Reforming Sodom: Prostestants and the Rise of Gay Rights an Interview with Heather Rachelle White

Samira K. Mehta
Heather Rachelle White. Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights. (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2015)

SKM: I realize that I may be asking you to give away the farm here, but how is Christian sodomy different from sodomy?

HRW: Michel Foucault famously calls sodomy a “confused category,” and the research conducted by scholars of sexuality shows that it was even more confused a category that Foucault himself addressed. We could say that sodomy and Christian sodomy are the same thing. Sodomy is from its inception a Christian term--it was a medieval neologism, as Mark Jordan’s work shows, that was coined in reference to the biblical account of Genesis 19, in which God destroys the inhabitants of Sodom because of their wickedness. But the theological term innovated upon the biblical record, which already gave different answers about the nature of Sodom’s wickedness. While I was working on the book, I taught a course on the history of Christian Sodomy as an effort to trace out the changing meanings, and it was interesting to see how much of that history addressed something other than what we would today call “sexuality,” much less “homosexuality.” Sodomy has a long and muddled history as a catch-all invective against people and behaviors seen to embody anti-Christian perversity. That includes some forms of same-sex sexual behavior, but I’d say that there would be more continuity attached to a label like “deviant bestial appetites.”

I’d also add that the legal history of sodomy is also very interesting. Laws against sodomy, such as those that used to be enforced in the United States (until struck down in Lawrence v. Texas), did not have specifically homosexual meanings until the mid-20th century.

SKM: So sodomy is different from homosexuality. But how do you trace that relationship?

The MCC's Troy Perry at LA's 1st Pride Parade
HRW: One of the key arguments of the book is that twentieth century Christian sexual traditions and biblical meanings--like the legal applications of sodomy laws--were shaped by modern medicine. And because of that medical influence, we--meaning most present-day Americans, including people who are not Christian--misperceive the relationship between homosexuality and sodomy. What we think, many of us, is that sodomy is the earlier behavioral analogue (ie, same-sex acts) to the more recent medical and identity categories (ie, of same-sex sexual orientation or gay identity). But I show that Christians since the 1950s, roughly speaking, have interpreted their past prohibitions and the meanings of biblical texts through a medical lens that retroactively reconfigured sodomy. When you go back and trace out the change in late 19th and early 20th century biblical interpretation, you see something different than a shift from prohibition against behavior to discussion of a medical condition. Sodomy and the various biblical texts that are today associated with homosexuality actually had different common sense meanings. This is really interesting because we think of Christian traditions--and especially the bible--as the source for the medicalized category of homosexuality. But the remembered tradition and the seemingly stable bible meanings don’t match up with the preoccupations of even the relatively recent Christian past.

SKM: You also make the argument that this “invented tradition” was first assembled by liberal Protestants. This seems to be another controversial aspect to your book--after all, those liberals are the set of progressive Mainline churches that now march in Pride parades. I would think that they will be deeply discomfited by your argument that they were central in creating the definitions on which religious objections to same-sex sex acts are based?

1966 Annual Reminder, organized by a
coalition of East Coast homophile associations
There may be a certain kind of liberal Protestant apologist who would would find this part of the book discomfiting, but most of the liberal Protestants I put on the hook are well past being able to protest! What I found, in brief, was that American liberal Protestants, in the first half of the 20th century, played a key role in synthesizing interpreted biblical meanings with the insights of what was then the new medical fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. The development of healthy and unhealthy human sexuality was a central preoccupation of this new therapeutic science, and it was experts in this field who coined and defined the terms “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality.” In the so-called “Age of Psychology” after World War II, a liberal Protestant synthesis of morality and medicine began to circulate more broadly, and it also slowly began to influence Protestant conservatives, who were initially much more suspicious of the therapeutic outlook. So, yes, in a paradoxical way, an earlier generation of liberal Protestants set in place the terms of sexual orthodoxy, which conservatives later wielded in  
anti-gay rights politics.

The United Church of Christ, in December 1967,
published an issue of 
Social Action that urged support
for homosexual rights. The cover featured placards from the
Annual Reminder.
There’s a pretty deeply lodged common sense among Protestant Christians--and among most Americans--that holding on to biblical authority equates to a kind of preservationist relationship to cultural change. That’s true to some extent--by the time evangelical and conservative Protestant groups began to write and speak publically about the Bible’s “direct word” on homosexuality in the mid-1970s, many of their liberal counterparts were beginning to walk away from those meanings. But it's also true that views about the particular antihomosexual traditions taken up in the name of biblical authority had more to do with Sigmund Freud than the Apostle Paul.

SKM: Your book does a lot more than blame liberal Protestants with the origins of antihomosexual bibe traditions. You also show that Protestant liberals--or at least some of them--were important allies of the early movement for gay rights. 

Clergy Members of the Council on
Religion and the Homosexual, 1965
HRW: Right. There are several ways I show this influence, but one of the most notable is to show how much the 1960s homophile movement--the predecessor movement to what was later termed “gay rights”--relied on urban clergy and churches. I began researching a group called the Council on Religion and the Homosexuality, which was founded in 1964 in San Francisco, and I kept finding references to its influence on homophile organizing in other cities--from Hartford, Connecticut to places like Kansas City and Houston. It was quite surprising to see how many new homophile groups got started with the support of a local clergyman. And many of those groups began meeting in churches or other kinds of Christian offices. Most of these clergy were involved in civil rights and in urban ministry, and they saw support for homosexuals as part of their mission.

SKM: That leads me to another hot-button issue: Stonewall. You make an interesting case in the last chapter about how to think of the Stonewall riots as an event with religious--and even Christian--meaning.  The current controversies over the new Stonewall film show just how dicey it can be to get this history wrong. I’m wondering if you were at all worried about reactions to the way you are challenging the “traditional” Stonewall narrative. Can you orient readers to what you are doing in that chapter?

The Advocate, 1970, covers the first Pride Marches
HRW: The tricky thing about Stonewall is that no scholar in the field of queer history would say that Stonewall itself had the cultural impact that most people think it had. So a good part of my challenge to the conventional telling of Stonewall follows from what is actually very well established in queer historiography, which challenges the way the 1969 riots in Greenwich Village are credited for starting the modern gay rights movement. Where most of the literature works to challenge “myth” from “fact,” I am interested in the “myth”--that is, the social practices and commemorative narratives that give Stonewall outsized significance as a birthplace for gay rights. The recent movie about Stonewall has rightfully received heat for its portrayal of the activists involved in the riots, but there has been less pushback about the way the movie reifies the idea that Stonewall was (to quote the movie tagline) “where pride began.” These origin claims, I show in that chapter, were staked out after the riots, as a social movement that already existed mobilized to commemorate an event that increasingly took up symbolic meaning beyond the streets of Greenwich Village.  “Gay Pride” was the name given to the anniversary celebration of the riots. Approaching Stonewall through this lens of ritual and commemoration helps bring into view the diversity of movement participants in this moment, and it helps me pay attention, in particular, to the involvement of gay-identified Christians--and particularly the 1968 founded Metropolitan Community Church--in spearheading Gay Pride commemorations in other cities.  There is a lot more in that chapter, but a key point was to challenge the ways that gay identity pride has been perceived as constitutively secular. Looking at the ritual construction of “gay pride” (not incidentally, as a Sunday celebration that remembers a Friday night of violence) helps make visible Christian meanings and practices that might otherwise pass for a neutral and religion-free secularism.

SKM: As a historian, how do you think about these dynamics--difficulties of telling a relatively contemporary history whose actors are often still alive and can challenge you?

HRW: I really appreciate that the communities I write about are around to hold me accountable to what I say about them. That’s a gift--an opportunity to do engaged scholarship. At the same time, it’s also my job to do more than repeat others’ stories. I am accountable to an intellectual community, too, which rightly expects critical analysis. I don’t have a recipe for how to navigate those allegiances, but I’d say the goal should be productive discomfort.

SKM: One of the things that I have been trying to do in this series is also touch on questions that first time book writers might wonder about. And so, because I just love your cover, I have to ask where did it come from? Was that you, the press, or both of you in concert?

HRW: Ah, the cover! It was a collaborative effort. The designers wanted a graphic that somehow captured themes of queer, Christian, and therapeutic. And their idea was a Rorschach ink blot. It took some back and forth to get the right image and font, but I was really pleased with the final result.

SKM: More seriously, I know that this book had roots in your dissertation. Could you talk a bit about the process of going from dissertation to book? What did you find particularly challenging in that process?

 I had an amazing dissertation advisor and committee, but it’s almost impossible, as a PhD student, to produce prose that is not aimed primarily at pleasing really smart people who seem to know everything already. Pleasing the guild is also the albatross of the young scholar, but it also really helped to find other audiences. Like my students, who always remind me that one of the hardest tasks is to describe things in ways that make sense to people who live outside my brain. And I also connected to scholars in queer studies and the history of sexuality, which helped sharpen my understanding of how my work contributed to fields outside of American religions.  So, opening up my imagined audience was really important to the revision. I’d also add that I did some more primary source research and worked to read farther afield the historiography I drew on for the dissertation. That new information helped me open up the framing for the book--it went from a focused story about religious liberals’ early support for gay rights to a more critical narrative about liberal Protestant influences on all sides of the late 20th century debates over sexuality.

Heather White is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound, with a joint appointment in the religious studies department and the gender and queer studies program.  She is a specialist in American religious history, with a focus on religion and sexuality. Her first book,Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, is newly available from UNC Press.  She is also a co-editor (with Bethany Moreton and Gill Frank) of a forthcoming anthology, tentatively titled Devotions and Desires: Religion and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century United States. She has served for the past five years as a core faculty with the Religion and Sexuality Summer Institute, a weeklong program for graduate students held at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and has also taught at Vassar College and the New College of Florida.


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