By Susan E. Henking, professor of religious
studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Susan E. Henking
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