Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic
Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with
Religion, Art, and Education
Mindi Rhoades1
Kimberly Cosier
The Ohio State University
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
James H. Sanders III
Courtnie Wolfgang
The Ohio State University
Virginia Commonwealth University
Melanie G. Davenport
Georgia State University
This article is divided into two parts. The first part provides a detailed description designed to
demonstrate and evoke the sense of Big Gay Church, an annual session at the National Art
Education Association’s convention for seven years. Big Gay Church involves a troupe of art
educators using a collaborative participatory and performance-based approach to presenting
research on LGBTQ issues in arts, education, visual culture, and society. Combining a generic
Protestant church service template, the standard academic conference presentation components,
queer theory, and an arts-based approach, Big Gay Church engages and connects art educators
with research, knowledge, and one another more meaningfully. The second part presents a
theoretical framing and analysis of this ongoing project, including its context, conception,
enactment, and reflection. Comments from session attendees (or “parishioners”) reinforce the
impact of a non-traditional and queer intervention into academia’s over-determined spaces,
disrupting the appearance of propriety and exclusion of emotional and interpersonal connection.
Big Gay Church offers an alternative version of advocacy for social justice through the disruption
of academia and its dominant norms and practices.
Keywords: LGBTQ; performance-based presentation; queer; LGBTQ allies; religion and
homosexuality; academic advocacy
Biographical Statement: Big Gay Church refers both to the collective of academics working in the field of Art
Education and to their annual conference presentation/ performance delivered as a critique, re-vision, and re-
territorializing of religion as open to and inclusive of LGBTQ people and their allies. Entering its seventh year in 2016,
Big Gay Church continually aims to disrupt traditional thoughts, theories, scholarship, and conference presentations to
enact new possibilities for acceptance, coalitions, and positive cultural change for LGBTQ people and their supporters
in alliance with other marginalized and oppressed populations. Big Gay Church accepts members of any, all, and no
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Part I of this manuscript offers a narrative version of Big Gay Church, an
annual session at the U.S. National Art Education Association’s conference for
six years. A group of five to six art educators in higher education form the core
performance troupe of Big Gay Church. A dedicated group of congregants attend
each year’s service/performance religiously, as well as a rotating assembly of
enthusiasts, supporters, curious bystanders, and newcomers. Part II of this
manuscript focuses more directly on presenting theoretical framing and analysis
of major components of Big Gay Church, from context to conception to
convention enactment to analysis and reflection. It also contains comments from
“congregants” reflecting on their own experiences of Big Gay Church.
Part I: Big Gay Church
Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” unexpectedly fills a dim, cavernous,
near-empty conference room early Sunday morning on the last day of the U.S.
National Art Education Association's annual conference - a typical staid
academic setting. The small troupe of inconspicuous academics scheduled to
present enter and simultaneously transform themselves. One, Sister Sanders,
taking inspiration from San Francisco's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, dons a
nun habit, and masks his face in clown white, his cornette tenuously gripping his
shaved head, his silver beard accented by makeup ostensibly intended for its
campy concealment (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1 Becoming Sister Sanders, a nun in the tradition of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Another member, Miss Jeanette, channels her childhood evangelical Sunday
School teachers in a heavy-knit, shapeless, barely-blue polyester jumper, grey
horn-rimmed glasses, a wig possibly stolen from The Golden Girls, and her
mostly hidden combat boots (see Fig. 2).
Fig. 2 Miss Jeanette and Sister Sanders share center stage
A third, Brother Love, strums and tunes her ukulele, humming to warm her voice
(see Fig. 3).
Fig. 3 Brother Love: Our musical minstrel
The Right Reverend dons black robes, places a Bible on the lectern, and
prepares for the service and sermon (see Fig. 4).
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Fig. 4 The Right Reverend preaching from an academic pulpit
Deacon Davenport and assorted assistants become ushers and attendants,
welcoming congregants as they enter (see Fig. 5).
Fig. 5 Deacon Davenport (on right) sits in the congregation
Participant/congregants have been summoned through playful flyers, postcards,
invitations, and other enticements. They are greeted with banners, flags,
streamers, programs, and trinkets, such as kazoos, at the door (see Fig. 6). Big
Gay Church begins.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Fig. 6 Big Gay Church supplies (wings, kazoos, shiny bead necklaces)
The Big Gay Church service2
As people find seats and the music begins to fade, the Right Reverend
steps to the podium to formally begin the service. She starts with the reading of
Biblical scripture and an opening prayer.
Scripture reading
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not
proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered; it keeps
no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the
truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where
there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will
pass away.
And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is
(The Holy Bible, 1 Cor. 13.4-8; 13)
2 This section follows a standard format for many weekly Christian church services in the U.S. where
congregants each receive a copy of the agenda to follow along throughout the service.
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Opening prayer
The higher principle of love
Grant that the resources that we have will be used to do good - the great
resources of education, the resources of wealth - and that we will be able
to move into this new world, a world in which people will live together
lovingly. A world in which people no longer take necessities from the
masses to give luxuries to the classes. A world in which we throw down
the sword and live by the higher principle of love. At this time we shall be
able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity
to man into the bright and glittering daylight of freedom and justice. There
will be a time we will be able to stand before the universe and celebrate
this love with joy.
(King “The Birth of a New Age” 346)
The Reverend Rhoades then encourages the congregants to stand and
take a moment to greet and welcome those nearby. As people rise, the noise
level and warmth of the room rise also. People smile, shake hands, say hello,
some even embrace. After a few moments, Brother Love begins strumming the
ukulele, which signals the crowd to sit.
Brother Love motions to the lyrics of a song projected behind her, inviting
everyone to sing along as she enthusiastically launches into the hymn. Many
audience members find it familiar and join immediately. Others listen for a
moment, get the tune and rhythm, and quickly join, too. Again the room swells
with choral sound and communal connection.
All God's children got a place in the choir (chorus)
All God's creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low
Some sing higher
Some sing out on the telephone wire
Some clap their hands or paws or anything they've got now!
We sing several verses, each louder than before. As the hymn ends, Brother
Love softens her song, strumming fading, ceding center stage to Sister Sanders.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
A (queer) reading from the Old Testament (for art + art education)
Sister Sanders, holding tightly to her still slippery cornette, signals for the
PowerPoint projection that accompanies her current segment of the service. The
Sister begins by sharing video clips from The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a
legendary San Francisco drag troupe. In the video Sister Merry Peter declares,
Why is everyone so afraid of humor or laughter? This [performance] is
not mocking someone but it’s [aimed at] opening you up. It's the idea of
the holy fool—that ancient idea that there’s someone who stands looking
completely absurd and gives you permission to say things that are
completely true and honest without misperception, covering, avoidance or
hypocrisy. (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence)
Sister Reign of Terror leads a recitation of the pledge of the Sisters of
I, Sister [insert name here], as a member of the Order of the Sisters of
Perpetual Indulgence, dedicate myself to public service, social activism,
and spiritual enlightenment. (Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence)
Sister Sanders, after reinforcing her spiritual and ideological connection
with these kindred sisters, delivers the most traditional academic component of
this session - a PowerPoint presentation and lecture. However, Sister Sanders
does this cross-dressed as a nun caught in an awkward, constant, and doomed
struggle to maintain her headgear against the laws of physics and friction. Slide-
by-slide, our Sister insistently recognizes queer artists and their contributions to
religious art and cultural production; queers serving the Church, often closeted,
as clergy and congregants; and queer theory as a valid framework for critically
exploring the intersections of (visual) culture, religion, art, art history, and art
education. Sister Sanders’ slides and lecture also present historically successful
queer acts of outrage as arts-based methods of political and social critique that
create interventions, such as the Stonewall Riot (1968), the carnivalesque San
Francisco Cockettes (late 1960s/early 1970s), the AIDS Coalition to Unleash
Power (ACT-UP) (early 1990s), Pride Parades, and significant queer arts and
pop culture representations (see Fig. 7).
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Fig. 7 Sister Sanders showing slides
Sister Sanders ends, as always, suggesting ways to disrupt dominant
oppressive discourses, using queer theory in performative, productive, and
pragmatic ways (Sanders). The campy drag theme continues into the next
segment of the service.
Children's Sunday school lesson with Miss Jeanette
Miss Jeanette shuffles onto stage to a cascade of laughter from the
congregation, adjusting her grandma glasses, smoothing the bluish dress, and
fluffing her white-gray wig. She begins her lesson with a traditional Sunday
School teacher greeting: “Now boys and girls, today we are going to learn about
special people, kind of like angels who walk among us. These people help
support awareness and acceptance for our queer brothers and sisters.” The first
“gay angel” Miss Jeanette anoints is Rachel Maddow, for her openly queer
presence in mainstream media and her work around LGBTQ people, issues, and
rights. After Miss Jeanette discusses Rachel Maddow’s qualifications as a “gay
angel,” she distributes original Rachel Maddow gay angel trading cards to the
3 Subsequent years’ cards have included Van Clyburn, Vito Russo, Elizabeth Taylor, and others.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
As Miss Jeanette’s gay angel cards circulate, Deacon Davenport assumes
leadership for the Testimonial section of the service (see Fig. 8).
Fig. 8 Deacon Davenport spreads the love
Deacon Davenport opens this section by sharing a video testimonial interview
with a lesbian who grew up and participated wholeheartedly in her family’s
evangelical church congregation. After she came out, she was explicitly
condemned and summarily excommunicated. Her story is a familiar one, or at
least resonates with a familiar fear, for many LGBTQ folks in similar religious
Deacon Davenport then invites other congregants to bear witness or share
their own stories. One congregant describes belonging to a congregation very
open and welcoming toward LGBTQ people and how that impacted her decision
to join. A gay man talks about working in his Catholic school in a constant state
of fear of being exposed and fired. Another notes the need for progressive and
liberal Christians to counter the constant conservative Christian condemnations
of homosexuality, to make sure intolerant people cannot casually claim the
mantle of “Christian,” and its presumed moral heft, while expressing such hate.
As the testimonials end, the Right Reverend moves to the lectern to begin the
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
The Right Reverend wears a shiny black robe and carries her childhood
Bible; her mild-mannered preaching betraying multi-layered subversion. Her
Southern Christian upbringing’s conflict with her homosexuality and gender non-
conformity catalyzed a personal crisis and rejection of organized religion.
Ordained online, she circumvented the patriarchal, heterosexist system, avoiding
years of seminary and official denominational affiliation. As a female minister,
she disrupts fundamentalist religions’ misogynistic gender hierarchy; as a fairly
androgynous lesbian, she breaks traditional gender and sexuality church
boundaries too. She moves easily between Bible verses, religious texts, and
popular culture. She reads, asking questions, seeking multiple possibilities,
crafting productive tensions, and opening sacred and scholarly spaces for
inclusion and love:
As art educators grappling with issues of representation, interpretation,
translation, and identity, this discrepancy between the thing itself and
multiple contradictory or complicated interpretations and enactments of it
may sound a familiar chord. Why, when we look for diverse interpretations
and associations as a form of richness, in art-making, art criticism, and
writing as and about art, do we continue to insist on singular
interpretations of Biblical texts and a pure, unadulterated holy truth? Why
would everyone interpret a text the same exact way? Don’t we see the
impossibility of complete consensus? Don’t we recognize, when returning
to texts, religious or otherwise, that they mean different things to us in
each encounter or remembrance or enactment?
Reverend Dr. King believed it is people like us who can make a difference.
He insisted, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what
kind of extremists we will be...The nation and the world are in dire need of
creative extremists.” He adds, “Almost always, the creative dedicated
minority has made the world better” (King “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
para. 24). Not only can we do this, he believes we should do this.
This stands in such direct contradiction to many of the messages we
receive socially and culturally about being LGBTQ, particularly as people
continue to vote for our rights as complete citizens.
(Rhoades “iDo” sermon excerpts)
As congregants contemplate the messages presented, our Deacon
Davenport and volunteer ushers prepare to pass the Big Gay Church plates.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
The Big Gay Church offering is queer. Different. Instead of congregants
offering us, Big Gay Church, some kind of gift or compensation, Big Gay Church
distributes offerings to them. These range from small handcrafted artworks, to
Saint Cards, to paired sets of officially blessed and sanctioned “Loved” and
“Forgiven” cards, to paper fans with outlined Sister Sanders for coloring (see
Figs. 9 and 10).
Fig. 9 Sister Sanders fan line drawing (blank)
Open prayer and meditation: Holding up to the light
Miss Jeanette returns and opens our communal call to prayer, inviting the
congregation to name people they want us collectively to “hold up to the light.”
Sister Sanders starts, requesting positive thoughts for a brother-in-law after
recent transplant surgery. Other congregants follow, mentioning mostly family
members and some friends for congregants’ consideration. Finally, a prominent
art education scholar asks us to do this for another in the room - her best friend
of many years who is struggling with an aneurysm requiring brain surgery. She
voices a silent shared concern, a collective fear we try to overcome with
collective tears, try to wash away with love. The communal connectedness of
caring is explicit and electric.
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Fig. 10 Sister Sanders fan (hand-colored)
From prayer and meditation, we progress to official communion, the
essential component and intent of Big Gay Church. During the first service
ushers opened leftover bottles of wine, distributed plastic cups, and offered
assorted baked goods with club music soft in the background. Congregants ate,
drank, and chatted. Another year, communion involved a Pancake Supper, with
troupe members shifting into line cooks, serving up warm pancakes and syrup
(see Fig. 11).
At another service, aligned with the conference theme “Sparkle and
Shine,” communion involved creating colorful paper hats congregants then wore
for a surprise Pride parade, led by pole puppets, winding through the convention
center and the vendors’ area, then culminating in a wedding vow renewal
ceremony outside overlooking San Diego Bay (see Fig. 12).
Brother Love follows the communion by building on our sense of
connection, leading congregants in a final hymn of possibility, emphasizing art
education’s strength: imagination.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Fig. 11 Sister Sanders serving pancakes to parishioners
Fig. 12 Big Gay Church group photo post Spark(le) + Shine service in San Diego
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Closing hymn
For the closing hymn, we play a version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with
the words projected for people to sing along with the song. We include Lady
Gaga’s added verse in support of marriage equality because we share her belief
that real democracy - real equality - does mean letting people be who they are
and love who they love.
After imbibing the soft quietness and stillness that follows, The Right
Reverend returns to the podium with final thoughts for the congregation:
Like Lady Gaga, John Lennon, Jesus, and many, many others urge, we
must learn to accept and love ourselves and each other. Listen to their
repetition of the three most important Biblical beliefs: faith, hope, and love.
Remember the longstanding ability of the LGBTQ community to dance in
the face of oppression, to sing over shouts of condemnation, to love
regardless. Love each other and know that we love you.
As we bring closure to the service, we invite the congregation to continue
their fellowship in our Big Gay Sanctuary until the next session. The sanctuary
transforms back into the nondescript, intentionally standardized traditional
conference room. Our pews fade into seats locked in lines, our wine replaced by
sweaty silver pitchers and half glasses for water. Our altar, a stage again. Our
alter-egos disappear, pulled off and packed away in suitcases for travel home
with the homos, to be stored and ready for our next service. We hug, shoving
final items into our bags, saying goodbyes, speaking of later meetings, of future
plans. We walk out the church doors and into the convention center halls, out of
the temple and into the marketplace.
Part II: Conservative Christianity, Education, Arts, + Activism
American Christianity and queerness
Aren’t you beginning to at least get a glimpse of why God commands
governments to put homosexuals to death (Lev. 20:13)? Or are you still
foolishly closing your eyes, ears and hearts to the truth? (Lee)4
4 Lee runs an organization called The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten
Commandments. It primarily consists of a website ( of hate-filled rants against
heathens, homosexuals, abortionists, democracy, America, and science. They advocate for replacing the
U.S. Constitution with the Ten Commandments.
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
We begin this section with the context for the development of Big Gay
Church, starting with the struggle for LGBT/Queer rights in relationship to efforts
by conservative Christians to curtail these rights and condemn “queers.”5 Great
strides are being made in the United States with regard to certain aspects of
queer life. As the quotation above suggests, however, a
backlash in the name of God is also afoot. There is much to be learned through
the study of this contradiction. Although there are many controversies and
problems with the Bible and its translation across languages over millennia and
around the globe, it remains a primary sacred text globally. Therefore, even
though the concept of homosexuality did not exist in biblical times (Foucault),
interpretations of what the Bible ostensibly says greatly influence the treatment of
LGBTQ people in Judeo-Christian societies. Troublingly, these interpretations are
based not in divine dictate, as so many believe to be true, but insinuated in
Biblical translations during Europe’s cultural shift against homosexuality.
Consequently, early European colonists to the U.S. imported this punitive,
condemnatory attitude toward queers.
Many U.S. fundamentalist and conservative Christian churches continue
to adhere to anti-homosexual beliefs and practices. This contemporary crusade
began in earnest in the late 1970s as conservative Christians entered the political
arena with a vengeance. In 1978, religious leaders unsuccessfully supported
California’s Proposition 6 to legalize discrimination and force the firing of all
homosexual teachers (Wolff and Himes)
After founding notoriously conservative Liberty University in 1971, the
famous Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell co-founded the Moral
Majority in 1979 as a political action organization aimed at consolidating the
political and cultural power of conservative Christian congregations,
organizations, and individuals. Falwell was known for blaming “gays” for many
crises and disasters, including calling HIV/AIDS God’s punishment for gays and
blaming homosexuals and their allies and supporters for 9/11 (Press). The 1986
Helms Amendment, named for rabid homophobe Senator Jesse Helms of North
Carolina, banned federal taxes for AIDS research and prevention efforts in
schools. The Moral Majority supported 1986’s California Proposition 64 to
quarantine HIV-positive gay men as a threat to society (Wolff and Himes). Focus
on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson supported the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scout
leaders, calling gay men dangerous pedophiles (Wolff and Himes). In 2008,
California’s Proposition 8 to prevent (LGBTQ) marriage equality was “primarily
funded by Mormon, Catholic, and Evangelical churches” (Wolff and Himes; see
Throughout this section, we will use the abbreviated term “LGBTQ” (for lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, and queer/questioning) to be inclusive of all forms of queerness.
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
also 8: The Mormon Proposition). Big Gay Church asserts a different idea of
God and faith, one that sees hateful acts against the moral minority as a grave
Catholicism’s anti-homosexual doctrine was formally codified in a 1975
official pronouncement that “incurable homosexuals should be treated kindly” but
“homosexual behavior can never be justified” (qtd. in Lynch 387-388), what
became colloquially “love the sinner, hate the sin” (Callaghan 85). Cardinal
Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) shifted this tone, condemning
homosexuals as inherently evil, disordered people who provoke and deserve
punishment with their wicked ways (Buchanan et al.; Callaghan), advocating
discrimination against allowing homosexuals as foster/adoptive parents,
teachers, coaches, or soldiers. In 2002, U.S. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin
Navarro-Vails attempted to blame gay priests for the exploding clerical child
sexual abuse scandal (Lynch).
Currently, the Catholic Church struggles to balance historically nurtured
attitudes of disgust and condemnation with contemporary impulses toward
respect, sensitivity, and love (Candreva). Pope Francis, who was called a “global
spiritual rockstar” in the Huffington Post, rocked many with his simple yet
powerful question “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good
will, who am I to judge?” (Donadio). Even before this groundbreaking query,
some American bishops sought to help parents/families of LGBTQ people
negotiate the church directive to condemn homosexual behavior with the Biblical
directive to love your children as gifts from God. Other more conservative
bishops and Vatican officials countered, insisting Christian morality justifies
religious condemnation and legalized discrimination against homosexuals
Many U.S. protestant denominations have followed a similar trajectory.
Some U.S. denominations and congregations have made progress toward
LGBTQ tolerance; others continue their crusade against queer people.
Conservative Christianity still retains great cultural, political, and legal influence in
the U.S., perhaps most visibly in what H. L. Mencken termed the “Bible Belt” of
Southern States (Mencken). Several fundamentalist Christian denominations with
large congregations and outsized influence - including Southern Baptists,
Pentecostals, and newer denominations like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons,
maintain very hardline positions against homosexuals, lobbying for continued
legal oppression and penalization (Sharlet). In Big Gay Church, we seek to out
contradictions and hypocrisy and expose them, without wholesale condemnation
of other churches. We understand that faith is a complex, fluid, and mysterious
thing. One might even call it queer (Sanders; Zacko-Smith and Smith).
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Becoming Big Gay Church
Because [homosexuality] is such a great curse to humanity, the God who
created humans says put homosexuals to death (Leviticus 20:13)! They
ought not to be allowed to live! (Lee)
Big Gay Church operates against this complicated, conflicted backdrop of
religions’ relationships with queer people. More specifically, Big Gay Church’s
core members have extensive experience growing up and living in conservative
and religious cities, small towns, and communities across the Bible Belt. As
queer youth, and now as adults, we are sensitive to the power of Christian-
influenced discourses around sexuality, gender identity, and morality in family
and civic life.
Most Americans (including we queers) grew up in families subscribing to
some religious faith (LeVay and Nonas; Schuck and Liddle). In many of these
situations, queers face a “pervasive and potentially annihilating Christian
discourse” (Schuck and Liddle 310) that precipitates near-constant fear of being
outcast, harassed, or even physically injured. These fears can create or
exacerbate self-loathing and general low self-esteem (Schwartz). Many queers
express a desperate desire for congregational acceptance, to “go to church
sometimes, and not be afraid of just being told what a horrible person you are”
(Barton 466). It is an understanding of this desire that led us to create Big Gay
Church. It is this situation that leads some people to our sessions, like those who
find themselves closeted and working in religious schools or even deeply
religious communities. They come to Big Gay Church to confess their
circumstances, to seek solace, to find fellowship.
Some queers from conservative faiths undertake a futile struggle to
overcome or cure their non-normative sexual identity, and when this fails, they
believe they have forfeited their “faith, God, their church, or their fellow believers”
(Ganzevoort, van der Laan, and Olsman 218). In some cases, queers (and their
congregations) believe that if they are unable to change their sexuality, accepting
it comes at “the price of abandoning God,” that “apostasy then may not be a
choice, but an unavoidable conclusion” (Ganzevoort, van der Laan, and Olsman
220). In Big Gay Church services we confront conservative Christianity’s
condemnation of queers and examine how their prevalence and power can
create oppressive living conditions for queer people, undergirding homophobic
laws, tolerating discrimination and harassment, and even promoting violence
(Brooke; Cianciatto and Cahill; Dennis; Williams). We have shed light on the
ways some conservative Christian congregations, pastoral leaders, and parents
or guardians literally force queer minors into “conversion therapies” aimed at
fixing a person’s sexuality that more likely “result in psychological harm and are
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
not effective” (Wolff and Himes 443). Our congregants, many of whom are not
queer themselves, learn of these damaging therapies as well as the hopeful
message that California and New Jersey have outlawed the medically-debunked
practice and several others are following suit.
It is against the backdrop of this lingering conservative, religion-based
persecution that members of the Big Gay Church troupe coalesced, bonding over
mutual firsthand experiences in conservative churches and so-called “God-
fearing” communities. We shared ways church still impacted our lives and how it
shaped us as artists, educators, citizens, and activists. For us, every discussion
of injustice against queers eventually conjured the church, implicating it as the
prime source of friction around sexuality - in society and in education. We
acknowledge the chilling impact this has on teachers, students, and schools.
We considered ways this chill creeps up in higher education - impacting
our research, publication options, teaching, professional standing, job options,
and tenure. While good Christian grandmothers from the Freewill Baptist Church
have not prowled the halls of academe, for some of us pervasive conservative
values dictate our marginalization and contribute to a resistance to queer ideas in
our scholarship and teaching.
Each of us experienced some shock in realizing that the field of art
education, which we had presumed to be more liberal, was every bit as apt to
present challenges, from minor restrictions and self-censoring, to penalizing
unauthorized perspectives in higher education. Collectively, we wondered what
our lives - and those of our students, colleagues, and community members,
would be like if religion didn’t demonize queer people. What if instead of rejecting
all things queer, churches embraced and celebrated queers in all our
complicated, contradictory, and convoluted glory? What if we created an
alternative universe where queer people ran a church in which everyone was
welcome and loved? We longed for a church that was fun and welcomed camp.
Big Gay Church was born (see Fig. 13).
We began considering ways to productively and queerly explore these
possibilities by asking how we could queer church [as a mis-service]? We wanted
to do more than merely emulate and discuss gay-friendly and welcoming
examples, such as the Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian Universalists,
and more tolerant congregations within larger denominations like the Dignity
Roman Catholic congregations or the Baptist Peace Fellowship. We sought to
create a religious community that explicitly embraces all sexualities, celebrates
and theorizes transgression of gender binaries, and perhaps even embraces our
own contradictions. As an example, in latter years, Sister Sanders complicated
her character, evolving from a campy drag nun to Hermana Harry, a more
gender-disruptive and ambiguously fluid persona (see Fig. 14).
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Fig. 13 Sister Sanders, Brother Love, Miss Jeanette, and the Right Reverend
Fig. 14 Hermana Harry appearing as a digital ghost from a fictional place/time
We wanted to disrupt the normative constraints around LGBTQ issues in
art education by disrupting the conventional staid expectations for the standard
conference presentations in terms of form and content. Instead of a symposium,
we imagined a service; instead of a cathedral, we imagined transforming a
conference room; instead of condemning, we imagined communing. We
proposed inserting queers into religion to create a “gay church,” inserting these
queers with their “gay church” into academic contexts, and using this disruption
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
to coalesce as a group, then question, challenge, and hopefully provoke change
in participants’ thinking, teaching, and daily lives.
Art + activism = Artivism
At no point in American history have there been proper laws against the
existence of gays. If any society foolishly allows them to live, they will
gradually endeavor to shape society in such a fashion to legitimize their
evil and extend to themselves the same rights that society should only
extend to worthy citizens. If allowed to live, they will seek to be educated.
If allowed to be educated, they will seek employment in key fields of
society and positions of public trust so as to enable them to promote their
evil and nasty agenda. They will become doctors, psychologists,
scientists, senators, congressmen, judges, etc. (Lee)
Our troupe is currently combining and deploying what youth development
scholars Ginwright and Cammarota call critical civic praxis and Sandoval and
Latorre call artivism. Such strategies provide productive ways for us to analyze,
share, and apply arts-based educational research and pedagogies. For
Ginwright, Cammarota, and Noguera critical civic praxis prompts marginalized
populations to collective action. Critical civic praxis combines: recognizing current
and potential political activism; awareness of socio-cultural inequities; a strong
sense of community; collective action; transformation of learners to educators;
and opportunities to imagine, design, and implement creative social justice-
oriented responses/interventions, into a strong roadmap for guiding collaborative
learning and activist work (Ginwright, Cammarota and Noguera). Big Gay Church
manifested, as we noted, the injustices perpetuated and the lingering
homophobic overtones in dominant cultural discourses that continued to
marginalize and oppress queers, and decided to try to do something about this.
Beginning with a small group, we envisioned a collective action within the
constraints of our academic field that could allow us to educate others using
creative arts-based methods for cultivating a more equitable educational and
cultural environment.
Sandoval and Latorre’s concept of artivism moves critical civic praxis into
the world of arts and visual culture. Sandoval and Latorre define artivism as a
hybrid of artistic production and activism that harnesses their potential symbiosis
for transformational purposes. Artivism offers what California Chicana artist, and
out lesbian, Judy Baca stresses are “unprecedented means” for marginalized
populations - youth, minorities, to represent themselves and tell their own stories
outside of mainstream and adult control (Sandoval and Latorre 86). Like critical
civic praxis, artivism enacts pedagogy that recognizes the “persisting exclusions”
of the arts and visual culture, yet builds on their “liberatory potential” and
collective cultural capital, emphasizing ways “creativity can be channeled,
augmented, and empowered” through “real-world and on-the-ground” arts-based
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
strategies (Sandoval and Latorre 84). In a sense, artivism is creative critical civic
praxis (Rhoades “LGBTQ youth + video artivism”).
For Big Gay Church, critical civic praxis allows us to interrogate
oppressive stereotypical institutional and interpersonal power dynamics. By
proposing Big Gay Church as a formal conference session through authorized
channels, we are challenging and circumventing traditional institutional and
disciplinary barriers to conversations and progress related to queer issues and
concerns in (art) education. We are attempting to work within the professional
organization in our field to disrupt the discriminatory dominant discourses and
silences we observe and encounter. We are attempting to do this through the use
of arts-based interactive methods. Artivism provides a framework for us to
present critical issues more creatively, through works of the imagination, to open
negative aspects of dominant queer cultural discourses to possibilities of change,
and to help others transform from marginalized victims into agents (Ginwright
and Cammarota; Sandoval and Latorre).
With Big Gay Church, we take an artivist approach on several fronts
simultaneously. Since schools and education often derail non-heterosexual
and/or gender queer identities and discourses, we make space for queer people
and voices in our professional organization for considering, and experiencing,
alternative perspectives, figuratively by being out and visible under the
institutional approval of the national association; literally by providing a time
during each service for congregants to speak - to tell their stories or just
announce their existence as queers (and/or allies). The subversive, queer, and
performative aspects of Big Gay Church position it as a collaborative experience
of artivism, where by merely attending with an open spirit, art educators are
participating in a creative intervention for activist aims; we want people to rethink
the predominantly negative relationships and interactions between conservative
Christianity and queers (see Figs. 15-17).
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Fig. 15 Invitation to the First Annual Big Gay Church in Baltimore
Fig. 16 Invitation to the Second Annual Big Gay Church in Seattle
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
Fig. 17 Invitation to the Fourth Annual Big Gay Church in Fort Worth
Simple creative collaborations, such as making colorful paper hats and
angel wings and banners for the impromptu Pride parade, sharing homemade
jams, and kazoo-filled processionals, foster fellowship through interaction,
communication, and collaboration, (see Fig. 18). Displaying these artifacts in
public conference spaces afterwards is a signal and record of our presence.
Where many churches make efforts to condemn, exclude, or “repair” queer folks,
we find ways to reimagine Big Gay Church as a place that recognizes the power
of diverse sexualities and gender identities, among multiple other differences.
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
Fig. 18 Big Gay Church attendees making banners for parade and display
In Big Gay Church, we do this in multiple ways. Sister Sanders’ slideshow
lectures provide documentation and critical consideration of the contributions of
queer artists to religion and culture and of religion on queer artists, arts, and
culture. In early years, Sister Sanders acknowledged classic queer masters of
religious (and homoerotic) art including Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio
up through more modern artists like Andy Warhol. Sister Sanders also provided
an in-depth exploration of the Catholic League’s ability to bully the U.S. National
Portrait Gallery into censoring the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in
American Portraiture,” the first to “examine homosexual identity in 19th and 20th-
century American art” under the imprimatur and blessing of the Smithsonian
Institution (Knight). The Catholic League specifically objected to David
Wojnarowicz’s video condemning the lack of institutional and governmental
responses in the early years of the AIDS crisis, ostensibly because it uses the
crucifix covered in ants as a symbol for Christian apathy (Knight).
Knight argues that the successful censorship campaign is simply anti-gay
bullying under the guise of religious doctrine. Sister Sanders was able to
augment an academic lecture based on extensive research with personal
anecdotes and observations from attending the exhibit. Parishioners leave with a
more informed perspective of the current intersections and tensions between
queerness, dominant cultural discourses, the contemporary art world, and the
influence of conservative religious dogma.
Another way we consistently foreground queerness in Big Gay Church is
through troupe members performing gender and sexuality as more fluid and
queer than fixed and binary. Miss Jeanette has appeared alternatively in a suit
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
and tie to tell personal stories about gender, sexuality, and an evangelical
Christian upbringing. Sister Sanders is a campy drag persona; Hermana Harry a
more ghostly and ephemeral being. Brother Love presents as visibly female. The
Reverend and Deacon exist in an ambiguous gender space, professionally and
performatively. Nothing fits traditional expectations in any neat and tidy ways.
Collectively, we recognize and value those possibilities and multiplicities in
ourselves and in one another, honoring the vitality these differences, and this
fluidity, can bring. As some churches continue to make efforts to condemn,
exclude, or “repair” queer folks, we strive to find ways to turn Big Gay Church into
a place that recognizes and celebrates diverse sexualities and gender identities.
Since these conservative religious discourses also impact public policy and the
civil rights of queer people, we must find ways to use our pulpit to move queer
people and allies to interrupt the status quo and work toward a more just world
outside the walls of a convention center.
Big Gay Church and performance pedagogy/studies
Once [gays] attain key positions, they will seek to remove all stigma
against homosexuality and seek to redefine, reeducate (deceive) and
reshape society to accept their depravity. (Lee)
Big Gay Church is both performance and pedagogy. During services, we
become what McLaren calls the “researcher-as-performer,” engaging fully in the
political, kinetic, destructive, and transcendental aspects of presenting/
performing/creating. Our Right Reverend is really a reverend, our “nun” is our
sister, Miss Jeanette is teaching us moral lessons and providing us with shining
LGBTQ angels and saints to watch over and lead us.
We interrupt the regularly scheduled program, using performance and its
liminal spaces for encountering culture, politics, and education (Garoain and
Gaudelius). We are queering and re-purposing the academy as a vital site for
resistance and autonomy, a place for collective participatory action by critical
citizens acting in concert. Through the performative, we hope to facilitate
connections that participants make between the personal and the pedagogical
(Giroux). What can we learn from ourselves?
We have some evidence this is happening. Comments submitted by one
of our Big Gay Church parishioners explains:
Big Gay Church is a rare instance of genuine community in our home
discipline of art education. In attending these sessions . . .OK! Services . .
. We are no longer colleagues. We are people who come together to
speak, listen, learn and commune with one another toward a higher
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
cause. We are there to remind ourselves of the true meaning of social
justice, of care and belonging as bell hooks defines it, which is palpable in
the narratives that suffuse the air. I feel relieved and relaxed in the “pews”
of Big Gay Church. When my eyes meet those of other “parishioners,” I
sense what it means to be a part of a genuine community pushing for
something bigger and better than ourselves. (Cate, parishioner)
Embracing critical performance pedagogies as research, teaching, and learning
paradigms emphasizes their potential educational, political, cultural, and societal
benefits (Denzin “Critical Performance”). For Conquergood, “[p]erformance is a
way of knowing, a way of showing, a way of interpreting and a method for
building shared understanding. Performance is immediate, partial, always
incomplete and always processual” (qtd. in Denzin “Critical Performance” 29).
Big Gay Church is not a place, it is a collective and co-constructed experience
and fellowship that happens in the present - in the immediate moment, during an
annual conference. But it does not end there. It extends beyond that moment.
People continue to process their experience(s), sometimes using our offerings,
the trading cards or other talismans from Big Gay Church services, as
touchstones for personal remembering and reflecting.
For us as the leaders, Big Gay Church requires rigorous individual and
collaborative research and preparation for the academic portions of each service
and to contextualize and theorize this work. It also requires us, as presenters/
performers, to model “a communitarian dialogical ethic of care and responsibility”
where everyone treats “persons and their cares and concerns with dignity and
respect” (Denzin “Politics” 133). We invite people to share their own stories and
concerns, to seek and offer support, much as we share our stories and concerns
and support one another throughout the year. We provide possibilities for
We also deliberately use performance-based pedagogies to construct
what Denzin calls a “civic, participatory and collaborative project” where
“members of the community, as cultural workers and co-performers in theatres of
resistance, create empowering performance texts and performance events”
(“Critical Performance” 263). We want Big Gay Church to be an example of a
“radical democratic pedagogy [that] requires [people] committed to taking risks;
persons willing to act in situations where the outcome cannot be predicted in
advance” and who recognize that “in these pedagogical spaces there are not
leaders and followers; there are only co-participants, persons jointly working
together to develop new lines of action, new stories, new narratives in a
collaborative effort” (Bishop 207). Again, feedback from parishioners provides
some assurances this is happening:
Big Gay Church is about encountering, exploring, and celebrating the vast
spectrum of subjectivities that comprise our human species. It’s so
important to have spaces in this world where people can encounter
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
complexity - especially those differences, complexities, and contradictions
that make up any one person. Big Gay Church is about showing up and
being present in the world, in all its splendor and heartbreak. Big Gay
Church is where you witness the fragility and strength of people and learn
that art education can be so much more than we currently
imagine/experience it to be. I go to Big Gay Church to be inspired,
energized, and fortified by love and acceptance. (Violet, parishioner)
According to Conquergood (“Moral Act”) such critical, risk-taking citizen-
scholars must also possess the “energy, imagination, courage, and commitment
to create” new, more liberating texts and discourses (10). Big Gay Church takes
risks by inviting the personal and emotional and relational into a place primarily
designated as rational, academic, and reserved. Critical performance pedagogies
require criticism and action. We are modeling this. We are enacting this
intervention; we are writing and publishing about it. Our congregation members
are experiencing our scholarship directly, not reading about it. We offer a more
loving approach to creating these new discourses. A regular Big Gay Church
congregant remarks:
What sticks with me is the love fest it feels like, and such kinds of
occurrences feel few and far between at conferences so I am most
grateful for [Big Gay Church]. Although you make a direct plea/action call
for social change through creating a new church construct, the feeling at
the meetings is joyful and celebratory, liberating. (Kiki, parishioner)
Big Gay Church, following Denzin’s advice, uses performative pedagogies
to embrace queer studies, transforming a traditional academic conference
session into a “sacred aesthetic place” and time (“Politics” 133). It provides “a
way of acting on the world in order to change it” (Denzin “Critical Performance”
267). Big Gay Church is a site of intervention, struggle, and “transgressive
achievement” (Conquergood “Beyond the Text” 32). It is a “concrete situation …
being transformed through acts of resistance” (Denzin “Politics” 135). This
resistance occurs simultaneously in multiple ways (as in Brechtian theatre):
The performance becomes the vehicle for moving persons, subjects,
performers and audience members, into new, critical, political spaces. The
performance gives the audience, and the performers, “equipment for [this]
journey: empathy and intellect, passion and critique.” (Denzin “Critical
Performance” 265)
The relative absence of spaces and times for these kinds of experiences in
professional academic settings is profound. Accordingly, providing one has led to
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
profound outcomes for a conference session, too. A classroom art teacher and
annual Big Gay Church attendee confesses:
I feel confident in saying [the Seattle service] was life changing for me.
[The] sermon on Forgiveness really hit home…I wasn’t expecting to be
touched so deeply, but [the] sermon and the “FORGIVEN” cards [the
Reverend] passed out made me think about my life and how self-
empowering it is to forgive. I have kept one in my wallet and one on the
fridge since that day to constantly remind myself (although not easy) to
FORGIVE. (Tasha, parishioner)
Big Gay Church exists in a hyperactive, open-ended intersection of
performance as imagination and action. As performers, we embody characters
who traditionally experience exclusion and punishment as queer people with
regards to conservative religions. In our performance, we not only imagine what it
might be like if these stereotypes were false, but we become these characters
rendering, albeit temporarily, an embodied re-vision. The audience becomes a
supportive congregation, co-participatory members in a collaborative
performance (Denzin “Politics”). We reclaim concepts like church, family, love,
and Christianity from hate-based religious doctrines and practices. Where “the
performative and the political intersect on the terrain of a praxis-based ethic,” we
use performance pedagogy to “embody love, hope, care, and compassion,”
portraying a more progressive possibility, attempting to use Big Gay Church “to
change the world” (Denzin “Politics” 129) by starting in the field we already
inhabit. A regularly attending member of the congregation suggests we are
already doing this:
The performative nature of Big Gay Church means that content and form
of the service will interact to spark new ways of thinking about the issues.
And, after a service, I’ve experienced thought-provoking dialogues and
realizations that linger long after the conference. Big Gay Church is
socially engaged arts practice at its finest. (Violet, parishioner)
We want this conference session to be meaningful in terms of its content, its
emotional impact, and its use of the arts to deliver both.
We are the change
Big Gay Church stakes a territory within the academy, in art education, in
our national organization and annual conference, and now in the scholarly
record. We have laid a counter-claim to church and religion, challenging its
overwhelming negative history with respect to queer people, forming our own
Finding Big Gay Church: An Academic Congregation Exploring LGBTQ Intersections with Religion, Art,
and Education
flock. We seek to critically confront conservative Christian church doctrines, their
positioning and treatment of LGBTQ people, and the overwhelming influence
their beliefs have on cultural beliefs, acceptable behavior, and public policy. We
force a confrontation between our learned beliefs and identities, our occupations
and our culture. We confront tough questions, asking: How has church shaped
us? How can we (re)shape it? How does/can recognizing, accepting, and
supporting queer people, culture, values, presence, and contributions to the
church change church? Change queer people? Change our political, educational,
and sociocultural climate? We interrogate the ways conservative Christian
churches and queer people impact each other and aim to explore analyses and
possible revisions to these relationships. We have the power to redraw the
boundaries, make contact, build bridges, connect. Big Gay Church shows there
are ways to hold such seeming contradictions in tension, to forgo resolution for
exploration, rejection for consideration of possibilities, of what was and what
might be.
Fig. 19 Big Gay Church group photo with congregants wearing handmade hats
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal/Volume 1, Issue 1
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