Since the dawn of time, people in our community have survived and thrived in a range of religious settings. Queer people have also created alternative sacred spaces for themselves–the Radical Faeries taking ceremonial jaunts in the woods, merging religion with art or sex in eye-opening ways, or the hyper street camp of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence–all of which Mark Jordan, Richard Reinhold Professor of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University, regards as demonstration of the LGBT community’s call to the sacred: “When they kick us out of official places of worship, we make our own because the divine still calls us.” While on sabbatical, Arnold spoke with me about missing Ann Richards, creating queer sacred spaces, his college days in Austin, and why our community has a unique responsibility to preserve its history.
What surprised you the most about how modern religious institutions deal with homosexuality in the research and writing of your new book, Recruiting Young Love?
I was surprised by how long some of the debates we hear around us have been cycling. A hundred years ago, American churches were mostly silent about same-sex love. But in books for specialists even then, most of our hot topics are already under discussion. The real meaning of biblical passages, the possibility of same-sex marriage, the decision to stay in existing churches or to set up new ones–these aren’t recent controversies. Which might make us reconsider how much energy we want to put into cranking the old rhetoric-machines. We would do better to find new ways of talking–and to make the next ways of living.
Tell me about your connection to Austin. What do you think of all the changes the city has undergone?
Austin and I have a history: a family history. I have archeological layers of memories about the city. During that other Depression, my grandfather was pastor of what is now First United Methodist, beside the Capitol. My mother grew up in the parsonage. As a child, I was brought back for tourist visits. I remember being shepherded around the Capitol grounds and the Driskill Hotel, and rewarded with puff tacos. Years later, I moved to Austin to do a doctorate with Louis Mackey (former professor of philosophy at UT, now best known for his roles in Slacker and Waking Life). After finishing the degree, I would come back to write and hang out on 4th Street. Do I date myself too badly if I mention tropical afternoons passed at the old Ruta Maya? I continue to suffer nostalgia and curse myself for not being smart enough to earn a living in the city. As for the changes, I’m struck, of course, by the growth of corporate Austin, but even more by the change of the state’s political climate. I miss Ann Richards–and Molly Ivins. I mean, if there was ever a time for sharp political satire, it’s now.
Do you foresee a day when a mainstream religion will readily accept LGBT people and bless same-sex unions?
Over the new few decades, I expect that sexuality will continue to be used as a wedge issue to divide religious communities and to win political campaigns. Especially by those who play anti-queer messages 24/7 because they have nothing else to say. Still, the hopeful and astonishing thing is that a believer from any Christian background can now find thriving communities of welcome–if not down the block, then online. The same is true for many other religious traditions.
Where does your personal interest lie in terms of nonprofits?
I’m all about imagining shared futures, because I don’t think that gay men have figured out how to sustain their cultures. I mean, we don’t know how to shelter our artworks, our rituals, and our memories as we encourage the young to make something more fabulous. So, I want to link up obviously urgent tasks, like defending queer youth from religious bigotry, with things that may seem less urgent–LGBT community archives, LGBT curricula in schools, even the training of a new generation of LGBT scholars. These all fit together. They are the conditions for having community.