Visibility Project Celebrates Its Second Year, Clarifies Intentions

Ethan Ehrenhaft-

For the entirety of last week, the Union Atrium played host to a display of pictures of community members, each accompanied by a short quote. The display was the work of the Visibility Project, a club officially chartered this semester and dedicated to “shed[ding] light on the intersection of religious faith and LGBTQ+ identity” on campus.

The Visibility Project began in 2016 as a collaborative effort between Julia Burkley ‘18 and Christine Choi ‘17. “They felt that there’s a dominant narrative in our culture that religion and being queer can’t go together and that they are necessarily antagonistic to each other. They felt that their perspective, in which that wasn’t the case, was kind of invisible,” explained Davidson College Chaplain Rob Spach ‘84, who put the two founders in touch.

“Within 30 minutes of talking we had this entire project planned,” said Burkley. The photo display, which first took place last school year, became one of the initial ideas to showcase both queer and ally religious stories. After reaching out to the Davidson community, over 100 individuals from most major faith groups volunteered to have their pictures taken and share their experiences.

Pictures from the first project and new submissions were combined for last week’s display. “The purpose of that project was to show that there is support for the queer community within the religious community,” said Grace Cain ‘20, who is now a co-leader of the Visibility Project along with Ikra Javed ‘18 and Nick Johnson ‘19.

Burkley passed leadership of the initiative to the three during a meeting last year. “As a straight woman, I don’t think it was my space anymore,” reflected Burkley. “I think I was able to help start this space, but a lot of the critique of the Visibility Project is that it’s straight people standing up for queer bodies and not letting queer bodies speak for themselves. That’s not the case.”

Until becoming an official club this fall, the Visibility Project was funded solely by the Chaplain’s Office. “One of my hopes has been to be supportive and very clearly indicate that [the Chaplain’s Office] affirms and appreciates the queer community,” expressed Spach. The club has sought to grow this semester in ways beyond the temporary photo display around which it was founded.

“I’ve gotten a lot of confusion about how I as a queer person can be advocating for religion,” explained Cain, who also serves on the Executive Board of Queers & Allies (Q&A) along with co-leading the Visibility Project. She continued, “For me at least, the main point of this project is to make sure that if there are queer people who are religious, they have a space where they feel comfortable and they feel welcome, and that’s my primary goal.”

The creation of the Visibility Project has come at a time when both the country and the school are evolving rapidly on LGBTQ+ issues. “When I first came, there was a support group for LGBTQ students, but it was pretty small. There weren’t very many students who were out and there were hardly any faculty or staff who were out either,” said Spach, who began work as Chaplain in 1993.

“GSS [Gender & Sexuality Studies] has only been a program for five years, which in the scheme of academia is pretty late for a college to have a gender and sexuality studies program,” stated Dr. Katie Horowitz, a GSS professor. “There’s been a real change in terms of visibility of LGBT students and promotion of issues of racial and class diversity; there’s more of a conversation about these things happening than there was within students’ lifetimes.”

That change in the LGBTQ+ scene has been coupled with changes in Davidson’s religious demographics, according to data compiled by the Chaplain’s Office. At the start of the 1997-98 school year, 21.9% of the student body identified as Presbyterian. Only 16 individuals identified as Jewish and 11 as Muslim. At the start of fall 2017 semester, the percentage of self-identified Presbyterians had dropped to 8.9%. The school also now has over 26 students identifying as Muslim and 102 students identifying as Jewish.

The Visibility Project hopes to give LGBTQ+ and ally students a space to express themselves religiously amidst the increasing diversity. The two photo displays have each been accompanied by a “talkback session” to allow the public to ask questions and discuss the project.

Last year’s talkback raised tensions that some community members have with the project.

Arianna Montero-Colbert ‘18, who attended the inaugural forum, described how LGBTQ+ persons shared their troubled relationships between religion and their sexualities with the room. These stories were then followed up by some other individuals expressing a “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, which did not make for a productive environment in her eyes.

“Being an ally of the queer community requires introspection about the ways that the spaces you host and benefit from are anti-queer and creating actual steps to work on it,” explained Montero-Colbert, continuing, “If you consider yourself an LGBTQAI ally of faith, you should be constantly thinking about how queer people are excluded from the spiritual enrichment you get at your places of worship and community.”

Montero-Colbert hopes the Visibility Project can also move beyond issues of visibility itself as well. “Visibility for queer people is something that they had been fighting for before gay marriage. There’s an issue in the construction of it as visibility being an end goal because that’s not the end goal a lot of people on this campus are fighting for,” said Montero-Colbert.

“I think the next big task for the Visibility Project, which I think they’re well aware of, is moving beyond just visibility to actually taking active steps to making religious spaces on campus more welcoming to queer folks who have felt so very unwelcome in religious spaces up till now,” said Horowitz.

The Visibility Project leaders welcome any criticism or feedback on their work. “If anyone has any questions, comments, hesitancies, or issues we really want to hear them because we want to improve as an organization,” Javed stated.

“Growing up queer in that small southern town environment, it was so great to feel there’s this divine being who loves and cares and supports me, even when other people don’t,” explained Cain, who described her hometown as having “more churches than restaurants.”

“I saw this beautiful, wonderful, life-changing message getting warped into something that causes so much harm and so much pain to people that I so deeply care about. I just hated somebody using my God and my religion to oppress the people that I love and the person that I am,” Cain continued.

On October 18th and 25th, the Visibility Project put on two “Faithful Pride” bible study sessions. The two meetings were lead by Spach and Episcopal Campus Minister Greg McIntyre and “gave synopsis of the parts of the Bible that have traditionally been used to suggest that queer people should not be welcome in the church,” according to Cain.

The Visibility Project wanted Faithful Pride to be “a discussion of how you can be pro-LGBT+ with a scriptural basis,” explained Javed.

“I will get pushback from students who feel that my position of being affirming of the queer community is biblically wrong, and I understand students can hold that position in a way that’s thoughtful. I just disagree with them in terms of interpretation of scripture,” stated Spach.

“I think the Visibility Project is an active statement made against the greater narrative that to be of faith and queer are mutually exclusive,” commented Q&A President Tai Tran ‘18, who wrote a letter of support when the Visibility Project was seeking its club charter.

Tran continued, “There has been a long history where people of a certain faith claim, in the name of their God, that queer people are to be ‘cured,’ ‘delivered,’ or encouraged to ‘repent’ from their sexuality or gender identity. Their practice is so unlike their scripture, making them unlike the God they so worship. The Visibility Project shows with clear faces and captions that although there is that hurtful history, it does not need to be that way, or stay that way.”

“I am not both religious and queer, but I am a religious queer,” Cain said in a speech at this year’s talkback. “…I think we have to acknowledge the hurt and pain [of religion], but I think we can acknowledge it doesn’t have to be like that.”