Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2008


Supervised by Susan L. Mizruchi, Professor of English and American Studies and Peter Hawkins, Professor of Religion




In the wake of the sexual revolution, the Christian Right has waged a religiously-based campaign for pre-1960s gender norms and against gay rights. This project treats works in which sexual minorities respond by constructing the erotic as a source of sacred experience, one superior to that offered by conservative Protestant Christianity and Mormonism: the novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (Starhawk, 1993), the cult film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001), the play and film Angels in America (Tony Kushner, 1992/2003), and the graphic novel Blankets (Craig Thompson, 2003).


My method is historically contextualized close reading that also considers the formal advantages of hybrid media in communicating a controversial message. I introduce The Fifth Sacred Thing as part of an American tradition of sexually alternative millennial communalism. This communalism, however, is always in dialogue with an individualistic Emersonian religion of the self, as in Hedwig’s tale of Gnostic personal transformation. Hedwig (in the tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975]) demonstrates this individual/communal dialectic in its fans’ media-centered group practices. Next, I turn to Angels as a failed queer utopian vision in which neither its political agenda nor its religious eroticism is fully realized. Finally, I examine individual liberation in Blankets, which demonstrates how strict, religiously-based sexual and gender roles can create closeted sexual minorities even among heterosexuals.


Against the Religious Right’s focus on the nuclear, blood family, these works privilege individual transformation, chosen families, and utopian communities liberated and then bound together by erotic experience. Engaging the power of religious rhetoric in American culture, they mark a rhetorical shift by sexual minorities to speak of sexual liberation not purely as a secular matter of civil rights and cultural norms, but rather as a sacred mission that promises individual and social transformation. The effectiveness of hybrid media in engaging audiences helps to explain the strong responses—ranging from censorship efforts to the founding of new spiritual communities—that readers and viewers have had to these works.