Tag Archives: queer theory

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.

In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.

The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.

Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.

Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.

In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.

This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.

In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.

The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.

Q is for Queer Theory

I was about to say that lots of people ask me questions when they hear that I have studied queer theory, but it’s not quite true. Some people do. Other people just look at me for a minute and then change the subject.

People who do ask questions often begin with something like, “do they really call it that?” Well, yes, it’s genuinely in the title of courses and indeed my degree. It is a provocative name, and I know many people are uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘queer’. The thinking behind its use here has, I think, two main strands. Firstly, using an insult to refer to yourself takes the sting out of it; this process is called ‘reclaiming’. Pagans, especially women, who call themselves witches are doing some of this; religious groups, such as Quakers or Methodists, who take on originally offensive or sarcastic nicknames are also doing this. It turns the power of the word to your advantage – with the disadvantage that a lot of people are going to raise their eyebrows and say things like, “do they [whoever they are!] really call it that?”

The second strand is the need for a clear but not too specific term. ‘Gay’, although sometimes used for all homosexuals or even everyone who experiences same-sex attraction, is more often associated with men – as ‘lesbian’ is with women. Terms like ‘homosexual’ don’t make sense when you’ve noticed the existence of people outside the gender binary – what’s ‘same-sex’ if you’re intersex or third-gendered? Abbreviations – LGBTQIA… – build up into long lists and can never include everyone. ‘Queer’ – people whose sexualities are oppressed under the use of offensive terms like ‘queer’ – can include, as someone memorably put it in questioning me about my course, “gays and stuff”, with a very wide scope on ‘stuff’. Polyamory, kink, BDSM, asexuality, heteroqueer, and a whole array of gender identities can be included under the suggestive-but-not-definitive term ‘queer’.

What does queer theory do, then? Two main things: it theorises queerness and it offers queer readings. Queerness – whatever that is – has often been medicalised and sexuality and gender treated reductively (I refer you to whatever debate about ‘gay genes’ or the existence of ‘female sexual dysfunction’ is happening at the moment). Working from a perspective which takes the experiences of queer people seriously, queer theory can open up new ways of looking at these questions.

Similarly, queer readings of texts – literary works, TV shows, archaeological evidence, whatever – offers insights from contemporary and historical queer experience. Again, this can open up new perspectives on all kinds of questions: the relationships between characters in a novel, the burial of a body with ambiguous gender markers, the ways that gay marriage is depicted in advertising.

Lots of people ask me whether queer theory is really called that, and what it’s about. Sadly, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me why I’d want to study queer theory or what makes it a useful subject – things I do get asked about theology and philosophy in particular. That’s sad because I’d have a lot to say about how enriching I found it as a discipline.

B is for Boundaries

A question raised by the issue of appropriation (previous blog post) is about the boundaries between cultures, religions, or other groups. How do you know whether something – a word, practice, or object – has moved from one tradition to another if you don’t know where the boundaries between the traditions are? It often seems obvious that this movement has occurred, but articulating the details of when we say that is has happened and when we say that it hasn’t is much more difficult than establishing that some clear cases exist.

Another issue which raises related questions is the existence of multiple religious belonging – people who are (or claim to be, I suppose we don’t have to agree with them although it seems rude to discount their description of their lived experience) members of more than one religion at once. Some of these people might choose to hyphenate their religious identities – Buddhist-Christian – and others just think of themselves as both at once, Jewish and Pagan. Here, the question is: don’t some religions have boundaries which prevent a person from simultaneously belonging to another religion? Generally, we assume that a religious identity is singular – it might change through time, but one person only has one at once. This is reflected in, for example, the ‘tick one box’ approach used for religion on the census. (For much more about religion on the census, explore Abby Day’s work.) If it is possible to belong to more than one religion at once, we might need to rethink our ways of talking about religion. Why is it ‘weirder’ to be both a Christian and a Pagan than to be both a Christian and a Friend of the Earth?

I am at the stage of articulating these as research questions, rather than having any clear answers. However, I do have some directions in which I hope to look. One place I hope to look is other work on identity; in particular, I’m interested to know whether it’s useful to think of religiosity as performance, of religion as something that one does rather than something which one has – an analogy here to the work that Judith Butler and others have done on gender. Are the questions about multiple religious belonging in any way comparable, or in any useful was comparable, to the questions which have been asked about bisexuality or non-binary genders, for example? That many authors start from a question about whether these positions ‘really exist’ suggests to me that there might be points of commonality, but any comparison will need careful exploration.

Overall, because religious traditions are communities consisting of people, their boundaries seem to be closely related to issues around membership: who belongs to, or in, the faith. This in turn raises a whole new set of questions: how do you know who is a member of which religion? Some religions have very explicit positions on this, while others don’t seem to be very sure themselves about who counts as a member. This doesn’t just apply to people, of course; we often ask this question about practices (did you read an article this winter about whether putting up and decorating a tree is ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’? There always seem to be a few). Practices, though, are practised by people, and so we come round again to the same issue. Boundaries are tied up with belonging – to be the subject of a future post!