Queer Religion and Community at HRC Summer Institute

People still seem to think of queer religious studies, if they have ever heard of the term, as an oxymoron. But many young (and not so young) scholars are applying religious and theological concepts like justice and compassion, redemption and grace, to think in new ways about sexuality. While these scholars are often identified by the acronym “LGBT” (for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and sometimes with the additional letters of QIA (questioning, intersex, and ally), “queer” is an easy shorthand way to refer to all those letters at once — and also a way to use provocative language to call our attention to the social assumptions that structure our ways of thinking about what it means to be human and to be sexual.

During the last week of July, I was at Vanderbilt University for the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Summer Institute, a seminar that brought together a select group of graduate students from seminaries and universities around the U.S. who are doing queer studies in religion.

As they say at the Passover Seder, dayenu, “it would have been enough for us” as queer religion scholars to have gotten together and discovered the works in progress that the students brought to the table. But, at least from the perspective of this mentor/teacher, that was not the most important thing about the week in Nashville. Nor was learning from guest presenters like Emilie Townes, Susan Thistlethwaite, or Bishop Gene Robinson. Nor were the conversations about the pros and cons of marriage equality, or the importance of doing public theology or the lessons shared by those among us who identify as transgender. It wasn’t even the hevre (rendered loosely, sense of community) that developed, or the plans some of us made for building on and disseminating the work. (Look for the new eQueerity Twitter feed for a taste of what’s to come.)

Sacred borderlands

The truly unprecedented thing was, for lack of a better term, the creation of coalition on the axes of race and sexuality. It didn’t hurt that of the fourteen students who were selected to be in the program, eight were people of color. Not surprisingly only four of the eighteen teacher/mentors were, and this generational shift bodes well for the future of Queer/LGBT religious movements. And it also didn’t hurt that the white folks involved ranged from the typically well-meaning and well-educated to some seriously well-trained anti-racist workers. The most powerful moment came for me during the final session when one of the white students defined herself, in good Christian exegetical terms, as a disciple of the students of color, with full acknowledgement that discipleship was by definition built on the suffering of those who, like Jesus, were her teachers in the racial dialogue.

I believe Jay Michaelson put his finger on why queer religious circles have the potential to be one of these redemptive spaces. (Note well that this potential has been for the most part unrealized; that queer still often equals white in our world today, and that the HRC deserves much credit for assembling this pioneering effort.) But the potential is there, as Michaelson suggested, because queering means a willingness to cross boundaries and break taboos — and as religious people we must demand of ourselves the courage to dare to do so.

I asked the students and mentors about their perceptions of this queer religious multi-racial experience. Mentor Kent Brintnall noted the perils of working across differences and the advantages that a religious perspective could bring to this venture. As the week went on, and awareness of our differences rose to the surface he

“tried to hold on to the best lesson I ever learned in anti-racism circles: namely, my white liberal guilt does not serve anyone’s interests. … In my tradition, Christianity, one of the central theological claims is that God extends love and mercy graciously—i.e., from a space of vulnerability, from a space where being wounded and hurt and misunderstood is always a risk. As we worked—and worked hard—through the course of the week, as we made mistakes, as we learned from each other, as we forged relationships, genuine relationships, by naming and confronting our differences and our common commitments, I became convinced that religious progressives must always be mindful of extending grace to one another. Insofar as we become—or remain—one another’s enemies, for whatever reason, it may serve someone’s interests, but certainly not ours.”

Sara Rosenau commented,

“Queer togetherness is not sameness; it is not built on the largely Protestant assumption of autonomy as detached individualism and community as a monolithic unit of agreement. Rather, queer togetherness is marked by interdependence and collectivity.”

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza noted that

“having a Mestizaje body (mixed with both Mexican and Anglo heritages) and identifying as a Christian Agnostic, I find myself…ambiguously raced and gender non-conforming” and so the institute “became a sort of sacred borderland as we all sought to deal with difference, difficulty, and disruption: racially, culturally, sexually, religiously and in terms of gender.”

Thelathia “Nikki” Young found the institute an opportunity to question her easy self identification as a “black queer Christian ethicist,” feeling compelled to take those categories apart and re-examine how they fit together. Brandy Daniels came away with the insight “that we must keep our theological imaginations open not only to what we might learn from race or from gender or sexuality, but also to what we might learn at and about the ways in which these things converge.”

Others opened the question of how the institute might help build on the connections we made across differences. Peter Anthony Mena noted that “queer justice work can no longer hide behind a mask of …sameness” and began to think about defining a multi-racial queer collectivity to “address issues of violence against LGBT/Queer people as well as teen homelessness and suicide in places like El Paso, Texas.” To the project of justice, Krista Wuertz added “care,” expressing the wish that “we who had the privilege to come together in this manner will use what we learned [to] continue to create authentic ways to communicate care in the service of advancing justice.”

Mentor Patrick S. Cheng provides a fitting summary of the connection we experienced:

“As a gay Asian American theologian, I frequently live at the toxic intersections of homophobia, racism, and extreme secularism. However, for me the HRC Summer Institute was a life-giving experience of faith, hope, and love. We have done a new thing, and I look forward to what will spring forth in the months, years, and decades to come.”