Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights

Interview by David K. Johnson

Historians who study sexuality in the 20th century United States have largely worked from the premise that secular forces shaped the formation of sexual identities, communities and regulation. Religion, in this paradigm, is framed as a residual and conservative force—the province of the fanatical and the ignorant. Historians who have adopted this paradigm have ignored or misunderstood the critical and diverse role of religious ideas, practices and institutions to the modern history of sexuality in general and LGBTQ history in particular. Heather R. White‘s Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights breaks new ground by revising our assumptions about LGBT history and its complex relationship to American religions.


With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, White argues that today’s antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate “cure” for homosexuality. White traces how the therapeutic model shifted in the post-World War II period and led mainline church leaders to challenge rampant antigay discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy advocated for homosexual rights even as continued religious support was essential to an emergent gay and lesbian movement. Because it challenges the assumed secularization narrative at the center of LGBT history by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants’ role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity, Reforming Sodom is essential reading for historians of sexuality.

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Would you mind if Neil Bartlett asked you a few personal questions about sex?

Ania Ostrowska 

The Institute of Sexology exhibition ran at the Wellcome Collection in London from November 2014 to September 2015. This was the first major event of its kind in the UK investigating the history of sexology. It was also the first exhibition the Wellcome Collection held in its newly refurbished building on Euston Road, and at nearly a year long, it was the Collections’s longest exhibition to date. In her Notches review in April 2015, Heike Bauer noted that as visitors were exiting the exhibition, they were “confronted with an invitation to record their own thoughts and ideas, thus contributing to an ever-expanding archive of sexuality.” That invitation came from artist, theatre director and author Neil Bartlett in his Wellcome Collection commission “Excuse me, would you mind if I asked you a few personal questions about sex?” (often shortened to “Would you mind?”), that coincided with the last six months of the exhibition. All completed questionnaires have been catalogued and are available to researchers in the Wellcome Library: 135 archive boxes challenging them to do sexology differently.

Neil Bartlett’s WOULD YOU MIND? Questionnaire, 2015. (Image: Wellcome Images, copyright: Neil Bartlett)

Neil Bartlett’s WOULD YOU MIND? Questionnaire, 2015. (Image: Wellcome Images, copyright: Neil Bartlett)

As Bartlett said in an interview, “people love to talk about sex if you give them the chance.” As the exhibition ended in September 2015, we had about 19,280 completed surveys.Following the work by the Wellcome Collection Visitor Experience Assistants, who not only read most of the questionnaires but also packaged them neatly into acid-free archive folders, I catalogued this new archive collection.

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“The Church Fathers Really Squirmed”: Contesting Heteronorms in motive Magazine, 1962-1972

Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook

In early 1972, the final two issues of motive magazine (1941-1972) appeared in print. The “lesbian/feminist” issue and “Gay Men’s Liberation and last issue” of motive were prepared by two editorial collectives under the umbrella of MOTIVE, Inc. Many of the collective members were veterans of the publication from its thirty-year run as the official publication of both the denominational Methodist Student Movement (MSM) and, briefly, the ecumenical University Christian Movement (UCM).

Why were the final two issues of motive published independent of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the UCM? The editors of the “lesbian/feminist” issue of motive took a clear stance in print on what had led to the split and who was to blame. In a page-one editorial titled, “Motive Comes Out!”, collective members Joan E. Biren, Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, and Coletta Reid wrote:

Throughout Motive’s [sic] history, radical dissension within limits was tolerated with a few slaps on the wrist, but the church fathers really squirmed when the special issue on women appeared in March-April 1969. … [T]he church began to reduce its support for Motive and Motive decided it could no longer function under the church. Motive could not survive without church money so the staff and editorial board decided to close up shop — using the remaining resources of the magazine to put out one final gay issue.

Rhetorically situating the post-Methodist motive as “coming out” from underneath the oppressive authority of the “church fathers,” the “lesbian/feminist” issue’s editors, collectively known as The Furies, saw both the institutional church and “the whole male supremacist system” as resistant to radical, feminist change.


motive Magazine (March 1972).

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Lesbian Histories and Futures: A Dispatch From “Gay American History @ 40”

Rachel Hope Cleves

The fortieth-anniversary celebration of Jonathan Ned Katz’s classic document collection Gay American History convened Wednesday evening, May 4, at John Jay College in New York City, with a panel on lesbian history. Cheryl Clarke presided over comments by Caroll Smith-Rosenberg and Claire Potter to an audience that included many founders in the field including Esther Newton and Blanche Wiesen Cook. The presentations combined the personal and the historical, detailing the lesbian-feminist milieu of the 1970s that gave rise to their scholarship. The panelists’ memories of passionate sexual awakenings and agonized intellectual arguments elicited laughs of recognition and groans of commiseration. Finally, the session opened to questions from the audience. One of the first came from Jen Manion, who rose to ask, how do you define lesbian?

It wasn’t the first time this question has been asked and answered.

In fact, Smith-Rosenberg first addressed the question more than forty years ago, before the publication of Katz’s volume, in her classic 1975 article “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” And yet, despite the oceans of ink that have been spilled in answering this koan – including the works of many authors who were in attendance – Manion’s question provoked passionate, and often painful, disagreement. That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.


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Close Your Eyes and Think of Yorkshire? Working-class Women and Sexuality in Early Twentieth-Century Yorkshire

Claire Martin

When she was ten years old, May Owen (b. 1895) moved with her family to a small mining village near Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. In an autobiographical letter she wrote some seventy years later, she still vividly remembered her initial shock at a particular custom in the community: “If a woman misbehaved herself,” she wrote, “the colliers used to perform a certain act. They would take a large barrow, build an effigy of the woman and wheel it round the parish, and stones and mud would be thrown.” 

Leeds Mill Girls, 1890,

Leeds Mill Girls, 1890 (Image via Leodis: A Photographic Archive of Leeds).

I believe this account fits well with what most people imagine sex and gender relations to have been like in Yorkshire in the early twentieth century. Within popular imagination, Yorkshire working-class culture, with its industrial history and its mining and steel workers’ communities, conjures an image of sexual conservatism and gender antagonism. While this image may correspond to reality in some parts of Yorkshire at the time, this generalisation also obscures a great deal of variation in experiences and behaviours. Helen Smith’s recent book on same-sex desire between working-class men in the north of England in the first half of the twentieth century provides a much needed antidote to these kinds of generalising assumptions. As Smith also explained in a NOTCHES post, work, region, and class defined working-class masculinity in a way that was not incompatible with casual sex with other men.

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