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Queer(ing) Religion

Global Christian and Islamic perspectives

Published onMay 04, 2022
Queer(ing) Religion
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When considering marginalized repertoires of living together, the question of queer lives in the context of mainstream religion is particularly illuminating. There has been increased critical attention to the academic tendency to treat religion and religious studies as antagonistic or irrelevant to (the study of) non-normative sexuality and gender. This article offers a brief overview of global contestations to this perceived dichotomy. It offers an introduction to Christian and Muslim contributions to the effort of “queering religion,” or the effort to push back, in different ways, against the idea that queerness and religion are intrinsically opposed. I restrict this inquiry here to these two faith traditions because of a shared prioritization of text and interpretation on the part of many Christian and Muslim scholars in this project of queering. Furthermore, the body of scholarship on contemporary approaches to non-normative gender and sexuality within these two traditions is by far the most plentiful.1

Religious studies scholar Melissa Wilcox has observed that “many queer theorists, like many queer activists and perhaps many LGBT people in general, regard religion as so inimical to their purposes and lives that it is not even worthy of critique” [Wilcox 2006:73]. Queer theorist Jasbir Puar has argued that notions of freedom and secularity are fundamental to the queer imperative to transgress against constrictive religious norms, rendering the existence of a “queer agential subject” inside the framework of religion impossible [Puar 2007:13]. Similarly, in her foreword to the edited volume Queering Religion, Religious Queers, Jodi O’Brien criticizes the assumed dissonance between religion and non-normative gender and sexuality, seeking to disrupt the notion that “religion = oppression and secularization = emancipation” [Taylor and Snowdon 2014:xiv]. Adriaan van Klinken, in his work on Kenyan Christian gay men, addresses the “secular assumptions of queer studies”, noting that “religion has hardly received detailed critical attention from queer theorists, who thus have failed to grasp the potential of religious traditions not only to reinforce but also to subvert heteronormativity” [Van Klinken 2019:14].

The inquiry into this potential is especially crucial given the role, well-documented by sociology and anthropology scholars, that religion has played and still plays in the lives of many queer individuals. Several studies among queer Christians and Muslims have identified the (re-)making of queer religious selves as an important strategy alongside compartmentalization or rejection of either religion or queerness [Rodriguez & Ouellette 2000] [Minwalla, Rosser, Feldman, & Varga 2005] [Shah 2016]. The queering of religious texts, or “constructing sexuality-affirming hermeneutics” [Yip 2005] is key to individual and collective efforts to reconcile non-normative gender and sexuality with religious discourse and practice within Muslim and Christian communities.

Queering the Muslim Tradition

Kecia Ali has noted that “the desire on the part of some self-identified gay and lesbian Muslims to have exclusive and publicly recognized same-sex relationships, and to do so in a way that falls within an ‘Islamic’ framework, is without precedent in Muslim history”[Ali 2013: 78]. Systematic efforts to “queer” Islamic frameworks started to gain traction at the dawn of the twenty-first century [Jamal 2001]. Muslim thinkers began to question medieval Islamic legal thought and the modern interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith derived from that thought, which almost invariably judged non-normative sexuality and gender to be sinful [Habib 2008]. The pioneering work of US scholar Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam [2010], has been influential for both queer Muslims themselves as well as other scholars seeking to contribute to a queer-positive reading of Islam. Building on Farid Esack’s liberation theology [Esack 1997], Kugle offers a contextualized reading of the Qur’an and hadith, challenging the patriarchal and homophobic biases that undergird existing interpretations.

The strategies adopted by Kugle and other queer-positive Muslim thinkers signifies its legacy to Islamic feminist discourse, which has for decades sought to offer alternatives to patriarchal approaches to Islam from within an Islamic framework. Important contributors to the discourse of Islamic feminism include Shamima Salahuddin Shaikh, Fatima Mernissi [1987, 1991], Amina Wadud [1999, 2006], Asma Barlas [2002], Ziba Mir-Hosseini [1999, 2006] and Musdah Mulia [Mulia 2015], as well as the interpretative efforts and publications of numerous Islamic feminist organizations such as Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, Rumah KitaB in Indonesia, and the global movement Musawah [Derichs 2010].

Nadja-Christina Schneider has argued for a distinction between Islamic feminism as a discursive movement, which is mostly based in the normative texts, and the wide geographical and ideological variety of movements that draw on or refer to this discursive praxis [Schneider 2009]. Similarly, the diversity of queer-positive Muslim efforts can broadly be categorized in text-based approaches on the one hand, and the community leaders, collectives, and movements that build and expand upon this discourse with regards to praxis and everyday experiences. I will discuss the former approach first, and return to the latter in the last section of this article.

Most queer-positive text-based approaches start from the reinterpretation of Qur’anic verses, in particular those about the prophet Lūṭ. Dispersed throughout the Qur’an (i.e. Q 7:80-84, 25:40, 26:160-175, 54:33-39), these verses describe the events surrounding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah after its inhabitants refuse to heed Lūṭ’s divinely inspired command to change their sinful ways. According to the Qur’anic narrative, the male inhabitants of the cities attempt to rape the two angels who, disguised as handsome men, are visiting Lūṭ. Their eventual destruction by God is, in many mainstream interpretations, taken as evidence of the sinfulness of homosexuality. Queer-affirming interpreters, on the other hand, argue that the crimes of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were violent sexual acts, such as rape and infidelity, rather than homosexuality [Jamal 2001][Shah 2016] [Hendricks 2010] [Kugle 2010] [Muhammad, Mulia, & Wahid 2011]. Aside from Qur’anic interpretation, these scholars have also sought to critically reevaluate the authenticity of hadiths that are used in heteronormative religious discourse, and have suggested reforms to the aspects of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that denounce non-normative sexuality and gender.

Another way in which recent scholarship has sought to contest the assumed opposition between queerness and religiosity is through the uncovering of alternative histories. Mainstream historical Islamic legal discourse and its current selective application in some Muslim-majority countries have led to prohibitions of same-sex sexuality and/or non-normative gender practices. This has served as the justification for the widely held view that queerness and Islam are, and have always been, incompatible. Contesting this view, scholars such as Murray and Roscoe [1997], El-Rouayheb [2005], and Samar Habib [2007, 2010] have uncovered a long tradition of non-heterosexuality in a wide variety of historical Islamic contexts, ranging from sexual and gender diverse practices to literature and poetry. These accounts serve not only to “queer” the history of Islam and Muslims, but also to challenge notions of queer secularity and the assumed “clash” between religion and queerness.

Queering Christianity

Christian queer theology arose around the 1960s, amidst the flourishing of gay and lesbian activism in the US and the popularization of Christian liberation theology [Greenough 2019:8]. Initially formulated by the Peruvian scholar Gutierrez Gustavo [1971], Christian liberation theology seeks to address social and economic injustice through prioritizing the perspective of the poor and oppressed in the project of liberation and salvation. These ideas have inspired other movements, such as feminist, womanist, and Black theology [Rowland 2007]. Among those contributions was a range of lesbian and gay theologies, which sought to question patriarchal interpretations of the Bible and emphasized the God-given nature of same-sex relationships and gay and lesbian identities [Comstock 1993] [Gill 1998] [Oberholtzer 1971]. The advent of queer theory around the turn of the millennium infused emerging theologies with Foucault’s ideas on discourse, Judith Butler’s performativity theory, and generally troubled the idea of identity [Schneider and Roncolato 2012]. As Mary Elise Lowe has pointed out, the tensions between gay/lesbian theologies and queer theologies revolves around questions of identity as well as political strategies:

Simply put, gay/lesbian theologians can make the essentialist argument and stand in solidarity with homosexuals in congregations and argue for full inclusion. The queer political approach, however, rejects the essentialist solidarity argument and claims that gender is performance and all persons are queer. This opens the door to trans, bi, and queer persons and challenges discourses about sexuality, gender, relationships, and family commonly operating in Christian churches [Lowe 2009].

Queer theologies have in common not only the destabilization of the categories of religion, sex, sexuality, and gender, but also the assertion of Christianity (and the figure of Christ) as inherently and historically queer [Stuart 2003]. A formative text in this regard is Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology, which is a “critical continuation” of feminist liberation theology applying “sexual honesty.” Indecent Theology brings together queer theory with important lines of thought from postcolonial and Marxist studies [Althaus-Reid 2000]. Like Althaus-Reid, scholars globally have brought intersectional critiques to existing queer theologies, particularly their intersections with race and gender [Kornegay 2012, 2013] [Lightsey 2015].

The Theory and Study of Queer(ing) Religion

Greenough cautions that the global emergence of various “queer” theologies does not necessarily mean that these approaches engage with queer theory and its disruptive, anti-identity-driven agenda [Greenough 2019:34-36]. How, then, can we conceptualize queering as an approach in diverse Islamic and Christian (and otherwise religious) contexts? Karen E. Macke describes queering as “an important goal of social science research, a critical intervening on the normative structures, discourses, and practices that construct and police sexual and gendered subjects” [Macke 2014:13]. The Christian and Islamic approaches to queer religion described in the two prior sections can be seen as such interventions. When it comes to the study of these interventions and the way they impact on everyday religious discourse and practice, Macke proposes the term “’que(e)rying’ to denote a particular strategy or methodology driving the overall research, encompassing everything from theory to methods of data collection and analysis to writing” [Macke 2014:14]. Que(e)rying as a methodology focuses, for example, on the “dialectical” relationship between the discourses of sex, gender, sexuality, and religion, and the ways in which these play out in any particular research setting. Countering the dichotomies laid out in section one requires a critical approach to existing queer (theoretical) perspectives as well as a constant reflection on context:

Applying queer theoretical approaches to/in the study of religion results in different topics that can surface as proper objects of study. It is to be expected that these topics change depending on the geographic, cultural and political context and the shape of studying religion queerly is thus never finally determined [Schippert 2011: 69-70].

Neither the queering of religion, nor its study, then, constitutes a single project. Rather, like the term “queer” itself, if queer religion is to be

“a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted [and] queered from a prior usage” [Butler 1993:18].

Queer Religion in Everyday Life

Along with the blooming of theoretical or text-based approaches to queering Christianity and Islam, queer-positive religious movements and spaces have mushroomed globally during the last few decades [Talvacchia 2015]. In the context of the US, Heather White [2008] traces back gay Christian organizing to Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s who actively battled against homophobia and exclusion in the church. This “gay church movement” accelerated around the 1970s, giving rise to a wide range of LGBTQ+ inclusive Christian spaces and networks of various denominations [Hopkins 2014]. From the US to Kenya [Van Klinken 2019], and from the UK to Indonesia, inclusive churches and activist groups all over the world have started to provide much-needed spaces to those seeking to live Christianity outside of the constraints of heteronormativity.

Islamic queer-positive spaces, too, have taken shape in the form of online and offline mosques and communities. In some geographical contexts, such initiatives are of an increasingly public nature. 2 Elsewhere, however, political and social circumstances have forced such spaces to remain more hidden, accessible only to those within trusted circles. In Indonesia, for example, where I conducted fieldwork from 2017 to 2020, queer Muslims have been met with such hostility and threats that collectives catering to them continue to exist mostly underground [Jansen, forthcoming]. Although there is a lack of research on queer-positive Muslim initiatives in countries where non-normative sexuality and gender is punishable by law, it seems likely that queer Muslims in many such contexts have found ways to gather and practice.

The flourishing of queer inclusive religious spaces notwithstanding, many individuals continue to face hardship in dealing with the still prevalent religious opposition to non-normative gender and sexuality. The worrying trend towards state-backed homophobic and transphobic opposition and violence in places such as Italy [Lavizzari & Prearo 2019], Poland [Bucholc 2022], and Brazil [Payne & Aruska de Souza Santos 2020] has worked to further complicate and endanger the presence of queer individuals in religious spaces. On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, scholarship has consistently indicated positive (re)integration of queerness and religiosity as a desirable and sustainable strategy for individuals across geographical and religious contexts. The many and various scholarly and activist approaches, of which this article only touches upon a selection, will continue to shape and re-shape the contours of queer religion.

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