Bernard Schlager is CLGS’s new executive director

October 1, 2009
Author: 
Richard Lindsay

With Mary Ann Tolbert, the founding executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS), taking on duties as PSR’s dean, the center needed an experienced hand to continue its role as the leading voice in the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues and faith. It found that leader in Bernard Schlager, who was the center’s first director of programming in 2000. Schlager has worked with the center for nearly ten years, and prior to Tolbert’s departure was serving as deputy director and director of national programming.

Schlager was raised in the Catholic Church, where he was a church musician and was at one time in training for priesthood with the Dominican order. He studied medieval philosophy and spent some time living in Germany. A friend introduced him to the work of John Boswell, the pioneering gay historian (for which the CLGS Boswell Lectures are named). “I remember reading Boswell,” Schlager says, “and I was so amazed that there was this scholar working in history, in gay history, and as far back as the medieval period—that was the period that interested me in philosophy.” Schlager was so passionate about his interest that he applied to Yale and worked with Boswell, earning his PhD in medieval history.

He moved to the Bay Area with his partner and their family in 2000. (Schlager and his partner have three adopted sons, two grown and one in high school. Their oldest has just presented them with their first grandchild.) He joined CLGS at its beginning. “It was really an exciting time. At that point the center was pretty singular in its mission and its work.”

Since those early days, CLGS has developed a pioneering academic curriculum in LGBT studies and religion, enacted community education programs that have spread the research of the center nationally, created a book series to help pastors and churches understand ministering to LGBT people, convened advocacy groups that have developed religious leadership on LGBT issues across the state and the nation, and brought leading scholars to PSR for lectures, panels, and symposia.

In the past year, Schlager is particularly proud that CLGS has been able to maintain the majority of its programming despite the economic downturn, including the work of its racial-ethnic roundtables. The African-American roundtable has new leadership from Rev. Irene Monroe, a nationally recognized theologian and religion columnist. The API Roundtable (the Network on Religion and Justice for Asian Pacific Islander Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People, http://www.netrj.org) will continue under the leadership of Rev. Elizabeth Leung, and is planning expansion to New York City. The center’s Latino/Latina Roundtable is getting ready to launch. And the Transgender Roundtable has considerable interest but is still seeking funding, although there will be a fourth CLGS transgender religious leaders summit in Boston next April.

The Center continues to increase its archives of significant LGBT religious leaders and organizations, and has taken in the LGBT Religious Archives Network as part of its programming (http://www.lgbtran.org ). CLGS is working to gather the archives of Mel White, writer, activist, and founder of Soulforce; Mark Thompson, author, photographer, and important figure in alternative gay men’s religious movements like the Radical Faeries; and has collected the archives of Chris Glaser and the Lazarus Project, leading lights in the movement for full equality of LGBT people in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The revitalization of the Bay Area Coalition for Welcoming Congregations (CWC), with PSR alumnus Rev. Roland Stringfellow as the group’s first full-time director, came at a crucial time for faith-based community advocacy with the events surrounding the vote on deciding the right to same-sex marriage in California. Before the November 2008 election, the CWC held a town hall forum, “For Faith, For Love, Forever,” discussing same sex marriage with African American communities of faith, and featuring a panel of African American clergy and the cast of the LOGO network series, Noah’s Arc. A documentary featuring this event entitled For Faith, For Love, Forever, by filmmaker Nefertiti Strong, has been touring Gay Black Pride events around the country. CWC also organized an interfaith service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the eve of the California Supreme Court’s decision on the validity of the Proposition 8 vote, and led the religious protest to their decision upholding the vote, which included several dozen clergy being arrested in an act of civil disobedience (including five faculty and staff from PSR). Over the last year, CLGS has been a leading positive voice in the media commenting on same-sex marriage from a faith perspective, being featured in media outlets like ABC News, Fox News, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com.

As the center approaches its tenth year, CLGS has received a grant for strategic planning to help hone its vision for the next several years. CLGS is working to create an endowed chair at PSR in LGBT studies and religion, which would encompass the executive director position and an academic position. The center is also trying to figure out the best ways to continue its successful national outreach and training programs. Schlager says the center may turn its focus from conferences and classes held in different geographical locations—like the OutFront conferences that have been held at churches across the country—toward technology that may make the center’s work more accessible, regardless of location. “How do we bring the offerings the center has to people who need it outside the traditional academic structure?” Schlager asks. “One of the new programs we’re going to be focusing on is more online, Web-based learning.” Finally, as with all successful programs, the center must continually shape its vision and figure out what programs and initiatives are truly essential to its work. “As work around LGBT issues and religion has proliferated in national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the things we’ve had to do is realize what’s unique about working from a seminary,” Schlager says. “Where we hit our ‘sweet spot’ is in programming that reaches as many of our core constituencies as possible—the theological academic community, LGBT people of faith, and their faith communities.”