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

Queer Studies and Religion: Methodologies of Freedom

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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. 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]
  2. 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]
  3. 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]
  4. Ibid., 129. [Return to text]
  5. Ibid., 134-135. [Return to text]