While various sects of Christianity hold divergent views toward the queer community, the Yale Divinity School has embraced LGBTQ students as an integral part of the institution.
The Divinity School “celebrates a diverse range of sexual and gender diversity,” a policy explicitly stated in the school’s inclusivity statement, according to Associate Dean of Student Affairs Nicholas Lewis DIV ’13. Among the school’s 14 master of arts in religion concentrations is one in women, gender and sexuality studies, and many faculty members publish works on queer theology, according to J.C. White DIV ’18, incoming co-coordinator of the school’s LGBTQ student organization, DivOut. DivOut, which Lewis called one of the most active student organizations on the Divinity School’s campus, has been active in planning schoolwide programs to encourage campus discourse about LGBTQ issues.
“Yale is a pretty distinctive place in that it is one of a handful of divinity schools that I think can be very accurately described as pretty progressive,” White said. “We have a very large LGBTQ community, and that’s really reflected in the general attitudes towards queer persons at the Div School, both in everyday interactions and the theology that is being produced by the faculty here.”
Lewis said the Divinity School’s LGBTQ community contributes to student life at the school and at Yale as a whole, serving as a reminder that what is considered “normative” should be challenged and reframed in both discourse and people’s everyday lives.
Karis Slattery DIV ’19, another incoming co-coordinator of DivOut, said she has found the Divinity School to be a place where she can be very open about her sexuality, though she acknowledged it was perhaps not always the case. Slattery is the first recipient of the Stephen Henderson DIV ’87 and James LaForce Scholarship, established in fall 2015, to support one LGBTQ student pursuing an MAR degree at Yale each year.
White, an MAR student concentrating in ethics, came to the Divinity School to primarily focus on queer and feminist ethics, and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. White said when he was deciding which divinity school to attend, he wanted to find a place that was accepting of his sexuality and theological interests. White believes that the reason for the Divinity School’s large LGBTQ population is that other LGBTQ-identifying individuals followed a similar “self-selecting” process.
“One of the main criterion that I used for determining where I wanted to apply was that I definitely wanted to be in spaces that were pretty openly LGBTQ-affirming because there are certainly many, many divinity schools and seminaries where that is far from the case,” White said.
Linn Tonstad, professor of systematic theology at the Divinity School whose work focuses on queer theology and gender and sexuality studies, said that the Divinity School has been supportive of both LGBTQ students and research. She described LGBTQ students at the Divinity School as “passionate” and “devoted” people who contribute to Yale through their diverse experiences and interests, adding that her expertise in the area was one of the reasons for her hiring.
“The decision to persist in some relation to Christianity, as many of the students choose to do, is not always an easy decision to make, so LGBTQ students tend to be very thoughtful about their commitment,” said Tonstad.
According to Slattery, this past school year, DivOut has hosted various campus events related to LGBTQ issues in partnership with the Divinity School Office of Student Affairs, including Trans Awareness Week, in which the school hosted an alumnus who identifies as trans to speak to the student body and planned a “Trans 101” panel to educate the community. Though Slattery emphasized the effectiveness of the events, as co-coordinator of the group next year, she hopes to have a greater number of educational events as well as outreach programs so that the she and other group members can be allies for people who have not yet come out. White discussed the possibility of reviving a drag show fundraiser, which used to be an annual tradition at the Divinity School.
Furthermore, an annual student-led prayer service is held in the school’s Marquand Chapel to commemorate National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11.
Although LGBTQ students find acceptance at the Divinity School, they still face hurdles outside campus. Slattery acknowledged that the Catholic church, to which she belongs, is not always as open. Slattery said she would love to work within the Catholic church, but the policies of many Catholic institutions, particularly a large number of Catholic schools, bar openly gay employees.
“It’s been really hard to think about what my place is in the church and if my place as a queer person is to work for the church or do I work elsewhere where I can be out,” Slattery said. “And I think that’s hard for me because I would love to use my gifts and talents within the church that in so many ways I struggle with but also I absolutely love and am not leaving.”
Slattery has also considered opening a queer-friendly religious retreat center postgraduation specifically for families with two moms or two dads, or poly families, since religious retreats have made large impacts on her own faith.
White said that although his sexuality and his interest in studying queer and feminist theological positions may limit the seminaries or divinity schools in which he can work, the fact that there is a broad interest in the intersections of marginalized persons with religious identity in theological academia presents opportunities within itself. White said that although it is easy for LGBTQ students at the Divinity School to take the school’s accepting attitude toward the LGBTQ community for granted, he emphasized the value of the school’s progressiveness.
“My just general sense of the Divinity School and the LGBTQ community here is that it really is a very special and unique space for being a religious space that is so LGBTQ-affirming and just in terms of population is so heavily comprised of LGBTQ individuals,” White said. “It is something that should be kind of cherished.”