- Becoming Grateful Allies:An Interview with Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
feminism, omnigender, transgender, transreligious
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has worked toward universal kindness and justice at the nexus where issues of the Spirit interact with issues of human embodiment. Beginning with an early article condemning racism and defending black Americans' points of view in the 1965 Watts riots, she proceeded to feminism by demonstrating female-male equality in the Bible and the importance of utilizing biblical God-images and God-language that honors women as well as men. Finally, she has focused on sexual and gender diversities, including the [End Page 25] privilege of representing the Holy One in our physical relationships, whether our bodies be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual, cisgender, fully abled, or disabled.
Born in 1932 in Philadelphia, Virginia endured a painful childhood in a fundamentalist family and a Plymouth Brethren Chapel that advocated sadistic parenting and patriarchal theology. Her father abandoned the family when she was nine years old. At age eleven, she fell in love with a twenty-one-year-old Christian woman. She learned that this love was called "homosexual." Desperately, she tried to find a kind word for this "condition," but all sources defined it as either arrogant sin or deviant sickness. As a high school sophomore, she was sent to a fundamentalist live-in academy in Florida, where the administration was told in advance that Virginia was attracted to women. There, after being warned repeatedly that God had no cure for homosexuals and no use for them either, she attempted suicide. At Bob Jones University, the only "Christian" school she could afford, she painstakingly hid her attraction to women. Hoping that marriage would cure her homosexuality, Virginia married Fred Mollenkott and in 1958, bore a son, Paul. Virginia received her PhD in English literature from New York University in 1964. The marriage dissolved in 1973. She was not able to marry a same-sex partner until 2013, when the US Supreme Court made marriage equality legal, at which time she married her partner of eighteen years, J. Suzannah Tilton.
For forty-four years Mollenkott taught English language and literature in Christian and state colleges, starting her teaching career at Shelton College and Nyack Missionary College. From 1967–97, she taught at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey, after which she was awarded emeritus status. She published thirteen books and hundreds of articles on sexuality and spirituality. The title of her 1992 book, Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism provides a good summary of her basic themes: learning to love with bodily responsibility and heartfelt connection to see All That Is, and learning to read the Bible in a liberating fashion that sets the spirit free.1 Perhaps best known among Mollenkott's books are The Divine Feminine: Biblical Imagery of God as Female (1981) and (with Letha Dawson Scanzoni) Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (1978).2 In 2001, after she had become aware of transgender language and issues, Mollenkott wrote Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach.3 Currently, she is a lesbian/ [End Page 26] transgender/transreligious witness to her fellow residents at Cedar Crest Retirement Village in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, and teaches Elderhostel courses in English poetry.
Mollenkott was in demand outside of the classroom as well, speaking as a guest at churches, conferences, universities, and seminaries from every Protestant denomination as well as Catholic, Jewish, and Unitarian. She was a stylistic consultant for the American Bible Society's New International Version of the Bible. She also served on the translation committee for the Inclusive Language Lectionary published by the National Council of Churches in the 1980s. She co-led gay, lesbian, and Christian retreats and founded and led "Sisterly Conversations" for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women for twenty-three years at the Kirkridge Conference Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania.
Although (after years of being) shunned by the fundamentalists of her youth and listening to her family tell her she would spend eternity in hell, Mollenkott persevered in her work and has received many...