The Politics Of The Classroom: Is It Homophobic To Teach About The Scriptural Basis For Homophobia?

July 13, 2010, 3:07 pm

Janine Giordano Drake, over at Religion and American History asks us to think about a university classroom inflected by sacred beliefs that do not coexist comfortably with contemporary cosmopolitan ideas about diversity, respect for personal dignity and human rights. In doing so, she raises the question of whether the absolute separation of secular knowledge from ideological or faith-based knowledge is desirable, or even possible. For those who want to read more of Drake’s thoughts about being a Christian scholar, click here.

The incident which prompted Drake’s post occurred at the University of Illinois which, as a public university, has special vulnerabilities around the separation of the sacred and the secular. In a nutshell, a Catholic theologian circulated an email to his class about why heterosexuality, and the gender binary system, are “natural” and “real”; and why consent does not provide a moral basis for performing sexual acts that ignore the divine reproductive function of sexuality. A student complained to the chair of the department about this and similar statements made in class that articulated a conservative Catholic position on sexuality. The professor, the student reported, “allowed little room for opposition to Catholic dogma.” But to the best of my understanding no particular student, or students, were picked out to be shamed or personally degraded by the teacher; and the views expressed had directly to do with the subject of the course and the course readings. The teacher — who was an adjunct connected to the Newman Center on campus — was not renewed. It is unclear whether it was because of this conflict, or because of other pedagogical or budgetary issues.
Drake has linked to the original documents to help us think about this incident and the larger questions it raises. In doing so, she demonstrates one good strategy for teaching things that our students may find objectionable, and for helping students learn to disagree respectfully with each other and with us. When they provide primary documents, professors can speak out of a personal belief system, but also bring a range of voices into the classroom that allow students to attach their own beliefs to, and test their views against, knowledge and authority that is not internal to the classroom and to the student-teacher relationship.
Whether you decide you are on the same page as Drake or not after you read her piece, I think you might agree that she makes two generative points. She notes that theological positions which advocate for the divine role of reproduction in sexuality are often poorly or partially represented, even in the best scholarship (and by extension, in the best classrooms.) Because of this the influence of these views is often understated and perceived by students — most of whom are (metaphorically) milling around in a vast political center — as eccentric. Second, she very gently raises the question of why it is necessarily oppressive or wrong for students to be a captive audience to views that they find objectionable. An argument might be made on behalf of the email sent by the professor that goes like this: the views in question (sodomy is always morally wrong, and is the equivalent of pedophilia and bestiality, even when both parties consent), appalling as they may be to many of us, express a scripture-based point of view that many people in this country actually do believe, and that are the basis of a well-organized opposition to GLBT human rights. Furthermore, they provide the logic for powerful statements like “marriage should be between a man and a woman,” “love the sinner, hate the sin” and “gay marriage destroys the family” that otherwise seem merely shallow and mean.
For the reason I just described, in my “Politics of Sex After 1968″ survey, I teach a documentary film produced by a Christian organization in which “former” gays and lesbians talk about the pain, confinement and isolation of their lives as queer people. They discuss how they came back to heterosexuality, and were able to marry, by being reborn in Christ. I teach this film in part because the vast majority of my students understand coming out as gay as an opposite experience, when in fact it is quite similar to what the Christain ex-gays describe: as the discovery and affirmation of a genuine self, as a release from isolation, and as being welcomed into a caring community of others “like them.” I think students need to understand that any experience of the self is particular, not universal; and that profoundly different views about possible relationships to a sexual self are possible at the same historical moment.
Despite the fact that many of my students have suffered, and are struggling, with a variety of anxieties and burdens related to their sexuality, since most of them are pretty secular, I think it is also important for them to try to understand a relationship to sexuality, and to faith, that isn’t just social. Many of my students find this film objectionable, and for that reason it is very hard to teach because I often have to overcome a refusal to engage. But another reason I use it, year after year, is to teach them that if you are going to be a really good historian, you can’t be selective about who you listen to or have empathy for. I think our struggles over this film are worthwhile, but many of them just hate it. Some really let me have it in the teaching evaluations for bringing “hate speech” (the phrase used by the complainant at the University of Illinois) into class.
But here’s something that has never happened to me. What Drake doesn’t mention is that the student who complained was not even in the class. Rather, he claims to be writing on behalf of “a friend” who did take the class and passed the email, and information about the class, on to him. Identifying himself as a heterosexual male, but imagining himself as a gay man who would have been shamed by having to listen to such views, he writes:

I am in no way a gay rights activist, but allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable. It sickens me to know that hard-working Illinoisans are funding the salary of a man who does nothing but try to indoctrinate students and perpetuate stereotypes. Once again, this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation. Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.

s="Apple-style-span" style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-style: normal; ">It’s OK, in other words, to teach religion as long as you don’t teach anything about it that I would find degrading or offensive.

Don’t get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology. My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students — in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration — are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students’ view?
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