Recently, The Institute for Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia hosted a research symposium with the theme, “Feminist Research Across the Disciplines.” I had the opportunity to present a narrative account of my own intersection of identities. Because the essay addresses a number of questions and topics relevant to this blog, I wanted to share an excerpt from it for interested readers. Click here to read the complete essay.

I gave a similarly-themed paper at another conference a few months ago, and in each case, I was thrilled with the great and thoughtful comments and questions from audience members. I am convinced that people are eager to hear affirming words about how it’s possible to co-exist at these ostensibly paradoxical levels of identity, and that is part of what makes me so excited to be a part of this movement.

Christian, Gay, and Feminist: A Feminist Research Axiology Across Identities

Welcome to my story. My hope is that by the end of this essay, you will have an understanding for who I am and what I value as a scholar. My inspiration for this essay is three-pronged. The first two prongs are panels from the thirty-first meeting of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender in Nashville, Tennessee. One panel focused on narratives; the panelists functioned as small group conveners and shared their own narratives and then invited everyone else to begin crafting a narrative (Defenbaugh, Tigerlily, O’Neill, & MacDonald, 2008). The themes and dynamics of my own narrative resonated within me throughout the conference, and then I found myself at another panel, the Vice President’s panel on feminist paradoxes (Kirby, 2008). Again arranged in small groups, we talked about how we navigate those moments in our lives when our feminist consciousnesses clash with other important values. In my small group, most of the participants identified religion or spirituality as their paradox. The question was asked by different voices using different words, but at its base, the issue was this: are faith and feminism compatible?

As I traveled home from the conference, these two influential panels merged in my mind, and the thought of their combined influence would not let me go. Somewhere at the overlap of knowing that narratives are powerful and thinking about the feminist paradoxes in my life, I knew I had a story to offer, a story that explains who I am, what I value, and why I do the work I do as a communication scholar. The two panels are the main reasons why I write this narrative; the third reason I want to tell my story is the very existence of the paradox. I am a Christian. I am a gay man. I am a feminist. So often in my life, I find that people are surprised by that combination. It seems unlikely—even impossible—that someone could identify with all three of those statements, and yet my life and my research is (I hope) a living embodiment of all three. I do not see my sexuality, spirituality, and feminism as contradictions of each other. Alternatively, I see them as mutual fulfillments of one another.

My thesis is that I can simultaneously affirm my identities as a Christian, a gay man, and a feminist because each of those parts of my identity is fundamentally emancipatory. My axiology is one that affirms human dignity as a central value. In my personal life and my professional work as a communication scholar, I believe in advancing human dignity and disrupting oppression. Those values are central to my life, and they are located at the nexus of my ostensibly paradoxical Christian, gay, and feminist identities. In the paragraphs that follow, I share my narrative and thus explain my axiology, dismantling each apparent paradox along the way.

Christianity and feminism

I begin with Christianity and feminism because the perceived incompatibility of these two central parts of my identity haunted several people in the small group of which I was a part at the conference. One scholar talked about the conservative church where she grew up; she remembered hearing feminism condemned. Another scholar said she often felt a contradiction between her faith as a Roman Catholic and her views as a feminist. She was unsure how to reconcile those parts of her being.

I appreciated the openness and honesty of my feminist colleagues around that circle, and I was grateful to be a part of a faith tradition that affirms both the primacy of scripture and the equality of women and men as an intention of creation. I first figured out I was a feminist because of my faith. I was at a church retreat, and I met a wonderfully gifted pastor. I was amazed by this pastor’s knowledge and ability to relate scripture to people’s lives in such personal and relevant ways. This pastor was unlike any I had met before. I was profoundly hurt when I learned that she had faced discrimination; that some congregations were unreceptive of her simply because of her gender. I felt the unfairness of it in the depths of my soul. It hurt me that this profoundly gifted pastor faced challenges that her colleagues who were men would never have to face. Though I may not have known the word feminism, I became a feminist that day because I acknowledged male privilege, identified a source and consequence of sexism, and began looking for ways to disrupt patriarchal oppression. Read more..

Leland Spencer

Leland G. Spencer IV, a lifelong United Methodist, holds a PhD in communication studies from the University of Georgia, where he teaches classes in communication and women's studies. Leland holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Cincinnati (2009). While in Cincinnati, Leland served as the worship intern at the Wesley Foundation. Leland is a 2007 graduate of Mount Union College, a United Methodist-related school in Alliance, Ohio. Leland served as a part-time local pastor at Mapleton United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference from 2005 until 2007 when Leland withdrew from the candidacy process because of the United Methodist Church's exclusive position about the ordination of LGB persons.
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