By Jo Henderson-Merrygold
Sometimes it can take viewing things from a different perspective to be able to see them more clearly, so it seems rather apt that thoughts are cohering while I’m on the other side of the world to normal. These days I’m usually based at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield where, after four fantastic years doing Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, I now spend my time working on a PhD in Biblical Studies. However, for four weeks I’m working at the University of Auckland to help them launch a student-focused project called Hidden Perspectives NZ (site currently under development), and which carries the tagline, Bringing the arts out of the closet. It’s the sister project to this Hidden Perspectives project which I co-direct in Sheffield but has a slightly different focus. Hidden Perspectives in Sheffield is a research-centred programme which explores ways to bring the Bible out of the closet and presents thought-provoking and inciteful work challenging dominant ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality as seen in and through the Bible. The Auckland Hidden Perspectives NZ is much more designed to offer safe spaces for Rainbow (LGBT+) students, and returns the academic work so much associated with the project in Sheffield to lived experience here in Auckland.
As I remind myself, and the students I teach, the kind of research I do (and which is showcased by Hidden Perspectives) is only relevant when it reaches beyond the pages of text to personal experience, and/or belief in the case of the theological. It is not, as posited to me at an academic conference at which I presented, a joke. My research may be fun for me, but its purpose is deeply serious: to change the way we see (biblical) stories in order to see how norms of gender, sex, and sexuality can be challenged. So, if that’s always been the aim – both for Hidden Perspectives and within my own work – what is it that I’m seeing differently?
One of the important things about much of the Hidden Perspectives research is that it poses a threat to those who continue to use the Bible and (cultural) religiosity as a source for their justification of cissexism, heterosexism, and traditional (as well as oppositional) sexism (see Julia Serano‘s fantastic glossary for definitions for these terms). It is no longer fair – and was arguably never accurate – to say that these are predominantly found within religious contexts. Instead it is important to look at how the Christian cultural capital and societal biblical literacy extend far beyond those faith communities, especially in Anglophone and Americo-European contexts. With that in mind it is only now I’m embarking on the work with Hidden Perspectives NZ that I’m realising quite how important it is that the Auckland project has emerged from a Biblical one. The justification of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny definitely has roots in those biblical and religious discourses, but they are far from confined to communities of faith. And, despite protestations from the Pope, and from bishops in the Church of England, faith communities are also working to challenge and confront these damaging behaviours. Yet it is precisely the effects of those damaging behaviours which is what strikes me as I sit in sunny Auckland recovering from my jetlag.
The need for safe spaces, such as the one being created through Hidden Perspectives New Zealand is essential – not just because of the rise of hate crimes and the politics of fear – but because, to quote Stonewall, there is still work to be done. This is in all contexts, but let’s look for a moment at the Christian ones so much in the media this week. Making international news was the contentious vote and discussion about the future of Rainbow – to use the preferred terminology in NZ – (LGBT+) people in the Church of England: the status quo is not good enough says the synod, in rejection of the argument proposed by the bishops. On a far smaller scale I discovered just before leaving the UK that the chapel I attended as a child will soon be independent; the decision to leave its denomination motivated by a rejection of a move to enable same-sex marriages in (some) churches. So when I encountered the neighbourhood church in Auckland displaying a small sticker on its noticeboard making its inclusion explicit, it is eye-catching and greatly appreciated.
This isn’t just a case of opening the door and hoping people will trust they’ll find safety inside. It is far more than that. It is an acknowledgement that identifiable safe spaces are needed, because there are too many places that just aren’t safe (even if they’d like to think they are). It is visible and political. It is an important act of representation, and an act of resistance against doctrine, politics, or even just the perceptions which suggest otherwise. That is exactly what I hope Hidden Perspectives will be for students at the University of Auckland: an open, safe space; one which holds potential for exciting opportunities but most importantly somewhere they can be confident to come and be themselves.
Jo Henderson-Merrygold is visiting the University of Auckland to support the launch of our sister project Hidden Perspectives New Zealand. Her Researcher Employability Project trip is funded by WRoCAH. You can keep up with her visit by following her on Twitter and checking out the Hidden Perspectives NZ’s instagram.