On Tuesday, about 50 students and faculty members gathered in the Jewish Religious Center to discuss a topic much avoided on campus: Queerness and Religion. Speakers included Chaplain to the College Reverend Robert Buckwalter, Interim Associate Chaplain to Roman Catholic students Peter Feudo, Interim Associate Chaplain Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, Professor of Religion William Darrow, Director of the Multi-Cultural Center Dedrick Muhammad, Reverend of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Reverend Elvin, and Katherine Hedden ’98, an active member of Williams Christian Fellowship.
“We had a great turnout and I was happy that so many people stayed for two and a half hours to hear all the speakers and ask questions afterwards,” Clara Thaler ’98 said. “I think a lot of people who had never tried to examine queerness from other perspectives other than their own were able to learn a great deal.”
“I felt heartened by the number of people who were present at the forum and the additional people who, although unable to be present, gave time separately to discuss the topic,” Feudo said. “ I appreciated the sensitivities of each panelist and the show of support for the dialogue.”
Perhaps the greatest breakthrough of the evening resulted from the fact that the issue of queerness and religion was actually being discussed, and not tiptoed around.
“I really think we started to get beyond dancing around the main issues, which we too often do out of fear of offending people, or discomfort with issues of queerness and religion,” Hedden said.
Buckwalter started the discussion with three main points, one point being that the Bible needs to be examined more carefully.
“It’s a difficult issue to which we attach all kinds of religious and cultural value-judgements and meanings, especially as religious folk who believe that the Bible clearly condemns what we understand as homosexuality,” Buckwalter said. “A careful study of the contexts of the passages we believe mandate condemnation reveals a variety of situations, usually unlike the ways in which homosexuality is interpreted today.” Buckwalter wanted to make it clear that “within nearly all Christian denominations there exist support groups for homosexuals which try to understand the rejection and injustice which most of our denominations have, and continue to inflict upon persons only on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Feudo represented the current position of the Roman Catholic Church, and the principles from which this position has developed. He explained that the Church holds a singular teaching on sexual behavior.
“Sexual behavior is believed to be intended solely for unitive and procreative purposes in the context of sacramental marriage. This is the teaching which opposes all premarital sex,” Feudo said. “It further restricts same gender couples along the dimensions of natural procreation and marriage.”
Feudo went on to explain the beliefs of Dignity/USA, an organization of bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgendered Catholics, which believes that “sexuality should be exercised in an ethically reasonable and unselfish way.”
“The 1997 pastoral letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the response by the Dignity, I believe, reflect a welcoming and supportive Church,” Feudo said. “The statement of Dignity that ‘it is our right, our privilege and our duty to live the sacramental life of the Church, so that we might become more powerful instruments of God’s love working among all people’ seems to me to paraphrase the Catholic Canon Law regarding the rights and responsibilities of all Catholics.”
Hedden based her position on a Biblical verse: Romans 3:22-23 “All have sinned and fall far short of where God wants us to be. But through Jesus Christ, God offers us forgiveness and a new life.” She explained that Christianity is largely about a relationship that Jesus Christ offers to all people.
“Too often the message shouted at the queer community from various Christians is ‘Disgusting! Queerness is the worst sin of all. You’re not wanted here.’ This is wrong, and not what God tells us in the Bible,” Hedden said. “God set the example of love for Christians to follow, and we need to start doing that. Hopefully the church will continue to change and Christians will love more like God loves.”
Muhammed, a member of the Nation of Islam, a fairly conservative organization, stated the position of the organization clearly, as “not queer friendly.” Muhammad explained that although Nation of Islam members may question the anti-queer teachings of Farrakhan, it is never talked about, and goes on behind closed doors.
“The perceived division between religion and queer communities should be broken down through dialect and understanding that all people, and possibly especially gay people need a moral framework in which to make sense of the world,” Muhammed said.
Darrow was a unique component of the panel speaking as an analyst of religion, rather than a believer of a specific religion.
“Unlike the other panel members I wasn’t speaking from a position of a particular faith community, so I could afford to take a more distanced view,” Darrow said. He touched on the continual tension between sexuality and religion stating that it is caused because “sexuality is both a competing power to religion and one which religion would like to capture and control.”
“One should be suspicious of any attitudes that hold that sexuality and religion are not in tension,” Darrow said. Darrow said he was impressed by the range of discussion within religious communities on queerness and the variety of positions most communities contain.
“It is a mark of vitality of those communities and also an example of how religious institutions evolve,” Darrow said.
“The discussion opened the door to a needed and fairly honest discussion concerning deeply personal and sensitive topics in quite a constructive manner,” Muhammad said.