Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Protestant Closets and Queer Histories: Notes from an Archive-in-Process

My comments briefly reflect on two projects, a forthcoming book and a new research project. Both endeavor to re-map a past that we think we already know. The past into which I inquire is recent and well-documented: twentieth century America, which suffers neither a dearth of sources nor a lack of insistent interpreters. Like my colleagues at this gathering, my inquiries concern the intersections of the “queer” and the “religious,” categories that are still most readily seen as coming into contact across dueling picket lines. The projects I am working on—a forthcoming book on Protestants and gay rights, and a new research project on the queer activist spaces of urban churches—aim to challenge shopworn narratives about religion as a regulatory drag on sexual progress. What emerges instead is a picture of religion’s productive role in twentieth century projects of sexual emancipation. In many ways, this research takes seriously the challenge issues by critical secular theorists, who urge scholars to look more carefully for religious influences in the sites—like secularism—that seem defined by religious absence. Along these lines, I ask: what would we find when we look for religion within what would seem to the quintessentially secularist politics of gender and sexual emancipation? To ask this question turns around what has been the dominant mode in studying the intersections of queer study and religion. I am not “queering” religion so much as “religion-ing” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender subjectivities and histories.

What is “Queer” about my Project?

Let’s be honest: queer-identified subjects, with claims to stable identities and interior truths, are often the least queer of queer subjects. And my methods, arguably, are not queer at all—they are straightforwardly historical, with firm reliance on the evidence of the archives to make claims about chronology, influence, and context. However, there are ways that history as a methodology destabilizes identity claims. Certainly, of course, there are historians who have approached “gay identity” as a historical given (most notoriously the late John Boswell, who investigated a Christian history of “persons who are conscious of erotic inclination towards their own gender as a distinguishing characteristic”[1] ). However, my scholarly training has been shaped by historians who approach the messy terrain of gender and sexuality as the expression of local histories and social arrangements rather than an interior truth. To take the past seriously, for me, means attending to changing epistemologies and social practices, an approach that necessarily unravels contemporary ontologies for body, desire, and the self. This undoing of essentialism may sound like a doing of queer theory, but it may also simply be solid empiricism.

So if my subjects and method are not very “queer,” what about the inquiry into religious influences and formations? Here, too, I am less influenced by thinkers who work specifically on “queer theory” and more by those whose writing addresses Christianity, secularism, and therapeutic notions of the “self.” These include Michel Foucault, who I understand alongside British historian Nikolas Rose’s writing about the therapeutic project as a Foucauldian technology of the self. I also read Charles Taylor’s work on histories of secularism and Christianity, as well as the work on secularism and hegemonic American Protestantism by Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini. These thinkers, put together, help to form an inquiry into Christian (and even specifically Protestant) influences on LGBT identity formations.[2]

And where do these inquiries take me? Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights tells a pre-history to the polarized “culture wars” that emerged to the fore of American politics with the 1970s stirrings of both a vocal gay rights movement and a nascent Christian Right.[3] Despite their profound differences, these two activist movements share a common genealogical origin in the Christian pastoral, and my project illuminates the ways that the identity politics of gay rights and the family values commitments of conservative Christians contended with liberal Protestants’ earlier encounters with the therapeutic sciences. Beginning in the 1920s, cooperative exchanges between leading liberal Protestant thinkers and psychiatric experts produced a influential culture of self-help that by the mid-twentieth century, worked to progressively reform Christian teachings and practices to foster the salutary development of (hetero)sexual health. This therapeutic orthodoxy influenced all sides of late twentieth century sexual politics, from the narratives for confessing sexual identities to the interpretative traditions of the Bible’s specifically homosexual prohibitions.

I am also beginning a second project that pursues a local offshoot from that broad history of Protestant narratives and practices around homosexuality. I am working on archival and oral history research for a book on an Episcopal congregation in New York, The Church of the Holy Apostles, which served as the unofficial hub for gay liberation organizing in the years following the Stonewall Riots. Between 1968 and 1975, the Church of the Holy Apostles served as a community center for a rapidly growing gay and lesbian social movement. It provided meeting space to the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance—the two most influential gay liberation groups that formed right after Stonewall—as well as nearly a dozen other gay and lesbian social and political organizations that spent significant time on the church premises. (Shocking story: the movement “born” in a street riot met—yes—in a church). Holy Apostles was one of many urban congregations that provided meeting space and support to radical social movements that included Black Power, the Young Lords, and Women’s Liberation, and I envision this project as a “church basement view” of religion and the political left in the 1970s. Taken together, I’m interested in thinking more about what it means, both figuratively and literally, for queer politics and other forms of radical protest to navigate liberal Protestant space.

Janet Jakobsen, in a repeated and very serious jest, has blamed Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin for the dominant form of secularism in the United States.[4] There is much that I find convincing about this provocative argument, even as my disciplinary mode demands a more careful and cautious relationship to the archive. But the provocation that I pursue in my reading of the past concerns the sequestered truths of the “innermost heart” and the ways they continue to form and to reform the quintessentially secular sites of queerness.

  1. John Boswell, “Definitions,” in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago University Press, 1980), 44. [Return to text]
  2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Nikolas Rose, “Assembling the Modern Self,” in Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, (New York: Routledge, 1997) 224–48; Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Secularisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). [Return to text]
  3. Heather R. White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). [Return to text]
  4. Janet Jakobsen, “Sex, Secularism, and the ‘War on Terrorism’: The Role of Sexuality in Multi-Issue Organizing,” in A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, ed. George Haggerty and Molly McGarry (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 18-37. [Return to text]