Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

 “LGBTQI Issues in Religion: Their Roots in Feminist Religious Studies”

 An hour-long teleconference with

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

1 PM – 2 PM ET


WATER spoke with Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Bay Area Director of InterFaith Family and co-editor of the volume Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives (Skylight Paths, 2015).

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

Mary E. Hunt: Good afternoon. I am at the WATER office in Silver Spring, MD with WATER colleagues and friends. It is my pleasure to welcome Rabbi Mychal Copeland to our conversation.

We at WATER are deeply concerned by the direction the current U.S. administration is moving. We are especially chilled by the unjust treatment of immigrants and refugees, among many other egregious policies. It is now our practice to affirm that today’s session and all of WATER’s efforts are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. We gather in service of a very different vision—inclusion, equality, and justice. Welcome.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland speaks and writes about the inclusion of LGBTQI people and interfaith families in religious life. She is the Bay Area Director of Interfaith Family, and served for thirteen years as a university rabbi, first at UCLA and later at Hillel at Stanford University. Her book, Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives (SkyLight Paths, November 2015), which we will focus on today, grew out of her campus work.

She earned a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a rabbinical degree from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Mychal is the founder of a national Rosh Hodesh (new moon) project for teens, It’s a Girl Thing, that celebrates the monthly lunar cycle and strengthens teen girls’ self-esteem and spirituality with over 100 groups around the country.

Mychal is also a certified yoga instructor and fuses Jewish spirituality with movement in her yoga teaching. She writes a monthly Torah column for J: The Jewish News of Northern California and other articles include in the Huffington Post, Sh’ma Journal of Jewish Ideas, and Religion Dispatches.

Mychal will now speak for 20 minutes followed by our discussion. Her focus will be on “LGBTQI Issues in Religion: Their Roots in Feminist Religious Studies” which is a particular interest of mine so I am delighted to hear what you have to say about it.

Mychal Copeland: Thank you so much. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking about this topic, but I don’t usually get to focus on gender, usually just queer issues. I’m excited to hear your questions and thoughts, how these issues are interplaying today, how this connects with our daily lives.

A bit of background about the book– This is a sourcebook. D’vorah Rose and I invited contributions from 13 different American religious traditions. We wanted insider perspectives from across the religious spectrum. We didn’t want perspectives from the outside coming in and telling religion what it should be or do. Perspectives from the people who are living with it, celebrating it, struggling with it, etc.

We found an incredible, diverse group of people that answered different questions: Where has our tradition been in terms of LGBTQI issues? Where do they think it should go? What had they encountered in the past that could help us understand better where they are today?

Our authors came from many disciplines, helping us to understand how we move toward transformation, not just inclusion. I think this is needed now more than ever. Religion does not speak with one voice. There’s no such thing as “American Religion.” There is multiplicity across the religious spectrum, variety within each religious tradition. There is no unilateral anti-LGBTQI voice, for example. We are sorely uneducated about religion, especially in terms of Islam.

So this book can also be seen as an introduction to religion. We were looking for a deeper and more nuanced view in terms of how much diversity there is. We were worried the tone would be difficult. We found that there was a mixed bag with painful stories, but with hope in every corner. LGBTQI questions within many religions were transformative. When everyone is invited to be their full selves, exciting things can happen. There are incredible things happening (e.g. a major evangelical pastor in Denver just announced how his community is moving towards an open stance to be able to talk about LGBTQI issues). No one unilateral voice.

Honing in on the gender questions more specifically. We found that when we asked about social upheaval in the past, many pointed to the inclusion of women in religious positions of authority. This was a major turning point, often set stage for LGBTQI advancement.

Feminism has contributed deeply to LGBTQI movement. Feminist theory is liberating for all people. That mark of women in positions of authority within religious institutions does pave the way. This doesn’t always happen. In many cases, even in traditions where it seems things are going great there is so much work to do in terms of LGBTQI inclusion.

I want to focus on the chapters you received. First, Judaism, Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman wrote a wonderful chapter for the book talking about Hebrew scriptures and Jewish texts. She focuses on the oft-quoted Leviticus passage (“do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman”). This is often a passage that is pointed to when discussing LGBTQI issues in Judaism. In fact, I don’t think that this is what it’s about. It’s about male sexual behavior, but it goes deeper. I think this prohibition is about overturning societal structure. You can’t extract gender from the conversation. To say that a man can’t be with another man sexually means that one of the men is taking on a passive gender role. Every societal institution would be overturned. The gender hierarchy must remain, the Leviticus verse threatens that, when a man takes on the role of a “receiver.”

Rabbi Litman brings in some other texts, which ties into the Episcopal chapter by Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge. They both talk about the first chapters of Genesis (1:27, 2:18). (Reading from page 96) “At the hour when the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the first human, it was created androgynous. As it is written, ‘male and female God created them.’” This shines a light on the fact that these chapters in Genesis call into question both sexuality and gender, and how they’re linked.

Partridge goes deeper into complementarity, in the creation of two beings that must be reunited into a whole. These are comments on both gender and sexuality/sexual attraction. He grapples with this in his chapter and how the Episcopal Church addresses these questions.

(reading from page 40) “Key phrases in this approach include the declaration ‘male and female he created them’ (1:27), ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28), and ‘therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (2:24).” He talks about heterosexual marriage upholding the male-female binary. He writes, “deviation from it potentially signals not simply sexual sin, but gender confusion.” (page 400.) We asked each author talk about which texts were central, which texts were helpful, and which texts gave them difficulties.

The Bishop also talks about First Corinthians 6, concerning the effeminate man. The pieces that have been the most ingrained and painful point to something deeper. Not just same sex behavior, we’re really talking about the performance of gender roles. This is where we have deep challenges to our traditions.

The chapter writers for the Islam chapter explored the connections between sexuality and gender more than anyone else. (Reading from page 84) “Examining the ways Islam has dealt with the challenge of gender power dynamics can shed light on how we might progress with LGBTQI integration, especially since the two have always been intertwined. The religious marginalization of LGBTQI Muslims and that of Muslim women are connected, in great part because female-bodied Muslim queers are doubly caught up in heteropatriarchal systems of power.”

They use a few poignant examples. 1) Both women and gay men have been equally barred from leading Muslim prayer, because neither one is seen as being able to serve as an adequate stand-in for the straight male. How can you represent the community if you’re a woman or a gay man? It’s key that these issues are intertwined, they don’t always work together to achieve liberation and transformation, but these alliances are beginning.

2) The authors wrote about the first woman-led prayer in North America, noting the significance of it being performed by a queer woman at an LGBTQI Muslim conference. (Reading from page 86) “The important thing is that this prayer was not staged, or planned, it was spontaneous and an imperative of our faith. It seemed that I was considered an elder and a leader of the community by those around me. The focus and goal was to pray in congregation as an expression of our faith.” People still come up and thank her, and express the significance of what it meant for her to lead that prayer. I appreciated that they were able to bring these ideas into conversation in such a highlighted way.

To sum up, after seeing the pieces our contributors put forth, it seems that our communal struggle around LGBTQI issues stems from misogyny. A worry that the established, lesser position of women will be threatened if this door is opened in a significant way. The liberation has to come in tandem. I would love to hear questions and thoughts. How your work and thinking these days challenges or integrates the ideas we’re talking about.

I’ll close by highlighting the Hebrew word for wholeness, shlemut. When we bring ourselves to our communities, my hope is that we can bring ourselves in all of our fullness. Only when we can bring every single strand can true transformation happen.

Mary E. Hunt: Mychal, thank you so much for your presentation. We will now open the floor for conversation after you have provided us with a very focused and clear overview of you volume, Struggling in Good Faith. I find the suggested resources at the end of each chapter particularly useful.

Q & A

Q: In your group of writers, where is the activity in this field from Catholics? Were you able to include Catholic perspectives?

Mychal Copeland: Yes, we do have a Catholic perspective. Written by Sister Jeannine Gramick. She did a wonderful job of telling us what’s happening within the Church, reflecting the contemporary struggle. The American Catholic community has actually been relatively supportive of LGBTQI issues. She tries to integrate global Catholicism into the conversation. What it means to have the existing structures of the Church vs. acceptance on the ground among Catholics who are open to these conversations. She has devoted her life’s work to LGBTQI inclusion. She is someone who has been able to take stances that not many other Catholic leaders have been able to take, and she has not been excommunicated. Many others couldn’t have a stance on this topic without threat of excommunication. We were really excited to have her.

MEH: Let me ask a similar question with regard to race. One of the things we have learned within feminism and queer activism in religion are the key themes that emerge in terms of racial and ethnic difference. This approach has a certain “siloing” effect in terms of how traditions are understood on their own terms. Have you come across any anti-racism work as they deal with feminism and queer issues?

MC: This was a big question for us in terms of organizing the book. I think this is integrated into the book across the chapters. The authors often discussed interlocking issues they’re struggling with in their institutions, including race. The most central would be the chapter on the Black Church. We decided that this needed to be treated as a topic in and of itself, even though there are overlaps with some of our other chapters. Rob Newells talks about womanist theology and queer theology, countering the absence of gender and sexuality in black liberation theology. He quotes W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of “double consciousness.” He expands of this to a quadruple consciousness, a more complex consciousness for LGBTQI black Americans. What happens when there are added and complex identities? He often quotes young people who are struggling to come out within a black church environment. For him, this is absolutely central.

This comes up in other chapters as well. For example in the chapter about First Nations Native American communities, and in many of our other communities, this is a thread. We need to think about multi-layered identities. A lot of my campus work focused on this. Working with young adults who are coming into themselves generally as well as sexually, spiritually, etc. How do all of these identities speak to one another? Where are they doing the most transformational work?

For example, I know a young woman who is a Jewish African American who is questioning sexuality. Which of these identities becomes most salient and when? How do these identities speak to one another? This is a question throughout the book.

MEH: Thank you, I just have a follow-up question on girls spirituality. Do you see LGBTQI work now as part of a new norm, or is there still a reticence, as if these issues are only for religious adults, and not for religious children? How is this playing out in your own community? I didn’t see many references to children, especially the teaching of children in the book. How is the normativity carried out in communities where children are the major constituents?

MC: I’ll start with the positive. I have to place myself in the world. Here in the California Bay Area, even within conservative religious institutions, I’m seeing more conversation about teenagers and how we can best be on the journey with them in terms of personal transformation. I’m being invited to speak on LGBTQ issues at even Conservative synagogues. They’re looking to understand within the context of their tradition. I know this isn’t true everywhere, even within my own tradition. Within many communities, this is becoming a bigger part of the conversation. Seeing the teenager as a holistic self.

We are also seeing horrible things. So much pain among college students we worked with, struggling to come out within religious communities. For example, I know a Catholic Latina whose priest performed an exorcism on her. Also a young gay Muslim student’s fear that his family would have him assassinated. We’re also poised for a resurgence of conversion therapies.

I think this is going to be a major front in which we need to work. We need to help teenagers be heard and seen as they are, not willed to change. My co-editor works in healthcare, and this is a major concern of hers. My hope was that, even in the most challenging and conservative communities, this book can start a conversation. Could that person see that they need to treat young people with the compassion and love that their tradition teaches? Hold them as a divine being before them. Where there is transformation, this is often what I hear. Being with individuals in a pastoral way, even though Church structures get in the way.

Diann L. Neu: Mychal, thank you so much for the book and your presentation on the book. As Mary started out her introduction, everything we’re doing at WATER now has a post-election date on it. I’m wondering, if these chapters were being written now, do think they might be shaded a little differently? Or would they not?

MC: I think there would be a lot of difference. I remember about a month before the final script was in, from the Mormon chapter, he left it on a hopeful note. This was before the Church came out with its discriminatory stance on children with gay parents. This is a picture of right before the election. My gut says it would change dramatically. I think it’s still a very accurate picture of what the work is, how the activism is coming together in a more vibrant way. I think the tone would be different, more sour and less hopeful. The people we have contributing to this book are working so hard. For example, Alex Wilson, the First Nations chapter author is very active in resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline. How all these different identities are influencing each other.

MEH: That said, feminist work, which is what you’re trying to underscore today, especially in movements of resistance and creativity, seems to be so rich and varied. For example, mujerista, womanist, Asian feminist, etc. I must say, I find that perspective sorely lacking in a lot of the work that gets done. The reciprocity isn’t there. For example, ecofeminism is something we’re all familiar with, but feminist ecology (E.g. Bill McKibben, taking seriously particular needs of women and children, etc.) doesn’t get talked about. Maybe you can speak to the reciprocity there? It wasn’t coincidental that the largest March was rooted in women’s issues and was as inclusive as any I can remember, able to marshal millions of people around the world. What do you see next?

MC: I would love to hear what everybody else thinks as well. I had the Women’s Marches in my mind when preparing for this talk. The activism in the last few weeks has been astounding. The Women’s Marches were this umbrella that brought together so many different people and threads. I go back to the text and where we started, maybe we can get to the place that the roots of all of these issues are around women and women’s bodies. Maybe we are in a place where we can talk about this. For example, I’m seeing more conversations about women in Catholic leadership. I think there needs to be an energy around this, not an apologizing around focusing on women’s issues. We can bring liberation in so many different areas. I think we’re paying much more attention to how intersectionality plays a role.

I’d like to read a quote from Audre Lorde, from “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Sister Outsider: “As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living.” (Pages 120-121).

This has been a beacon for me. We need to stop asking ourselves and each other to pluck out that one piece. We need to see the whole and how these pieces work in an integrated way.

Comment: Just from an international perspective (from Canada). I’m heading to the USA next week. I talked with a group of university students about whether or not I should go. The students were very thoughtful. The result was, it was about 50/50 about whether I should go or not.

I think this book is very important. I think this is a real moment for global solidarity of progressive forces, of which religion should be one. I think we’ve “drained the swamp.” We’re at deep, deep issues and I always welcome the progressive religious voice in these conversations. You’ve included so many religious voices, thank you for that.

MC: I appreciate that. We were hoping that more conversations could emerge from this across the religious spectrum. Shared work, even though the work we do is very different. Learn from each other. Interpretation of texts, etc. I think there are so many places where a lot of sharing can happen.

Comment: I find it helpful to focus on the texts in structural roots of oppression and gender roles. As a Christian who has focused a lot on building a world beyond war, your work has given me new hope. Because of your careful nurturing of the fields of intersecting gender and LGBTQI justice. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

DLN: I have long believed that, for feminists, crossing religious boundaries was the life-giving source that kept us hopeful. I think the potential, as we stretch into solidarity (resisting and creating), we have to cross our religious boundaries. We have to look at what from religious traditions we can hold on to (if they are going to survive). We have to step out of our own religious homes, and realize that these homes are all part of our religious world. Maybe this is a bigger hope than I thought I might have.

MC: I’m thinking now of all the profound communities of women clergy I’m a part of, sharing across religious lines. Being in community with women across the religious spectrum.

MEH: Thank you so much, this has been just a taste of the work you are doing. I think we could also talk with you about people’s experience of being in mixed religious families/relationships, etc. These are ways forward, we need to unpack how these experiences form strategies for the moment in which we find ourselves. Thank you for your book.

WATER thanks Rabbi Mychal Copeland for her work. We look forward to further collaboration.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, March 6, 2017 at 1 PM ET with Caitlin Breedlove.