Recalling the ‘Brave Spaces’ for LGBTQ+ History Month

October 27, 2020
Professor Mark Jordan
Professor Mark Jordan. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Believing that a month should be dedicated to the celebration and teaching of gay and lesbian history, Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, gathered other educators and community leaders to discuss the issue in 1994. The group selected October as LGBTQ+ History Month because public schools are in session and traditions, including Coming Out Day, occur that month.

Endorsed by GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other organizations, LGBTQ+ History Month celebrates the achievements of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.

Mark Jordan, the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has written extensively on sexual ethics and is a scholar of Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies. In a recent interview with MDiv candidate Jordan Venditelli, Jordan discusses how students have contributed to chronicling LGBTQ+ history at Harvard, the future of “fragile victories” won by the LGBTQ+ community, and what questions and identities we might be leaving out of our work as LGBTQ+ voices and visibility continue to increase. They also look at ways to care for the community and move forward through active listening and advocacy.


Jordan Venditelli: Greetings to everyone listening. I am Jordan Venditelli, a first-year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity and I use they/them/their pronouns. I focus on queer and disabled theologies and how their theoretical work in praxis make institutional and religious spaces more accessible.

Today I have the pleasure of being in conversation with Dr. Mark Jordan. Mark is a scholar of Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies. Mark also writes on gender sexuality and the relationship between religious doctrine and LGBTQ issues. Housed in the Divinity School, he is the Niebuhr Professor of Divinity.

So I’m just going to hop right into the first question. Given the long history of HDS, I find it hard to believe that there were never any LGBTQ individuals among our ranks. But as more people who are open about their identities have joined the community, how have you perceived that the landscape at HDS has changed because of them and their reception by the community?

Mark Jordan: That’s a good and interesting question partly because I agree with you first that there must be much more to the queer history of HDS than we know. And let me just use the word queer as a kind of deliberately vague term to cover a whole range of ways of living. We have to assume that queer folk were here and probably here from the beginning, but it’s interesting how little we know about that history. For example, HDS was host in November of 1979 to the second national meeting of people who were then called lesbian and gay seminarians. So they gathered at HDS and we can tell from the program and some of the surviving documents that there was a thriving community here—there was a caucus and there were various meetings, and teachings, and outreach programs into the local area. But we don’t know that history.

What we know best of the history is actually the history of queer women at HDS because thankfully that has been recorded as part of the work of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, but the part of the history that’s about gay men we don’t know that. It’s generally left out of the main Harvard histories of gay life. Douglass Shand-Tucci’s history of gay life at Harvard doesn’t even have an index entry for the Divinity School. So there’s a lot of work to be done.

JV: Can I ask you why you think the history of gay men here has been ignored, maybe purposefully erased?

MJ: Jordan, I wish I knew. I mean I think part of it is just nothing happens at Harvard unless a few people get together and decide to do it. Probably the best answer is no one just decided to do that history. It’s also partly the case that the pressures operating, say, on candidates for Christian ministry when this was largely a Protestant divinity school, those kept people in the closet a lot longer than they did outside of churches. So we also have to take account of the specifically religious context of the School.

The richest aspects of queer lives at Harvard have been animated—have been given energy—by groups of students. It’s the students who really have done the largest part of this work of organizing that conference in ’79, of bringing queer rights together, of celebrating queer Christmas in the Andover Hall chapel. All that belongs to the students and I think that without them the history would be even poorer and less well known than it is.

JV: A good shift to the second question. Throughout your time in academia, the international social/political language about and within even LGBTQ communities has undergone several shifts and revamps. How have you seen HDS and Harvard as a larger whole embrace these cultural shifts and where do you think we as a community can improve and go farther?

MJ: As you know from suffering me in class, I think that the language around gender and sexuality, which I think are inseparable, I think that language hasn’t settled down and will never settle down because our erotic lives and our gendered expressions are always changing as they should. But a few things are really noticeable even in the decade that I’ve been here and by Harvard standards a decade is a very short period of time.

One thing that’s clear is that we’ve put much more emphasis on what has been called intersectionality. That is on the way in which issues of sex/gender intersect with issues of race or ethnicity or issues of economic class. So I think there’s a much greater awareness of the inseparability of these questions from other issues of oppression or marginalization. Now especially the intersection of questions of sex/gender with questions of race is particularly acute, particularly important.

The second would obviously be the rise to visibility of trans issues, which are among the most interesting in terms of their theoretical implications. It might be that we are actually, finally at the point of being able to rethink the binary of male and female, which would be an extraordinary theoretical breakthrough. I do want to stress, by the way, this truly is the rise of visibility. It’s not like trans folks suddenly appears in the 1990s. They have been there all along under many different names and under many different conditions, but we now have the space, but also the resources, to begin to talk about those experiences more fully.

And finally, and I don’t know if this is something I’ve observed or something I’ve wished for, but I think there has been a move away from measuring our success solely in political terms. Some of the great political fights have been won—we hope they’re won, we don’t know when they’re going to be reversed. These are always fragile victories. But there have been victories and although there is a lot more to do politically, a lot has already been done. So I think that gives us time and energy to begin to think about questions that got left aside in the urgent battles to secure citizen rights for sexual and gender minorities—to ask about the place of the arts, to ask about the place of religion or spirituality, to ask about the complexity of our lives.

JV: Yeah, I’m thinking specifically about how conversations I have with classmates and with people in my cohort and with you, versus conversations I have with maybe with other faculty and staff where it seems removed and these language shifts and this attention to specifically trans issues is something we talk about in theory and then we get in a classroom Zoom setting and I’m also acknowledging I’ve only been here for half a semester, but acknowledging that my pronouns are in my Zoom name. Every class I attend I make sure that they are there and to repeatedly be misgendered, and it’s not just my experience either, it’s other students’. So I’m wondering, as you’ve said, the changes have been driven by students, is that the same thing here as new language and new terminology—because it is, it’s always changing and shifting, and it’s very dynamic—as we get students from all over the world and country with different dialects, different rhetorics that they use in their own spaces, do you think that influences our space as well?

MJ: It should. It must. The question is how best to do that and I don’t have much confidence in legislating virtue. I don’t think you can demand that people do the right thing or even demand that they change linguistic habits. I do think what can happen is a process of education by example, which is just they hear the new speech. And also I hope—maybe I’m being too pious now—I hope for education and listening better. I think we need to listen to one another. I agree, as we bring people from around the world to HDS, part of our promise to them has to be that we won’t make them conform to our way of doing things, but that we’ll also learn from them their ways of doing things.

JV: Absolutely. And I see that as being possibly in tension with one another with this institution that has such a rich and long history. There is going to be so many tensions there within world views, ideologies, religious thought, and that is something I’ve enjoyed experiencing is seeing, like you said, this education, we educate each other and we push each other to be better I think.

MJ: Yes. That is least is the great hope of HDS. Even in our progressive HDS student body we have a diversity of views around sex/gender. People have to feel protected in speaking what they think even when, or especially when what they think goes against the minority view. At the same time we want to protect people who have heard that very language used against them in very violent ways, but I do think that’s where what you’re saying about learning from one another and being patient with one another and allowing each other to make mistakes.

JV: I have a seminary friend who likes to say we hold brave spaces, not necessarily safe spaces, because you can’t always guarantee safety—physical, emotional, and spiritual—but we can agree to enter into a space of braveness, of empathy and hold onto those while disagreeing.

MJ: I really like that. In fact I’m going to copy that from your friend and cite you for that—brave spaces. Yes, brave spaces, that’s what we need.

JV: Also beautifully going into the next question, as a world and a country, we are in a time of threats to LGBTQ rights, a time of long overdue civil unrest and attention to social justice issues. What do you think our role as queer theologians is during this time and how can we uphold justice while comforting and offering care to our own people?

MJ: What I like about the phrasing of that question is putting together right from the beginning upholding justice and offering comfort and consolation to one another. The work of justice is very hard. We’ve had way too many martyrs in the fight. We’ve lost way too many people. So caretaking is for me really urgent, a really urgent obligation. I think we have to keep asking our self—and I think this is a function of a divinity school—what are we missing? What are we missing? Partly that’s asking which bodies are missing? Which identities are missing? Who is being excluded from our work? But it also means what are we missing in this sense of which deeper questions are we forgetting to ask? What are we taking for granted? What are we assuming in this work?

That view of the School as a kind of quiet space alongside academic advocacy or the urgencies of politics, the view of the divinity school even in relation to some of the other departments of the University, as a little set back, a little far from the center of campus, that’s not a bad place to be. That’s a good place to do reflection that will lead you to discover what you’re missing.

JV: Yes, I like the way you ask that—what questions are we forgetting to ask because we do, especially in the Divinity School – we do ask so many questions all the time and there is no limit to that and it’s a welcome thing, but I think we’re also maybe even not whose bodies and voices are we missing, but whose are here and we’re not listening to.

MJ: Yes and that goes back to your earlier point, which I’d just like to underscore. We have such diversity already present within the Divinity School and I hope we’ll have more every year, I hope it gets more diverse. But we have to pay attention to that diversity. We can’t come to September assuming that we understand the diversity we’re about to encounter.

JV: I like to imagine that if someone from the early days who was maybe on the little more progressive side, if they got a peek at what HDS is now, that they would be overwhelmed and hopeful.

MJ: The Div School should be a place where we make good trouble and where we’re comfortable living with it.