Monday, January 30, 2012

New and Old Queer Frontiers - Redefining Sacred Space

I am continually honored to be a part of the Feminism and Religion Project. Below is my newest blog post for FAR. I hope you enjoy and take part in the ongoing discussion of the f word in Religion.

To take part in the discussion visit: Feminism and Religion


Queer. Sacred. Profane. Bar Culture.

One might not easily associate all four of those words in the same category, but Dr. Marie Cartier, a Professor at California State University Northridge, has crossed numerous boundaries in her search for the sacred in the pre-Stonewall Butch-Femme/Gay Women’s bar culture in twentieth century America.

A radical queer pioneer in the fields of both Women’s and Queer Studies in Religion, Marie has become a hero of mine during my time at Claremont Graduate University and my personal journey as both a man, queer, and scholar in these fields.

As an activist, Marie has concentrated a majority of her work on activism and its involvement in shaping one’s identity as well as the world in which we occupy. Although the majority of Marie’s work concentrated on her personal interactions with butch, femme, and gay women, her interactions are transcending from being strictly personal to digital.

Unable to find the language to describe Marie’s topic, she coined the new term Theelogy. Theelogy is a religion of friendship or way for gay people who were alive during the pre-Stonewall period to view their lives as having sacred meaning during that period even if all they did was “go to a gay bar.” The word puts more meaning on that activity than has previously been ascribed to it.

Below is an interview I conducted with Marie throughout a period of personal interactions to open up the discussion relating to theelogy and its important contribution to both the fields of Women’s and Queer Studies in Religion.


John: What is “theelogy” and how does it open up new avenues in queer scholarship in religion?

Marie: Theelogy is a religion of friendship or way for gay people who were alive during the pre-Stonewall period to view their lives as having sacred meaning during that period even if all they did was “go to a gay bar.” It puts more meaning on that activity than has previously been ascribed to it. Since gay people were considered the nation’s highest security risk, mentally ill, felons and sinners in all major and minor religions—the gay bar became more than a bar for them. It became a place where they could perhaps for the only time-- know that they could first be a friend, and also have friends. I created “theelogy” from the words “thee” -- as in the line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “How do I love thee? Let me count the way,” and “logy”—or “word of.” We think of “theology” as “God” and “word of”—word of God. But, since gay people prior to 1975, or pre-Stonewall were considered sinners in all major and minor religions (with the exception perhaps of the newly formed in 1968 by Rev. Troy Perry the gay friendly Metropolitan Community Church) they didn’t have access to the word of God—yet. They were exiled from the word of God. But the gay bar, as it was the only accepting public space (accepting—among the community itself, even though very dangerous—i.e., regularly raided by police, etc.) was a place where gay people could do the first step in finding meaning—they could begin to create community.

John: What got you interested in studying Butch-Femme/Gay Women’s bar culture and community?

Marie: I became interested in studying this from the point of view as part of the community myself. In 1997 I premiered a play, Ballistic Femme, about myself coming into butch-femme identity and struggling with being attracted to it as well as having issues with it as a feminist—but clearly being attracted to it—and butch women! The play premiered at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. It then went on to productions in Denver, San Francisco and upstate New York as well as other venues in Los Angeles, among them UCLA. It was a very contemporary play about at the time contemporary issues within the lesbian late 90’s community—and the end of “sex wars,” among sex positive feminists as they were called, among those would be leather dykes and butch femme lesbians and lesbian feminists. I was in both camps and that was what my play was about.

However in San Francisco the lighting designer came up to me – right before a show—and said, “You don’t talk at all about the history!” And I was literally walking on stage at that point—literally. I stepped back from the opening to the stage and again literally stage whispered to her,, “And I’m not going to do it now!!” But after that night I did some research and I incorporated a section into the program that “Queen Ezmeralda” (a character in my show) recommended that you “Read More About It”—like they used to have at the end of PBS programs, etc. And I also “read more about it”—and realized that this whole “butch femme thing” that I was dealing with in late 1997 actually had this amazing rich history that I knew nothing about!! So I started learning about it.

When I entered the Ph.D. program at Claremont I was still also performing my show and the very beginning research that I had done was the basis for my very first research paper. Dr. Anne Taves wrote in the margin of that paper in 1998 that this subject could be the basis for my thesis for my Masters in Religion…and the rest is herstory!

John: How has your activism influenced your work?

Marie: Activism, or the movement for social change has influenced me greatly. I have been an activist in many movements for social change and the need to do that has influenced almost every decision I have made—both academically and artistically.

John: A professor once told me that I had to choose to be either an academic or an activist and that I could not marry the two. Do you believe that academics can be both activists and academics?

Marie: Yes, because I am one. In fact I believe that by definition academics and professors are activist. There really is not something that is inherently more activist than influencing another through teaching.

John: Is it our duty to be activists in order to create the type of change that we want to see in the world in our writing?

Marie: Almost a leading question! My answer would be yes, at least it has been true for me. But the movements that I am currently involved in--- among them Amnesty International, and the Occupy movement, gay and lesbian equality issues and feminism –especially freedom of choice for women—would attest to that more directly. I believe social change starts form the ground up. When we are on the ground we have to stand up. I have been on the ground in many ways – and I have chosen to stand up and to help those around me stand up. I always tell my students—it may not happen in your life time, but selfishly it feels better for me to fight for my rights than to lay down and play dead. Susan B. Anthony did not get to vote in her life time, but I think selfishly she felt better fighting for suffrage than just sitting around complaining about it or worse letting it eat her up inside and being silent. I definitely subscribe to the ACTUP MOTTO—“silence EQUALS DEATH.”

Adrienne Rich wrote, “I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, with no extraordinary power reconstitute the world.” I agree with that, and I live by it. And—I don’t think that I have extraordinary power obviously—I associate mostly with folks who do the same thing. I come from that school of feminist thought where you “push or pull or get out of the way.” And I have chosen to push or pull mostly --rather than get out of the way.

John: What influences do you hope your work and “theelogy” have on feminism, queer studies, and religion?

Marie: Mostly I hope that people see that the bar culture pre-Stonewall is worth investigating. And this is already happening as I am asked to collaborate on projects that investigate the bar culture in ways that has not happened before. I mentioned that I am presenting with Dr. Wendy Griffin at the upcoming Pagan Conference at Claremont in February, and we are looking at how the structure I created – theelogy-- can be used to look at the women’s land movement as possibly a movement towards sacrality.

I also believe that many women that migrated to women’s land were coming from bar culture as many of the women were lesbians who went onto women’s or womyn’s land and that became a space for them—and prior to that for most lesbians the only space would have been the gay bar.

So I am looking for investigations into theelogy—the idea of creating sacrality through an examination of space. But mostly I want to present a prism through which we can see the gay women’s bar culture as having a deeper meaning than it has before. And on personal note I want to re-frame the lives of my informants—so that they themselves can view their pasts with perhaps deeper meaning than they have before.

John: What shifts have you seen in feminist and queer communities being online now?

Marie: The biggest shift for me is how much activism takes place online. And how much networking and how important social networking is. I did not have a Facebook account until about 8 months ago and just in that short of a time I cannot imagine conducting business—especially the business of being an activist—without it! That’s scary—but it’s true.

John: One last question: How important is blogging and blogs like Feminism and Religion that bring about scholars and activists from diverse backgrounds?

Marie: Well, considering that we are conducting our conversations more on-line than as my wife says in “face time” I think it’s very important that those of us who want to converse with each other do so in the ways we can. I personally hang out a lot at coffee shops, etc. And I think my favorite coffee shop is now my “favorite bar” in the language of theelogy—but I have to converse online to converse with many of the folks that I need to “want to stay in touch with. I am very, very proud of the Claremont flaks that I know, you among them!, who have created this amazing networking tool and I honestly feel very privileged to be part of it.