1932-01-28

VIRGINIA MOLLENKOTT was born on this date (d: 2020); Dr. Mollenkott was a biblical scholar best known for her “God of the Breasts” interpretation of El Shaddai. She, spent her 44-year professional career teaching college level English literature and language, but developed specializations in feminist theology, and LGBT theology during the second half of that career.

She was born Virginia May Ramey in Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital. When she was 17, she fell in love with a woman. Discovered by her brother, her family sent her to a bible school in Florida where she was advised to marry a man to cure her “perversion.” She dutifully married Frederick H. Mollenkott in June  1954, with whom she had a son, Paul F. Mollenkott,  The Mollenkotts divorced in July 1973.

Dr. Mollenkott made a name for herself in evangelical circles in the 1970s as the author of five books about feminist theology when her sixth, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View,” appeared in 1978. It quickly changed the conversation around gay people and evangelicals and helped usher in a new era of gay spirituality.

The book, which she wrote with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, a feminist author of religion and social issues, patiently works through the myriad ways that, the authors found, the Bible does not support the conservative Christian credo that homosexuality is a sin. It also examines the trauma that gay Christians and those who love them have endured because of those teachings. She had come out to Scanzoni prior to starting work on their book. Scanzoni, who had never met a lesbian before, she averred, was stunned by the news. But they went on to write their book.

Raised in an evangelical household that disavowed her lesbianism, Dr. Mollenkott became a scholar of the Bible whose books on feminist and gay spirituality offered an expansive, inclusive theology that embraced not just women as equals to men but gay, bisexual and transgender people, too.

She pointed out that Adam, for instance, was male and female before he got lonely. She noted biblical passages that argued for the eradication of all sorts of categories like race, class and gender. And she wrote about how gay people could use the experience of oppression to find compassion and empathy for those who might be hostile toward them.

Dr. Mollenkott often said that she had been radicalized by the Bible. Yet she remained an evangelical.

A Democrat and trans-religious Christian, Mollenkott lived with her domestic partner Judith Suzannah Tilton at Cedar Crest Retirement Village until Judith’s death in February 2018; together they co-grandmothered Mollenkott’s three granddaughters.

Ramey and Tilton got married in 2013 after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. 

She chaired the English Department at Shelton College in New Jersey from 1955 to 1963 and at Nyack College from 1963 to 1967. She then taught at William Paterson University from 1967 to 1997, chairing the English Department from 1972 to 1976. Since 1997 she  held the position of Professor of English Emeritus.

Mollenkott served as an assistant editor of Seventeenth Century News from 1965 to 1975, and as a stylistic consultant for the New International Version of the Bible for the American Bible Society from 1970 to 1978. She became an associate of the Woman’s Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP) in 1977. WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization which works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media. She also was a member of the translation committee for An Inclusive Language Lectionary for the National Council of Churches from 1980 to 1988. From 1980 to 1990, she was on the Board of Pacem in Terris, Warwick, New York. From 1989 through 1994, Mollenkott served on the Board of the Upper Room AIDS Ministry, Harlem, New York. For over a decade she was on the Board of Kirkridge Retreat and Conference Center, Bangor, Pennsylvania, starting in 1980. She held a seat on the Advisory Board of the Program on Gender and Society at the Rochester (New York) Divinity School from 1993 to 1996. She has been a manuscript evaluator for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion since 1994. She worked as a contributing editor to The Witness from 1994 to 2000. Since 1997 she has served on the editorial board of Studies in Theology and Sexuality, based in the United Kingdom. She was a contributing editor to The Other Side from 2003 to 2007.

She has delivered hundreds of guest lectures on feminist and LGBT theologies at churches, conferences, universities and seminaries throughout the United States.

Dr. Mollenkott grew accustomed to hate mail and death threats, Ms. Morrison said, but would often say, “There are some things worth dying for.”

In 1999, Dr. Mollenkott received a lifetime achievement award from Sage, a nonprofit group that supports older L.G.B.T.Q. people, for “challenging homophobia in Christian institutions.” In 2001, she received a Lambda Literary Award for “best book in the transgender category,” for “Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach,” which explored nonbinary experiences in Christian and other religious traditions in early biblical texts.

She envisioned a society in which people could be free to define their own identities, saying in an interview published in 2018 that she considered herself “bi-gender, inwardly identifying myself with males as well as females.”