Workshop: Queering Religious Archives

This workshop by Caro Bratnober is the winner of the LGBTQ Religious Archive Network’s Educational Resource Prize in 2021.

Queer Ethics in the Religious Archive


This workshop constitutes a lesson plan, worksheet, presentation slides, and other instructional materials, for teaching a workshop situated in a library or archive, for introducing students in college, seminary, or graduate school to researching LGBTQ subjects using primary-source documents. It was originally developed by librarian Caro Bratnober at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (Columbia University Libraries) as a session in the course Christian Ethics 223, “Queering Ethics” (Prof. Sarah Azaransky) at UTS in 2019.

Key questions are: what makes an archival subject “queer,” what institutions of power exist in archives, and what bearing does the researcher have on queer subjects?


Students will gain familiarity with archival concepts, hands-on practice with archives on-site, and theoretical understanding of the archive. They will learn about the role of archives in research and how collections are processed and stored. In researching queer subjects documented in the archives of a seminary, church, or other religious institution, questions of visibility, identity, and “the closet” inevitably arise. (What labels/classifications are used for LGBTQ people? What do the documents tell us about the LGBTQ-ness of the subject, if anything? If there are no documents that mention LGBTQ+ people at all, why could that be, and what does that tell us?)

Discussing the assigned readings, students will reflect on the power of the researcher and the archivist in producing historical information. (For example, the American Heritage Dictionary tells us the root of the word “archive” comes from the Greek arkhÄ“, government/rule; what are some connections between archives and power?) The “Queer Victorian Marriage” essay highlights some of the issues inherent in structuring information from the past, such as classifying gayness and reading between the lines of handwritten manuscripts. Finally, through handling archival materials, students will gain tactile experience of manuscript document research, and investigate the extent to which their questions about queer subjects can (or cannot) be answered. At Union, students examined documents in the Emilie Townes Papers and the Union Theological Seminary Records.

This workshop can be situated in a library or archives classroom, especially one that allows working with documents or collections pertaining to LGBTQ individuals and organizations in religious institutions. Ideally, this will fit in with the learning objectives of a religion or theology course such as “LGBTQ Ethics” or similar.


Instructor Outline — details of 3-hour session

“Worksheet: Handling Written Documents” (for student use)

Slides: “Queering Ethics Archive Session Slides” (for presentation during first half)

Three readings for instructors and students in advance:

These readings are provided for educational use only, within the context of this workshop.