Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Queer Studies and Religion: Methodologies of Freedom


One of the first, and arguably most significant, moments when queerness and religion intersected in my life, was during a conversation I had with my mother’s oldest sister in the summer of 2001. Aunt Mary was our family’s matriarch and religious authority, and she is credited with ushering many of my family members into the fold of Black Southern Pentecostalism. I had just graduated from college and I was visiting my hometown before moving to Atlanta with my girlfriend. Because I had only dated men until I was a senior in college (and had recently discontinued my engagement to a man of whom my family was quite fond), my family was trying to come to grips with my new orientation to life, love, and relationships. Aunt Mary called to say she wanted to have a chat with me before I left town. As we sat in her living room–a space usually designated for bible studies, formal visits, and serious conversations–I waited for her to wax eloquent on the biblical and theological reasons that I should reconsider my current path toward certain life and soul destruction. Instead, she inquired a bit about the nature of my relationship, hit a few points about the danger of my soul and finally sighed. “This just isn’t the life I had planned for you,” she said with a kind of resignation that bespoke exasperation and hopelessness. I nodded and simply said, “I know.”

Before it was about my new “queer” sexuality, or my ability to relate to our family’s (queer-from-my-perspective) religion, her concern for my life was about the loss of narrative coherence for our lives. That is, I was presenting a life and new set of possibilities that were situated outside of what she had imagined for me, outside of the story of our family’s collective self-understanding. The new life that was before us—my life—did not coincide with the norms of sexuality, gender, and religious practice that were a part of our family’s presumed set of values. By taking a detour from the family’s vision for my life—a move that I found liberating and full of possibility—I had shifted my orientation, literally and figuratively, to a queer version of what was possible in divine and mundane spaces. Even more, I shifted my orientation to the cosmos and found new connections between religiosity and sexuality. For her, this was a source of pain and fear. After all, who might I become without the stability of long-established identity markers, without social scripts to guide my relationship with God? For me, it was something different. I began to wonder, in that moment and ever since, who we might all become with the instability of newly discovered subjectivity. I began to wonder about freedom.

As a social ethicist, I have been interested in the kinds of technologies of normalization (social, political, economic, and religious tools of norm creation and maintenance) that contribute to material realities of oppression for sexually and racially minoritized and marginalized people. My personal and professional question is a simple one: for what purpose and through what means are some among us subjugated? Two concerns anchor this inquiry. First, I want to know how and why we subjugate people. Second, I am asking how and why some people become ontologically subjugated. I want to know and understand the tools and strategies at work in the creation of oppressed subjectivities. For the last several years, I have pursued an answer to these questions through a combined study of religion—particularly Christian ethics—and queerness, as it has been articulated through queer theories. And because religion is a queer thing, more questions arise than answers.

What if the intersection of religion and queer studies resides in each one’s capacity to foster human pursuits of freedom? What if they both give us new ways to think about how our liberation is tied up with the destruction and dismantling of oppressive orderings of the world as well as ways that we allow ourselves to fit into others’ narratives of our lives? In fact, I wonder if they both illustrate—through intersubjective knowledge production—ways of imagining and then generating freedom.

In this essay, I suggest that religion and queer studies can be understood as methodologies of freedom that confront and dismantle technologies of normalization. By examining the parallel, symbiotic, and freedom-oriented relationship between the two, I illustrate how religion and queer studies “make a way” for self-actualization, accountability to self and other, and individual and collective creation of liberative life narratives. Freedom is built in the space created by this “way.” It is the space where folks might find new nourishment to re-create, re-generate, and sustain life. It is the space of liberative possibility.

A Phenomenological Parallel between Religion and Queer Studies

I often hear family members and friends describe religion as a set of beliefs and practices that help them justify their own and others’ experiences. They seem to suggest that religion’s purpose is to offer a framework for understanding why, how, when, and to whom things happen. For them, religion acts as a kind of foundation for explanations about what ought to be. In their understandings, religion is an ethical barometer that measures multiple experiences of reality against a stable (though hardly tangible) ideality. Similarly, some folk describe social identity categories as proper tools for differentiating between and (presumably) understanding human beings. I hear claims (from my students, for example) that though stereotypes might arise from these categorizations, they are useful for helping us understand who we are. And, more importantly, they are helpful for shaping what and how we know about others. Social categories, they suggest, instruct us on how to name and treat people. Like folks’ notions of religion, social identity categories provide a framework for organizing and making differentiations within the context of human diversity.

These conceptions of religion, together with normative categories of social identity, offer prescriptions of ontological perfection. For example, when religious and other institutional spaces designate who can wear what clothing in certain contexts, they are producing gender through the creation of boundaries around “perfect” gender categories. Such prescriptions project hegemonic ideations of human experiences, thereby inhibiting imagination, creativity, and subjective possibility. Rather than generating spaces that make room for the development of many and varied stories of human experiences, prescriptive understandings of religion and normative categories of social identity invite us describe what is through a lens of what ought to be.

While it is no surprise that queer studies dismantles and deconstructs norms, it is less obvious (perhaps to some) that religion, too, can be a means of confronting and destabilizing norms through liberative meaning making. In fact, I have always been interested in the paradoxical nature of religion: it has the queer capacity of standing outside of and counter to the society for which it was dictating hegemonies. This simultaneity—the oneness of religion’s positional complexity—emerges from its meaning-making role in the human experience.

Charles Long defines religion as an orientation to the cosmos.[1] I agree that religion is a means by which folk articulate what we understand about ourselves and the world(s) in which we live. I also think that religion calls for an examination of our orientation(s) to the cosmos. That is, religion draws on human capacity to make meaning of cosmological beliefs and to translate those meanings into to bodily and material products. I find the idea that people can make sense of their imagination about who/what is in the world through ritual and community quite queer. The simultaneous fluidity and fixity generated by religious ritual and performance confounds because these rituals and performances are never completely fixed or fluid. They change with the intentions, influences, incarnations, and impact of those who are engaging them, and they are anchored by the rich histories, narratives, and articulations of the cosmological understandings that produced them. In short, though religion can restrict possibilities, it has the potential to unsettle, re-tell, and reinvigorate fundamental notions about the divine and the mundane.

The translation of cosmological understanding into bodily and material products, which includes a bridging of time, space, realms, symbols, bodies, and perceptions, requires the constant dismantling of boundaries that divide what is from what might be. Such a dismantling is the phenomenological point where I believe religion and queer studies meet. Queer studies—and the concept of queer in general—stands as a corrective to normative social categorization. Artistic, activist, and academic uses of queerness(es) dissect and analyze technologies of normalization and normalizing structures that lead to hierarchical orderings of human beings. Queer studies confronts hegemonic notions of subjectivity and deconstructs the normativizing knowledge production that leads to those notions in the first place. This theoretical work in queer studies, which is focused on disentangling narratives of normativity, is a means of developing and attending to more liberative understandings of human experience and subjectivity. That is, queer studies fosters investigations of human circumstance and human experience that have as their aim uninhibited self- and communal knowledge. This aim of queer studies to make meaning about human lives and experiences allows folks to live into multiple, intersecting, and nuanced articulations of selfhood and relationality.

Inasmuch as queer studies promotes a deconstruction of polarities and dimorphisms, it is more than appropriate as a tool of analysis for religion, religious practices, and religious studies. In fact, it helps us understand human meaning-making beyond a focus on what humans ought to be. Rather, queer studies forces us to consider, evaluate, and create meanings through a lens of what could be, if we were willing to deconstruct the proscriptions that inhibit our freedom. Our willingness to engage in this deconstruction, then, makes room for imaginative possibility to serve as the foundation for understanding what is. For this reason, queer studies is a necessary lens for understanding how the creation and shaping of subjectivities and relational aspirations through ritual, belief, and cosmologies is a product and producer of knowledge – knowledge that contributes to the dismantling of oppressive hierarchies. This process of confronting and taking down oppressive hierarchies (for investigation and dismissal) is a necessary work toward freedom. And, in an effort to foster this freedom, we need to queer (the study of) religion.

A Necessary Symbiosis between Religion and Queer Studies

Religion and queerness have often been put at odds with one another. Their polarized relationship is the philosophical and ethical inheritance of Cartesian dualism. René Descartes successfully convinced Western philosophers of his time, and for centuries after, that the mind and body are distinct and differentially valued elements of the human experience. In the hierarchical ordering of mind and body, the mind (and, perhaps, the soul) is the highest form of the self. This form of the self, in which consciousness is possible, became the realm (in theological discourse) where religious capacities and moral intelligence could be developed. The body, on the other hand, was the realm in which physical form and tangibility ruled, as the body had no capacity to exist by itself because it could not think. In addition, the body housed debased desires, including sexuality. This conceptual framing of religion/spirituality and sexuality/bodies as mutually exclusive led to a polarization in human practice. That is, folks began to understand themselves and categorize one another as either religious or sexual. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s stance on priesthood and celibacy. In addition, the creation of categories of sexual deviance—through the labeling of unauthorized and minoritized practices, proclivities, and orientations—resulted in notions of queerness (negative oddness that echoed eugenicists’ descriptions of racial difference). As queerness represented sexual deviance, and sexual deviance was counter-religious, then queerness and religion moved to opposite ends of the human experience spectrum. Sexual “deviants” were assumed to be without religion, and religious folks were denied any real attachment to sexuality, queer or otherwise.

I liken this artificial and forced distinction between queerness and religion to that of life and death, which are also often understood in terms of polarity. The distance between the two polarized ends represents a messy space where the transformational, transitional, and trans-categorical logistics feels like too much for our minds to bear. I recently attended a gathering of black lesbians who were interested in conversations around the intersection of women’s health, aging, death, dying, and religion. We came together for a meal and to engage in conversation with Dean Emilie Townes, who was in Atlanta for a conference on a similar theme. Most of the women in attendance identified as Christian practitioners, affiliates, or no-longer-practicing-but-culturally-attuned post-Christians. There was one self-identified atheist among us. At some point in the evening, the conversation turned toward folks’ understandings of and relationship to various conceptions of the Divine. Reverend Maressa Pendermon of Unity Fellowship Church in Atlanta, GA, remarked that during her formative years within Christianity she had not learned to trust God with her life. Instead, she had been taught to trust God with her death. That is, she was trained to understand God in the space of the unknown and intangible (mind/soul), leaving the space of the known and tangible (body/sexuality) outside of divine interest and protection.

There is an easy slippage between tangible knowledge that is gained through individual and collective experiences and the narrative fixity and stability that come from the practices, rituals, and social mores that make meaning of those experiences. That life brings fixity and stability is, on the one hand, comforting. It is the place where our subjectivities can see, touch, feel, and exist in material/tangible terms. Life is “real,” verifiable, and intelligible. On the other hand, though, the fixity and stability of our experiences and interpretations are the foundations upon which normative ideas about human personhood are built. For this reason, life needs death.

Death acts a corrective for the epistemic arrogance that can emerge from life’s claim on knowledge. Rather than focus on the tangibility of what is, cosmological meaning making about the unknown depends on human capacity to engage the possibilities of what could be. This kind of knowledge development is as individually and collectively creative as that which comes from personal or shared experiences. Even more, it involves bridging the gap between what is known and what is felt, between what has been seen and what has been imagined.

Their mutual need for one another is the bridge that connects life and death. Each confirms the reality of the other. Each validates the other. Each destabilizes the other. Each challenges the other’s claim on permanence and subjective knowledge. Each dismantles the other’s distinctions between human singularity and interdependence. Each is a transformation of the other.

Like life and death, religion and queerness (and the study of each) have something to offer the other. Religion provides a relational focus for human cosmological musings and embodied practices, which can be lost in the individual-oriented freedom aims of queer studies. In the meantime, queer studies keeps religion’s tendency to essentialize human existence in check. In a basic sense, religion forces us to acknowledge the forest while queerness/queer studies highlights the trees.
Religion invites folks to make cosmological meaning through individually interpreted and collectively intelligible narratives. It is a frame in which individuals can understand themselves as part of a group effort to make sense of and experience the world. With the potential for the collective good at its center, religion insures a kind of relationality that is dependent upon one’s ability to understand oneself through the embodied, cognitive, and emotional lens of group-sanctioned cosmologies. In this kind of relationality, the point of reference for meaning making lies outside the self, though it requires individual willingness and participation. Even if observed or practiced in solitude, religion is a means for understanding oneself in relation to other interpretations of what is and could be. The relationality and collectivity inherent in religion, along with the narrative coherence for which religion makes room, bring about both fixity and possibility.

Of course, like religion, queerness and queer studies are inherently relational.[2] The difference in queer and queer studies’ relationality, however, are the aims to dismantle any notion of human existence that is built upon a negation of human diversity. Queerness invites folks to challenge the inhibiting elements of permanence, hegemony, and categorization that can surface in religious practice and discourse. By calling into question the language, structures, institutions, and platitudes that coherent narratives often bring about, queerness and queer studies act as correctives against the potential subjective erasure that can come from such narratives. They accomplish this by using the self as a point of reference for meaning making. That is, individual subjectivity is the lens through which they assess religious and other narratives about the human experience. While religion tempers a queer tendency toward a false sense of individuality, queerness and queer studies interrogate the narratives that religion creates to make meaning of humanity.

A Shared Goal of Religion and Queer Studies

Narratives are both illustrative and productive; they assume and create identities. When they try to impose coherence on human variability and diversity in response to the chaos of human possibility, they act as a policing force. In a positive way, narratives bind folks with one another through this coherence, reaffirming and strengthening relational bonds and social accountability. Through this binding, though, they can create a false sense of a cohesive and integrated whole that comes from unified and stable identities. Within such narrative illustration and production, subjective authenticity is marked by the assumption of an individual, internal, and coherent identity that is intelligible within the group. This subjective and narrative coherence is both product and producer of limited notions of human possibility.

Both religion and queerness remind us that narratives can and ought to reflect a different human reality. They can demonstrate that our lives and stories are neither coherent nor unified nor even linear. Religion and queerness/queer studies can point us toward the unquestionable variability and alterity in humanity and open us up toward the possibility of freedom. The collective good is arguably at the center of both religious and queer definitions of freedom. Navigating the space between self-actualization and interpersonal/community accountability requires that they draw on one another to examine the outcomes of their meaning making. Fixity and closed scripts, of course, are built upon marginalization and minoritization; they inhibit freedom and normalize oppressive narratives. Openness to possibility, however, which hinges upon the capacity to understand the self and the self’s relationship to others within a liberated frame, makes new and complicated life narratives possible. This liberated openness is the teleological aim and methodological purpose of both religion and queer studies, especially as they respond to the human experience of bondage created by fixity and normalization.

In the context of the United States, where the narratives and realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism draw on social, political, and economic discourse for support, religion and queer studies can be modes of understanding and creating freedom. To the degree that they invite counter-narratives, create counter-publics, and evoke counter-speech, both religion and queer studies respond to narratives that inhibit both self-actualization and social accountability. They dissect and analyze the normalizing technologies behind the creation and maintenance of race, class, sex, and gender divisions through purposeful attention to performance, social practice, language, and kinship organization. Religion and queerness also challenge the location and movement of internalized power and power within our communities, thereby inviting us to subvert those power schemes that systematically disenfranchise minoritized bodies and subjectivities. Such dissection, analysis, and subversion take place at the intersection of embodied subjective human experiences and critical reflection on those subjectivities and experiences within community, both of which are foundational to religion and queerness/queer studies.

When I close my eyes and remember some of the scenes from my earliest religious experiences, I see a decidedly queer scene. I can recall the conflicting images of bodies under siege, which were adorned with full, heavy covering, hot nylons, and hard uncomfortable shoes. I also recall bodies in motion, many of which filled with volume and spirit-filled movements that defied civility. People in my church recognized each other’s religiosity through a variety of markers: a shared language of prayer, the de facto uniformity in their clothing, the familiar cadence of their individual testimonies, and their stories of weekly struggle and survival. They also recognized each other’s variability in the special shifts and shuffles of their shouts, the intensity and diverse foci of their glossolalia, the placement of their hands as they clapped. In short, they recognized one another’s differences through the ways that Spirit showed up in their bodies. This collective recognition and subjective manifestation of cosmological meaning making simultaneously liberated each of them and bound the whole of them. And, this simultaneity was as queer as it was religious.

Religion’s double role as a vehicle of emancipation and a tool of oppression is fascinatingly queer. On one hand, religion has often been a place of refuge, offering new constructions of worlds/ethos/cosmos that challenge, reframe, and re-orient people to experiences and perspectives of collective and individual oppression and bondage. On the other hand, it has been a contributor to such experiences, acting as a tool of regulation and dehumanization (through various insistences that some human subjectivities, proclivities, and bodies are not natural or human). This second role is one that many of us are slow to acknowledge. Yet, when we engage in the study of how and why people make meaning, construct worlds, produce social and political boundaries, and enact hopes, we cannot deny that religion is a product and producer of constrictive social categorization at the same time that it dismantles individual and collective relations to categories.

Queerness and queer studies bear a similar kind of simultaneity. On one hand, queer perspectives and designations sometimes work to reify what is understood as normal. Even more, they can suggest that there is a significant distinction between what is normal and what is queer, blurring the lines between regularity and the normativization of that regularity. On the other hand, though, queerness does have within itself definitional and categorical elasticity. As such, the notion of queerness, and its subsequent study looks a lot like what happens in religion. Through queer lenses, we question subjectivities, boundaries, definitions, perspectives, and experiences as they relate to the material reality that diverse individuals and communities have. This, I believe, is freedom work.

Freedom means nothing unless we complicate its relationship to concepts of individuality. To be clear, I am not invoking a liberal notion of freedom here. And, I do not understand it as the management of control, nor the negotiation of the space between domination and subjugation.[3] Rather, I understand freedom as the process by which we live into our own and collective agencies. It is the means by which we notice, negotiate, and navigate our own and others’ imaginative and productive creativity. Freedom presumes connectivity with self and others because it hinges on an ongoing effort to authentically engage one’s own material reality in the context of constant encounters with others. Religion and queerness (and the process of studying each) are tools for making room for these engagements and encounters because they both call us to break down assumptions about the self, social relations, and power. In short, they help us (re)create worlds by harnessing liberative possibility rather than depending upon constrictive stability.


Religion and queerness/queer studies challenge the notion that creating possibilities, identities, and responses to unjust social circumstances is outside the real of our individual and collective power and responsibility. Through religion and queerness, we ask questions of our selves and our theoretical and material surroundings. This creative questioning grounds our theoretical and material sense of self in a space beyond “free choice” and, instead, in a place of choice-limit destabilization.[4] That is, the creativity of religious discourse and practice, along with queer praxis, take back the notion of freedom from the valorization of individual choice and redirect it toward the destabilization of norms and disciplinary practices that block choice.”[5] As religion and queerness require a sense of understanding and owning one’s body, they generate a freedom that celebrates the “impulses, involuntary reactions, noises, fluids, and irregularities” of diverse human experience that could be squelched in normalization.[6]

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  1. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 1986) 7. [Return to text]
  2. See, for example, Janet Jakobsen, “Queer Relations: A Reading of Martha Nussbaum on Same-Sex Marriage.” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 19.1 (2010): 173-4. [Return to text]
  3. I develop this concept of freedom more clearly in Thelathia “Nikki” Young, “Queering ‘The Human Situation’”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 28.1 (2012): 130. [Return to text]
  4. Cynthia Willett, Irony in the Age of Empire: Comic Perspectives on Democracy and Freedom (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008) 2-4. [Return to text]
  5. Ibid., 129. [Return to text]
  6. Ibid., 134-135. [Return to text]