Research Associate Heather White on 'Hosting the Counterculture'

March 4, 2022
Heather White
2021-22 WSRP Research Associate Heather White

Heather White is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender and Queer Studies at HDS and a WSRP Research Associate for 2021–22. Heather teaches in religious studies and in gender, queer and feminist studies, and is the author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) and co-editor (with Bethany Moreton and Gillian Frank) of Devotions and Desires: Histories of Sexuality and Religion in the Twentieth-Century United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Below, Heather describes her year-long research project at the WSRP, "Hosting the Counterculture: Histories of Queer Episcopal New York."

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My project focuses on an Episcopal congregation in New York City that, in the immediate wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, provided meeting space for the emerging gay liberation movement.

My work investigates what was happening within the congregation, the Church of the Holy Apostles, as well as with the activists and community organizations, with a focus on the negotiation and debate over this shared space.

The work focuses on this space-sharing arrangement and what emerged out of it. One consequence, of course, was that many of those gay groups were able to become established and stable enough to get their own space. Another consequence was that the church’s use of their space sparked larger debates. That included Episcopal denominational debate over the ordination in 1977 of Ellen Barrett, which took place at this church.

The Holy Apostles’ space-sharing relationship with these organizations was something I couldn’t have known to look for. I was doing other research on religion and other LGBTQ movement organizing, and talking to people who had been involved on the scene, who incidentally, in answering other questions, were telling me about this congregation and the groups that were meeting in that space.

I kept a file and had different ideas about where this project would go. I came to a point where I looked at that file, and thought, “this is a lot of material.” It’s not just an article. It’s not just a chapter. It’s an actual book project. That’s what I’m working on now with the Women’s Studies and Religion Program.

What is unique about this case, in some ways, is that I’ve had access to a lot of data. There’s so much that has been saved from the LGBTQ organizing in New York during this moment, and I was able to get into the archives of the church. I work historically, but I’m also asking questions that are sociological and ethnographic. I’m not just interested in reporting data—I’m interested in telling stories. I have this really thick archival file including interviews I’ve done with folks who are still alive and able to talk with me, community descriptions, even descriptions of streetscapes. I’m looking at architectural and mortgage documents. In working with such a variety of sources, I hope to establish historical accuracy and then tell a compelling story. These are people’s lives and I want to convey that in a way that really captures the human elements of it.

I’m most interested in how much this story has to offer regarding the analysis of space and why it matters—particularly in the context of struggle. The congregation had inherited and created a spiritual home in a building that dated back to the early-nineteenth century, was falling down in many ways, or was at least compromised structurally. They were working to make good on the space and that process included leasing parts of it to community groups. Gay groups were seeking out free and liberating space where they could meet and express themselves as part of the movement. Their meeting in a church wasn’t necessarily ideal, but it was the space that was available. So, in many ways, these groups were negotiating how to share space in a context when their ideal wasn’t available to them.

I think the first surprise to most people is that a church was providing space for an emerging movement. We think of religion and LGBTQ communities as oppositional. But one of the things I’ve found in my broader research is how common it was for LGBTQ organizations to get started in church spaces. There’s a lot to learn in looking at this case about how to share semi-compromised space whilst trying to maintain your ideals. We think of compromise as something that's inevitably diminishing, but compromise sometimes means you find new neighbors and new affinities; can even rethink what is “sacred” in the case of that congregation.

One thing that readily comes to mind when we think about taking apart structures is the way that we imagine religion. Not only the way that religion is imagined in opposition to LGBTQ lives, but also in the concrete ways that religion is embedded in real estate, and teasing out how decisions about the sacred are connected to things that are not always explicitly discussed, like ownership and property possession. The work is also an invitation to think about LGBTQ ideals and what it means to be free, sacred, spiritual, and safe; to reflect on how those ideals in the absolute sense seem like they should never be compromised, but what happens when these ideals require access to property, real estate, hegemony, and deciding ownership over that?

In some ways, my project is working to destabilize the way that the story of Stonewall is told around singular heroes. The way most people know The Stonewall story today, the focus is on the heroes of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera— transwomen of color who have been idealized rightfully for their role in the movement. But there's a wider set of people that come into the frame, and that includes, for example, who was taking the minutes.

My total hero right now is a former student who was arrested last week at a protest against Florida's anti-abortion laws. I don't want to say their name to protect their privacy, but in so many ways that anonymity makes an important point about heroes. Heroes often become heroes in hindsight, and they make choices, like whether to stand down or face arrest, without the benefit of knowing what will happen. Most of the people who stand up and continue to resist are people we never hear about, because of the way historical narratives often individualize movements of change and focus on singular individuals.

Interview conducted and edited by Madeline Bugeau-Heartt