A Conversation With Heather White, Professor of Religion and Queer studies at the University of Puget Sound

By Editor Joyce Chen


I have always had a strange relationship with religion. That is to say, I’ve always been intrigued by it but felt somewhat removed from the internal, ethereal force that I assumed religion with a capital “R” should elicit in true believers (with a capital “B”). Growing up, I attended church on occasion, and sometimes worshipped at Buddhist temples, but neither felt like they particularly spoke to me as a way of understanding life on a grand scale. Add to that the fact that I felt conflicted about the way religion could become divisive — an “us” versus “them” mentality seemed pervasive in most religions I came across — and I was often left feeling doubtful about the correlation between the teaching and the practice of religion at large. If religion could be used as justification for an entire spectrum of less-than-savory acts ranging from discrimination to terrorism, was this really something I wanted to welcome into my life?

But as happens, so much of what I thought I knew about religion — and so much of what many people think they know about religion — is founded on interpretations of interpretations of interpretations many layers (and decades) deep. At the core of it, religion is a means for individuals to find meaning and higher purpose; the ways that it has been manipulated and molded into becoming, say, a rationale for implementing anti-gay business practices (see: the whole “gay wedding cake” episode) comes as a bad consequence of the fact that humans are the ones in charge of understanding and teaching from religious tomes. And as such, those teachings may be infused with a number of biases and falsities, intentional or not, that can turn religion into an issue, rather than a resource.

The Atlantic recently published a perceptive piece in its April 2018 issue titled “The Last Temptation,” analyzing the reasons why Evangelicals have flocked to vote for, and then protect, President Trump, despite the fact that he has displayed plenty of behavior that is so obviously contradictory to basic religious teachings: alleged extramarital affairs with porn stars, past political support for partial-birth abortions, and a notoriously dirty mouth (he did, after all, introduce the words “pussy” and “shithole” into the presidential discourse). Still, Evangelicals have excused Trump’s behavior and chosen to stand by him in record numbers: in 2016, he won four-fifths of the votes of white Evangelical Christians, more support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush ever received from that demographic. So in order to figure out how we got to where we are today — constantly on the brink of nuclear war, with near-daily headlines about school shootings and domestic terrorism — I feel like it’s important, to say the least, to understand who is still supporting the volatile man in office, and why.

Earlier this year, I attended the Search for Meaning Festival at Seattle University, a day-long festival “dedicated to topics surrounding the human quest for meaning, and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” One of the lectures that I attended drew me in by its name alone (“The Surprising Short History of Today’s Traditional Morality — Rethinking America’s Religious and Sexual Past”); I assumed it might discuss the evolution of America’s attitudes toward religion and sex, separately, but the session proved to be even more intriguing than that. Professor Heather White, a visiting assistant professor of religion and queer studies at the University of Puget Sound, instead talked directly to the intersection of these two seemingly disparate topics, and how better understanding that connection could actually help us get a better grip on the politics of the Christian Right that have given rise to the likes of President Trump.

Needless to say, I learned a lot during that hour-long lecture — but I still had many questions. Professor White spoke about the importance of undoing our biases toward both religion and sexuality, and how unlearning the tropes and histories we think we know can actually help us realize how flawed our understanding of both really is. She spoke about the importance of de-centering the white Evangelical Christian as the stand-in for “religious” people and why it matters who gets to represent an entire abstract demographic. Here, she speaks with The Seventh Wave about how to change the questions and conversations surrounding these two hot-button topics, and where politics falls into the mix (hint: smack in the middle).


The Seventh Wave: First of all, I’m so excited to talk to you, and I’m so glad that I stumbled into your lecture by happenstance. I was attending the Search for Meaning festival and your session title caught my eye in large part, I think, because we’re currently in the middle of our “In Opposition” issue for The Seventh Wave. It felt so timely to hear you talk about religion and sexuality and to be fielding questions across the board, too. I have so many questions myself, but I’m hoping to keep this conversation as open-ended as possible, so definitely let me know if you have any questions for me as well.

Heather White: That sounds great.

TSW: So to start out, I’d love to know a little bit more about your own background and how you came to study this particular intersection of religion and sexuality, and specifically, what came first in your interests and studies?

HW: I think I may have mentioned a little bit at the Search for Meaning talk, that definitely, the questions that I address in my writing connect to my background and connect to my personal experience. I grew up in a conservative Protestant church in North Carolina, and I was a teenager in the 1990s, in the middle of the rise of the Christian Right, anti-homosexuality, AIDS politics, True Love Waits abstinence pledges, all of those things. So I lived through the contradictions of that and I think that really foregrounded to me just how confusing and puzzling so much of the intersections between religion and sexuality can be. There was a lot that didn’t make sense. I had a lot of questions. Of course, another piece of that is I later came out as a lesbian, but that wasn’t yet part of my consciousness when I was a teenager.

So I entered graduate school with a really focused interest in religion, gender and sexuality. I wasn’t sure what the specific project was going to be but I ended up writing my dissertation on 20th century LGBT religious movements and that project broadened to address how those oppositions came to be defined the way that they are today.

TSW: Why the 20th century? That leads directly into my question about the common perception that religion and sexuality have always been at odds. Could you explain a little bit about why the 20th century was a significant period to study in relation to religion and sexuality?

HW: Yes, definitely! And there’s always more than I can say at any moment, so I’ll give as much background as is helpful without totally over-splaining, you know? [laughs] The 20th century wasn’t necessarily what I intended to study when I was in graduate school. I was really interested in sexuality and gender in the context of Euro-American colonization of the Americas. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of different possible directions I could have gone. But the tipping point for me was a conversation with a man named Mark Bowman, who was and is the director of the LGBT Religious Archive Network. What I knew in my conversation with him was that there were a bunch of religious LGBT movements, and I was familiar with them in the contemporary sense, but I didn’t know a lot about their history. Mark was working to collect and preserve their history, working with the leaders and the organizers of the movement to keep their records and record oral histories.

And what he told me was that people hadn’t written very much about the histories of these movements. That was great news for a person trying to figure out what to write a dissertation on! I think what I discovered in the process of doing that research was that there had been much more liberal and progressive religious involvement in LGBT rights than I had known. Should I pause here, or I can keep going?

TSW: No, go ahead!

HW: Well, one thing that I remembered in your question was about what happened in the 1920s. My research brought me to developments that took place before the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and I found a really interesting history of mostly liberal, mainline Protestant support for what was then called the “homophile movement.” It was after the late 1960s that this movement began to call itself the “gay movement.” So, I found this surprising story of liberal Protestant support for the homophile movement. And one of the questions that didn’t make sense to me was how those clergy were grappling with what their Bibles said about homosexuality. So then that question brought me into another layer of research, into figuring out how Protestants were interpreting their Bibles before they asked about what it said about homosexuality. That question led me back to the 1920s, which was when Protestants began to interpret their Bibles as having something to say about homosexuality to begin with.

If you were to look up homosexuality in a Bible dictionary from the early twentieth century — and Protestants have tons of Bible dictionaries — that word, “homosexuality,” wasn’t in those books. In the 1920s, homosexuality was a term that was only beginning to circulate in popular literature. You would have found this word mostly in medical books, in writing by people like Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst, or Havelock Ellis, a sexologist. They were writing about homosexuality as a term used within a medical framework, as part of a new psychoanalytic approach to sexuality.

So, you wouldn’t find homosexuality in Bible dictionaries. What you would have found instead was a definition for “sodomy.” One of the things that Bible dictionaries do is list Bible passages related to that term. The definitions for sodomy in those old Bible dictionaries were really weird. They listed a whole different set of Bible passages than the ones that Christians today debate about homosexuality. There’s a lot about heathen religious practices and idol worship, and same-sex sexuality is not all all foregrounded. So, these Christians of the early twentieth century were not debating homosexuality; they were talking about something else entirely.

So, then, how did the Bible begin to “say” something about homosexuality? That process began when the liberal Protestant leaders of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, who would have been for the most part attending elite theological schools, they would have been conversant with the psychoanalytic discourses, they would have been reading Sigmund Freud and these other folks. It was these liberal Protestants who began to take the new psychoanalytic terms and ideas and to put them in conversation with theology, and to ask what the Bible had to say about these sexual problems.

So basically, they’re taking a framework that distinguishes between “normal” and “abnormal” sexuality — “heterosexuality” would have totally been a new term for their interpretation in addition to “homosexuality” — and bringing it into their interpretation of the Bible and their understanding of Christian theology. So it was those liberal Protestants that really developed the theological and Biblical traditions that several decades later, conservative Protestants reanimated and mobilized politically. By the time conservative Protestants were animating anti-gay politics, liberal Protestants were walking away from the set of texts and traditions that condemned homosexuality.

The cover of an 1863 Bible dictionary.

A photograph of an 1863 Bible dictionary entires for sodomites.

TSW: It’s interesting to hear that because it sounds like it’s all human interpretation.

HW: Mm-hmm.

TSW: The really scary part about this is that humans are obviously flawed. And so to hear this is kind of like, man. Our assumptions of what we think we know are obviously just assumptions. So when you say that the conservative Protestants started adopting that language, taking the interpretations and using it for their own agendas, what spurred that? Was it the social zeitgeist of what was happening at that time? Was it a fear of AIDS, a fear of difference?

HW: I guess to answer that question I’d have to back up just a little bit. It was in the late 1970s that the Christian Right began to formally organize. That was when groups like the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family were founded, as well as other conservative Protestant organizations that were the real force behind the Christian Right. A number of issues brought them into politics, but homosexuality wasn’t initially one of the big issues. They were worried about sexual morality broadly; abortion was a really key issue; and then underneath that, rarely explicit, were also reactions against racial integration. So there were a whole set of issues that were connected, and the language they used was “tradition,” right? They used what could be called “traditionalist” language, which is a way of authenticating a perspective that in some ways might be really new but is anchored in the sense that “this is the way it’s always been.”

Sort of like “shabby chic.” [laughs] Trying to make something look old even if part of the architecture of it is innovative. So that was the theological language animating the Christian Right and the set of white conservative Protestant communities connected to the Christian Right. They were changing in a lot of ways. They were changing in their understandings of divorce. They were changing in their understandings and practice of gender roles. They were changing, radically changing, in their adaptive use of media and technology and marketing strategies and everything. The megachurch, for instance. All of this was very much a synthesis of modern culture. So amid all of this innovation and change, these groups anchored themselves in a sense of tradition, and particularly in an appeal to the Bible as the ultimate bedrock of “the way it’s always been.”

TSW: I guess it’s hard to understand how the Bible was literally written, because we’re humans and so we interpret things as we interpret them.

HW: The other thing a lot of people don’t realize about Bibles is that most Christians, and especially most Protestants in the United States, are reading English-language Bibles that were translated in the late twentieth century. They’re mostly reading the New International Version, which was first published in the late 1970s. Or, they’re reading one of the many paraphrased editions, also from the late 20th century. The super-traditionalists might read the King James Version, an English translation from Shakespeare’s time, but that’s not so frequently used today. The words on those pages, the literal words that people are reading, have already been shaped by modern interpretation. So it’s not even just a matter of what readers bring to what they’re reading in the Bible. The Bibles that they are reading have already been shaped by modern psychoanalytic perspectives, by all kinds of modern perspectives that have influenced the translators, editors, and publishers that then deliver those words that people read as the Bible.

TSW: That’s so much to digest.

HW: So, we have, like, zero access to the ancient Hebrew and Greek and to what those words would have meant 2,000 years ago in the context in which they were written. We have at best a shred of access to that. Contemporary readers are mind-bogglingly removed from the original texts, much less the original meanings.

TSW: Right. Because we weren’t there to witness what the context was. As a writer, what really stands out to me here is the importance of words. I jotted down so many notes during your lecture and I remember you had mentioned a phrase that was commonly used: “healthy sexuality.” But “healthy sexuality” specifically meant heterosexual relationships, married relationships, a very specific set of elements that determine what “healthy” looks like. Has that kind of language shifted and changed or has it hunkered down a bit?

HW: Oh, sure. With the idea of “healthy sexuality,” the “healthy” part of it encapsulates the way that 20th century, 21st century folks think about sexuality through frameworks of the therapeutic sciences, through psychoanalytic and medical perspectives, through forms of measurement and comparison that tell us what’s normal. The framework of health informs how we think about ourselves and implicitly compare ourselves to other people. It’s pervasive in our culture, and its relatively new. In terms of popular awareness, it’s all post-1950s, post-World War II.

A photo of the clergy who were members of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization founded in 1964 to support San Francisco area homophile organizations. This photo was taken at a press conference that called attention to police harassment at a recent homophile dance. Image courtesy of the LGBT Historical Society.

TSW: Is this something that coincided with the Red Scare at all? I remember you mentioning in your lecture that during the 1950s, post-World War II, there was a reason why this idea was widespread, that there was this distinguishing between what was “healthy” and “unhealthy,” “normal” and “not normal,” whatever those words mean.

HW: Yeah, exactly. During World War II, the American military had psychoanalytic professionals who were embedded into the military, and enlistees were given mental health tests. That was when the military began to screen specifically for homosexuality — or tried to. They kicked people out of the military for perceived “homosexual tendencies.” And then after World War II, all of that energy around psychology was transferred into the Cold War politics of opposing the Soviet threat, and that required a “healthy” society and also a “moral” society. So the patriotic, God-fearing, “family man” or “breadwinning, middle class white American” came to be the “standard.” There were all kinds of policies and all kinds of rules and rhetoric that supported this normal and moral ideal in what it meant to be American.

TSW: Uh, perhaps this is a pointed question, but does that sound familiar at all…?

HW: That does sound familiar. [laughs]

TSW: I mean, it feels familiar.

HW: Mm-hmm. I’ll say it feels familiar. Much of this ideal was reanimated in the Christian Right, which preserved a Cold War-era nostalgic notion of what tradition meant, what religion meant, and what family meant in the context of American national identity. There’s a lot of conspiracy and sense of threat to this understanding of an American way of life.

TSW: Right. And when there’s fear, there’s also the closed off-ness toward anything that’s “other.” Something to be scared of rather than something to be investigated, or even attempted to be understood, perhaps. You mentioned the idea of tradition and traditionalist language, so what I wonder is, is it a fear of losing a certain status, being on the wrong side of history, or all this new information that leads Evangelicals to oppose change? In your opinion, where do you think that fear stems from? Wanting to hold onto that nostalgia?

HW: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. In thinking about how to respond, one of the experiments I want to try is to not use the language of “fear” or “anxiety.” I mean, partly because I think it leads us to see those conservative reactions as irrational, as emotional. There’s a way that I want to step back and say, “OK, in what way is this anchored in something that could be seen as consistent? That could be seen as rational on a level, at least internally rational?” And I do think that there’s part of the mass mobilization of conservative, religious nationalism that is really anchored to broad perceptions of what the Bible has to say, which in turn is really anchored to a particular feeling of reading the Bible. Protestant Bible-reading reinforces a sense of individuality, because it empowers the individual who’s reading the words on the page. It empowers them to find in that plain encounter with the Word the authority, the unmediated and unchanging authority, of God. So that empowers an individual connection to an idea of the past. But at the same time, what isn’t visible, what the individual doesn’t feel is how much authority and hierarchy has already shaped those words on the page, because of who is publishing and circulating the Bibles, because of the texts they hear regularly from the pulpit, because of the instructions in their Bible notes. There’s a whole lot of interpretive aid that goes into how people read the plain words on the page.

So that’s to say that there is a lot of authoritarian structure that’s embedded in that sense of individuality, and that shapes how it is that people react to and respond to what they’re reading in their bibles. So what you have is a mass movement that thinks it’s behaving as convicted and empowered individuals, right? Who are grounded in “evidence” that they found and read for themselves.

TSW: Right. Science. Well, not science, but evidence.

HW: Exactly. Better than science — the evidence of God’s word! So sure, there’s probably fear and anxiety that is a part of how many Evangelicals respond to change, but they’re also holding on to a really seductive anchor and an unchanging truth that provides a very powerful way of mediating against fear and anxiety. There’s an amazing sense of power and individuality to be found in that kind of connection.

“…what isn’t visible, what the individual doesn’t feel is how much authority and hierarchy has already shaped those words on the page, because of who is publishing and circulating the Bibles, because of the texts they hear regularly from the pulpit, because of the instructions in their Bible notes. There’s a whole lot of interpretive aid that goes into how people read the plain words on the page.”

TSW: For sure. And I think that’s a really interesting take on it, because trying not to use the words “fear” and “anxiety” is tough. I know I keep going back to this, but the power of word choice is so important here. Because obviously, if I phrase a question that way, is that because I think it’s coming from a place of fear and anxiety? I’m curious too, on the other end of the spectrum, about the Evangelical Left. I remember that I’d jotted down during the lecture, something you’d said about the Evangelical Left being proof that faith could be connected to politics, and I think that’s so much what we’re talking about here. I’m curious if you could tell me a little bit more about the Evangelical Left and how that connection between church and state exists, because it is politics and religion existing together. Talk about intersections!

HW: One of the things the Evangelical Left helps me see is that there’s no intrinsic connection between the set of religious ideas and practices that are Evangelical and the conservative Christian nationalism that you see expressed in the Christian Right. There are folks who believe that “the Bible is the word of God” and that people need to have a salvation experience, etc. But then they take those same Evangelical convictions in really different directions politically. This left-leaning side of Evangelicalism is connected to a Mennonite and Anabaptist rejection of the relationship between church and state and to a tradition of social activism and nonviolent civil disobedience. There are some Evangelicals that are radically communalist and socialist. And you ask why, and they say “because, Jesus.” Right? [laughs] Because Jesus! And for the same reason they’re inclusive of all kinds of folks, LGBT people in particular, as a matter of conscience.

It can be disorienting, I’ll have to say, to have conversations with these radical lefty Jesus followers because they say things that initially sound really conservative as their religious beliefs, but then those convictions are authentically, foundationally connected to a very different kind of politics.

TSW: I’m digesting that, too.

HW: Right?

TSW: I think I keep coming back to the idea of the humanness of it all. If Evangelicalism is sprung from the same roots, the different branches that emerge on this kind-of same tree are so divergent. And that’s a really fascinating thing to examine. And so, just as a general question, is the Christian Right defined as the most conservative of Evangelicals, or…?

HW: The Christian Right, I’d say, is the most politically and socially powerful group of Evangelicals. And because of that they have the capacity to define what Evangelicalism is for everybody. And they sort of also have the capacity to define what Christianity is, generically and writ large, for everybody. Which then also lets them also define what religion is, generically and writ large. They have that power because of connections to the political system and because they are often represented in the media as “the voice of religion.” And because of that they’ve had the power to equate all of religion with a particular form of social conservative. But when you start to look at the variety of Evangelicalism, it sort of messes up the conservative-liberal spectrum that we see represented in most of our politics and national media. The issues around how to understand the Bible, what is true theology, what Christians should be doing in the world — they fracture across a different spectrum, especially if you’re looking at communities of color who are Evangelical and at the various queer and queer-supportive Evangelical communities. There’s a really different kind of theological / political / social matrix in those communities that doesn’t map onto the conservative-liberal spectrum.

Those other Evangelicals might say things like, “We’re conservative in the sense that we want to go back to the model of Jesus and the early church.” So, that’s a vision of social life that’s anchored in a primordial past. That’s conservative. But then they say things like, “And so we need to share our possessions with everyone.” And is that conservative? Maybe, but it’s starting to look like radical socialism when you compare it to the conventional political spectrum.

TSW: This is maybe just me musing aloud, but in a way, it almost sounds like there are two spectrums that do overlap in terms of political and religious views, but only sometimes. In other words, if you’re from the Christian Right, it doesn’t mean that you’re politically conservative. Those things can be separate.

HW: Well, I’d say if you were a member of the Christian Right, you’re pretty safely politically conservative as conservatism tracks along our national political spectrum. The Christian Right has pretty thoroughly embedded itself in the furthest right wing of the Republican party. But what I’m saying is that there are other versions of Evangelicalism that are radically different. The Christian Right’s version is the most powerful representation of Evangelicalism, so their conservatism is the one that influences our politics. But those other Evangelical communities can be thought of as conservative in a religious way, meaning that they’re drawing from a sense of tradition that then informs their social vision of how to live in the world. But then those ideas of how to live in the world don’t swing toward the Republican party. They start to look like far Left. The radical communitarianism versions of Evangelicalism just totally mess up the way we think of the spectrum of conservative-liberal.

TSW: And in terms of perceptions of where things fall on the spectrum and where they don’t fall on the spectrum, I’m kind of curious, too, with religion and sexuality, what do you think is the biggest misperception from the LGBT community about the religious community and then vice versa? Obviously, those are very large and very vast communities, so I don’t expect you to be a spokesperson for the entirety of either!

HW: I teach a class on religion and queer politics and this question is exactly The Question. How do you put religion and queer politics together? How do we think about them together? We start with the relatively familiar question of “How do we understand LGBT identities?” And I think it’s actually really useful to start with the complexity of LGBT communities and to work from there to think about how that way of relating to diversity helps us to actually understand religion better. What we know about LGBT is that LGBT is a composite acronym — there’s no one “LGBT” anything, because it’s a bunch of abbreviated identities. And those abbreviated identities — the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, etc. — are also composite labels that are just holding places for diverse groups that are way more complicated. For example, there’s no way to represent “The Lesbian” in the LGBT, right?

Thinking about the complexity of LGBT representation is a good analogy for thinking about religion. With religion, similarly, there’s nobody who’s generically “religious.” Religion as a category of various internally diverse things, like LGBT. And then it gets even more complicated with the subcategories of traditions categorized under religion. Like, start with Protestant, and that includes Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, and also Pentecostal and Episcopalian — so then what does Protestant even mean, right? The groups of things lumped under the composite terms encapsulate so much more complexity on the ground than our abstract way of representing them can actually hold.

And so the real problem to pay attention to is how hard it is to conceptualize diversity. What happens when these things get represented in the singular, in the abstract — as LGBT or queer, or as religion? Who gets to stand in as the neutral, generic version of the thing? The critique often made of LGBT is the neutral, generic version of queer is often a white, cisgender, middle class gay man. A similar thing happens with religion. The neutral, generic version is a white, conservative Protestant, probably even more specifically, Evangelical and a Christian Right spokesperson. So it’s like, wait! How did this happen? How did you get to be the neutral generic version of the thing? And then if we were to actually address the complexity in a real way, how would that mess up the binary opposition between these two categories?

TSW: So this is the large question that’s posed at the beginning of the class?

HW: Totally.

TSW: Wow. That’s definitely a whole swath of things to dig into. I remember that one of your talking points during the lecture was actually how can we decenter the narrative a bit, give other people a stage, other voices that haven’t been heard before. And I appreciate that a lot, and I was wondering if you could speak a little more about that idea, because I think that’s what you’re getting at here, too, with the generic, neutral representative of each of these large abstract groups.

HW: When we’re asking things like, “How do you explain the relationship between religion and sexuality?” — one really important thing is the political dynamic that makes diversity and variety invisible. Because that’s actually part of the political process. And it has a history. And it has been, and can be, examined sociologically. It is a dynamic, a part of the operations of politics and power, which we can pull apart and study: Who gets to stand in for the neutral and why? And then the other piece of that is, what are the other stories that we miss?

So in a funny way, the way that the Reforming Sodom book and the Devotions & Desires books go together is that for me, the Reforming Sodom book is on one level about how anti-gay Christianity came to embody religion writ large. And the Devotions & Desires book is mostly about what we miss when we don’t pay attention to things outside of that story. And there’s a lot — we very deliberately didn’t include white Evangelicals [in the anthology] because so much has been written about them already. The chapters in the book are about the voices that have not been seen and heard as much because of the dominant focus on Protestantism and political conservatism.

TSW: This makes me so happy to hear, because so much of what we do on our end with The Seventh Wave in our small corner of the world is to try to lift those voices up and elevate them, the ones that haven’t been out there before. Because similarly, we feel like, once you figure out that there seems to be a problem of representation, what do you do about it? As an example, there are a lot of heterosexual white male authors, but that’s not what our world looks like, so why are these other voices not getting the attention and thoughtful response that they should? So that’s super awesome to hear. I have so many questions still, clearly. But as a final question, what might be your hope in terms of what people will come to understand better about religion and sexuality and their relationship to each other? And how?

HW: My first response would be don’t be scared. Because I do think there’s a lot of fear and anxiety about religion. Because what we see of it so often is condemning and scary, right? And I think that it’s important for folks to know that you can be interested in it without having to do it. There’s all kinds of ways of relating in some way to religion, and one of those ways is being interested in it intellectually. That might also includes being interested in it personally or spiritually, but not necessarily. You can explore and get curious without it hurting you. I hope that doesn’t sound patronizing, but I sometimes feel like it’s an important starting place. And then, there are also more questions to ask than “Is it good or bad?” Even uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, scary religion can be really fascinating. And in getting fascinated, we also find new things to notice and get interested in and that, I think, also helps us to get beyond our own fear-based reactions to religious homophobia or religious intolerance of various sorts. There’s still something interesting and important in being able to pay attention to and to look at the forms of rational, explicable, intelligent ways of engaging with a tradition, even — and especially? — when you really disagree with those forms of engagement.

TSW: Yeah, and disagreeing is by all means never a bad thing. I mean, I think yelling can be cathartic. I’m not saying I’m encouraging conflict, but I do feel like it’s one of the things I’ve come to realize in having these side conversations or even working with contributors. Or just being a person in the world, I guess. Conflict is not innately bad. Something that’s difficult or scary bears looking into.


Heather White is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religion and Queer studies, with a joint appointment in the Department of Religious Studies and the Gender & Queer Studies Program. Professor White is a specialist in American Religions with a research focus on sexuality, gender, and twentieth century social movements.

Her first book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. The book has been featured in the Huffington Post, Religion and Politics, the L.A. Review of Books, and Religion Dispatches, and it was listed in the top ten “best LGBT nonfiction of 2015” by the Bay Area Reporter. She also co-edited an anthology (with Gillian Frank and Bethany Moreton), titled Devotions and Desires: Religion and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century United States. Professor White has given invited talks and keynote lectures at the Birkbeck Institutes at the University of London, Otterbein University in Ohio, and Columbia University. She serves on the advisory board of the LGBT Religious Archive Network, and is a steering committee member of the Queer Studies in Religion group of the American Academy of Religion.

At the University of Puget Sound, she teaches courses on twentieth century religion and queer politics, the history of Christianity and sexuality, religion in America, Introduction to Gender, Queer and Feminist Studies, well as other classes in gender, feminist and queer studies.

Featured image courtesy of Matthew Fearnley.