The annual Gilberto Castaneda Lecture at the Chicago Theological Seminary was held Thursday, marking its sixteenth year and the first to be at the seminary’s new location at 1407 E. 60th St. in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the city’s South Side. This year’s lecture was given by Dr. Patrick Cheng, assistant professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Episcopal Divinity School.
Cheng’s lecture was entitled Triangles and Rainbows: Constructing a Queer of Color Theology.
The purpose of the lecture series, other than to give a platform to local influential theological thinkers, is to acknowledge the ongoing presence in the Chicago Theological Seminary of the ever changing, and often debated, terms under LGBTQ, according to Ken Stone, professor at CTS.
The marginalization of queer bodies of color was part of Cheng’s criticisms not just of theology but of LGBTQ politics in America. Of the “Power 50” most influential LGBT people (or as Cheng pointed out “lesbian and gay” people) in Out Magazine last year, only two were people of color. Anthony Ramero of the ACLU and Perez Hilton, a syndicated gossip columnist.
“My own lived experience has been very different than the demographics of the Power 50,” Cheng said, who draws from his experience as a queer grassroots activist.
Cheng questioned what he called monochromatic theology, something he feels is entrenched not only in theological thinking, but is ingrained in the social and political culture of America. Pop culture figures like Lady GaGa and Dan Savage reinforce ideas of static identity categories (“Born this Way”) and linear narratives of Western progress (“It Gets Better”).
As it relates to theology, this slant has some visual consequences. Cheng pointed to Christology, or the study of the person of Jesus Christ, and the way that representations of Christ reinforce notions of whiteness and queerness being connected and eschewing queer representations of a Christ of color.
“Sexuality is raced and race is sexualized,” Cheng said. “Images are really powerful things.”
This erasure of queer people of color has political implications, according to Cheng.
“There is this myth that all LGBT people are white and all people of color are straight and we know this is not true,” he said. “But this is something the religious right really tries regularly to exploit in the marriage equality movement.”
Images of a rally to oppose marriage equality sponsored by New York Sen. Ruben Diaz were shown and critiqued as a photo opportunity that was meant to exploit this myth and politically divide people, Cheng explained.
Recently, documents of the Nation Organization on Marriage, better known as NOM, were leaked to the Human Rights Campaign that showed an intentional strategy pitting communities of color against the LGBT community.
Cheng’s academic queer critique is part of a larger movement of queer theologians that are borrowing from cultural studies, which hopes to expand the way that non-academics think about religion for queer people and for people of color.
Part of this for Cheng is to turn to other sources for doing theology, such as analyzing religious hybrids and looking at alternative artistic representations of religious concepts.
The lecture also marked the award of the Gilberto Castaneda Scholarship recipient. This year’s recipient was Esther Baruja, who describes herself as a person from the global South who has suffered rejection by religious conservatives for her sexual orientation.