…Our default ways of seeing are all too often complicit with cultural biases like racism, sexism, ableism, and trans- and homophobia. This isn’t necessarily intentional but reflects our own formation by the systems that gave rise to these biases.
Ellen T. Armour, Seeing and Believing: Religion, Digital Visual Culture, and Social Justice (2023)
Imagine looking into a mirror and finally seeing your reflection for the first time.
Now: imagine that you’re looking into what you thought was a mirror, but instead you realize that it’s a window. A window through which you see others, perhaps for the first time as well. Most windows still hold a bit of our own reflections, too, depending upon how the light dances on the surface.
The documentary film Wonderfully Made: LGBTQ+ R(eligion) delivers an artful take on the interplay of themes and questions related to imagination, perception, reflection. A central focus of the film is how LGBTQIA+ Roman Catholics have been engaging in the difficult but necessary work of seeing themselves as included in a tradition that, in large part, has either denied the validity of their being or condemned their sexualities and gender identities.
On October 10, in celebration of National Coming Out Day, Vanderbilt hosted two events related to the film: a workshop in which the director, Yuval David, discussed “storytelling as social change,” and a screening of the film paired with a panel discussion and showing of the photo art at the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery. In the workshop, David stressed that art can be a tool for advocacy and social change, and that there is a need for “compassionate curiosity” that helps us live into the stories of those who are different than us. As a filmmaker and artist, David maintains that encouraging both compassion and curiosity, spurred by artistic vision and implementation, can help increase inclusion, mutual understanding, and social change.
How can “compassionate curiosity” be encouraged? What would it mean to see ourselves? And what does it mean to see others, as holistic beings of value – in the fullness of their sexual and gender identities? How might LGBTQIA+ Roman Catholics (and even Protestant and Orthodox Christians) envisage themselves as a loved and accepted part of Christian traditions, despite the lack of positive iconography and relative paucity of theological affirmation (of our worth)?
As the narrative of Wonderfully Made suggests, LGBTQIA+ Roman Catholics have rarely – if ever – been able to see who they are and whom they love reflected in a positive way from the standpoint of their religious tradition. They must redact significant pieces of their lived experiences to understand themselves as accepted by the Church, and implicitly, as accepted by the God imagined and embraced by Christian theological traditions. The film specifically emphasizes that this theological and social redaction is reinforced by traditional iconography related to the figure of Jesus Christ. The photo art produced in the making of the film, then, addresses this lack by creating new icons of Christ’s life and passion narrative, with LGBTQIA+ persons portraying Jesus Christ, draped in rainbow garments and, in some photos, emblazoned with a rainbow sacred heart.
The LGBTQIA+ icons are revealed at the end of the film, with no voiceover or explanation, just soft, ethereal tones that suggest the gravity of what the viewer is seeing. The filmmakers – and the actors, who served as the models for the photoshoot – articulate a shared hope that LGBTQIA+ Roman Catholics will see themselves reflected back, perhaps for the first time, through these diverse images of Jesus Christ. And further, that those beyond the LGBTQ+ community might see and recognize the image of God as reflected by those who are trans, nonbinary, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, intersex, and the whole host of diverse, prismatic beauty represented by LGBTQIA+ persons. Perhaps for the first time as well.
As we come to the close of LGBTQ History month, my own hope is that LGBTQIA+ persons will feel affirmed and encouraged to be who we are, and significantly, to know that our embodiment and presence is part of (divine) creation. We have been here since the emergence of Christian traditions, and we will continue to witness to the truth of our creation and worth, into the future. We live, move, and have our being in this world, and we are part of the diversity of a creation that is vibrant and good. LGBTQIA+ persons are more than capable of embodying and reflecting Jesus Christ, through the medium of iconography; and what Wonderfully Made suggests is that seeing this reflected through photo art may help all of us believe – and feel – it to be true.
-Rachel A. Heath
Assistant Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality
Vanderbilt Divinity School