on paper.”
Arceneaux’s personal opinion essays covering culture, sexuality, religion, and race have appeared in the Guardian, New York magazine, and the New York Times; he has been a commentator on MSNBC, NPR, SiriusXM, VH1, and Viceland. When told that his book is strikingly read-aloud-able, Arceneaux agrees that it would make a great audiobook. “And I would love to be the narrator—I would love for y’all to hear my twang coming in and out!”
As a teen living under his mother’s strict rules, Arceneaux had little access to the activities his peers enjoyed. Within this relative confinement, he found pop culture to be his saving grace—a window to life outside of his bubble. “The man I’ve become has largely been molded by the lessons learned from the famous women I’ve obsessed over throughout the course of my life,” he writes. Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and T-Boz: each in some way provided affirming imagery, especially about sex and relationships, that he found very impactful as he got older.
After completing the book in 2011, Arceneaux began the long search for an agent. “There were not many books like mine,” he says. “My family is from Louisiana so I have a very specific Gulf Coast, working-class, gay, black perspective.” Although he got what he calls a “very polite no” from agent Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich Bourret, Arceneaux decided to share with McCarthy relevant essays that he later published, which led to him eventually being signed on as a client.
Arceneaux is clear on his purpose: “I wanted to write about my life with a mix of pathos and humor—the same way a lot of white male authors like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs get to write about their lives.” His editor at Atria is Rakesh Satyal, who followed the author’s social and political commentary before he signed him and was a fan. “Rakesh was always accessible, and when it came time to edit, every change he made, every suggestion he had, made it stronger,” Arceneaux says. “And I’ve always been appreciative that he got the vision immediately and believed in what I was trying to do.”
It’s of great importance to Arceneaux that voices like his be heard. Because his goal is to make people laugh and think, he especially admires authors who blend humor and tragedy in their personal stories, such as Samantha Irby (“She manages to interject an easiness with the melancholy,” he says). And he admires activists Darnell Moore and DeRay Mckesson, who both have books coming out this year.
“I’m encouraged that there’s more than one gay or queer-identifying black man with a book out by a mainstream publisher,” Arceneaux says. “I want other queer, other black, other others to write about their lives with the complexity and the nuance and particularly the humor that is so often missing. Often, particularly in books from black authors that are praised by the mainstream, we talk about ourselves in terms of pathology—how it is so awful to be us. Even shopping this book, I think the humor threw people off. Because sure, I’ve had a difficult background; I’ve had some trauma to deal with. But I can laugh about those things. I can laugh at myself. I can laugh at the circumstances that I’ve been put in and continue to be in, and I wanted to do it my way. So I hope that makes it easier for other people who want to tell their stories.”
I ask Arceneaux whether his parents will read the book. “My dad is not fittin’ to go to Target and pick this up,” he says. “I’ve actually never seen my dad read a book. And I’m not going to give him a copy because I’ve never done that with any of my other work. If my mom reads the book, I assume she wouldn’t tell me: she’s from the school of don’t tell people your business. She’s still not happy I’m gay.”
Arceneaux’s next book will be an extension of “The Student Loan Serenity Prayer,” an essay he wrote in February for the New York Times Sunday Review about the toll that private student loan debt takes on mental health and professional well-being. “You can overcome the burden of identity and religion, but if you owe an obscene amount of money every month, you can’t just shake that off,” he says.
Asked about his love life, Arceneaux flashes the side eye. “Oh, I still don’t have a man,” he says. “I’m dating, just nobody special. For right now, I am really comfortable alone. I’m not one of these people who cringe about not having somebody—I would never be that person. But no shade to those who are!”