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This review forum on David K. Seitz’s A House of Prayer for All People: Contesting Citizenship in a Queer Church (2017, Minnesota) originates in an author-meets-critics session at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New Orleans, Louisiana. This online forum includes an introduction by forum editor Lia Frederiksen; reviews by Natalie Oswin, Geraldine Pratt, and Farhang Rouhani; and a response from author David K. Seitz. A note of thanks here goes to LaToya Eaves, whose participation in the conference session enriched the conversation on the day, whose review was not available for this online forum.
A House of Prayer for All People by David K. Seitz is based on nearly three years of ethnographic fieldwork in a large, predominantly LGBT and evangelical Christian church located in Toronto, Canada. The Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) occupies a prominent political and cultural place within the city, with a longstanding reputation for advocacy and community outreach. The church has also been influential in a global network of queer Christian organizations; people in 120 countries watch the webcast of MCCT’s Sunday services each week. MCCT’s refugee program, struggles among the congregation over diversity and inclusion in church services and leadership, and former pastor Brent Hawkes’s involvement in a wider and purposeful shift toward global Canadian LGBT activism, form the basis of the book’s analysis.
For Seitz, these contradictions and conflicts are importantly scenes of citizenship. Linking these scenes with the intricacies and intimacies of gender, sexuality, race, class, and diaspora, Seitz explores the politics of belonging and sanctuary in Canada through the MCCT. Seitz offers an understanding of citizenship that overcomes the restrictions of liberal identity politics and national territorial boundaries by arguing for an “improper” queer citizenship – one that is not defined with reference to a “proper” identarian subject.
At first glance, a queer Protestant church in Canada could seem an odd, even dubious, object of study for contending with the affective and political dimensions of citizenship. The private dramas among church members combined with the presumptively marginal status of Canada on the global stage might appear too tangential to draw definitive conclusions about such a turbulent concept like citizenship. Here, the location of the American Association of Geographers meeting where the author-meets-critics session that this online review form stems from provides an important frame of reference for situating Seitz’s arguments beyond the scope of the book. Seitz’s book is about the politics of belonging and affective dimensions of citizenship in one Queer Protestant church in Toronto, Canada, but New Orleans was a fitting location for the conference session that this review forum originates from.
New Orleans is built on land that is part of the lower Mississippi Delta region, which is the territory of Chitimacha, Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica people. The place now called New Orleans has also been named Balbancha, a Choctaw word that has been translated as “the place where there is unintelligible talk” in reference to the multiple languages spoken there. The city has been a site of refuge for indigenous people and colonizers for centuries, but it has been little sanctuary for people whose migration and labour are forced. The physical and built environment of New Orleans is produced and maintained by successive generations of enslaved African and indigenous people and their descendants. Their knowledges and skills have been appropriated to create of the material basis for reproducing the conditions imposed upon them, which they have together reworked and resisted. Today, New Orleans is home to people at risk of deportation and the racial violence of dispossession. And New Orleans is whence thousands were displaced by circumstances created by humans before, during, and after so-called natural disasters.
New Orleans holds an important place in the history of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which is the denomination that the MCCT is part of. On Pride weekend in 1973, members of the MCC New Orleans (MCCNO) gathered at the UpStairs Lounge just a few blocks away from the AAG conference hotels in the French Quarter. That weekend, an assailant purposefully set fire to the bar and 35 of the 60 people present who were affiliated with the MCCNO died. Until the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, the UpStairs arson was the single deadliest attack on LGBT people in the United States. The attack happened during a time when MCC congregations were in their earliest years of formation.
LGBT organizers and their would-be allies continue to fiercely debate how best to respond to such violence and ongoing homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Some have sought protection in the embrace of the security state, including through fortified hate crimes legislation. Others have maintained that racialized and working-class LGBT people are already disproportionately harmed by the power of this state and police over life, calling instead for both material state support for and antiracist mutual aid within marginalized communities. Histories of anti-LGBT violence in a range of material, juridical, and spiritual forms, and the profound lack of consensus within LGBT communities as to how to respond to these violences, are central throughout Seitz’s book. These links to past and present are precisely what makes the book such a compelling study of the political possibilities and affective promises of citizenship.
The reviews in this forum by Oswin, Pratt, and Rouhani consider what it would mean to take up Seitz’s call for a coalitional “improper” queer citizenship beyond the material and conceptual contexts that form the basis for his book. The reviews by Oswin and Pratt each invite Seitz to further specify the limits and potentials of refusing to locate identity at the core of citizenship. In essence, they ask: for which political subjects, and under which geographical conditions, is a refusal of identity a radical or emancipatory move? Does improper queer citizenship, both reviewers question, have uneven geographies? Similarly, Rouhani’s wonders whether improper queer citizenship might work to reconstitute the state rather than simply refuse it. Although Rouhani’s review is sympathetic to Seitz’s critiques of the Toronto Police Service and the Canadian Ministry of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, it also raises the danger of reifying the state. In his response, Seitz takes up the review’s critiques in turn, expanding on the theoretical and political conditions in which a refusal of identity might or might not make sense. As in the book, Seitz’s conclusion here is speculative, questioning what queer engagements with the state might look like beyond debates over “proper” objects.
 There are numerous online sources that identify indigenous groups of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Delta. One quite thorough account can be found in a land acknowledgement titled, “Indigenous Tribes of New Orleans & Louisiana” from American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/nola-tribes Campanella, R. Bienville’s Dilemma, p. 279