BY John D'Emilio ON November 12, 2014
Last weekend, at a national conference in Washington DC of The Reformation Project, an organization founded by activist Matthew Vines to take on the homophobia of Christianity, an historic speech was given. Dr. David Gushee, a high profile ethicist/theologian in the Evangelical Christian tradition and a Baptist himself, delivered a major address in which he sharply and unambiguously critiqued Christian teaching and practice. “The Church has inflicted a damaging and ultimately unchristlike body of teaching” against “sexual minorities,” he said. He characterized it as “a teaching of contempt” that needs to be “discredited and abandoned” and declared that LGBT people “must be accepted and welcomed.” Though there have been significant Christian voices in the U.S. speaking up for tolerance and acceptance for at least half a century, most of these voices have come from denominations seen to be liberal or “mainline.” Rarely has it happened that someone in the evangelical fold, and certainly someone with Gushee’s stature and credentials, has spoken so forcefully and uncompromisingly [the text of his comments can be found here.
Reading Gushee’s address reminded me of one of the gaping holes in the literature on U.S. LGBT history: religion. If you browse through the index of many of the key books on LGBT history written in the last thirty-plus years [I am including my own work here], you’ll notice that religion hardly figures at all. It is barely mentioned. There are a few exceptions to this: discussions of the founding and work of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual appear in some books that cover the 1960s; the narrators in E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea talk about how religion figures in their lives; and John Howard attends to religion in Men Like That. But, for the most part, religion is absent.
On reflection, the absence isn’t so hard to explain. The birth and growth of LGBT history in the 1970s and 1980s occurred in the context of a movement that often displayed a left-wing militant flavor. It tended to define religion as one of the key agents of oppression. And its members were often able to embrace their own homosexuality or gender identity by personally rejecting religion. Researchers looking to excavate the histories of self-consciously dissident sexual communities or movements of resistance were unlikely to put religion front and center; often we may not even have seen it when it was in front of us!
This absence is unfortunate, given how powerfully religion has figured in the lives of individuals and communities throughout the twentieth century and in the politics of the nation as well. There is work underway that will start to fill in the gaps. Heather White for instance will soon be publishing a study of US Christianity’s engagement with issues of same-sex love from the 1940s through the 1970s. And, there are growing resources available for researching this history and for teaching it as well. Especially useful is a “sibling” website [it was designed by the same person who did this version of Outhistory, Carl Foote], the LGBT Religious Archives Network site, managed by Mark Bowman. It contains oral histories, substantial biographical profiles, a series of history “exhibits” and, importantly for researchers, a growing list of manuscript collections and archives related to the intersecting history of LGBT lives and religion.
I am unlikely to ever be the person who makes a significant dent in this gaping hole in our history. But I’m hoping there’s an army of researchers out there who will. Go to it!