What does it mean to have a queer relationship to gender, sexuality, and spiritual identity?
This question has been on my mind during my final semester of divinity school. The question itself is not new to me — I’ve been wrestling with my own relationship to queerness, gender, and spiritual identities for more than fifteen years now. But it’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, not only because of rising popularity of religiously-sanctioned authoritarian movements around the world, but also because I’ve been fortunate to take a class on multireligious perspectives in Queer Studies this semester.
I’d like to use this space to reflect on the intersections of queerness, gender, sexuality, and religiously hybrid spiritual identity. I am particularly interested how those of us whose experiences and existences defy ideas of binary gender and normative sexualities live in relationship to complex spiritual identities. To this end, I want to create space for a series of conversations with other folks of queer genders and sexualities to reflect on our experiences of and relationships to religion. Just as many of us defy constructed binaries in our lived experiences of gender and sexuality, so too do we reject similar binaries in our experiences of spiritual identity. Many of us live religiously hybrid lives, lives of spiritual fluidity and multireligiosity, but we often don’t have spaces to discuss this. I am particularly excited to focus this series on the perspectives of multireligious queer people whose experiences are often invisibilized and stifled in dominant culture discussions of gender, sexuality, and religion.
This introductory post focuses on two topics that will inform this series: 1) who I am and how I come to this work and 2) understanding theories of queerness and gender.
My Connections To This Work
I am a queer/bisexual, genderfluid person of multireligious practice. While my most recent ancestors are best described as Christian, and I was raised in a conservative Christian community in what is currently called the U.S. South, I began to understand that Christianity was not my heart’s home tradition in my teens. My family and faith community rarely discussed queerness or queer people during my childhood and teens. We discussed trans people even more rarely. When queer and trans people were talked about, the conversation was based in lies and harmful scriptural interpretations regarding sexuality, gender, and desire.
I realized as a teenager that I was not straight, although I did not have the precise words or frameworks to describe my identity due to the abysmal state of my education around desire, gender, and sexuality. I finally began to understand and explore my own gender, desires, and sexuality in college, and as a result experienced an enormous shift of reality away from conservative Christian constructions of the world.
During this time and the decade that followed, I was supported by friends and mentors of many different spiritual identities from many different spiritual traditions. I was invited into relationship and sacred experience in: Atheist and agnostic communities; Baha’i Faith; Tibetan Buddhism; Zen Buddhism; Catholic and progressive Protestant Christian denominations (Independent Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Quaker, United Church of Christ); Islam; Taoism; and Unitarian Universalism. I found a home in Unitarian Universalism. I had experienced a call to ministry many years before, but had been uncertain of how to follow that calling to a traditional divinity school; when I learned that there were UU seminaries, and one with a specific focus on multireligious practice and social justice, I knew that was the seminary for me.
During my time at Starr King, I have deepened my relationships with all the traditions mentioned above and have also experienced a call to become Jewish. It’s difficult to sum up my own religious identity, but right now I would describe myself as situated within Judaism and profoundly impacted and influenced by my ancestral tradition of Christianity, my chosen traditions of Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, and my experiences in atheist and agnostic, Baha’i, Muslim, and Taoist spaces. The tapestry of my spiritual identity would be incomplete without each of these threads, and I look very forward to learning from the threads that are yet to be woven in.
What is queerness, and what does it mean to be queer?
These are big questions. They may be unanswerable, because the meanings of “queer” — and our relationships to these meanings — are always complex, shifting, and expanding. Far better theorists, scholars, activists, and folks than I have offered nuanced ideas about what queerness is and what it is becoming, and I’m not going to try to replicate that particular work here. I do want to briefly give an introduction to some of the ideas that have shaped queer theory and to broadly outline what is meant by “queer” in this series.
The field of modern queer theory is greatly indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, a French theorist who made massive contributions to the ways we think about how power, sexuality, and the body are related, constructed categories. Foucault’s work deals also deals with subjectivity, or the processes by which power and discourse create categories and subjects. Foucault writes about the ways in which modern discourses created the category of “homosexual,” demarcating people whose behaviors fall within (or are perceived to fall within) that category as different and deviant from the normative category of “heterosexual.” It’s difficult to overstate the degree to which Foucault’s work has influenced theories of queerness as a category and queer people as subjects within that category. I am neither a theorist nor a scholar of Foucault, and this is an extreme reduction of his ideas. However, I would be remiss in failing to mention Foucault’s enormous influence on the ways that we think and talk about queerness.
Foucault’s work is important in many ways, but one of the most relevant to the concerns of queer religious people is the way he articulates constructions of sexuality as modern inventions. In very simple terms, the idea is that our current construction of sexuality did not exist prior to a specific, relatively recent point in time. Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand put it this way: “sexuality per se did not exist — could not have existed — in any society, anywhere, much before the nineteenth century because sexuality is the result of modern deployment of a particular set of discourses that came into being relatively late in the history of the West.” (Ormand and Blondell) It matters that we understand that our ideas about sexuality are a modern invention dating from around the 1800s, especially when countering oppressive narratives around scriptural interpretation and spiritual practice that insist sacred texts condemn queer and trans people. If dominant-culture European constructions of sexuality and gender as we know them today did not exist when our sacred scriptures were set down, they cannot condemn queerness and transness, which did not exist as categories to condemn — or queer people and trans people, who did not exist as subjects to condemn!
Judith Butler is another giant in the field of queer theory (and gender studies). It’s likewise difficult to overstate the influence of Butler’s ideas about gender as it pertains to the fields of queer theory and gender studies. A central concept we take from Butler’s work is the idea of gender as performance. Butler argues that gender is not an inherent biological trait, but is rather a learned process of enactment. To perform gender is to accustom oneself to manipulating the body and material environments in specific ways: we learn how to speak, move, gesture, act, dress, adorn ourselves, etc., in a way that will convey a specific meaning. In this way, we perform gender.
Butler’s work calls attention to the porousness and malleability of gender. Using Butler’s framework, we understand that just as we can learn to perform gender, we can learn to alter, expand upon, and invent new modes of performance. This leads to the idea of queering gender and gender performance.
Foucault’s articulation of the ways in which power and discourse produce categories of oppression and Butler’s articulation of gender as performance have shaped our understanding of queerness as both a category and a site of rupture. Queerness as a category has emerged in response to the construction of heterosexuality and heterosexual desire (and sexual desire, period) as the dominant norm in European colonial cultures. It has also emerged in response to gender being constructed as an inherent binary linked to particular embodiments.
In my own words, to queer something — be it sexuality and desire, gender performance, or spiritual identity — is to play at intersections of rebellion, chaos, and liberation. It is the act of resisting neat acceptance of what we are told we are in favor of living the questions of who we know ourselves to be, and of what that being means in relationship to others. To queer something is to embody a site of rupture when it comes to the discipline dominant culture enacts on us. The act of queering is an invitation to unbind our notions of narrow categories of the possible, the “normal,” the “correct” way of being, and open to multiplicity, complexity, and constant emergence of new ways and shapes of being.
What does queerness mean to you?
Citations: Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand, “Introduction: One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years of Homosexuality,” in Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand eds. Ancient Sex: New Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015, page 8.