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The Genesis of CLGS, The Country’s Oldest Seminary-Based LGBTQ+ Center

Since its founding in 2000, the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS) at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) has served LGBTQ+ people, families, and faith communities through advocacy, community-building, education, and research. As the country’s oldest seminary-based LGBTQ+ center, CLGS is a testament to PSR’s 150+ year mission to create a world where all can thrive. 

The genesis for CLGS arose in 1996: a response to attempts by Christian groups to bring their negative beliefs about LGBTQ+ people from the religious to the political sphere. Their goal was to block access to rights and protections enjoyed by other citizens, including the right to non-discrimination in housing or employment, and the ability to adopt children, marry, and serve in the armed services. For these Christians, the LGBTQ+ community was not only unworthy of full membership in the church but also unworthy of full citizenship in our political community. Then as now, these negative beliefs were portrayed in media and public discourse as the only Christian viewpoint. 

In the face of these intersecting issues of justice and theology, PSR’s trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumnx, and friends (led by trustees Scott Hafner and Bill Glenn) gathered to discuss how to bring the best resources that contemporary theological education can provide into the public conversation. All agreed that the resulting project needed to address three distinct audiences: the church, the academy, and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.  

The proposal for CLGS, then known as the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, was adopted in the Spring of 1997. It defined its original mission in terms of four broad goals: research, resourcing, education and leadership, and advocacy and networking.  

The first two goals established a commitment to produce and encourage rigorous theological, biblical, ethical, historical, and pastoral research on issues of sexual orientation and sexuality and to make that research available to churches, theological schools, and the public.  

The third addressed much-needed support for LGBTQ+ seminarians in their struggle for respect and voice within their own denominations. It also identified the need to develop relevant curriculum so that future pastors could be equipped to deal with issues of sexuality and gender.  

The fourth goal recognized the need to coordinate efforts with other organizations already working on these vital issues.  

The Center began its work in 2000 with a five-year start-up grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation given to PSR just three days before Christmas 1999. Over the years other foundations have generously supported a variety of programming initiatives, including the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Gill Foundation of Colorado, the Arcus Foundation LGBT Program, and the Atkinson Foundation. 

Dr. Mary A. Tolbert, the George H. Atkinson Professor of Biblical Studies at PSR was chosen as the founding executive for the center. As one of the nation’s foremost New Testament scholars, Dr. Tolbert was uniquely positioned to create a center at a theological institution that would address the core concerns many mainline Christians have about scripture and LGBTQ+ identity. Dr. Tolbert was also able to recruit academics like former PSR Ethics Professor Michael Mendiola and current CLGS Executive Director Dr. Bernard Schlager with expertise in queer theology, history, and ethics to form CLGS’s curriculum and programming.

Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, CLGS’s Managing Director added, “Through her leadership, Dr. Tolbert put PSR on the map as THE place to go for seminarians wanting a serious and rigorous engagement of scripture and Christian theology.” 

From its founding through today, all of CLGS’s programming and work has been designed to carry out its fundamental mission: to advance the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender people and to transform faith communities and the wider society by taking a leading role in shaping a new public discourse on religion, gender identity, and sexuality. 

In a nation where one out of every five hate crimes in 2021 was motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias and in a world where the loudest and the most influential arguments leveled against LGBTQ+ people and our communities are made on religious grounds, the work of CLGS as a progressive faith-based and faith-focused organization literally saves lives. 

 

Get Involved and Learn more about CLGS! 

Events 

CLGS hosts online events and conversations throughout the year. Ongoing monthly series include our Lavender Lunches, Queer and Latinx Faith Conversations, and Jewish Queeries. CLGS also hosts two yearly lectures: the Georgia Harkness Lecture, and the John E. Boswell Lecture and the biannual Souls ‘A Fire Conference. 

Roundtables 

CLGS hosts six Roundtable Projects designed to foster intersectional opportunities for community building across and within religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, race, and class. Email clgs@clgs.org if you’d like to learn more or get involved in the African American Roundtable, the Asian American & Pacific Islander Roundtable, the Catholic Roundtable, the Jewish Roundtable, the Latinx Roundtable, and/or the Transgender Religious Roundtable. 

Research  

The CLGS Archives Project is the leading online resource for materials on LGBTQ+ religious movements and figures. CLGS’s book series has published volumes in areas of concern to LGBTQ+ people of faith, including Liberating Gender for Jews and Allies: The Wisdom of Transkeit, Trans Gendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith, and Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk. 

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