Monique Moultrie is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University and author of Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality, also published by Duke University Press. In her new book Hidden Histories, she collects oral histories of Black lesbian religious leaders in the United States to show how their authenticity, social justice awareness, spirituality, and collaborative leadership make them models of womanist ethical leadership. By examining their life histories, Moultrie frames queer storytelling as an ethical act of resistance to the racism, sexism, and heterosexism these women experience.
How does Hidden Histories build on or diverge from your earlier book Passionate and Pious?
My prior work centered on Black women as they make choices about their sexuality within larger celibacy movements. While Passionate and Pious had a chapter about Black lesbian Christian women asserting their sexuality in these prescribed sexual spaces, at minimum I was tracing a story of Black Christian women leaders’ messages about sexuality. Yet, ultimately the text centers on what their followers decided to do as described to me by women participating in these movements. In Hidden Histories, my focus is slightly different as I consider Black female religious and sexual actors exerting their agency in religious spheres. Both works are about Black women in leadership and both take seriously the sexual lives of Black women. Hidden Histories diverges in its emphasis on the lived realities of leadership as I provide the first collection of oral histories of Black lesbian religious leaders. I hope that Hidden Histories offers through these Black women’s stories a model of leadership that is applicable to everyone.
In your introduction, you mention how being a heterosexual ally who is not a religious leader placed you in an “outsider/within” scenario during these interviews. Within the interview setting, how did you navigate the complex, intersectional issues at hand as an “outsider”?
During the interviews I recognized that my role was to share their story and to get it right. While I was not a religious leader, I understood their passion and calling to leadership. As the spouse of a religious leader, I also could empathize with what the personal costs were for them. I made every effort to not be “in the story” but to reflect the story in my theorizing. My gleanings from their life histories needed to be professional, but I needed to share enough of myself to be vulnerable to the process. Yet, I did not pry into their private lives unless they wanted me to document something about their partners. While my first book was all about personal stories and sexual intimacies, I did not inquire about these things in the oral histories. There were many experiences we could share like racism, classism, sexism, etc., but I knew as a heterosexual I carried privileges that they did not experience. My interviews had to demonstrate a critical awareness while simultaneously trying to get their stories connected to my interest in social activism. Balancing these stories was a delicate dance.
What was the most surprising perspective or unexpected insight you heard while conducting these interviews?
Honestly, I was surprised by the number of Black women in leadership in non-majority Black spaces. When I started the project, I expected Black female religious leaders to be in Black Christian churches since statistically Black women are the most numerous participants in Black Christianity. Finding Black women leaders in other religions and women who were leading in predominately white spaces was surprising as it reiterated the impacts of sexism on Black women’s thriving. For example, each of the women who were leaders in the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a predominately Black gay- and lesbian-affirming denomination, left the denomination. (This was not just because of their experiences with sexism; but, like others admitted, the hypocrisy in communities created for freedom from oppression was disheartening.)
Denomination-swapping was also surprising to me as a lifelong Baptist who only briefly dabbled as a member of an African Methodist Episcopal church. The fluidity in the interviewees’ denominational loyalties was unexpected but also demonstrated the obstacles in place for Black women in traditional Black church spaces and the wider economic resources available in predominately white denominations.
The insight I gained was that there are no perfect spaces for Black women leaders. Even the places that should be panaceas had problems, which made their activism, resistance, and overall perseverance even more inspiring.
How do you see the intersectionality experienced by these Black lesbian religious leaders contributing to their pursuit of social justice activism in a way distinct from other groups?
The entire book is my attempt to answer this question. Simply put: being a Black lesbian leader made a difference because of their ability to lead collaboratively, inter-generationally, and from the moral wisdom of Black women. Their intersectional lives make them aware of those on the margins, and because their gender has often limited their access to traditional forms of leadership and the resources accompanying this leadership, they tend to work within communities and with attention to social justice concerns that impact entire communities.
What are your hopes for future scholarship in this field?
I completed a study on cisgender and largely Christian Black lesbian religious leaders. This was a righteous but incomplete task. I have received funding to complete additional interviews of Black transgender religious leaders and non-Christian leaders, but due to the pandemic and my overall lack of access to these communities, my expansion of scholarship has been limited. It is my hope that my study and subsequent interviews pave a path towards exploring Black trans leadership and Black non-Christian female leaders. I also hope that the fields of African American Religion and Gender and Sexuality Studies continue to look to its margins, bringing these voices to the center.
Read the introduction to Hidden Histories for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E23MLTRI.