On Being a Gay Male Theologian During the War on Women by Dirk von der Horst


For some time, a prominent strand of gay and feminist theory and theology has taken it almost as axiomatic that gay men, lesbians, and straight women have a common stake in dismantling patriarchy.  While I have always understood my own work as a gay theologian in terms of that common struggle, recent developments point to a significant challenge to keeping that bond intact in the larger sphere of political activism.

At the end of last year, National Public Radio deemed 2011 an extraordinary year for gay rights.    Buzzfeed listed 40 reasons why it was the best year for gays ever, beginning with a Gallup poll showing that for the first time a majority of Americans supported same-sex marriage.  The list also included the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and several firsts for openly gay elected officials.  Even the world of professional sports is becoming more accepting: in a recent tweet, Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo equated support for same-sex marriage with playing in a Super Bowl when asked about his life’s greatest accomplishments.

Simultaneously, we saw a steady legislative assault on women’s reproductive freedom.  

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, state legislatures introduced more than 1,100 health provisions.  68 per cent of the proposed legislation would have restricted access to abortion in various ways.  Not all the measures passed – the draconian measure in Mississippi that would have conferred “personhood” on a fetus didn’t.  But the sheer activity shows remarkable momentum against women’s reproductive rights.  Repercussions from earlier restrictions are also making themselves felt.  At the end of 2011, in Maryland, a reliably “blue” state, two abortion providers were charged with murder for performing late-term abortions under a law passed in 2005.  Maryland is in the company of 38 states that have such laws on the books. Mexico also faces an anti-abortion backlash.

These two trends point to a bifurcation of social movement for sexual justice. It’s largely nostalgia, but I’ve felt this development as a betrayal of a common struggle shared by straight and lesbian feminists and gay men, which I experienced most vividly in the 1990s in the frequent participation of other gay men in defenses of abortion clinics and the alliances AIDS activists built with women’s groups and movements for racial justice.  Regardless of whether or not this nostalgic view approximates historical reality, the starkness of 2011’s division of sexual politics shook the last vestiges of my working assumption that women’s liberation and gay liberation work in tandem in relation to the relative strength or weakness of patriarchal forces.

To be sure, I was already aware of tensions between feminist and queer theory, and knew of plenty of examples where the connections weren’t being made among activists.   The current situation has shifted my sense of how significant those disconnects are.  There are powerful analyses of the connections between sexism and homophobia.  But the trends at the moment show that those connections can be severed. What this means is that a unified counter-patriarchal sexual politics is neither a given nor an illusion, but a task.  Our primary energy should go into identifying where we can build coalitions for a holistic vision of sexual justice, but we may well want to spend some time figuring out where our interests do not overlap so we can move forward with a more realistic sense of what the actual challenges are.

With formal legal equality, it is almost certain that white gay men will see less reason to link our self-understanding to the struggles of other groups fighting for liberation.  During the last year, as I participated in discussions with other predominantly white gay men, I frequently found myself wondering in response to impassioned pleas for equality, “equality with what and equality for what?”  The demand for equal rights, while important, felt shallow.  One of my attempts to generate critical discussion around white privilege among gay men simply ended up with me further marginalized from the very group I was attempting to engage.  I had been a participant for years in LGBT (mostly G) groups at the online community Daily Kos; few gay men with whom I had been in regular conversation bothered to comment when I explicitly named the fact that we were isolating our struggle from a broader movement for liberation.

One dynamic of oppression is finding oneself in a position where one has to retread well-worn ground because voices and perspectives have been marginalized or silenced.  The fact that the book I most recommend to people who want to get a grasp on gay theology – Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology Without Apology – is out of print, represents a major stumbling block to advancing a conversation in religion based on where the common ground between women and gay men lies.  Comstock relied on feminist theology and biblical studies to construct his version of gay theology.  It remains one of the most explicitly feminist of gay theological texts.  A friend, at my suggestion, had used it in his class on liberation theologies; I don’t know of another text I would recommend as wholeheartedly.  Its unavailability marks a real set-back in moving a conversation that unites gay and feminist concerns forward.

So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.  Coalitions can always be built.  But those coalitions will only work if we build them on actual conditions, rather than in a theoretical purity of our imagination.  I recommend some wariness on the part of feminists in approaching white gay men as allies at this point in time.  Not all of us have your back.  This is not a reason to abandon a search for common ground.  It is only a sign on the road: Construction Ahead.

Dirk von der Horst is a Visiting Scholar at Graduate Theological Union.  He earned his doctorate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University.  His dissertation focused on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century musical renditions of David’s Lament over Jonathan as source for rethinking contemporary gay theological usage of their friendship.
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Categories: Activism, LGBTQ, Politics

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14 replies

  1. Your post reminds me of the power of empathy. Without it, we fail to see that all of our struggles for equality and justice are at their root the same very human quest. It was not until a good friend came out of the closet that I understood (i.e. connected in empathy) that being gay was not a political statement like choosing to be a Republican or a Democrat. The white abolitionists didn’t begin to fight slavery simply for theoretical reasons, but because they felt the human pain of their fellow human beings. I often wonder, why can’t more men relate across the human gender divide to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and feel more bothered by the injustices that privilege male over female? Thanks for your human empathy. A little goes a long way. Keep doing what you’re doing. : )

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    • In my case, feminism feels less like empathy, and more like the default option. I was raised by a single mother, who was going through the consciousness-raising movement in the 1970s. Ms. magazine was one of the papers on the coffee table. I identified as a feminist long before I came out. It took reading Mary Daly, along with some other factors, to finally shed the internalized homophobia, and come out. So, feminism was always the lens through which I understood my gay identity. This is probably why it was hard for me to see real tensions between feminists and gay men until the trends became too stark to ignore.

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  2. This makes me sad, and it is a sad commentary on our society. One of the reasons lesbians separated from gay men in the 1970s was because some gay men seemed to be as likely to identify with the white male power structure as with women. I must admit that I was extremely ambivalent that the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was supported by progressives without much discussion of why we are fighting wars in the first place and what it means to understand that rape is an ordinary part of war. I really got sick of the way Rachel Maddow an out lesbian progressive (?) commentator kept waving the flags of patriotism around this issue. Feminism as I understand it does include a critique of power as power over or domination. To me this extends to a critque of war and nationalism. But as Judith Plaskow always says “equal rights” feminism or gay/lesbian “equal rights” movements do not see the bigger and deeper picture of the way in which domination is structured into everything to the detriment of everyone and everything. I am less ambivalent about the gay marriage movement, but it too rarely includes much criticism of marriage as an institution or consideration of why couples who are not supporting children should have tax breaks that disadvantage those of us who do not have partners by choice or by “luck.”

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    • I think in some ways, the gay marriage movement is a source of more ambivalence for me than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It hits closer to home in terms of representing a desire for a kind of stability that can dull a radical edge. The idea of marriage sounds personally appealing in a way that military service doesn’t, but it’s deeply disappointing that the marriage fight has largely reproduced staid assumptions about what marriage is for.

      As for Rachel Maddow … I enjoyed her show, especially when she was on the radio, for years, but did tire of the American exceptionalism that would surface now and again. I always thought of her as a classic Enlightenment liberal, with a few grittier edges (she did do AIDS activism in prisons), not as an heir to the progressive movement. I don’t keep up with her as “religiously” as I used to. (I also got tired of her general ignorance on religious matters.)

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  3. It’s no fun to feel isolated or marginalized or silenced, especially when the gay community has been so strong in the fight against AIDS. I applauded the repeal of DADT, and I support gay marriage because I think any expression of lovingkindness should be accepted–supported. (Though I don’t understand exactly why people think they should be married anymore. But that’s just me.) Those “actual conditions” in the world today are pretty frightening, and I can only tell my gay friends I love and support them.

    When my brother came out in 1967 or thereabouts in St. Louis, our idiotstepmother found “it” so threatening, she wouldn’t even wash my brother’s clothes with theirs. My brother left home. He disappeared, totally, and no one heard from him till he phoned me in the middle of the night in (I think) 1992. He was HIV negative, had found a partner, and was living as happily as he could in a large gay community in northern California.

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  4. This isn’t the first time, after lesbians started a good share of the AIDS organization we were pushed out when the men finally started getting involved. But once the drugs started to come in there wasn’t any reciprocal movement to lesbian health issues. The men went back to playing and ignoring us. I was on call clergy for an AIDS organization that decided because I was female and pagan I was somehow threatening and the gay man in charge just shut me out. I’ve seen it before and sometimes straight men are better allies than gay men.

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    • Wow. Sorry to hear that. Thanks so much for adding your experiences. It’s really only through the difficult work of airing the problem that we’ll move forward in a real way.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post Dirk. I have seen first hand the tensions you describe when I have participated in some of the committee meetings at AAR. It was very disappointing to me to see the disconnects between us, as I too expected that the Lesbian Feminist group, the Gay Men’s Issues group, and the LGBTQ task force would all be natural allies in a common struggle. But you are right, we need to talk about these things and work to identify our points of connection and collaboration – even if it is the difficult work. And the good news is that there some very strong and wonderful gay men feminist allies like you, and Mark Jordan, and Patrick Cheng. And how you all talk about these issues and make connections with lesbian and other feminist women makes a huge difference. Thank you for your work toward this liberative work.

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  6. As Emily says, empathy is a key point. Straight males (such as me) can have empathy. We can have a stake in dismantling patriarchy just in solidarity with our mothers, sisters, lovers, friends.

    And we can have an interest in dismantling domination.

    Robin Morgan said ages ago (not an exact quote, but essentially the same) “In the end feiminism will benefit men too. But they will have to give up a lot of privilege on the way.”

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  7. Well said, Dirk. I think this is the essential point of the post:

    “What this means is that a unified counter-patriarchal sexual politics is neither a given nor an illusion, but a task.”

    We are stronger when we work together, when we see how an injustice to one affects us all.

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  8. “Construction Ahead” sums up the long struggle we have for liberation and equality for all of us.

    Specifically, joining across racial and sexual lines will build coalitions and make them stronger. I am frequently told that I, as a queer, white male can easily pass for a straight, white man.

    However, the twinge of my voice, once I speak gives me away and we start to realize that even those who can pass, must sometimes remain silent, otherwise their voice will certainly give them away!

    Thank you for this GREAT post Dirk!

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    • “I am frequently told that I, as a queer, white male can easily pass for a straight, white man.

      However, the twinge of my voice, once I speak gives me away and we start to realize that even those who can pass, must sometimes remain silent, otherwise their voice will certainly give them away!”

      For some, passing may seem like an easier route to take but it will inevitably lead to a destructive anxiety stemming from self denial. It reminds me of the “tragic mulatto” character that is so prevalent in literature from the Harlem Renaissance. While on the surface passing may seem appealing but there is definately a cost to the individual.

      I liked your comment, and I agree with you.

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  9. Dirk,

    Thank you for writing about this much needed construction. Which it seems was flying below the radar’s within the LGBT community. Hmm, ‘holistic vision of sexual justice…’ I share in this vision! As a lesbian womanist new to this construction but not new to marginalization I’ve found great comfort and support among my gay brothers. However, every now and then patriarchy will rear its ugly head. It is then, I smack them upside their heads and remind them we are in this together :). My present struggle is with feminist and womanist (straight) within Christianity. Now that is another major road which is under construction as well.

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