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When asked, I describe my Que(e)rying Religion course succinctly: “Que(e)rying Religion examines religion and lesbian/gay/queer lives.” My syllabus lists assignments, office hours, and readings. But a course is much more than its syllabus. It is the conversations that emerge, the actions that students and professors take, the psychological events that occur, and the letters that appear years later in my mailbox. I see my course as an intervention in the academy and in the world that I make for personal, professional, and professorial reasons. What, then, is the purpose of this intervention?
A quick glance at newspapers reveals why such courses are important: religion and sexuality intersect in American and global culture. Today’s polarized debates about same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay bishops are only the most recent examples of this convergence. In 1964, ministers and rabbis of the Council on Religion and Homosexuality led San Francisco’s first organized protest against police harassment of gay men and lesbians. More recently, at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, debate regarding the rights of gay and lesbian persons divided religious and non-religious participants. To be a citizen, either in the United States or globally, eventually and inevitably means to enter into these debates. To be liberally educated means to do so with the goal of creating shared public discourses fueled by critical thinking. I see it as my responsibility to prepare my students for this task.
We in the United States learn to avoid the topics of sex and religion in public discourse—and yet we also talk about them obsessively. They are sometimes-silent but pervasive influences on the lives of our students, and on civic life in general. Rendered personal and individual, such subjects are often relegated to the co-curriculum under the rubrics of religious life or student services. Many consider these subjects to lie outside the realm of reason and therefore outside of the realm of academic inquiry. Yet by focusing academic attention on them, educators can help students understand the roles of religion and sexuality in public and private lives and in the history of determining what qualifies as acceptable public discourse.
Because our culture depends on the assumption that identity is immutable, many Americans treat topics surrounding religion and sexuality as though they have no history. But reflection on sexuality and religion requires students (indeed, requires us all) to set aside seemingly ahistorical certainties to which we are attached. By bringing these topics together in academic discourse, we challenge their unquestioned ahistorical status and move beyond easy binaries that permit ignorance of religion (and religious studies) on the part of LGBTQ Studies and embed heterosexism in religion and religious studies.
Ultimately, teaching about these topics enables us to explore how knowledge and power are conjoined in the modern world. When we locate religion and sexuality outside history and outside the realm of critical intellectual discourse, we ignore the particularities of history, just as we do when making distinctions between the curriculum and co-curriculum, between “mind” and “heart,” between fact and value, and between other polarized subjects. By studying these topics together, we expose not only their epistemologies, but also the process of historical creation itself.
Whether or not we teach about these subjects, we educators are embedded in institutions that are fundamentally influenced by the histories of religion and of gender/sexuality. We share these spaces with students who are religious and not; queer, lesbian, gay—and not. These students form a community of inquiry and accountability. They remind me of how difficult subjects of identity are to discuss and how important it is to challenge ourselves to do so—in the service of critical inquiry and hope for an engaged citizenry that is not merely diverse, not merely tolerant, but committed to an ethic of pluralism and inclusion.
Susan E. Henking is a professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.