Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

 “Queer Activism and the Christian Right: The Surprising Story of their Shared History”

 An hour-long teleconference with

Heather White

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

1 PM – 2 PM ET


WATER spoke with Dr. Heather White about her new book Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

These notes are provided as companion to the call’s audio. A Q & A session followed.

Mary E. Hunt: It is my pleasure to welcome Heather White to our conversation.

The Women’s Marches this past weekend in Washington, DC, around the country, and indeed around the world, gave us all a much-needed lift. Heaven knows we need it given the retro policies that the new president has announced already this week. Let today’s session and all of WATER’s efforts be focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction.

With that, I’d like to introduce Heather White. Heather White is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religion and Queer studies at the University of Puget Sound. She received her MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and PhD from Princeton University. Dr. White is a specialist in American Religions with a research focus on sexuality, gender, and twentieth century social movements. She was involved with the Human Rights Campaign Summer Institute in Religion and Sexuality at Vanderbilt which was a wonderful place to pilot her research, some of which we will discuss today.

Dr. White’s first book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights has been featured in Huffington Post, Religion and Politics, the L.A. Review of Books, and Religion Dispatches, and it was listed in the top ten “best LGBT nonfiction of 2015” by the Bay Area Reporter. With a focus on Protestants, liberals, and mid-twentieth century gay activism, this book challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries and presents a new narrative about America’s religious and sexual past.

This is the work she will draw on for her remarks today as she looks at queer activism and the Christian right. I am delighted that you can join us, and thank you in advance for your presentation.

Heather White: Thank you so much to all of you at WATER. And thanks to all of you listening for your interest and time. You all have read the introduction, which gives a big picture overview of the book. I’m going to speak about the process of writing this book. I’ll begin by telling you about the questions that began my writing and research as a dissertation project, the revision and editing process, and then I will read a bit of the Epilogue, which presents comments and thoughts about how to understand this history in light of a more recent way of understanding the relationship between religious and sexual histories.

I hope to respond to the question: What do we do with this kind of work? This is a historical research project so I’m beholden to the data in terms of the claims I make. I don’t make a lot of normative, ‘this is what we ought to do,’ kind of arguments. I’m interested in how this understanding of history shapes a different way of understanding ourselves in the present.

This project began as an investigation into religious involvement in early LGBT organizing. Protestants were more influential than I had thought. Religious groups in general were more influential. Not only on the progressive side, but also on the other side of the issues. Liberal Protestants helped shaped anti-gay traditions, as well as progressive activism we perceive today as secular.

This project began as a dissertation focused on the Homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Homophile was used before “gay” became popular in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the term was “LGBT.” The terms have changed over time.

The Homophile movement and early 1970s post-stonewall movement were the focus of my dissertation. I found that, during the 1960s and early 1970s, gay movement growth (e.g. Stonewall, Gay Liberation Front), was key for religious flourishing in the gay movement. E.g. Metropolitan Community Churches, Dignity, Protestant Gay Caucuses, Gay Synagogues, etc. Religious organizing crossed every sector of the gay and lesbian social movement. It also crossed every faith tradition.

Gay political emergence was also a moment of religious renewal. Most folks don’t think about this historical moment in this way. It’s usually thought of as predominantly secular. I wanted to recover this part of the history.

I also looked at the moments before Stonewall, specifically at overlaps between Homophile movements and progressive mainline Protestant clergy, for example the 1964 founding of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in San Francisco. This part of Homophile history has been written about, but focused mostly on Homophile group involvement. I researched the perspective of clergy in this movement, how they understood their involvement. What kinds of networks and theologies were part of their involvement in Homophile activism.

I found that most Homophile groups in 1960s started with the support of clergy. Started in church basements, clergy provided material resources, meeting spaces, newsletters, funding, etc. These participants came from a broad variety of religious groups, some weren’t religious at all. What is interesting was the enabling support of progressive clergy. This project uncovered how important this early activism and clergy support was to the growth and politics of the Homophile movement. This movement drew from a great deal of religious support.

This focus is still part of the book. But some questions kept coming up for me: Why don’t we know about this? Why is this history so invisible? What about conservative religious voices? Where were the opponents to this movement? What about conservative Christian scriptural interpretations? How do these progressive clergy navigate what the Bible says about homosexuality? These questions were the major part of my revision process.

One answer to this invisibility: religious voices that emerged with the Christian Right (1970s, early 80s) were effective in out-shouting progressives. This invisibility was also due to the way that both liberals and conservatives within Protestantism assumed that “the tradition” was specifically homophobic. They had a more historical/contextual relationship with Bible traditions. Liberal Protestants had distance from what seemed to be the plain meaning of the text.

I also found the perplexing irony that it was really hard to find commentary about anti-gay Bible traditions prior to the 1960s. Most published conservative Biblical commentary dated as late as the 1970s. Conservative Protestants might respond to this by saying that they were responding to the “gay agenda.”

I also got really curious about what conservatives thought about the “texts of terror,” before they started using them as proof texts in anti-gay politics. I searched through Bible commentaries, study guides, translation projects. I found that the anti-gay Protestant traditions we hear so frequently are largely a 20th century religious synthesis. They’re the product of an earlier set of readings on homosexuality and heterosexuality that came from the therapeutic sciences (psychiatry, psychology.) Liberal Protestants first read these texts, and asked new questions about what the Bible had to say after reading people like Freud. It was these liberal Protestants that produced this modern anti-gay synthesis. It was the combination of Protestant theological modernism together with perspectives gleaned from therapeutic sciences. I call this “therapeutic orthodoxy.”

Liberal Protestants influenced conservative Protestants, and vice versa. They used this “therapeutic orthodoxy” to ground religious authority with appeals to tradition. The substance of anti-gay traditions came from modernist synthesis. Conservatives translated this into their own idioms, embedding it in new translation projects and Biblical textual interpretations.

I’m going to turn at this point to read a section of the Epilogue that takes up this argument and thinks about the way that pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT have an earlier relationship to one another. Dr. White read an excerpt from the epilogue of her book, starting on page 182. Available here.

That last piece is an effort to think about the implications of this earlier history and its relationship to queer and LGBT politics. There are at least 2 questions to grapple with this: 1) How do we recover religious voices that have been made invisible? 2) How do we reclaim religious voices in the movements for sexuality, sexual freedom, and sexual integrity? We also need to look at the history of predominant Christian and Protestant influence, Christian hegemony. The difficult labor is to work on opening up what kinds of religious groups/practices and beliefs make up this movement as well. There are surely other traditions that can give voice to this, as well as earlier histories that we need to uncover.

So we need to build a truly pluralist kind of politics and look at the interplays, it’s not just religious v. secular.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak with you all, I look forward to the questions you have about this project.

Q & A

MEH: Thanks to Dr. Heather White for a wonderful and helpful presentation. I think your last two points of noticing and recovering religious voices made invisible, and dealing with Christian hegemony are important next steps. This kind of work takes all of us into the sources in a new and deeper way.

Heather, I read this book with great interest. I’m wondering if you can tell us what you think the impact of feminist work in religion was on the period you’re talking about? Most of what you describe is a history of churchmen. Who were some of the women involved in the “LG” communities, for example in San Francisco? You mentioned Del Martin. What about someone like Sally Miller Gearhart? Was she on the Council on Religion and the Homosexual? Have you found anything about her role in all of this?

Heather White: One of the things I grappled with while writing this project was working through how “male” the archives were. The churchmen were “men,” leaders of the Homophile groups were men (except for explicitly lesbian groups.) People like Del Martin and Phyllis Lion were also very important to this movement. They were kind of the enablers of the enablers (keeping records, influencing behind the scenes, etc.) At various times they took up public roles, but they really had a pervasive influence behind the scenes.

Another person is Sally Gearhart, who also worked on the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. I saw her referenced quite a bit in many of the books, starting in the late 1960s. She worked with William Johnson to continue the Council’s work. They co-wrote a book that I used quite a bit in my work. There would be much more of a story to tell by going into some of the archives of groups like Sally Gearhart’s, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s (evangelical feminist organizing), etc. The overlaps with women’s ordination movements would tie into this history as well. There’s more than what I tell, these would be really key parts to pull out. Women were present and they enabled these conversations.

MEH: I want to go back to Sally Gearhart. She was a very important figure in San Francisco at the time. I especially think her essay, “The Lesbian and God-The-Father,” is important. This is a 1973 citation, it was eventually published by the Philadelphia Women’s Task Force. It was originally prohibited from being published by the Presbyterians. This might offer a counter narrative to your argument that progressive Protestants were helpful. The Philadelphia Task Force specifically published this essay because the denomination wouldn’t. This is a brilliant article, one of the earliest efforts at intersectionality in lesbian and gay work. It featured a much broader range of issues than a lot of the men’s work at the time.

HW: Yes, absolutely. I’m remembering the Presbyterian “Trends” issue. Gearhart’s was the article they refused to include.

MEH: I think this is highly significant. Where the lines were drawn around women’s issues and women’s bodies. Gearhart should have been featured in the Harvey Milk film. She certainly lost interest in religion because of all this male stuff.

Q: I’m interested in the focus you described in your introduction on Protestant communities, specifically white American southern Protestants. Have you done any work engaging with Kelly Brown Douglas’ work on the black American church? The book I’m thinking of is Sexuality in the Black Church.

HW: The focus of this is, as you say, predominately and entirely on Protestant, White mainline traditions. The few places where clergy of color were involved were to get white activists to think in more intersectional ways. I have not engaged specifically with Kelly Brown Douglas, but one of the pieces I used during this project were the earlier histories of African American churches. For example, Wallace Best’s history of African American Pentecostal churches in Chicago and their opening towards issues of sexuality and gender. He talks specifically about a flamboyant Pentecostal black preacher who had relationships with men and was presented in a kind of gender fluid way. There’s a whole thread of this project that needs attention around histories of race and histories of African American communities, how they’ve navigated the ways that blackness made them less respectable, as well as the targeting of homophobia that came into play. I’m looking forward to further work that will be coming out about this.

MEH: Thanks for your question. It’s important to highlight the new work that needs to be done around these issues.

Q: My question rises from the point you made towards the end about how conservative Christians and LGBT activists both claim that right sexual identity and speech, as well as right sexual behavior, yields some form of liberation. E.g. if we behave properly, then we will experience some sort of liberation. I’m wondering what are the counter histories and counter politics you would lift up in place of this argument?

HW: I read a lot of Michel Foucault. He’s challenging the way that sexuality can open up an innermost truth. I’ll also reread the last line of my book, “Where a reigning Protestant ideology continues to govern most securely, it seems, is in this domain of the innermost heart.” This points to how dominant narratives of sexuality reinforce a Protestant relationship to the self, an interiorized way of accessing one’s truth. What this doesn’t pay enough attention to is the social contexts important to the formation of sexual identities. We think of identity as interior and about an innermost truth, but we need to look more into social context, social rituals, and how the social more broadly influences our way of perceiving inferiority. It may also require thinking more broadly about various kinds of religious practices, as part of a history of sexuality. This can open up new ways of understanding sexuality and gender and their relationships to faith communities, spiritual communities, politics. Instead of being locked so much into a Protestant paradigm that reinforces sexuality as a singular identity in ways that need to be more intersectional. I think we should bring religions into these conversations. This is the unstated agenda. A pluralist politics would mean shaking out of the white Protestant paradigm that prioritizes this relationship to sexuality as located within an innermost heart.

MEH: Thanks for pointing us in the direction of pluralist politics. I wonder to what extent you see the impact of your analysis on the demographics of American Protestantism, especially the mainline white churches? Do you have some thoughts on that? What impact does your analysis have on the shrinking demographic of white mainline Protestant churches?

HW: It’s certainly true that the shrinking of mainline churches has further worked to make invisible the history I’m working to open up. This is especially true in my mostly secular and mostly white liberal arts college. I’m not sure how many of my students even know what a Presbyterian is. I don’t know if mainline churches have taken up as much of a public role, like evangelical churches have. Mainline Protestant decline has been read as religion’s decline writ large. This really isn’t true. This strain of religious voice has been charted as mainly in decline, but these traditions have also had influence on nonreligious perspectives. I often find that my students, when they start to articulate their ideas about what religion is, they start to sound like liberal Protestants. Thinking about this way secularism draws from liberal Protestant influence, especially as it relates to whiteness, is important. I push my students to see this.

Q: In light of this, in our current national circumstances, what would be your advice for those of us in liberal churches?

MEH: Great question. Where does this put us now? How can they be helpful in a broader context?

HW: I have a lot of empathy, sympathy, and support for progressive religious communities and the work they’re trying to do. They fight battles on multiple fronts. With their coreligionists, and also with their political allies who are often skeptical of religious voices. In some ways, there needs to be more energy on the part of secular organizations, giving more attention to the various things that religion can be in organizing spaces. So that these faith communities don’t have to do the work of making religious voices heard.

MEH: As I read your book, I was reminded of a whole generation of clergymen who were gay, sometimes closeted. We also have a generation of women who were very lesbian/gay-friendly on many fronts. They were very much a part of an invisible support structure, funding things through their offices, helping people, etc. I’m thinking of the coming out of Linda Clark. I’m thinking of a whole generation of those women, they seem to me to be another cut on this whole question that you’re raising. I think it would be terribly important for scholars to look at them.

I also wonder what are, for example, the Catholic equivalents of this? Making their Churches open, especially women religious and secular/lay Catholics. I’m also thinking about parallels in progressive Judaism. I think your book leads us to that kind of research. I want to thank you for that. We are very much in your debt for having written it.

HW: Yes, those histories are there. And we need to get to them. We need to dive into the things that people thought never even existed.

MEH: Especially more in the way of interviews with and recordings of people while they’re still alive. We should interview these folks!

To learn more about this topic and access a list of suggested further readings, click here.

WATER thanks Dr. Heather White for her work. We look forward to more collaboration.

 The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, February 8, 2017at 1 PM ET with Rabbi Mychal Copeland, “LGBTQI Issues in Religion: Their Roots in Feminist Religious Studies.” All are welcome to join. REGISTER HERE.