Implications of Queer Theory for the Study of Religion and Gender: Entering the Third Decade - PDF

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Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011), URN: NBN:NL:UI: ISSN: Publisher: Igitur Publishing (Utrecht) Copyright: this work is licensed under a Creative
Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011), URN: NBN:NL:UI: ISSN: Publisher: Igitur Publishing (Utrecht) Copyright: this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License (3.0) Implications of Queer Theory for the Study of Religion and Gender: Entering the Third Decade CLAUDIA SCHIPPERT Abstract This essay explores the conceptual and contextual shifts in queer theoretical work as it is entering into its third decade of articulation. The essay reviews important recent themes in, and examines implications of, queer theoretical scholarship for the study of religion and gender. I suggest that among the implications are a more un-disciplined study of religion (and secularism) that takes seriously shifts resulting from transnational and diasporic queer scholarship, as well as shifts in conceptions of agency and resistance resulting from analyses and critique of homonormative positions, and that can critically intervene in homonationalism and Islamophobia. Keywords Queer theory, queer critique, homonormativity, queer religious studies, North America. Author affiliation Claudia Schippert is Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, USA. Her research is in queer theory and religion, feminist and queer ethics, religion and popular culture, as well as critical approaches to bodies and sexualities. Her current research projects include work in queer pedagogy, queer popular culture studies, and a project tentatively titled Queer Discipline. Introduction 1 Queer theory has existed for roughly two decades and has contributed to diverse fields of inquiries in a number of academic disciplines and areas of scholarly engagement. Originally developed in the early 1990s, at the intersection of theory and activism, queer theorists intended to problematize the production of dominant and normative categories of sexuality. Drawing on Michael Warner s phrase, resistance to heteronormativity served as a summarizing description for queer theoretical projects. 2 Much of the work in the first decade was spent explicating how norms became networked through practices and institutions in producing and maintaining heteronormativity. While queer theorists in academic contexts intended to disrupt the reliance on identity categories that had been the foundation for a great deal of liberationist politics, some early criticism pointed to the persistent whiteness and dominant literary discourses engaged. In the study of religion and gender, liberationist approaches had figured prominently and significant debates around the importance of agency and community took place. The shift from identity-based analysis to the queer positionality of resistance to heteronormativity helpfully shifted the subject at the centre of the study of religion and gender. Whereas earlier approaches may have relied on assumed gender divisions (men s rituals, women in Judaism and so on), queer theory provided a challenge to the definitions of categories of gender and helped to disrupt existing perspectives of investigation and discover new ones. Applying the subversive intentions of queer theory to the study of religion, liberation theologians, religious studies scholars, and religious ethicists began to explore queer theory s potential in the late 1990s. Among the themes that scholars of religion have discussed are queer challenges to Christian theology, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and queer readings of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, 1 2 The author gratefully acknowledges support received through a sabbatical leave from the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Central Florida. M. Warner (ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1993, xxvi. 67 Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) and explorations of the intersections of sexual and religious identities. 3 Important extensions of liberation theology included queer theology from the margins of sexual deviance and economic exclusion; Marcella Althaus- Reid s work is exemplary for these developments. 4 The implications of transgender and intersex identities for theology and the study of religion have more recently become important themes. 5 It should be noted that, at this point of the development and dispersion of queer theoretical work in the academy, no essay can cover all of queer theory and religion. This essay s scope is limited to a primarily North American context and to religious studies as it surfaces within scholarly discussions in that geographic context. While queer studies in the North American context surely intersect with many other fields, in this essay the recently prominent contributions from and intersections with postcolonial studies are foregrounded. I argue that these recent approaches provide sets of particularly critical and productive challenges with far-reaching implications for the study of gender and religion. In this essay I thus focus on the conceptual and contextual shifts that queer theoretical work is contributing to academic discourse. In particular, I suggest that the very discipline of religion is being challenged, certainly in the ways it has been constituted in its modern academic R. E. Goss, Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press 2002; R. E. Goss and M. West (eds.), Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press 2000; D. Boyarin, D. Itzkovits, and A. Pellegrini (eds.), Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, New York: Columbia University Press M. Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics, New York: Routledge 2001; The Queer God, New York: Routledge In Indecent Theology she argues that all theology is sexual theology and, bringing queer theory into further productive conversation with feminist materialism and liberation theology; in her subsequent study, The Queer God, she challenges the oppressive powers of heterosexual orthodoxy, whiteness, and global capitalism. T. Sheffield, Performing Jesus: A Queer Counternarrative of Embodied Transgression in Theology & Sexuality 1:3 (2008), ; S. Cornwall, Sex and the Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Condition and Christian Theology, Sheffield: Equinox Sheffield demonstrates that a queer reading of the Chalcedic body, analysed alongside transgender narratives, is a site from which to construct identities of hybridity and transgression that disrupt ancient and contemporary fictive narratives of normative gender and sexuality. Similarly, Cornwall s first full-length examination of the theological implications of physical intersex conditions and their medical treatment explores the necessary shifts in a body-focused theology when we take seriously perspectives that defy binary or complementary gendered embodiment. 68 Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) version, when we take seriously what current queer studies bring to the discussion. Likewise, what emerge as proper objects of study for (queer) scholarship on gender and religion is affected. The essay contains four sections. In the first section I ask what it means to study religion queerly and argue for studies of religion in unlikely places and with at times unlikely trajectories. Specifically exploring studies that are queering religion (and secularism), I point to examples such as the study of an organization of parodic drag performers that is (not?) religious and the study of secularism through the lenses of queer religious studies. While the discipline of religious studies has adapted queer methodologies only haltingly, these are some promising developments. I argue that in order to study religion queerly, religious studies finally need to become (more) undisciplined. Secondly, the rising importance of transnational and diasporic queer and feminist scholarship, especially within the North American context, with which this essay is primarily concerned, is briefly reviewed and potential implications for religious studies are discussed. In the third section I explore what since Lisa Duggan coined the term has been called homonormativity : the emergence and analysis of a homosexual normative position that defends itself against queerer others. I argue that these trends toward an idealization (or perhaps assimilation) of queer are dangerously problematic and they certainly are contrary to the nonnormative etymology and scholarly use of queer. Scholars rightly call for vigilance and a shift in attention to a different conception and function of normativity, especially, perhaps, within queer ethics. This direction of critique within queer studies is helpful to and needs to be considered in further development of queer approaches to religion and gender. The fourth section focuses on a current analysis of homonationalist strategies and their connection to Islamophobia and US domestic anti-terrorism strategies. The resulting increased detention and incarceration, in the US and elsewhere, emerges as a relevant and critical topic for the queer study of religion and gender in a contemporary political context. Studying Religion Queerly What does it mean to study religion queerly? 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 69 Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) shape of studying religion queerly is thus never finally determined. As I have suggested elsewhere: The content of a queer theoretical approach, which seeks to engage and disrupt these [heteronormative] procedures, varies depending on the shape or function normativities take in particular settings. Consequently, at the intersection with the study of religion, realms of appropriate areas of study might shift and new fields can come into focus (transvestites, gay bars, and drag queens as realms for learning about the performance of sanctity, as Althaus-Reid would have it, for example). 6 The history of early applications of queer theory to religious studies has been anything but straightforward. While there has been ongoing work to synthesize queer approaches to religion and gender, early anthologies like the one edited by Comstock and Henking exemplify the invocation of queer as a summarizing term for LGBT identities without much space given to queer theoretical critiques. Yet Thumma and Gray s Gay Religion gathers interesting essays that go beyond merely gay identified religion or religious practitioners. 7 In the context of theology, Loughlin recently reflected on some early queer theorists moving away from queer terminology, because it had become too implicated in normative and identity-based strategies. He suggests that theology might be catching up a bit more slowly, which might, in turn, offer its own set of possibilities: But the term [queer] and its deployment is less well known in theology, and so it is still possible that this positionality, this distancing or divergence from what is held as normative, will serve to destabilize and undo that normativity: the surety of heteropatriarchal Christianity. But in the case of theology there is something more. 8 Loughlin has in mind here the specific parallel he sees between a [queer] identity without an essence and what some Christian theologians going as far back, he suggests, as Thomas Aquinas would call the name of God. Further exploring the challenging intersections of queer theory and theology in the recent anthology Queer Theology, many of the Anglo- American contributors make the body and desire a central issue for C. Schippert, Queer Theory and the Study of Religion in Rever 5:4 (2005), G. D. Comstock and S. E. Henking (eds.), Que(e)ring Religion: A Critical Anthology, New York: Continuum 1997; S. Thumma and E. R. Gray (eds.), Gay Religion, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press G. Loughlin (ed.), Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, Malden: Blackwell 2007, Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) reflection in Christian theology. They demonstrate, for example, that a great deal of Christian texts and traditions are significantly queerer than the development of modern Church doctrines and teachings might suggest. One goal of the ongoing development of such a queer theology, then, might be to uncover the queerness that was always already in Christianity, perhaps even at its very core. Such an argument resembles literary theorist Eve Sedgwick s earlier queer theoretical work in literary theory. 9 Sedgwick had claimed that modern European and North American literature must be read from an anti-homophobic perspective in order to understand the formation of modern normatively gendered narratives. Sedgwick pointed to the frequent deployment of erotic triangles that are central to the development of (heteronormative) characters. Indeed, she argued that much of modern, presumably heterosexual, masculine identity is based on homosocial relationships. In what might constitute a parallel move, queer theologians such as David Matzko McCarthy re-read the queer desires of saints. And Tina Beattie examines the particular heterosexualization and domestication of Mary within Christian history. She suggests how a critical rereading can uncover the queerness, or non-heteronormativity, of a Christian attempt to seek immortality not through raising offspring but through eternity in Christ. 10 Even when focusing on religious studies beyond theology, as I do in the remainder of this essay, the intersections of queer theory and religion have been notoriously difficult and underexplored and the study of religion seems to be adapting only haltingly and partially to contemporary developments in LGBT studies and queer theory, as Melissa Wilcox suggests in her assessment of the field of queer studies in religion. 11 Nonetheless, scholars of religion and gender have much to contribute to E. K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, New York: Columbia University Press 1985; Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: University of California Press Loughlin summarizes the undertaking of queer theology as follows: to make the same different, the familiar strange, the odd wonderful; and to do so not out of perversity, but in faithfulness to the different, strange, and wonderful by which we are encountered in the story of Jesus and the body of Christ (31). The contributors to the Queer Theology anthology vary greatly in their investment in perversity versus faithful engagement with the tradition, but taken as a whole the collection can illustrate some of the current struggles at the disciplinary intersection of queer theory and theology. M. M. Wilcox, Outlaws on In-Laws? Queer Theory, LGBT Studies, and Religious Studies in K. E. Lovaas, J. P. Elia, and G. A. Yep (eds.), LGBT Studies and Queer Theory: New Conflicts, Collaborations, and Contested Terrain, Binghamton NY: Haworth Press 2006, Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) queer studies and much to further develop in applying contemporary queer theory to the study of religion. Wilcox points to the potential of paying close attention to the dynamics of gender and sexuality that religions hide in plain sight [ ] and the roles of religion in both inscribing and challenging heteronormativity and dualistic conceptions of gender. 12 Work in performance studies has been influential in the formation of queer theory from the beginning. For example, performance studies scholars like José Muñoz have shown the importance of investigating performance to glean queer strategies of resistance and disidentification, especially among queers of colour. 13 Paying careful attention to queer practices and rituals from the perspective of religious studies can point those studying religion and gender in important directions of rethinking identity, agency, and resistance. In this vein, some scholars have turned to queer practices within realms that might be considered akin to or part of religion while they may not always have surfaced as legitimate areas of study within the academic discipline. Wilcox makes the case that while the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are not a religious organization, they offer a rich site to rethink existing categories of religious, spiritual, and secular. 14 The white-faced Sisters combine Catholic imagery with drag and leather culture and offer a complex site for queer religious negotiations. As the Los Angeles house explains, they are: an order of gay male, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-gay nuns whose mission is the expiation of stigmatic guilt and the promulgation of universal joy. The same way the Catholic Church sold indulgences in the Middle Ages to forgive people their sins, the Sisters have granted the lesbian and gay community a perpetual indulgence, forgiving them of all sin and guilt often placed upon them by right-wing religious and political organizations. The Sisters main goals, says the Los Angeles chapter, are to strengthen [their] community through drag activism, by raising muchneeded funds for community charities, and by bringing about a better understanding of gay spirituality Wilcox, Outlaws J. E. Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999; Cruising Utopia: The Politics and Performance of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press M. M. Wilcox, Queer Women and Religious Individualism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press Wilcox, Queer Women, Religion and Gender, vol. 1, no. 1 (2011) Wilcox demonstrates that the distinction of compliance and resistance is complicated when the group functions for some queers as a central part of [their] religious and spiritual practice. As a parody of the Roman Catholic Church, gleefully intoning their rallying cry Go forth and sin some more! the Sisters playful queering of religious space intersects with a searing critique. Yet as a secular organization, the Sisters become sacralized queer space when members ( ) find in them a deep expression and source of spirituality. 16 Taking seriously the complexity of parodic and other practices at the intersection of what is defined as religious and secular can afford scholars of gender and religion insights into the manipulations of norms and agency at play. At the same time, attention to the simultaneity of religious and secular significance of organizations such as the Sisters raises the related issue of rethinking the distinction between definitions of the secular and religious itself. Within modern European and North American contexts, secularism has been viewed as the other to religion. And yet, Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini argued that the religious/secular distinction is a distinction without a difference. They explored, in Love the Sin, how specifically Protestant Christian claims have entered the legal decisions of the United States Supreme Court and other purportedly secular institutions. 17 In demonstrating the religious, and specifically Protestant, basis of sexual regulation in US law, Jakobsen and Pellegrini bring sexuality and gender studies together with religious studies and ethics to bear on issues of contemporary sexual regulation. While developing a queer ethics of valuing sex differently, their work also signals another important direction of queer studies in religion, that is, the emerging work on the Christian nature of US secularism and implications for addressing secularism in critically informed ways. In the introduction to the edited volume, Secularisms, Jakobsen and Pellegrini further describe their approach: Our argument is not that this [modern American] secularism is really (essentially) religion in disguise, but rather that in its dominant, marketbased incarnation it constitutes a specifically Protestant form
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