If you were at the activities fair last week, you probably noticed that Wesleyan has an overwhelming amount of clubs groups to join. Because you don’t have the time (or enough room in your inbox) to sign up for everything you saw, our In-Depth Series profiles some of those student groups who may have slipped through those cracks. In this installation, I sat down with Isaac Klimasmith ’20, the leader of Unity. Unity is a space for queer Christians to meet and talk about their faith. Enjoy!
How was Unity founded?
IK: It was founded last year. Reverend Tracy who is the Protestant Chaplain had an intern named Jenny who was at Yale Divinity school studying to become ordained. Jenny is gay and was working with Reverend Tracy. For a while there had been demand for a queer Christian group or to bring queer elements to the Christian community at Wes. Jenny and Tracy reached out a lot to folks who were expressing interest in that group, particularly me and Jackson and a whole bunch of other students, that were all coming up to Tracy being like “does this group exist?” At the beginning of last year they gave out fliers like, “If you’re interested in this group, contact reverend Tracy.” We all sat down individually with Jenny and thought about what the group would be. It sort of turned into if you combined a crafting group, a GSA, a support group, and a Bible study together. We meet on Thursday nights, eat a lot of desert and talk about God and coming out and scripture passages.
What is your role within the organization?
IK: Last year Jenny was running it very directly. She was very much in charge and did all the planning. She’s working at the divinity school at Yale now as a chaplain so we’re going to try to have the leadership be spread out between everybody in that community. But Jackson Barnett ’18 and I are co-leading in the organizational and bureaucratic elements of the group.
What is Unity and what does a typical Unity meeting look like?
IK: Unity is an organization for people who identify as both queer and Christian, or questioning either thing. Some people pray everyday and some people have their Bible covered in an inch of dust. We have a very unique experience as queer Christians because those are communities that are often portrayed as being in deep conflict with each other. Having a space where people from both sides of the divide, a lot of symbolism is built up around that, and I think it’s nice to have a space where instead of being symbolic, we can just be people. We can talk about how our faith and identity actually do interact without constantly having to defend one to the other all the time.
Can you talk more about the need for a group that intersects queer identity and Christianity? Do you think the Wesleyan queer community is accepting of christians and vice versa?
IK: I’ve never felt unwelcome as a queer person in the Wesleyan Christian groups. I’d say the chaplains have always been very welcoming, but the whole point of having a religious or queer organization is that it’s like an affinity group. You’re with people that you share a cultural or social touchstone with. In only Christian spaces, I personally feel a pressure to show them that I belong, and in queer spaces it’s the same pressure. By having a group that’s specifically for people with that intersection, it takes a lot of the pressure off and it allows us to just think and question instead of just defend. Instead of saying like, “Yes I’m valid, yes I’m valid.” we can talk about how we’re valid. That’s a very different kind of conversation. Another thing that I think there should be more of at Wesleyan are interfaith spaces. When Unity was getting kicked off we talked a lot about “should this be an interfaith group?” Ideally, it would be really cool if there could be a queer-interfaith thing and just super-intersectional and awesome. But in general, I’m not very keyed in to the Muslim communities or the other religious communities here, but I’d say my queer friends in the Jewish community don’t seem to experience that same kind of pressure or the sort of feeling of being on defense that my queer Christian friends have experienced in Christian communities, and not just the Christian community at Wes but also Christian communities in general. The community at Wesleyan is very open and supportive of queer people, but a lot of people are recovering from very traumatic religious experiences and do not want to go right to a Christian event and be like “I’m totally fine with this” because maybe they’ve been kicked out of their communities, maybe they’ve experienced a lot of discrimination in their places of worship, and they don’t automatically feel welcome in a strictly religious space, so it’s also a place for them to rediscover that.
What is the relationship like between Unity and the other Christian and queer organizations? Have you partnered with them at all for events?
IK: We’re a very young organization, so we’re still trying to figure out what our role is. On the Wesleyan website we’re listed not on the queer organizations page but on the religious organization page, so that’s fun and funky. I’d like for us to be listed as both. It’d be really cool to do a lot of partnership events. I live in Open House and so we always do co-programming, so I think Light House and Open House should do more co-programming together I think that would be really cool. We tried last year once, but that would be really neat if it was more participatory and more involved.
I think one of the things though that we have to be careful of is that Unity is also a confidential group, and some people come that aren’t out to the rest of the Christian community and don’t want people to know that they’re out. We want our group to be visible as an option, but we also want our group to be a safe space for people.
As you said before, queer and Christian identities are often seen as opposites, I think, especially because of how they’re generally politically mapped with Christians on the right and queer people on the left. With Wesleyan being a political campus, I feel like that opposition has been really implanted in people’s minds. Is there anything you’d like to say about how those two identities can intersect?
IK: Sometimes when I’m in queer spaces and I have to go do a religious thing, I’ll say “Oh, I have to go to Bible study” and people will laugh. And I’m like “I’m being serious I actually have to go there now, like that’s what’s gonna happen.” Or I’ll say I co-lead an organization for queer Christians on campus and people are like, “Bwahaha queer Christians!” and I’m like, “No, no, no we’re actually here.” I’d say there are a lot of misconceptions about what is and isn’t in the Bible. I think a lot of people pick and choose passages, and it’s such a large text that there are large portions of the Bible that nobody follows anymore. Leviticus is a section people often quote about being homophobic, like “Oh it says in Leviticus that that men shouldn’t sleep with as they sleep with women.” Okay, it also says in Leviticus that you can’t wear mixed fibers and it gives very specific instructions for how to sacrifice your pigeons to cure yourself of leprosy. We don’t follow a lot of that anymore because religion changes with the times, and it’s also important to remember the historical context of those texts. It’s also important to remember that a lot of people have misconceptions about what Jesus did and didn’t say. There’s nothing anti-queer about the New Testament. In fact, it’s a very pro-queer piece of scripture because it’s very radical. It’s about welcoming the outcasts. It’s about everybody being equal under God and unified through God. It’s not about these tiny little social divisions. That’s a huge misconception that people have about the Bible.
How would you like to see Unity’s role on campus evolve in the future?
IK: I’d like to see it expand, to be able to reach more people. I’d like to have Unity be involved with other religious organizations in a more interfaith way. I’d like interfaith stuff in general to expand at Wes, and I think Unity could have an important role in that because while we may not be an interfaith group we understand what it’s like to come from a different intersection, so I think that could be important in building a more robust interfaith culture at Wes.
What should students who are interested in joining Unity do?
IK: They should e-mail Reverend Tracy (tmehrmuska[at]wesleyan[dot]edu), myself (iklimasmith[at]wesleyan[dot]edu), or Jackson (dbarnett[at]weleyan[dot]edu), or get in contact with us on Facebook. I’m going to try to see if we can get a Facebook page up or some sort of other resource. Jackson has posted in all of the Wesleyan groups, and we were also at the activities fair, and we had a potluck Thursday, September 21st.