For Lynne Gerber, Activism and Academia Are a Perfect Match

December 14, 2015
For Lynne Gerber, Activism and Academia Are a Perfect Match
Lynne Gerber, 2015–16 WSRP research associate / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Lynne Gerber never imagined that she would become an avid consumer of Focus on the Family Christian radio.

"I grew up in New York in a very Jewish community," Gerber said. "We understood what Catholics were, but Protestants were a whole entire other thing."

And yet, as Gerber, MTS '98, pursued her studies at HDS, she and a classmate found themselves listening to Focus on the Family radio and making pilgrimages to Christian bookstores, where they rented educational videos featuring the famous evangelical James Dobson.

"I was crazy obsessed," admitted Gerber, a 2015–16 research associate with HDS's Women's Studies in Religion Program.

Gerber's fascination with Focus on the Family was not simply a personal quirk; it informed her scholarly pursuit of how bodies, identities, and morality are intertwined in religious communities.

Her first book, Seeking the Straight and Narrow (University of Chicago Press), explored connections between a Christian weight-loss program and the evangelical ex-gay ministry Exodus International—what Gerber called "a comparison of bodily projects that tend to not work out."

"Homosexuality and body size made an interesting comparison in terms of relative intractability—and very different political strategizing—and evangelicals tried to change both," Gerber said. "I was interested in the moral construction of these issues."

For Gerber, who had long been involved in feminist and "fat politics" movements—two fields which critically examine social mores on bodies—the project was a seamless integration of her dual passions of scholarship and activism. While pursuing her master's degree at HDS, Gerber had felt caught between what she now realizes was a "false dichotomy" of academic and practitioner work. It was not until she took a class called "Lived Religion" with HDS professor David Hall that she realized how scholarship could help her engage the problems that informed her activism more deeply.

In one particular assignment for "Lived Religion," Gerber received an unforgettable lesson in research methods—one that has come to define her current work.

"Professor Hall had one of his former students, a Presbyterian pastor, send a year's worth of the church's programs, and the assignment was to read them and see what we come up with," Gerber said. "It rocked my world to consider what you could possibly figure out about this community based on reading 52 church bulletins."

As Gerber is in the midst of researching her second book, this lesson is more meaningful than ever.

"I think about it all the time now because so much of my research is actually based on reading church bulletins," Gerber said with a laugh. "It taught me to ask how we see larger movements of history in these very specific religious moments."

Specificity is key for Gerber's current project, a detailed account of the San Francisco Metropolitan Community Church's (MCC) response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and '90s.

Just as with her Focus on the Family obsession, Gerber's inspiration began with an unlikely encounter, when a fellow student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, invited her to MCC.

"The legend of this church is that people would come in and they would start crying. They would come every week for six months, cry the whole entire time, and then become devoted members, and it was this beautiful story about gay Christianity," Gerber said. "Here I am, not Christian, not gay, and I started crying the first day I went in. I went for six months and cried the whole time."

Although she never became a member of the church, Gerber developed a passion for the church's role in recent American history—particularly their theological engagement with the AIDS crisis.

Led during the height of the AIDS crisis by the Rev. Jim Mitulski, a 1995 Merrill Fellow at HDS, MCC is known as a laboratory of sorts.

"It was a vital experiment in feminist theology, in gay theology, and in progressive theology—the kinds of theologies that I learned about here at HDS," Gerber said.

Based in the Castro, the San Francisco neighborhood that experienced the highest density of AIDS deaths in the country, the members of MCC saw the toll AIDS was taking in their congregation and community and responded with urgency.

For Gerber, the fact that MCC had an LGBT-affirming, explicitly theological response to the crisis is a story begging to be told.

"I want people to know. It should be a story that's discussed in American religious history, in the sociology of religion, and in thinking about the AIDS crisis in the United States in general," Gerber said. "It's an important testimony to what was possible."

Lynne Gerber

The lessons of MCC are even transforming the education of HDS students this year.

Part of Gerber's fellowship with the Women's Studies in Religion Program involves teaching a class based around her current research. As such, Gerber has led a group of HDS students with individual interestsranging from lay ministry and American religious history to public healthin an interdisciplinary study of religious responses to the AIDS crisis.

In what Gerber calls "an incredibly ambitious course," her students are reading ethnographic, historical, sociological, and literary accounts of individuals grappling with their HIV-positive status and their religious faith. While they are using some materials written during the late twentieth century, Gerber values the advantage two decades of distance gives to her students' perspectives.

"Since the crisis, a whole lot more has happened around religion and AIDS. This is an interesting opportunity to use more current research and more current events to look back on what that time meant," she said.

A dynamic classroom is just one of the many opportunities the Women's Studies in Religion Program offers to a self-described unconventional scholar like Lynne Gerber.

"The WSRP is a dream program for somebody like me," Gerber said. "It has an emphasis on gender and the insistence on feminism. HDS has been able to preserve a space for that in a way that nobody else really does, and it's immensely valuable. It invites people like me to make a course based on my research—what I want to read, what I need to know, and how I need to think about what I'm doing. And I'm given a bunch of really smart, engaged people who are going to think about it with me for a semester. It's excellent."

For a scholar-activist and HDS alumna like Gerber, the WSRP fellowship has been a perfect fit. As she settles back into life at HDS, however, there is one holdout from her time in San Francisco left to address.

"I did miss the cold weather," she said. "But I still have to get snow boots."

 —by Caroline Matas

See also: Features, WSRP