WATER Follow-Up

Hidden Histories: Faith and Black Lesbian Leadership

by Dr. Monique Moultrie

 with Mary E. Hunt

Wednesday, February 7, 2024 1:00 pm–2:00 pm ET

WATER thanks Dr. Monique Moultrie for opening up the richness of Hidden Histories: Faith and Black Lesbian Leadership (Durham: Duke University Press, 2023).

Watch the video of this WATERtalk.

WATER’s work brings feminist/womanist spiritual values and intellectual work to efforts at social change. We feature and count among us Monique Moultrie as an insightful and effective scholar. We socialize this exemplary resource of feminist/womanist work in religion to showcase how this kind of historical work can inspire all of us.


Monique Moultrie is no stranger to WATER. She was with us in March 2018 talking about her informative book Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality. Some will recall a conversation in June 2014 that she and I had in this format with our third co-editor, Kecia Ali, about the book we wrote together, A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z. That book was helpful to many women at a time when the academic job market was drying up and people needed to get creative to have careers in religion.

Her official biography reads: “Dr. Moultrie is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Africana Studies, and Women’s and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. She received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, MTS from Harvard Divinity School, and BA from Duke University.” She has been involved in a range of scholarly efforts, including a recently as “co-principal investigator on a Henry Luce Foundation Advancing Public Knowledge on Race, Justice, and Religion in America grant which funds “The Garden Initiative for Black Women’s Religious Activism.”” This only scratches the surface of a deeply involved and committed scholar.

Again from her bio: “Outside of the university, Dr. Moultrie serves on the Board of Directors for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer-Religious Archives Network. She was a Content Development working group member for the Columbia University’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s Scholars Group, a group of religious scholars collaborating at the intersection of religion and reproductive justice. Within the larger American Academy of Religion guild, Dr. Moultrie is the former Status of Women in the Profession Chair and a former co-chair of the Religion and Sexuality Unit.”

In Hidden Histories: Faith and Black Lesbian Leadership, Dr. Moultrie reports on the lives of black women religious leaders of various backgrounds. Dr. Moultrie was so kind as to share her notes from her talk:

Hidden Histories WATERTalk by Monique Moultrie

I want to start by thanking the WATER staff and the incomparable WATER Founder Dr. Mary Hunt for this opportunity to share the book with you all. Mary has been a true friend, mentor, and guide to me over these twenty plus years. She welcomed me to this community with my first book and now I am thrilled to be able to share this new book with you today. Because I’m so excited to join you in conversation I am going to begin by giving a bit of back story to the book, my hopes for the text, and conclude by summarizing the chapters to give our audience more context for our discussion.

At its core, Hidden Histories elevates stories of US Black women religious leaders who proudly claim a lesbian and religious identity. I wanted to understand how these leaders combatted racism, sexism, and homophobia and did so while being committed to social justice. When I first began doing these interviews I wanted to chronicle their histories and somewhere along the way I wanted to chart a way forward for Black religion. As a scholar and Christian I found their stories transformative, and I wondered how I could help amplify their messages in scholarly and public spaces.

I mention in the book my concerns about my authority and voice in the text. No one questioned more whether I should be the one to bring these stories to academic visibility. As a then heterosexually partnered member of the Black church many of my identity formations were foundational to the oppression of my research subjects. I see the work as my long apologia for my own homophobia and internalized sexism. I grew up in a very conservative Christian community and I spent a great deal of time as a high school student campaigning for all things conservative Christian agenda-wise. The book exists as my tangible recompense for how publicly wrong I was while trying to show you can learn better, you can change your mind and you can still learn through life. I start with the personal because as a womanist my scholarship centers the experiences of Black women, and it also acknowledges that autobiographical reflection is a useful tool in our scholarship. I confronted my own stuff as I did interviews. I tried to be transparent about the fact that I was a stranger to many of them, but I wanted them to share their life stories in the hopes that together we could inspire others.

In general, my scholarship explores how religion, race, and sexuality intersect with gender prescriptions and normative claims provided in primarily Christian contexts. In my first book, I investigated how Black women assert agency in sexual domains, and in this second book I am focused on how sexual and religious actors exert agency in religious and secular spaces. While most of my work is sexual behavior-centered, this work is grounded in love and sexual attraction rather than sex acts. I took great pains to only share in print what was relevant to their professional lives even though I knew data that the transcripts did not provide. I’ve said that this book helped me realize as a researcher that people don’t owe you all of themselves and even our professional leaders get to turn off their leadership gene and just Netflix and chill. I knew many great activists that were also piss poor people so although I wasn’t trying to sanitize their lives my judgment calls did favor discussing their 9-5 selves rather than home lives.

I’m also aware now in ways that I wasn’t aware when I was conducting the interviews that there is a tendency to privilege the leadership experiences of those more senior in age over younger activists and leaders. I was trained in an apprentice model of the academy where senior scholars bless your entrance into the guild or they gatekeep you out and perhaps unconsciously I replicated this in my interview of senior leaders over emerging leaders. Yet, time and again my interviewees showed that the apprentice model didn’t work and was not sustainable. The younger leaders started their activism at 13, 15, 18 with many of them being out in their sexual identities longer than senior leaders. They were able to activate themselves in multiple spaces at much earlier ages, and I think their collaborative leadership assumed they all came to the table equipped and equal. As I’ve lived a lot of life in my short 45 years I now recognize it isn’t just age that is the teacher but it’s the experiences one has that is the ultimate teacher and one can be younger with sizable impact in ways that I think I initially undervalued.

Now that I have provided some of my background with the text, let me offer an overview and explain why the book is situated as a womanist or Black feminist endeavor. The overall book addresses the invisibility of Black lesbian religious leaders in scholarship on black religion, leadership, and activism. By examining oral histories of eighteen cisgender Black lesbian religious leaders, the project uses womanist (black feminist) historiography to reevaluate and revise modern understandings of how race, gender, and sexual identities interact with religious practice and organization in the twenty-first century. As an exploration of womanist ethical leadership, the book investigates the social justice orientation of these leaders and theorizes how their models of leadership can be instructive for future generations.

As far as I know, this book is the first collection of oral histories of US Black lesbian religious leaders. Most of interviewees were Protestant Christians ages thirty-seven to seventy two, although I diversified by conducting additional interviews with two spiritualists, a Jewish rabbi, and a Buddhist lay leader. I pursued these interviews to answer three main questions: How are black lesbian religious leaders incubators for social justice activism? How does spirituality animate their social justice activism? And how can these leaders function as models for ethical leadership for future generations? The book answers these questions while preserving their stories for posterity on the LGBTQ-RAN website and by closing gaps in scholarship on Black lesbians and faith and queer leadership. I set out to speak against the erasure of black queer history and to help my sub-discipline African American religion think more critically about how the field is misshaped by the elision of their narratives.

I use oral history with a social justice lens as my research agenda is to pursue a healing and restorative history. My concern with their social justice activism is also correlated to my interest in their leadership styles because I contend that ethical leadership requires concern for the greater good and wholistic activism like working for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. From my interviews I surmised that the out Black lesbian interviewees had a unique leadership style that went beyond institution building and a narrow focus on the LGBTQ community. Women’s leadership was impacted by their intersectional experiences of sexism, racism, and heterosexism as well as their experiences of their faith and spirituality. This impact was felt in even the ways they envisioned themselves as leaders and what types of activism they engaged in. For example, when I examined their stories the themes of resistance through social justice activism, spirituality, authenticity, and cooperative leadership came to the forefront because they utilized such intersectional frameworks to lead due to their increased awareness and empathy for other perspectives. Thus, a womanist ethical leadership model patterned after these black lesbian religious leaders would emphasize leadership strategies that were non-hierarchical, para-institutional, and inter-generational.

In Chapter 1, I discuss their varied theological journeys through Christian denominations and other religious traditions placing their narratives into institutional context. This chapter emphasized their shared experiences overcoming racial and gender oppression in religious spaces. Chapter 2 focuses on womanist authenticity or existence as resistance to show how authenticity amplified their calls for justice because by standing in their truths they were better able to advocate for others. This chapter puts Charles Taylor’s notion of authenticity into conversation with Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ theory of radical subjectivity to highlight the significance of merging their racial, religious, and sexual selves. Chapter 3 focuses on the activist orientation of these black lesbian religious leaders illustrating a form of womanist spiritual activism (as theorized by Layli Maparyan) that is focused on their everyday acts of rebellion and collective community building. Chapter 4 highlights the spiritual foci of my non-Christian interviewees by reading their experiences via the theorizing of womanists Diana Hayes, Emilie Townes, and Melanie’s Harris’ discussion of womanist spirituality which leads to chapter 5 which provides specific skillsets and behaviors that support cooperative leadership. Finally, the book concludes with a challenge to womanist theorizing to include a more pluralistic vision of Black female leadership as sustainable social change agents.

If I had hopes for the text, I would say my top 3 were: to do justice to their stories; to amplify their leadership as our way forward; and to educate and motivate others to create social change. I am hopeful I delivered on being transparent in voice and authority. My intention was to be equally present with their stories so over half the book is verbatim words from their transcripts and I tried to indicate where I made judgments like calling their leadership womanist when it was rarely a term they used. I intended to amplify their stories, with every microphone I get to point to their leadership as what true sustainable leadership looks like. I have tried to portray them as flawed leadership with their own successes and failures but overall the leaders that the world is waiting to emerge because of their capacity to see interlocking oppressions and fight for all. Finally, while each of these women are remarkable leaders I did not write a book for queer leaders instead I wanted to write a book that says to each person who cares about others that there are examples to follow in creating sustainable social change. While these women are my models I am hopeful that those reading the text will add to the list others that help propel us towards creating a better world.



The richness of this work was reflected in the extended question and answer period that followed:

  1. One participant wondered about the reactions and feedback from the interviewees after reading the book.

    MM: Despite the fact that Monique has not heard back from all interviewees, she received a variety of feedback ranging from sheer appreciation to criticism. She was eager to take in all opinions and even correct a misunderstanding/error brought to her attention by one of the interviewees. Further, Monique described how thankful one of the other interviewees was for having the struggle and history of black lesbians in faith leadership brought to the attention of a wide audience with the help of the book.

  1. When asked if she has seen other scholars starting to archive or talk about Black histories, MM admitted that she has witnessed more and more efforts in trying to archive oral history of marginalized groups. However, such projects frequently fail because of a lack of funding as archiving is quite expensive. In fact, she has encountered that issue herself in the past.

    MM explained that she interviewed 20 Black lesbian women of whom 18 women’s stories made the book. The two missing interviews were not published because of missing form consents. She stressed that it was important to her to only publish the stories of people who had given her explicit permission. Further, she pointed out that all the audios from the book can be found on the LGBTQ-RAN website. The stories Monique has gathered since the book, and the ones which are not in the book, are publicly accessible on her personal website.

  1. People from the audience repeatedly expressed their appreciation for the fact that MM is a much-needed advocate from “outside” since she is not lesbian herself, but is nevertheless so inclined in writing down these queer black stories.
  1. It was asked if MM had tried to contact any Black Catholic sisters to discuss the topic of her research.

    MM described that in an effort to diversify the group of interviewees she did reach out to four black Catholic Sisters, but all of them declined out of fear to speak up and reveal their sexuality/identity publicly. The silencing fear imposed by Catholic institutions leaves MM worried that their stories will get lost because people are afraid with good reason.

    Two books with comparable topics Love Tenderly (Love Tenderly: Sacred Stories of Lesbian and Queer Religious by Grace Surdovel IHM. New Ways Ministry, 2020) and Subversive Habits (Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle by Shannen Dee Williams. Duke University Press, 2022) were brought to the attention of the audience.  Love Tenderly was recommended as the pioneer of research in this field. Besides, it was pointed out that Subversive Habits is a good addition to MM’s book as it focuses not only on queer stories, but also on the ones of other Black Catholics.

  1. Thanks to her interviews, MM has encounter different everyday practices for people in leadership pushing against oppression. She explained that internal surveys have proven to be really helpful because they enable queer workers to speak up about issues that are – unintentionally – neglected by cis-gender leaders. MM claimed that such surveys help bringing awareness to “invisible indignities” that marginalized employees often encounter on the daily basis. Another practice revealed to MM during her interviews are informal community meetings in places where the addressed group feels welcomed and safe (e.g. going to a coffee shop instead of a religious institution in which queer believers might not feel welcomed). Lastly, MM pointed out that being open about sexuality as a leader can be really helpful for other people as it creates a safe space and normalizes queer identities and life.
  1. It was pointed out that sometimes progressive movements within a certain church or denomination are slowed in their efforts to support queer life because of certain hierarchies in the institution (e.g. a conservative bishop overseeing all the statements signed by the church).
  1. With regard to shrinking churches, a participant wondered about the future of young, queer people in the church. Further, she wanted to know how the needs of the world can be met considering current developments in membership numbers.

    MM firmly believes that “if we don’t let them lead, there will be nothing left” explaining that patriarchal structures and values will eventually not convince people to stay in the church any longer – particularly not when you can be a believer without attending services. MM thinks that “the future is grim” for churches and that they will be replaced by something new and non-institutional if they refuse to go along with 21st century developments.

  1. Another worry expressed was: “If men continue to lead and women build community, will all the jobs and positions left go to men?” Further, it was asked how women can make change – let alone sustain themselves – in such male-led institutions. The participant worried that shrinking churches with only men and patriarchal structures left has grave consequences for women.

    MM shared the participant’s worries about women and their financial stability. Furthermore, MM thinks men staying in position of power and promoting other men will perpetuate the problem of patriarchal structures and, thus, financial insecurity for women in the church.

  1. MM was asked about lesbian women in the military. She said two of her interviewees were veterans. One was put out of the military because of her sexuality. The other had a son who was deployed, raising questions of non-violence.
  1. MM concluded by encouraging all to hear the stories of Black lesbians in leadership both in her book and on the LGBTQ-RAN website. She expressed her desire to keep such stories alive.