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Harvard Professor Comes to University of Richmond to Question the Need for “Sexual Identity”

Mark Jordan's lecture is sure to be both controversial and thought-provoking.

GayRVA Staff | October 30, 2017

Mark D. Jordan, a professor of Studies Of Women, Gender, Sexuality at Harvard Divinity School, is giving a lecture on sexual identity at the University of Richmond on Oct. 30. Jordan is a scholar in the subjects of Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies. He has written extensively about issues of sexuality and religion, as seen in his books “The Ethics of Sex,” “Telling Truths in Church,” and “Blessing Same-Sex Unions.”

The lecture is titled “Do I Have To Have A Sexual Identity?” Jordan plans to ponder the question of whether people in the LGBTQ community should continue to label themselves. “I hope to persuade my audience that the category of ‘sexual identity’ has outlived its usefulness,” Jordan said. “If identity was once useful or even necessary, it is now mainly a dead-end. By giving you ready-made answers about who you really are, it deprives you of the challenge of finding your sex by shaping a life to express it.”

Jordan argues that the idea of sexual identity – whether one is talking about gender, orientation, or a combination of the two – is incoherent. “You can show this by tracing the history of the term as it spreads,” Jordan said. “You can also feel the incoherence in the various ways that people invoke the concept to describe their lives. When we claim to have sexual identities, we really don’t know what we’re saying.”

Jordan also argues that the concept of sexual identity is limiting, and does LGBTQ folk more harm than good. And while sexual identity is heavily politicized in our culture, he feels that there might be limits in how effective sexual identity is in a political context. “The strongest argument for keeping identity has long been that you can’t do effective politics in the U.S. without it,” Jordan said. “That may still be true, though I wonder how long the situation will last. But even now we can also see the political limits of sexual identity, not to speak of the personal costs.”

Jordan is a member of the Catholic church in addition to being a part of the LGBTQ community. Though he has faced some challenges with navigating religion and queerness, Jordan tries not to paint Catholicism with a broad brush. “The Catholic Church has never been one thing,” Jordan said. “It is a network of networks, in which very different experiences can be offered just down the block from each other, sometimes in the same building.”

Jordan argues that the homophobia of the Catholic church, and the various experiences that LGBTQ folk have within the church, are interconnected. “For me, the Catholic church has been at once homophobic and homoerotic,” Jordan said. “Homophobic in its official pronouncements and policies, homoerotic in its single-sex institutions, much of its ritual and art, and some of its mystical traditions [...] Pointing to this ambivalence, I don’t at all mean to excuse the anti-queer preaching or politics of the Catholic hierarchy and its rabid partisans. But I do want to remind people of two things: big institutions are complicated, and queer folk are great at improvisation under adversity.”

Jordan sees that his position at the intersection of LGBTQ activism and Christian religious community is a hard one for many to reconcile. “As a teacher and writer,  I’ve steered between queer communities and Christian churches. Some days it feels as if I’m under fire from both sides—or that neither side takes me seriously,” he says.

Still, he thinks he has a valuable role to play in the discourse of both communities. “Most days, I’m grateful to be in this middle space with so many other queer people,” he says. “Where else should we be except where we actually find ourselves? I mean, who has the right to define queer as anti-religious when so many queers are living religion?”

Jordan also contends that, despite many of the negative feelings LGBTQ people may have towards religions that repressed them in their youth, LGBTQ people can have a positive role in religious reforms that can help future generations.  “A lot of us carry wounds from religions—different religions, not just spiteful distortions of Christianity.  We should feel both anger and sadness over what has been done to us in the name of the divine,” he said. “Still, I’m more interested in what happens next. It’s remarkable how many LGBTQ-identified people move on from grief to reform religious practices or invent them. As a cluster of communities, we share some rituals, like the many pilgrimages that make up a Pride parade. For decades, we have worshiped on dance floors, at music festivals or Faerie encampments, at protests and blessings on illegal unions. But our queer communities have also been active in movements of religious reform and in the founding of new religious groups.”

Jordan’s talk at University of Richmond focuses on controversial concepts, and may not be easy for members of the LGBTQ community–or the religious community, for that matter–to agree with. If nothing else, it’ll give us all something to talk about. The event will take place on Monday, October 30, at University Of Richmond’s Weinstein Hall, in the Brown-Alley Room. The lecture begins at 4:30 PM, and is free and open to the public.

Written by Ryan Persaud and Marilyn Drew Necci, images courtesy University of Richmond