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

Queer Studies, Queer Faith, and the Construction of Religion in the Public Sphere in the Netherlands

In the research project Contested Privates,[1] based in the Netherlands, the researchers aim to use gender and queer studies in order to unmask the stereotypes and uncover subtexts with alternative constructions of both homosexuality and religion, contributing to ways of overcoming polarized states of affairs. We expect that the extent to which queer studies is implemented in various levels in society will be one of the explanatory factors (next to political and religious configurations) of why public debates might differ per national context. In the context of this research, I understand “queer” in the way defined by Tiina Rosenberg as “not so much a certain individual, but rather a way of marking and making concrete heteronormativity as an exclusionary and stigmatizing practice.”[2]

In this paper I would like to investigate why queerness (as a practice, a theory and a theology) is picked up on only reluctantly by religious LGBT communities and in religious emancipation language in the Netherlands, (focusing on Christianity), and what the consequences of this troublesome incorporation of queer theory into religious communities (and beyond) might imply for public debates on religion and homosexuality. I would like to start by illustrating the troublesome relationship between queer studies and Christian LGBT-work in the Netherlands, using two brief examples, before turning to the incorporation of queer studies in LGBT activism in general. I will then discuss the role of religion in contemporary emancipatory discourse, followed by some preliminary reflections on the potential of queering public discourse.

Incorporating Queer in Christian LGBT Communities

In the Netherlands, approximately 130 LGBT theologians, pastors and high school teachers of religion form an informal study community formerly known as the Society of Gay Theologians. Not so long ago, after much debate, it switched to Society of Queer Theologians (Dutch: Werkverband van Queer Theologen, WQT). In 2013 the WQT board conducted a survey among the members, asking their opinion on suggested policy changes regarding the frequency of the meetings and the material to be studied, and on other issues related to being a queer theologian. As a board member, I was appointed the task of analyzing the results. One of the 23 respondents had answered the question whether there were things that needed to be changed as following: “‘Queer’ needs to be switched back to gay. ‘Queer’ does not make any sense and is much too undefined.” Perhaps it was the same member who answered yet another question with: “Please, let’s discuss less queer theology!” The queer-critical member seems to represent a group of members who do not see any potential in queer theology and who do not find the study of queer theology helpful at all in reaching the goals of the WQT (community, reflection and activism). Another example: recently, ContrariO, an organization for Reformed gays and lesbians, invited a number of affiliated organizations to work together on building a website where information regarding Christianity and homosexuality would be gathered. They suggested as the website title. Through e-mail, a discussion about this title evolved among the organizations. Some felt that using the term “homo” (referring exclusively to male homosexuality) was—once again—taking the gay male perspective as the dominant point of view, excluding lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and (other) queers. Alternative terms like “pink,” “rainbow,” “LGBT” and “queer” were suggested. In defense of the website title it was stated that the information needed to be easily traced by people surfing the web, and that people were more likely to type “homo” than “LGBT,” or “queer,” an abbreviation and word not very common in the Dutch language. It was thus decided to opt for “christen-homo.” Among Christian LGBT theologians and lobby groups, then, there seems to be some reluctance or incapacity to adhere to the more inclusionary practices a queer approach might engender. Underlying this reluctance might be the fact that compared to the United States, queer theology in the Netherlands is much less developed. Recently an edited volume on queer theology was published,[3] but as of yet this volume is one of a kind. With such a limited reservoir of queer theology written in the Dutch language, Christian LGBT groups, should they want to incorporate queer activism in their work, have very little conceptual ground to stand on, and the theology of the (church) institutions they negotiate with is hardly challenged by queer theology. Recent research in the Netherlands has shown that the acceptance of homosexuality in the Netherlands is very high compared to other European countries, but that conservative Protestants as well as Muslims form an exception.[4] As queer theologian Elizabeth Stuart has pointed out, it is precisely among neo-orthodox Protestants that more inclusive theologies such as liberation theology, which aims at social justice, or post-modernist theology, which includes the perspectives of marginal social groups, are met with suspicion.[5] Neo-orthodoxy does however make use of the social and epistemological space created by post-modernism by re-introducing its own normative frame in the public sphere as one of several legitimate perspectives after the end of the “grand narrative.”

Queer in the Netherlands

The Netherlands have been known as a front-runner in LGBT rights, culminating in the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2001. Legal interventions in LGBT emancipation, however, have not automatically led to a “queering” of Dutch society. The cumbersome introduction of queer thinking in traditional Protestant theology and institutions, including Christian LGBT organizations, is therefore not restricted to Christianity. In Dutch society as a whole, queer has never become common either as a term (neither the English term nor an equivalent in Dutch), as a subversive strategy for social change, or as a mode of identification. Debates in the U.S. have often related the limited incorporation of queer theory and activism in LGBT lobbying and mainstream society to the perceived opposition between LGBT identity-politics on the one hand, and deconstructionist queer politics on the other.[6] It is argued that LGBT organizations are reluctant to queer their activities and discourse because an identity-based discourse is more strategically useful. In the Netherlands, however, one might wonder if the strategic potential of identity politics is (still) the main reason for queer’s failure to enter emancipatory activities and discourse. Identity-based politics seems no longer necessary in a country where homosexuality is broadly accepted, and queering society seems to be the logical next step now that LGBT rights are safely secured. Hekma and Duyvendak, however point to a “Dutch ambivalence” in society: LGBT rights are secured only in laws and not in behaviors.[7] This ambivalence can be seen in society as a whole (“gay-bashing” is still reported on a regular basis in the Netherlands) as well as within LGBT communities (Hekma and Duyvendak argue that the norm among lesbians and gays in the Netherlands is to “act straight,” avoiding behaviors or appearances that are conceived of as distinctly gay). The fact that LGBT emancipation so to speak “got stuck” at the level of legislation and did not develop further into a queer activism with all its potential of questioning heteronormative and gender normative practices, therefore, could point to homophobia present underneath optimistic statistics on the acceptance of homosexuality, but also to the indolence of LGBT’s who prefer a normalized life in peace over a rocky life of queer activism in the margins of society. The LGBT-movement appears to have become the victim of its own success, and the potential of queer theory and activism seems to have vanished when homosexuality was normalized and institutions like marriage became accessible. The risk of such an analysis, of course, is to mistake the countering of latent homophobic violence through the “normalization” of gay and lesbian lifestyles for indolence, thereby unjustly “blaming” gays, lesbians and straights for a lack of courage to question heteronormativity more thoroughly. The point I would like to make, however, is that the observation that LGBT emancipation in the Netherlands does not move in the direction of a queer questioning of gender norms and other normativities and hierarchies of heterosexuality is related to its focus on religion as a “last bastion” of resistance instead.

Numerous debates show how religion has become a central point of focus: the dismissal of gay and lesbian staff at Christian schools, Christian marriage registrars who refuse to conduct same-sex marriages, and Christian therapies aiming at the “curing” of homosexuality are but a few examples of cases which led to much controversy in Parliament and society at large. Developments and trends in the social acceptance of homosexuality in Christian and Muslim communities are closely monitored by the government. When this development is lagging behind, initiatives are developed and projects started to enhance acceptance, leading to new debates on the separation of church and state. While I feel that to the extent that religious argumentation leads to the exclusion, unequal treatment, or even discrimination of LGBT’s, debate and perhaps also government interference are justified and required, I would also like to argue that there might perhaps be other reasons why religion has such a central position in recent debates on the acceptance of homosexuality in Dutch society. First, the opposition to (conservative) religion offers gays and lesbians the opportunity to safeguard their position as accepted citizens through the construction of “another Other” who falls more outside of the normal than they do. The acceptance of homosexuality can be strengthened by an emphasis on those who lag behind, who do not comply with what at present is considered to be proper Dutch citizenship. This “proper Dutchness” is also accessible for heterosexuals who proclaim equal sexual rights in the face of religious opposition. Second, by constructing religion as necessarily oppositional to homosexuality, the question of queering society and questioning the normative principles on which the normal is founded can be postponed. Religion, when constructed as a powerful counterforce, legitimates an LGBT lobby in which the queering of society is a luxury that at present cannot be afforded.

Religion in a Queer Society: Expectations

The oppositional pairing of religion and homosexuality in public discourse does not do justice to the fact that there are in-between spaces: that of religious LGBT’s, or that of religious members of secular LGBT lobby groups, for instance. The polarized debate, however, with its essentialist constructions of both religion and homosexuality, does form the context in which religious LGBT’s need to negotiate their beliefs and identities. What might a broad(er) acceptance of queer in public discourse imply for the oppositional pairing of religion and homosexuality? What would debates look like when not just social acceptance, but also underlying principles of the normal became subject to scrutiny?

On the one hand, tensions between religion and homosexuality in public discourse might be expected to increase. A queer approach addresses and critically reviews not only sexual identity but also gender roles, and it opens up spaces for non-normative relationships (having more than one partner, S&M practices) and non-normative expressions of gender. “Religion,” then, is not only asked to “merely” accept gays and lesbians, but also to review its norms on exclusive relationships and complementarity between men and women, to give but a few examples. Such a fear of religious resistance toward queer thinking and practice, however, presupposes a particular kind of religion. Like the oppositional framing of religion and homosexuality in the public debates mentioned above, it rests on a quite simplified and outdated conceptualization of religion. Religion is recognized only as such when it presents itself in a conservative form, and there is very little attention for the nuances present also in conservative beliefs, practices and communities. As such, religion is maneuvered into being modernity’s Other and consequently perceived as constantly threatening the emancipatory values often associated with modern societies. Queering such shared conceptions, that is, critically reviewing the otherness of religion in modern society, might enable a more nuanced stance toward and deconstruct the binary opposition between religion and modernity, and uncover the presuppositions of secular normativity. This would benefit, first, religious LGBT’s who find themselves “caught in the middle.” In a world of rapidly declining religious literacy their religious or spiritual belonging is increasingly misunderstood or met with suspicion. Second, the introduction of queer thinking into public debate might allow for a sensitivity to religious language as pre-eminently a language that is useful in expressing that what remains invisible, suppressed, or “weird” in common language and experience.[8] The Bible includes perhaps more examples of what are currently conceived to be non-normative sexualities than does present-day Dutch society. A queer approach, were it to be further developed in the Netherlands, can show how neither sexuality nor religion/ Christianity are straightforward concepts. When queer theory, queer theology, and religious practice merge, the possibility opens up for Christian LGBT’s to become a valuable sparring partner for secular lobbyists seeking to incorporate queer perspectives in their policies, which in turn might affect the construction of religion in public debate.

  1. “Contested Privates”. [Return to text]
  2. Tiina Rosenberg, Queerfeministisk agenda, (Stockholm: Atlas, 2002), 17. [Return to text]
  3. Adriaan van Klinken and Nienke Pruiksma (eds.), Onder de regenboog. De Bijbel queer gelezen. [Under the rainbow. A queer reading of the Bible] (Vught: Scandalon, 2010). [Return to text]
  4. Willem Huijnk. De acceptatie van homoseksualiteit door etnische en religieuze groepen in Nederland. [The acceptance of homosexuality by ethnic and religious groups in the Netherlands.] (Den Haag: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, 2014). [Return to text]
  5. Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with a Critical Difference. (Aldershot: Ahgate, 2003). [Return to text]
  6. Joshua Gamson, “Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma,” Social Problems, 42(3) (1995): 390-407; Mary Bernstein, “Identities and Politics: Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement,” Social Science History 26(3) (2002): 531-581; Steven Seidman, “From Identity to Queer Politics: Shifts in Normative Heterosexuality and the Meaning of Citizenship,” Citizenship Studies 5(3) (2010): 321-328. [Return to text]
  7. Gert Hekma and Jan-Willem Duyvendak, “Queer Netherlands: A puzzling example,” Sexualities 14(6) (2011): 625-631. [Return to text]
  8. Mark Jordan, “Religion Trouble,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13(4) (2004): 563-575. [Return to text]