We tackled queer theory this week in an upper-level undergraduate Religion and Sexuality course I teach at a regional university in Kentucky. After allowing students the space to process their reactions to the dense and circuitous language, we launched into impassioned queer readings of some visual texts. We loved the “polefessional” featured on America’s Got Talent, and concluded that Steven Retchless had managed to “queer” just about everything, including the stripper pole. We dissected a recent Hardee’s commercial featuring two scantily clad women making out with a burger—and the conversation shifted from a feminist critique of “compulsory bisexuality” to a queer reading that the commercial’s same-sex eroticism challenged heteronormativity and, arguably, that the women’s erotic engagement with the burger “queered” even eating.
And then somehow, as it often does in this class, fundamentalism emerged. Half of the students identify as gay or bisexual, most come from conservative Christian families, and all live in the Bible Belt. Four students in the class are actively and openly working on issues of self-acceptance in the face of strong religious and familial socialization that “you can’t be gay and Christian.” “So,” I asked the students, “how can we queer fundamentalism?”
Two students from conservative Christian families, Mark and Caroline (names changed here), wanted to queer the closet. They had spent much time in their adolescence not fully out or in and believed this was a kind of queer location. Another student ventured that perhaps the recently found piece of papyrus in which Jesus refers to “my wife” queered Christianity. Eyes widening in amusement, we imagined a range of church authorities—from Roman Catholic to evangelical Christian—rejecting the papyrus that supported a heterosexual Jesus while relentlessly fighting for traditional family values. “We just super-queered Jesus!” I exclaimed, and then we all laughed in delight.
These students are typical of the Bible Belt gays I write about in Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays. Several began the class openly wrestling with fundamentalist upbringings that taught them there is only one path to heaven. But the more we contemplated the buffet of spiritual paradigms available, the more comfortable they appeared to become with the possibility of many paths to the Divine.
The microcosm of my classroom mirrors the dynamics playing out across the country as gay rights are loudly debated in the media. The issues that continue to confound and trouble people most have to do with religious-based opposition to homosexuality. People from non-religious or open-minded religious backgrounds reject the biblical arguments conservative Christians make against homosexuality. On the other side, conservative Christians who feel a deep commitment to adhering to scriptural literalism fear that allowing same-sex relationships offends God. The gay people from conservative Christian families or communities, the Bible Belt gays I interviewed, and Matthew Vines, a Kansas native, straddle this divide.
Vines, a young, devout Christian, was recently featured in a New York Times piece for giving a biblical lecture titled “The Gay Debate” to a large church crowd in Wichita. His primary point was that “the Bible does not discuss or condemn loving, gay relationships.” Adhering closely to biblical literalism, Vines argues that “these texts have a meaning, and the traditional reading of them is wrong. It is incorrect—biblically, historically, linguistically.”
Vines paid a recording company five hundred dollars to tape the lecture to put on YouTube. So far, the hour-long video has been viewed almost 400,000 times and generated over 7,000 comments. Given the dense, scholarly nature (and length) of the lecture, such attention is compelling evidence of the hunger people feel to reconcile a close reading of scripture with their desire to accept homosexuality as part of God’s design.
What strikes me as I watch Vines, a slight, sober, serious young man, deliver his lecture—and as I observe my students grapple with parents, grandparents, and extended family who tell them with unshakable certitude that homosexuality is sinful—is that the struggle for gay rights is most effective when it is multi-pronged. For someone like myself—raised Roman Catholic but always taught to embrace inclusivity and diversity—coming out as a lesbian was not in contradiction with my personal spiritual beliefs. Further, no sin-based argument ever resonated with me as necessary or believable. It is simply not important to those like me to, as Vines eloquently expresses, “uphold the Bible as authoritative and take biblical scriptures seriously.”
Yet for others, for some conservative Christians both gay and heterosexual, Vines’s scripturally grounded, earnest theological arguments for the holiness of homosexuality, coupled with his assertion that he believes in abstinence until marriage and longs for marriage himself, can be persuasive. Not only is the gay rights movement adequately capacious to include tight doctrinal arguments and a super-queer Jesus, both also allow us to more quickly achieve the base line that Vines advocated in the NYT piece: That “no one in the world anywhere should be homophobic at all.”
Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, to be released next month.