Q&A with Jane Ward, author of Not Gay

Interview conducted by the Sexual Cultures series editors, Ann Pellegrini, Tavia Nyong’o, and Joshua Chambers-Letson.

Not Gay focuses on straight white men who have sex with other men, but who do not identify as gay. You carefully explain why you take their assertions of straightness seriously and do not just call them closet cases or diagnose them as in denial. Why aren’t these men simply “bisexual”?  As if there is anything simple about being bisexual – or straight or gay, for that matter!  

JW: What I think many people have misunderstood is that my book isn’t about a special subset of white straight men; it’s about all white straight men. I make the argument that the very culture of heterosexual masculinity—or white manhood as a cultural institution— produces a striking number of opportunities for men to touch each other’s anuses and penises, and to think of these encounters as non-sexual. Just as mainstream culture allows for straight women to have sexual contact with women and maintain a straight identity— straight men also have these opportunities, but they look different from women’s opportunities.  For straight-identified women, sexual contact with another woman is often a performance for male spectators, but for straight men it is also a performance for other men—expressed as a form of vulgar and homophobic joking, hazing or initiation, or daredevil stunts. So the actual mechanics of the behavior are basically the same for men and women, but the cultural narratives that justify it are different.

When lesbians see two straight women kissing each other on a dance floor to excite their boyfriends or when we see straight women licking each other in hetero porn, we don’t say, “Oh, look at these poor lesbians or bisexual women suffering in the closet! They need to come out already.” Why? Because we understand the heterosexual context in which these women are touching each other. Even if they are completely turned on, we recognize that they might be turned on for heterosexual reasons, like pleasing the men who are watching them. In contrast, essentialist interpretations of men’s sexuality have not only blinded us to the prevalence of straight men’s homosexual contact with other men, they have made it nearly impossible for us to see that sometimes straight men have sex with men for heterosexual reasons.

Interestingly, I have heard from bi-identified readers who want to argue that calling someone “straight” who has had sex with women and men is a form of bi-erasure; and that since what I am really writing about is bisexuality, I have committed a form of epistemological violence by writing about the subject without being bi-identified myself. But if we are defining bi so broadly (i.e., anyone with the capacity for attraction to both men and women, regardless of how they themselves identify), then I am certainly bi. And frankly, I think all humans are bisexual by this definition. Of course it is useful to point out that human desire is more expansive than we are taught, but I don’t think it’s productive to expand the category “bisexual” to all—or most—humans. Bisexuality, to me, is a queer identification, one that resists the hetero/homo binary.

I have also been surprised by some critics’ claims that the book is somehow defending or honoring straight men by allowing them to remain straight; some readers have implied that anyone engaged in homosexual sex should be forced, I suppose, to identify as bi or gay. Or at the very least, I should be forced to write about them that way. I think this is coming from the still common belief that being straight is always easier, better, more enjoyable than being queer, and therefore to identify as straight while sometimes having homosexual encounters is to pillage queerness while reaping the endless benefits of heteronormativity. But I offer a different perspective in the book, which is that straightness has been so damaged by sexism and the gender binary that to be straight is far more miserable, especially for women, than the dominant culture wants us to recognize. As I say in the book, I find heterosexual culture quite distasteful and I would never, ever want to be straight. So if some men who have sex with men want to identify as straight, I hardly think that allowing them to stew in the juices of heteronormativity is a reward.

How does whiteness/white privilege function for your argument and for the men you write about?  Does whiteness offer greater permission for them to have sex with other men without losing their status as straight? 

JW: Yes, this is precisely what I argue in the book. In the last fifteen years or so, social scientists, public health workers, and journalists have been quite interested in straight men’s homosexual encounters, but this interest has centered almost entirely on Black men. Black men “on the down low,” regardless of their own self-identifications, have been characterized as closeted gay or bi men who lie to women about their sex with men—and therefore represent a serious public health threat. Many commentators have suggested that when straight-identified Black men have sex with men, it has everything to do with race. Most often, the argument is that Black culture is so hyper-homophobic that Black men cannot be honest about their ostensibly real sexual orientations. Many scholars working in Black queer studies, like C. Riley Snorton and Jeffrey McCune, have offered brilliant critiques of this discourse. I hope my book adds to those critiques by pointing to the ways that white men have completely flown under the radar of these discussions about sex between straight-identified men. Psychologists and sexologists have been much more generous and forgiving with their interpretations of straight white men’s homosexual encounters, allowing for the possibility that they are developmental, circumstantial, and compelled—and therefore not indicators of straight white men’s sexual essence. And certainly no one has suggested that when straight white men have sex with men, these encounters might be happening in racialized ways that are specific to white culture! But of course, they are, and I offer numerous examples.

It’s become something of a cultural cliché (not to mention a staple of pornography and pop culture – think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for one notable recent example) to say that women’s sexuality is more flexible or “fluid” than men’s. Does your book show that straight men’s sexuality is more flexible than commonly thought? 

JW: It seems straight men will never be tired of the girl-girl fantasy, and I think that’s precisely the point. We are inundated with images of straight women in sexual scenarios with other women because these images appeal to many heterosexual men. So it’s generally much easier for people to see how girl-girl sex might, in some cases, be about heterosexuality more than it is about lesbianism. But mention the possibility of straight dude-on-dude action, and you’re met with guffaws. Straight men deny that it happens, and gay and bi men seem to want to claim that even a single sexual fantasy about another man signals a tortured life in the closet. So it’s certainly time to unpack and examine this double standard.

With respect to the term “fluidity,” many people posit that sexual fluidity is a capacity we are either born with or we’re not. I am not saying that straight men are sexually fluid at their core, or that straight men are actually bisexual or pansexual but they just don’t know it yet. Instead, I’m shedding light on the fact that straight men touch each other’s penises and anuses a lot, often in hyper-masculine environments like fraternities and the military, and in many cases they don’t understand this touching to be sexual.  Since they are often doing it as an expression of homophobia, or to prove exactly how hetero-masculine they are, I don’t know that “fluidity” is the most useful term for understanding the meaning of straight men’s sexual encounters with one another. Instead, it’s more productive to think about this in terms of the erotic flexibility of heterosexuality.

Congratulations, you have a cross over! Do you find that the feminist and queer critique your book offers is somehow being overlooked amidst all the positive coverage, though? Many responses seem caught up in the nominalist controversy of whether or not someone can have sex with someone of the same sex and still “be” straight? How would you hope the book might be received differently say, in a classroom setting? What might Not Gay be contributing to Queer Studies at this juncture?

JW: My hope is that I’ve made a case for theorizing heterosexuality differently, not as the absence of homosexuality but as a distinct mode of engaging homosexuality that is animated by very creative hetero-erotic alibis, performative disidentifications with queerness, and a fetishized relationship to heteronormativity. Of course I also hope students in queer studies will understand that I am not congratulating straight people for their imaginative efforts at having homosexual sex in sexist and homophobic ways! Instead, I am asking queer people—and especially gay men—to let go of the desire to claim all instances of homosexual contact as ours, or within the purview of queerness. I have to say that in many ways the response to the book is almost better fuel for classroom discussion than the book itself is. The onslaught of misogynist attacks from gay men has been telling: “you’re an idiot who needs to have your degree revoked;” “what could a lesbian possibly know about this subject;” “you must have been raped by a man and therefore your trauma accounts for this misandrous attack on white men”–and it goes on and on. That the book has gained the attention of gay men outside of academia, and then elicited this kind of response from them, is, I think, illustrative of the fact that gay men have largely controlled the dominant narrative about what it means to be gay, in the broad sense that includes “gay women,” and this book challenges that narrative. Queer women are rarely central in telling the story about the meaning of sexual identity categories. I have read several sound critiques of the book, but I do think a lot the push back, coming almost exclusively from men, reflects gay men’s investment in the heteronormative and male-centered premise that it’s almost always easier to be straight and that the benefits of being queer don’t outweigh the costs. Perhaps it’s often better for men to be straight, but if we keep in mind the abuses many women experience in relationships with men—domestic violence, sexual assault, unequal division of labor, etc.—then one could certainly argue that the homophobia women experience as lesbians or bisexuals is no worse than the sexism they experience in heterosexual relationships. I write from this perspective, my own perspective as a dyke who would be absolutely devastated to be straight.   What all this indicates to me is that it’s time to invest in Lez Theory, or a queer theory centered in the lezbo/dyke/lezzie experience.

The subjects of your book — straight white men — are decentered in most feminist and queer studies syllabi, and justifiably so. So what does bringing up the topic of straight masculinity, specifically within the context of feminist and queer studies, achieve? Does it have the capacity to address the question, for instance, of whether or not Queer Studies is dependent upon a reflexive antinormativity?

JW: Straight white men are often the invisible reference point used by science when it turns its pathologizing gaze toward the sexuality of men of color and women. So it can be incredibly helpful to look closely at how that reference point is being reproduced, what the stakes are for everyone else, and how we might want to resist. But with regard to antinormativity, taking sex between straight men as our point of departure can certainly helps us think more extendedly about how we want to define antinormative sex practices, for instance. I agree with Maggie Nelson when she asks in her memoir The Argonauts, “how can rampant, ‘deviant’ sexual activity remain the marker of radicality? What sense does it make to align ‘queer’ with ‘sexual deviance’ when the ostensibly straight world is having no trouble keeping pace?” By most accounts, the kind of sex I describe in Not Gay—straight white men eating potato chips out of each others anuses and the like—is deviant. It’s not subversive, certainly not consciously, but it’s deviant. In the book, I describe the erotic force of heterosexuality as a kind of fetish for heteronormativity, one that can incorporate no end of sexual deviance. But what we see is that these sex acts are nasty and naughty in the service of normalcy! Because the current imperative is to have a more or less “hidden” sexual freakiness that is reigned in when appropriate, exemplified by the heteronormative dictate to be a “lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets,” Nelson is absolutely right that freak sex is not a singularly queer domain. What I think is queer is to be a freak in the streets. What straight people want to view as meaningless, incongruent, non-subjectifying, and private, queers treat with sincerity, reverence, and a sense of collective pride.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015). Visit her website at janewardphd.com.

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]

Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


 

In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


 

When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


 

Research: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, and the third post about the project’s origins. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this month’s post, the author addresses the processes of researching Salvation with a Smile.

The discipline of history defines the primary investigative lens of Salvation with a Smile. Published and unpublished primary source material formed the documentary foundation of my work, while I also conducted oral history interviews and recorded field notes from participant observation in various congregational activities at Lakewood Church. While I am not formally trained as an ethnographer or sociologist, the work of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as the work of historian Randall Balmer—particularly his quip about being a “shade-tree sociologist” for the research he conducted on evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—methodologically informed parts of my qualitative research on Lakewood. In Salvation with a Smile, my historical and cultural assessments of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church focus on context and change over time.

First and foremost, the rich scholarship on American religious history provided a robust historiographical tradition upon which to base my book. The excellent work of David Edwin Harrell on neopentecostalism, for example, helped me to frame Lakewood’s early years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Books on the history of the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler and Gerardo Marti assisted me in making sense of John and Joel Osteen’s teachings. Publications on Pentecostal healing and prayer by scholars such as Joseph Williams, Candy Gunther Brown, and T. M. Luhrmann, along with publications on evangelical biblicism by James S. Bielo and Brian Malley, offered a way to understand religious experience at Lakewood Church. And the list goes on and on. My book’s endnotes and Bibliography demonstrate the breath of scholarship to which my work is indebted.

With respect to primary sources, the publications of John Osteen and Joel Osteen, along with works by Dodie Osteen (Joel Osteen’s mother), Victoria Osteen (Joel Osteen’s wife), Lisa Osteen Comes (Joel Osteen’s sister), and Paul Osteen (Joel Osteen’s brother), as well as the books of former Spanish Lakewood pastor Marcos Witt, provided clear windows into the religious perspectives and ideas with which these individuals understand the world. When I started the research for Salvation with a Smile, John Osteen’s books were difficult to obtain, so in addition to Amazon.com, I found a number of his books on eBay. As I discuss below, interlibrary loan also came in handy, as did archival research.

In addition to printed materials, my book also utilizes audio and video sources, including a number of Joel Osteen’s early cassette sermons, along with his messages on VHS between 2001 and 2004. Around 2003, most of Joel’s materials became available on CD and DVD. I purchased over a dozen of the cassette packages, along with CDs and DVDs on eBay. In a stroke good fortune, several current and former Lakewood members I interviewed for the book kindly loaned me over 50 of John Osteen’s VHS messages from the 1980s and 1990s. This vintage material, some of which has become available on YouTube in the last 2 years or so, proved vital for my research. I used the videos for primary source materials of John’s teachings. In addition, since Joel Osteen produced the VHS sermon videos (he was Lakewood’s media producer during the 1980s and 1990s), the episodes also offer a literal view into Joel’s production strategies, which I interpret in light of televangelism’s recent history.

Participant observation also forms part of the evidentiary basis of my analysis of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. I first began attending services and congregational activities at Lakewood in 2005. As I indicated in an earlier post, some of this initial ethnographic work and research appeared in Holy Mavericks. For Salvation with a Smile, I continued to attend worship services and visit Sunday school classes, scribbling notes and thoughts down along the way. I also attended a number of “Night of Hope” events, as well as stadium and arena meetings Joel Osteen holds around the country. I attended two events held in Texas (one in Killeen, the other in Corpus Christi), and obtained a DVD of another— Joel’s very first arena event at Madison Square Garden. Thus, about a decade of participant observation informs the parts of my book that deal with Lakewood’s congregational life, primarily contained in a chapter on religious identity titled “The Redemptive Self”—a concept I borrow from narrative psychologist Dan McAdams.

Oral history interviews with current and former Lakewood members, as well as with journalists and scholars, allowed me to develop an understanding of Joel Osteen and the congregation’s broader history. I conducted about 25 interviews—including several follow-up interviews—over a four-year period. The stories I heard from members and attendees were intriguing and fascinating. They provided unique perspectives on Lakewood’s history, as well as the religious experiences that took place within the context of congregational worship services.

I’d like to share two anecdotes from my interviews that appear in the book. First, Joel Osteen routinely recites a “Bible confession” at the beginning of every service and “Night of Hope” event (read the text here, and find it performed here), a tradition that he adopted from his father. As detailed further in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, from one of my interviews I discovered the unique origin of the “Bible confession,” which began suddenly when John Osteen opened one of his services with it in the 1980s. A moment of call-and-response between John and a Lakewood member created the memorable mantra of “This is my Bible…”. Second, Joel’s own narrative about how he became Lakewood’s pastor emphasizes a divine prompting that inspired his decision to fill his father’s shoes. While I don’t dispute Joel’s interpretation of those events in the book—after all, I don’t have access to his interior life—I document that as John’s closest assistant in the 1980s and 1990s, Joel was the likely candidate to succeed his father as Lakewood’s pastor. Moreover, an interview I conducted with scholar David Edwin Harrell added additional evidence. Harrell had met John over the years while researching his books. For instance, while Harrell was researching All Things are Possible during on a Fulbright in India in 1995, he ran into John, who was there leading a revival campaign, and conducted another interview. From that conversation, Harrell remembered querying John about Lakewood’s future, during which time the aging pastor suggested that his son Joel might assume pastoral duties at the church.

While I enjoyed the challenge of understanding and interpreting content from audio and video sources, participant observation, and oral history interviews, another delightful aspect of researching Salvation with a Smile was tracking down Lakewood’s history in the archives. All told, I obtained research materials from approximately 18 different archival collections.

Fortunately, a number of collections in the greater Houston area, including materials on John Osteen from the San Jacinto Baptist Association, Central Baptist Church, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, did not require extensive travel. Documents from the San Jacinto Baptist Association and Central Baptist Church—as chapters 1 and 2 reveal—helped me to document John Osteen’s history before his start at Lakewood Church in 1959. A visit to the Pentecostal Research Collection at Regent University proved particularly fruitful in this regard as well; here I found evidence of John’s affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, along with vital material on the print culture of neopentecostalism.

Research conducted at Oral Roberts University’s Holy Spirit Research Center was probably the most important archival excursion I took. As I write in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, this archive provided rare Lakewood material from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting and puzzling discoveries included a VHS tape of a 1986 Good Friday service at Lakewood, during which an evangelist named Lucy Rael exhibited the stigmata—visible trauma on hands, feet, forehead, and back that, according to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, mimics injuries similar to those of Jesus Christ at crucifixion. I interpret the Rael event in light of neopentecostalism’s broader history, and John’s teachings on spiritual warfare. And speaking of spiritual warfare, while this particular work appeared in spring 2015, too late to include in my book, religious studies scholar Sean McCloud’s recent book American Possessions offers a keen interpretation of neopentecostalism’s notion of spiritual struggle.

Also vital to my research were a number of digitized archival collections. In the first chapter, I explore some of John Osteen’s earliest engagements with televangelism, contextualized by material on the subject in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. From the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I found material on the civil rights movement in Houston, a time, as I explain in chapter 2, that marked an important juncture in Lakewood’s history. At the very end of my research for the book, I discovered digitized copies of the Pentecostal Evangel at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a publication that covered a number of John Osteen’s early revival meetings (thanks Arlene Sánchez-Walsh!).

This post covers some of the research I conducted for Salvation with a Smile. The next post discusses areas for future research on Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. In the meantime, you can find the rest of the story here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

Book origins: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here. For this month’s post, the author breaks down the book’s origin story.

I got interested in studying Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen about a decade ago in the summer of 2005, when the congregation moved into the Compaq Center. For nearly 50 years previous, Lakewood’s home was located in a Black and Latino/a working-class neighborhood on Houston’s northeast side. Lakewood’s new home generated national headlines, which, as a scholar of religious history, initially drew my attention.

Joel had emerged as a national figure in 2004 with the publication of his first book Your Best Life Now, which became a New York Times best-seller, and in early 2005 Washington Post writer Lois Romano dubbed him the “smiling preacher.” In addition, in June 2005 Osteen appeared on Larry King Live, where he spoke about taking over Lakewood Church from his father John Osteen, his life as a pastor, and his first book, among other topics. An exchange between King and Osteen during which King queried the smiling preacher about the exclusive claims of Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ, however, quickly became a flashpoint of controversy that further catapulted Joel into the national spotlight. Because Osteen refused to condemn religious people of faith traditions outside of Christianity—while simultaneously maintaining that he believed God was the ultimate Divine Judge—many evangelicals believed he had denied the exclusivity of Jesus Christ on national television.

Critics roared with disapproval. A series of online, print, and television campaigns (which continue to the present) by the likes of evangelicals R. Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Michael S. Horton, and Hank Hanegraaff castigated Osteen’s supposed uninformed theology, slim reasoning, and shallow dogma. Such dismissals, many of which emanated out of the New Calvinist movement, shaped opinion about Osteen, and even prompted a minister named Adam Key to picket and preach outside of Lakewood Church with a poster of his book Your Best Lie Now on display. (I recount this larger moment of religious controversy in chapter 8 of Salvation with a Smile, and explain its historical and cultural significance.) The summer of 2005 was thus a signature moment in the history of Osteen and Lakewood Church, and represents the origins of what became Salvation with a Smile.

At the time of Osteen’s ascendance in 2005, I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. coursework in the University of Houston’s history department, and looking for an independent study to round out my fall schedule. I had been reading Andrew Chesnut’s writings on religious economy—then at the University of Houston, now at Virginia Commonwealth—and approached him about using religious economy to analyze Lakewood’s congregation. The following fall, I conducted extensive participant-observation at Lakewood, and read widely about religious economy. I began to consider Lakewood’s historical origins, and think about why and how the congregation became America’s largest megachurch. The paper I wrote for the independent study with Professor Chesnut, it turned out, formed the basis for the chapter on Joel Osteen in my book Holy Mavericks, which appeared in 2009.

Yet the Holy Mavericks chapter could hardly tell the fuller story of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Much of the research I compiled for the chapter pointed to a much larger account of the congregation’s history and Osteen’s cultural significance, so I began to consider what that larger story might look like. By 2009, Joel Osteen had become a household name, and had published three New York Times best-selling books. He was, as Mara Einstein has observed, a powerful religious brand in American Christianity. The story was growing. In 2010, I assembled a book proposal and in March of 2011, with a book contract in hand, I continued to write and research Salvation with a Smile for NYU Press.

Having grown up in Houston in the 1980s, I’d heard of Lakewood and remember seeing the church’s founder John Osteen on local television. Another memory was “Lakewood Church: Oasis of Love” bumper stickers on cars around town. The origins of studying Lakewood in 2005, as I look back now, was also a way to conduct research on local history, and learn more about Houston’s past. Long story short, the research I compiled for the graduate paper, and later the Holy Mavericks chapter, proved too much to fit into those limited spaces. I had to write the larger story, which you can find here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).

The moment of maybe

—Joshua Gamson

rainbow-flagIn the days since Obergefell v. Hodges and its rainbow celebration, I spent way too much time on Facebook reading through the voluminous posts and commentaries about how wonderful, awful, incomplete, conservative, progressive, lame, and historic is the Supreme Court’s decision.

Setting aside the more strident, ungenerous, overstated, patronizing, and self-serving of these—frankly, that eliminates a lot of them—these stocktaking discussions highlight several important, basic points. First, marriage equality symbolically and legally marks the end of outsider status for many within gay movements, and that is both an uneasy and vexed transition. Second, there’s a whole lot more work to be done, both in terms of completing the equalization of rights and the broader work of social justice and institutional change; beware of what Michelangelo Signorile has called “victory blindness.” Third, the fact that the Supreme Court ruled favorably towards marriage equality, and that public opinion, pop culture, and big business have shifted so favorably towards gay rights in recent years, stands in stark, telling juxtaposition to the heightened attacks on black Americans and the rollback of reproductive rights.

Clearly, the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision marks a turning point for the LGBT movement—or rather, for the diverse, messy array of efforts and organizations that fall under that rubric. The question now is what that movement will do in this moment of possibility. A lot of smart people have been thinking, writing, talking, and acting on that question, and the best I can do is to cull from them the intertwined principles that might guide the next stages in this vibrant, ass-kicking movement.

Formal equality is not enough. Activists such as Urvashi Vaid have for decades been pointing to the limits of pursuing a “state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to LGBT people but would not transform the institutions of society that repress sexual, racial, and gender difference.” If you needed a devastating reminder of legal equality’s insufficiency, you could get that by flipping from the breathless SCOTUS celebrations to Rev. Pinckney’s dead body being carried past the Confederate flag. Now that gay and lesbian virtual equality is now well within reach—legal scholar Nan Hunter predicts that the LGBT-rights movement “will seem banal in 20 years if not sooner”—LGBT movements can return to a more ambitious social justice agenda.

Do not close the doors. A few years ago, Vaid suggested the guiding movement principle of “Leave No Queer Behind,” and it’s a crucial one at this moment. One of the risks when some beneficiaries of a movement are invited into social institutions is that they will abandon those who remain by necessity or choice on the margins. Refusing to do so—refusing to betray or abandon those who aren’t easily assimilated or who don’t want to assimilate—may involve the movement, as historian Timothy Stewart-Winter points out, in challenging the institutions that have just invited some of us in.

Intersectionality is not just a theory. That sexuality is intertwined with race, class, gender, physical ability, age, and the like is often noted but has not deeply informed much of mainstream LGBT rights organizing. It should be impossible to see the attacks on black and brown bodies, for instance, as an issue separate from LGBT concerns, if only for the obvious reason that some of us are LGBT people of color. The fight for gay rights has advanced in part by deploying economic and racial privilege, and over time, Vaid asserts, LGBT organizations have moved away from their earlier intersectional roots; the movement has been “oddly complacent in its acceptance of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing a white, middle-class conception of the ‘status queer.’” At this turning point moment, she has advocated, a “re-formed LGBT movement focused on social justice [must] commit itself to one truth: that not all LGBT people are white or well-off.”

Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions. All of these linked principles—seeing formal equality as a starting rather than end point, refusing to leave anyone behind, making intersectionality a core organizing principle—promote a renewed focus on building and strengthening coalitions. The movement itself has always been a coalition, of course, and a fragile one; this transitional moment offer an opportunity to recommit to a coalition of lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender coalition. It’s also an opportunity to imagine and enact new progressive coalitions; some are already working on these coalitions, and others have long ties that can be renewed.

Until last week, these principles seemed right but like a bit of a lost cause. As sociologist Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it, the gay marriage fight, for all its practical and symbolic value, took up a lot of “bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.” Now, at this turning point, when energy can be redirected and different voices emboldened, they seem instead like hopeful possibilities. Whether the LGBT movement manages to, as Walters says, “pivot and recalibrate,” I can’t predict, but the principles for recalibration are certainly well articulated. We are in a big moment of maybe.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him at @joshgamson.

[This article originally appeared on the Contexts blog, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]

Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Gay marriage: Check. Queer liberation: ?

—Suzanna Danuta Walters

Even a feminist/queer critic of marriage (me, alas) can’t help but be moved by today’s decision by the Supreme Court that finally makes marriage equality the law of the land. And coming as this does the day after the Supremes ruled for the Affordable Care Act, putting to rest the Republican obsession with denying Americans health care coverage, all people of good faith (or even simple common sense) should be celebrating. But after the champagne corks are popped and the tears of victory dry, it may be time (long overdue, in my estimation) for the LGBT movement to pivot and recalibrate. The push for marriage rights as signifying all things gay and all things “equal” has taken up too much bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.

So no27scotus4w that the battle is won, how can the movement (or movements more accurately, since the idea of some monolithic “gay movement” is already a problem) re-imagine and re-invent itself? Some moves are already being made, as LGBT activists and organizations have increasingly engaged with broader social justice movements such as “Black Lives Matter,” and other interventions against police brutality and mass incarceration. Surely this work needs to deepen and continue. And the always-frustrating inability for the gay movement to double down on its commitments to core feminist concerns such as sexual freedom, gender violence, and reproductive rights needs to be reckoned with head on. Indeed, as gay marriage triumphed in state after state (and now the Supreme Court), anti-abortion laws and restrictions also barreled ahead, a point Katha Pollitt detailed painfully in a recent piece in The Nation.

There is a danger that this pivot won’t happen, that gay rights organizations and the money that backs them will pat themselves on the back and declare victory over the ills of homophobia, as if one basic right signifies full inclusion and the end of anti-gay animus.

But there is also a danger that the ideology that undergirded much of the marriage movement (that the couple is sacrosanct and “special,” and the only way to raise healthy children; that gays are “born this way” and sexual identity and desire are hardwired so we just can’t help ourselves; that same-sex marriages and parenting as “no different” from heterosexual ones and pose no challenge to heterosexual business as usual) will mitigate against a recalibration that requires a more complex understanding of discrimination and hatred and a more robust vision of inclusion and freedom. In other words, this recalibration must entail a hard look at the problematic arguments (about biology, about family, about gender, about tolerance) that became the common-sense ideology of the marriage movement and, more generally, came to stand in for how “gay rights” have been thought about these past ten years or so.

Celebrate we should – but let us now look back to our more radical liberationist past (a past linked closely with broader concerns over social justice and gender equity) and look forward to a utopian future in which marriage is a basic right, not the brass ring of equality, and the queering of the world does more to rattle the cages than knock discreetly at the chapel door.

Suzanna Danuta Walters, author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality (NYU Press, 2014), is Professor of Sociology and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and Editor-in-Chief of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.