According to Harvard Divinity School professor Mark Jordan, the terms LGBT and queer are confusing and unnecessary.
“No one knows what queer means, and no one can know what queer means,” Jordan said in a lecture Tuesday before an audience of more than 50 Yale students and faculty in the Yale Divinity School’s Niebuhr Lecture Hall. Critiquing homosexual labels, Jordan said Christians adopt these terms — which he called scientific and psychological but not religious — and use these words to create polarized arguments either attacking or embracing homosexuality.
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In the lecture, Jordan argued that Christians should adopt a term that both includes homosexuals in their community and embodies Christian values based on biblical canon. But in a question-and-answer session after the lecture, he said he could not describe what the term should be.
A prominent Christian ethicist and scholar of philosopher Thomas Aquinas, Jordan said he now focuses his research on the relationship between Christianity and sexuality. His latest works, including “The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism” and “Bless Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage,” explores controversial religious topics, such as whether the Christian clergy should bless same-sex unions.
Jordan began his lecture by recounting the story of a 16-year-old boy named Zach Stark, whose Christian parents in 2005 sent him to a religious “ex-gay” therapy program called Love in Action after he revealed his sexuality to his parents. As Stark participated in the program, he documented his troubled, occasionally suicidal thoughts in a blog that was soon picked up by the online media.
Jordan said the media coverage on Stark — and the term “ex-gay” itself — resulted in polarized debates nationwide. This example, he said, shows how the general public, using terms of sexuality, often simplifies the relationship between religion and homosexuality, condemning Christians as the enemies of homosexuals.
Jordan said a problem arises when Christianity “borrows” too many of the terms of sexual orientation from the scientific and political communities. Thus, he argued, because Christians do not have their own term to express sexual orientation, Christian organizations have not accepted homosexuals as readily as secular institutions.
“When we measure by other standards, we don’t measure progress for [Christians],” he said.
Jordan said in the lecture that the term LGBT is not a cohesive descriptor of sexuality, rather a laundry list of non-heterosexual “subdivisions.” To create a more precise term, Jordan said, churches should look to the Bible.
“What we need is the positive equivalent of the sodomite,” he said, referring to the residents of the Biblical city Sodom who engaged in homosexual and heterosexual acts depicted as perverse.
Of the eight students and faculty interviewed after the event, the majority said they had a difficult time grasping the argument of the lecture.
But M Adryael Tong DIV ’12, a first-year divinity student in ministry, said she agreed with most of Jordan’s points. She added that she does not think there is enough intellectual discussion of sexuality within the Christian community.
In an interview after the lecture, Yale Co-op Co-coordinator Rachel Schiff ’10, who did not attend the event, said the use of specific and limiting labels, such as ‘gay’, instead of all-inclusive terms, such as ‘LGBT’ — lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer — and transsexual, ignore the diversity of the non-heterosexual community because terms such as ‘gay’ have the connotation of applying only to homosexual men.
“The term ‘queer’ is being used and reclaimed by the younger LGBT movement to embrace and celebrate the diversity of sexuality and gender identity in our community,” Schiff said.
In 2008, Jordan was named the first Richard R. Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard. The professorship is named for Richard R. Niebuhr GRD ’55 DIV ’55, the emeritus Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.
Correction: Oct. 28, 2009
An earlier version of this article misreported the all-inclusive sexuality term LGBT Co-op co-coordinator Rachel Schiff ’10 used in an interview. Schiff used the term LGBT, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual, not LGTQ, which stands for lesbian, gay, transsexual and queer. In addition, the fact box accompanying the story misrepresents the views of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on homosexuality; the ECLA now accepts clergy and lay leaders in “lifelong” and “monogamous” same-sex relationships.
Correction: Nov. 7, 2009
An earlier version of this article also misreported biographical details about Richard R. Niebuhr GRD ’55 DIV ’55. Niebuhr is the emeritus Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, not a theological ethicist who taught at Yale Divinity School and died in 1962, which refers to to H. Richard Niebuhr.