There has been a great deal of positive forward movement towards the acceptance of gays and lesbians within Christian faiths during the last thirty years. Opening and accepting congregations have taken steps to welcome people whose only difference from their heterosexual counterparts is, purportedly, that they engage in romantic and intimate sexual relationships with people of the same gender as their own. The “we’re just like you” argument, coupled with the notion of the immutability of sexual orientation, has helped make gay and lesbian identities more normative – and if not actively accepted, at least tolerated.
However, sexual orientation is not a monolithic identifier. Just as there are a myriad of ways to be heterosexual, so are there a myriad of ways in which people are not. Gay and lesbian are not the only non-heterosexual identities; there are people who are bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, asexual, queer… the list goes on. These labels, which are almost always bestowed by individuals upon themselves, do not fit neatly into the dichotomous framework of male-female and heterosexual-homosexual. They are, however, most often subsumed into the binary system with little attention given to the nuances of personal identity and the positionality that adopting such a label usually signifies. When considering matters of religion, then, it becomes necessary to be open to a queer approach to theology in order to serve those who would fall through the cracks of neglect and disinterest otherwise.
Queer as an Operational Framework
I had to take my car to the mechanic this afternoon, where a mechanic referred to me with feminine pronouns – something that rarely happens to me these days. I was grateful, ultimately, when the shop said they couldn’t do the work because of the peculiarities of my vehicle, and I moved on to a shop which specialized in my car. As a person with both a queer sexuality and gender identity, I regularly think about the ways in which I am perceived: what impression did I make? What do they think of me? Do they think I am straight? Gay? Man? Woman?
Even though I usually pass as a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male, and am regarded with the attendant privilege that comes with being perceived as a member of that group, my identity is more complex. In moments like the one this afternoon, I am sharply reminded of the precarity of my identity, and the ways in which it is both self-constructed and imposed by the expectations of others and society. My identity as a masculine-expressing person – one who shaves and is balding – does not match, to most people, my upbringing as a girl who loved dresses and the color yellow.
This, however, could be explained – and even accepted – within a binary framework if I ascribed to easily explainable labels when organizing my identity along sexuality and gender, like female-to-male and gay. But I do not sit comfortably in either of those identities; my gender, while most certainly masculine-expressing, is not unequivocally male, and my romantic and physical attraction to people is not predicated on an individual’s gender identity. Therefore queer becomes a useful term along which to organize my personal understanding of self and the ways in which I desire to be seen in the world.
But what does adopting queer as a self-identifying label mean? In Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, author David Halperin described it thusly:
Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (62).
Queer identity, then, becomes a matter of positionality against whatever may be considered normal – which can and does vary from culture to culture and context to context. In this sense, it becomes inclusive – for by refusing to explicitly define as a certain way of being in the world, it becomes open to interpretation. Its value becomes whatever the individual assigns to it, with its most important factor remaining constant: a positionality of subversion to societal norms.
American philosopher Judith Butler, a champion of queer as an identity, remarked on its inclusiveness in a 2001 interview:
My understanding of queer is a term that desires that you don’t have to present an identity card before entering a meeting. Heterosexuals can join the queer movement. Bisexuals can join the queer movement. Queer is not being lesbian. Queer is not being gay…Queer is an argument against certain normativity, what a proper lesbian or gay identity is.
But it is this very inclusiveness which critics find threatening. The lack of discrete identity qualifiers, the endless questioning of normative conventions, and the deconstruction of those norms would seem to result in nothing but unlabeled chaos.
Yet queer as an identity and as an academic approach to theology is a critical tool for understanding the multiplicity of identities which create individuals and cultures. Robert F. Goss discusses this in “Queer Theologies as Transgressive Metaphors: New Paradigms for Hybrid Sexual Theologies,” saying that “[q]ueer theorists argue that identities are always multiple, hybrid, provisional, or composite in which an infinite number of identity markers can combine to form new sites of knowledge” (45). No person’s identity is static, and no label forms the composite sum of a population. Queer theory helps us to refrain from tokenizing individuals through seeing them only as the archetypal representative of a label or invisibilizing their identity altogether by subsuming it into that of a larger population to which the individual may not even self-identify with.
By being committed to a queer perspective, we engage in “a constant postmodern subverting the paradigm(s) into ever-widening margins of conversation. This includes our own identity markers. Otherwise, we privilege our identity over others. Thus, ‘queering’ or transgressing the queer is concerned to include everyone and to speak for no one in particular” (Goss, 47). The praxis of queer theory was a direct outgrowth of feminist and minority culture perspectives; as such, its approach is directly linked with and advocates for social justice.
The Need for Queer Theology
The origins of prejudice against non-heterosexual identities in Christianity is generally attributed back to the six “clobber” passages. In At the Intersection of Church and Gay, Eric Rodriguez elaborates:
Six passages from the Bible (Genesis, 19:1–28; Leviticus, 18:22, 20:13; Romans, 1:26,27; I Corinthians, 6:9; I Timothy, 1:10) have generally been used to support the contention that homosexuality is a sin. Based on these passages, Christian doctrine has decreed homosexuality to be “unnatural,” a “perversion,” and an “abomination in the eyes of God” (Clark, Brown, & Hochstein, 1990; Greenberg & Bystryn, 1982; Keysor, 1979; Scanzoni & Mollenkott, 1978). While a few Christian denominations (i.e., the United Church of Christ and the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]) view homosexuality in a more positive light, the preponderance of mainstream Christian denominations does not (Ellison, 1993; Mahaffy, 1996). In one study, 72% of Christian religious organizations surveyed condemned homosexuals and homosexuality as being an abomination (Melton, 1991).
Andrew Yip confirms this, saying “religious texts constitute the primary, though not exclusive, basis for the censure of homosexuality” (49).
One can note that negative attitudes towards queer people are endemic within Christian communities. This prejudice results in a drastically underserved population, whose unique needs as an oppressed minority culture are ignored altogether, with focus placed on “curing” the individual of their undesirable sexuality or at least invisibilizing it to the point that the individual’s sexual identity is effectively removed as something undesirable. Normative apologist approaches are equally problematic; the focus in welcoming and accepting church communities is often that of the immutable nature of sexuality and gender.
The immutability argument is great for those who fit – or are made to fit – into normative identities of straight, gay and lesbian. Goss notes that as “scholars in religion, we have, however, fallen into a trap that makes hetero/homo gender preference exclusive metacategories of sexual identity. There are other homosexuals who do not fit into the categories of heterosexual, lesbian, and gay” (44). But for those individuals who fall outside the narrow confines of those identities – the result is that of alienation, and an understanding that in order to be welcome a person must fit in one of the small, socially defined boxes instead of being allowed to experience faith as a person with all aspects of their identity fully integrated – social, sexual, religious and so on. Goss further elaborates, speaking from his personal experience: “Heteronormative theology excludes me except in its hermeneutics of abomination while gay normative theology excludes me in its apologetic attempts to assimilate into mainstream culture” (46).
My own personal experience has confirmed this; as a person who tried desperately to fit into the available molds presented at the cost of personal happiness. The person I am today is the result of hard-won and ongoing work, and of consciously making the decision – several times in my life – to divorce myself from a pre-existing framework which viewed me as fundamentally flawed. Queering theology allows us to look at existing institutional prejudice, and work to dismantle oppressive systems. Goss speaks to this:
Hopefully, we may expose all traces of privilege within our own theological discourse, any traces of American white supremacism, centrism, sexism, biphobia and transphobia. Thus we may become more responsible in making new hybrid voices accessible to ourselves, the academy, and our theological constituencies (52).
The act of queering theology is not just relevant to sexual and gender minorities, however. It becomes a tool of much larger scope, allowing us to create space for a diverse array of individuals, regardless of their race, culture, economic status, religion, physical or mental ability, age, or any other factor which may serve as a locus of identity either to themselves or as perceived by others.
Queer theology is, at its heart, a discursive, social-justice centered, liberationist approach to matters of religion and faith. Goss notes that as an act, “[q]ueering is ultimately opening space to new immigrant identities to articulate their own perspectives” (50). Through a willingness to engage in dialogue, however challenging, we work toward making the religious experience one which has relevance to an underserved and underrepresented population. There currently exists a culture of shame which bars us from serving those who we perceive as different. Through letting go of our attachment to binary frameworks and respecting the multiplicity of identities that comprise every person’s experience, we become better advocates and allies for the populations we serve. By employing a queer perspective, we can work to reclaim theology from its service to existing systemic institutionalized prejudice. With a queer theology, we can reclaim religion and faith to serve all of humanity by radically, actively accepting every person with respect and compassion.
Rodriguez, Eric M. “At the Intersection of Church and Gay: A Review of the Psychological Research on Gay and Lesbian Christians.” Journal of Homosexuality 57.1 (2010): 5-38. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 May, 2012.
Goss, Robert F. “Queer Theologies as Transgressive Metaphors: New Paradigms for Hybrid Sexual Theologies.” Theology & Sexuality: The Journal of the Institute for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality 5.10 (1999): 43. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 May 2012.
Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
Michalik, Regina. “The Desire for Philosophy: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Lolapress.org. Lola Press, 2001. Web. 15 May 2012.
Yip, Andrew K. T. “Queering Religious Texts: An Exploration of British Non-Heterosexual Christians and Muslims Strategy of Constructing Sexuality- Affirming Hermeneutics.” Sociology 39.1 (2005): 47-65. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 May 2012.
This paper was originally written for Foundations of Religious Studies and Philosophy, offered at Marylhurst University, Winter 2012.