‘Sex and the Seminary’ Lecture: Could Yale missionary movement have blunted drive for same-sex unions in Hawaii?

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

Almost two centuries after the first missionary ship set sail out of New Haven harbor bound for Hawaii, the Hawaiian mission movement, with its strong Yale ties, cropped up as a critial point in a lecture at Yale Divinity School about sexuality and colonialism.

The lecture, held Oct. 6 in the Common Room, was the latest in the Divinity School’s ongoing lecture series “Sex and the Seminary.” Delivering the lecture was Kathleen M. Sands, Graduate Chair in the Department of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, who entitled her talk “On a Mission: Sexuality and Colonialism, From Yale to Hawaii and Back.”

Sands weaved personal history and academic analysis together as she explored the implications of the struggle for same-sex relationship recognition when those struggles take place in contexts affected by colonialism, racism, and economic disparities.

Before moving to the University of Hawaii (at Manoa), Sands taught at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where she directed the Religious Studies program and was jointly appointed in American Studies and Women’s Studies. In Boston, Sands met Linda Krieger, her future wife, and shortly after being married the two moved to Hawaii. Krieger also teaches at Hawaii as professor of law. Together, Sands and Krieger became involved in the state’s push to legalize same-sex unions.

As the campaign for legalization moved ahead, the role religion was playing in the debate soon became apparent, according to Sands. During the 2010 consideration of a civil unions bill, the Hawaii House and Senate both passed the bill, only to have it vetoed by then-Governor Linda Lingle. “What beat us was the evangelical mega-churches,” Sands recounted.

Although aggressive protest campaigns by the mega-churches were a major problem, another problem for proponents of the bill was demographics: the majority of advocates for same-sex unions were whites—and whites only make up 20 percent of the Hawaiian population, which is overwhelmingly indigenous Hawaiians. Sands insisted that a better effort towards building alliances between GLBTQ advocates and the native Hawaiians must become a priority.

Hawaii was first integrated into the United States during the time of Manifest Destiny, when American expansion was held to be an inevitable justification by God. Under the ‘discovery doctrine’ of the early 19th century, the Hawaiian people became Christians on the assumption that they would be exempt from colonization. They were wrong. American colonizers seized social, political, and religious control of the native people. This colonization also affected the sexual lives of the Hawaiians, according to Sands. Before their “conversion,” the sexual ethos of the native peoples was quite diverse, and there was a place for gay and lesbian sexual expression. But all such expressions were quickly silenced or closeted following colonization.

Given the coercive colonial history of a place that was first “converted” by missionaries from Yale, Sands was quick to point out that much of the resistance to her promotion of same-sex unions may have been because she seemed like “another missionary from New England.” (Sands earned an M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. from Boston College.) In this context, she noted, native Hawaiians may have good reason to be suspicious of a proposal made primarily by whites. But that suspicion, she argued, in no way legitimized the way evangelical mega-churches fed on this resentment and directed it against GLBTQ civil rights— instead of directing criticism against the roots of oppression found within colonialist Christianity itself.

In moments of defeat, Sands admitted that a separationist framework—which separates out all religious influence on the political sphere—can look appealing. But such a framework is ultimately problematic, she insisted, because religion is often the main source of empowerment for the oppressed and disenfranchised. “Rather than arguing that religion has no place in public life,” said Sands, “I’m going to continue to argue that different views of marriage, like different view of religion, should be respected and tolerated, and that our government should be neutral about that.”

During a question-and-answer session, questions were raised about what Christians can do to advance the civil rights and acceptance of LGBTQ peoples. Sands insisted on making homosexuality and lesbianism an acceptable norm “because for LGBT kids and teens being normal is literally often a matter of life and death.”

In response to the question “How do Christians reclaim the argument for the religious side,” Sands responded that Christians have to be willing to take on the question of authority within oppressive aspects of Scripture and church traditions.

Earlier this year, Hawaii’s same-sex union bill was modified and, having passed through the Hawaii House and Senate, was signed into law by current Governor Neil Abercrombie. The bill will take effect January 1, 2012; but despite the legal recognition of unions, same-sex marriage is still banned in the state.

Sands’s lecture was sponsored by Yale Divinity’s Ministerial Studies Committee, along with the Alumni Relations Office, the YDS Coalition, and the YDS Women’s Center.

Posted: 11/06/2011