Re-thinking and Re-doing Gender in Churches and Theology

This lecture was held by Kerstin Söderblom at the European Forum in Riga, Latvia on May 24th 2006. Kerstin presents a very personal approach to a difficult matter.

Queer in the academic world

Queer is a net of theoretical statements and positions that were developed in the nineties of the 20th century in the academic world. Queer elements were also quickly used in different practical settings in and outside of university. To begin with it was worked with mainly in literature and film sciences. But ‘queer’ quickly also conquered the field of sociology, philosophy, culture studies and even theology. Up until today it gained a certain respected reputation, while the radically critical input has been watered down many places.

Of course, you can still finish your degree in social or political sciences, literature or history and never be forced to take a single class in queer theory. It is like with feminist or gender studies. Most of the time, it does not belong to the official curriculum. In the German speaking part of Europe – and I guess it is the same for the rest of Europe – queer theory is far from being established. There are some guest lectures within the field of feminist or gender studies or lesbian and gay studies. But most of the time it is organized by students or critical researchers autonomously. In Hamburg existed a professorial post for queer studies, the only one in Germany so far, but the financial means were reduced so that the post had to be shut down. It works now as independent institute for queer studies. In Berlin exists a ‘Queer Nation group’ also independent from universities or any other organisation.

Queer as a consequence of differentiation

‘Queer’ as an expression existed already for quite some time. Since the eighties it was transformed and newly shaped. Different contexts were important for this development, namely the gay and lesbian movement that started to get more focused and effective as consequence of the AIDS pandemic in the eighties. Before that the lesbian and gay movement was more loosely trying to find its place and profile after the general awakening of the movement during the Christopher Street demonstrations in New York in 1969. Otherwise it is due to a fairly strong lesbian and gay opposition that was built up to counterpart the extremely right winged and conservative crusades against abortion and homosexuality during the last 15 years – especially in the US but also elsewhere.

And some other ‘historical’ developments were crucial for the development of a ‘queer’ concept: The late sixties and seventies were the decades of gathering and group building of lesbians and gays with a clear focus on unity, solidarity and on in-group-identity – often opposed to the ‘outer world’, seen as enemies. This in-group-mentality and inner unification process began to change in the eighties: Lesbians and gays got more self assured and proud of themselves – certainly also thanks to the growing Gay Pride Parades in Europe, North America, Australia and also in parts of Latin America, sometimes with more than one million people in the streets. At least partly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (in short LGBT) left their subcultures in order to become more visible, more integrated and accepted. Internal controversial debates in the following years happened on two levels.

First of all, many LGBT saw the danger of losing a clear and radical political profile. For instance: controversial and very emotional debates started about the mainstreaming of gay lifestyle culture which was basically white and middle class.
Secondly, lesbian/feminist groups intensely discussed about and struggled with pornography, sadomasochism, promiscuity and with problematic assumptions about the universal woman, which generally was white and middle class. 
Thus, the eighties and nineties were the decades of differentiation as compared to the unification process of the end sixties and seventies. Expressions like “we are strong, we are powerful…!”, or ‘the ideal lesbian’ were criticized for generalizing too easily, for setting up new norms of political correctness, and for overruling differences like ethnicity, colour of skin, religion, economic situation, education, and life style. Black, disabled, Jewish, Muslim, bisexual, fetish and SM LGBT and others started to found their own interest groups and programs.

As consequences of these differentiations new coalitions and support groups were founded. Lesbians were historically often more active in the feminist movement because they did not only fight against homophobia, but also against patriarchal power structures in church and societies, gender hierarchy and violence against women and children. They started to cooperate more with gay men, with bisexuals and transgender people but also with groups like Amnesty International, Human rights Watch, Attack, with ethnical support groups, handicapped, and culturally and politically engaged people who share the vision of a non hierarchal and an inclusive society for all.

At the same time more radical protest movements started. ACTUP, Queer Nation and other groups like it emerged. ACTUP is a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) organisation that showed the discriminatory treatment of HIV positive and of people sick of AIDS and that demanded financial support for research programs and a more just access to the medicine.

It was the time when different radical groups took the original negative swearword ‘queer’  in order to create an expression that could gather different ‘perverts’ in a group without denying their differences. All these various sub groups had in common, that the people and their sexual activities somehow did not fit into the dominant sexual norm categories and value patterns.

What is queer, anyway?

‘Queer’ was seen as an opposition and resistance against anything and everything that qualified as ‘normal’. It originally used to be a swear word for lesbians and gays. But it also means something like strange, odd or crossing norms and rules.

Furthermore it stands for falsification, which means a fraud duplication of an original. It highlights the fact that ‘queer’ is not based upon ‘natural’ and so called ‘essential’ – which means fixed and stable – identity categories, but states that in the framework of sex and gender everything is shaped by social and cultural norms. Pure natural and biological facts on a neutral ground do not exist according to queer. Consequently it also questions family values and so called ‘natural’ family structures that only include heterosexual concepts of father, mother, and one-point-five kids. It points out that families are much more than that. They change according to culture, time and value systems: We have lesbians and gays with kids from former marriages; LGBT people that got kids thanks to artificial insemination; lesbians, gays or straight people raising kids together; a collective network of friends, grand parents, God mothers and God fathers, neighbours – one can think of many faces of family life, as long as they see themselves as a relatively stable and committed structure – which of course can change, shift, and be put together differently over the years. The myth that only within a heterosexual traditional marriage kids can be born and raised healthily is been deconstructed and fought against within queer theory and queer groups extensively, since the concept of nature and biological boundaries in general are questioned. Marriage statistics, figures of violence within marriages, and abuse of women and children among heterosexual family structures speak a clear language to proof the point.

In addition to theoretical deconstructions of so called ‘natural’ facts the term ‘queer’ became a more practical face in the nineties. A strong outrage started to run through different LGBT groups in the States because of constant discrimination and oppression of right winged family organisations and the so called ‘Christian Right’ (Christian fundamentalist), who discredit anybody who moves and lives outside of the narrow realm of heterosexual marriage and family structures. Queer groups started to speak up and act up against this hetero normative pressure. They protested against violence and persecution. They tried to break the power of definition and norm building and founded new forms of collective movements against heterosexual political structures and norms, using queer theory as background.

They did it by setting up ‘kiss-ins’ at market places, by having demonstrations within churches or different provocative performances in the streets, in restaurants where LGBT were kicked out, in theatre shows and art installations. They started to symbolically do same sex marriages in front of town halls or other official state buildings in order to protest against the exclusiveness of heterosexual marriage and its financial and social privileges and celebrated the richness of life styles and life forms by sharing Gay pride Marches with millions of participants in the US, in Canada, parts of Europe, in Australia, parts of Latin America and Asia. “We are family in all our diversity!” was their slogan. It served as an open and welcoming counter concept to the traditional narrow heterosexual family concept with conservative family values such as subordination and financial dependency of women, man as head of family, family as important promoter of conservative moral education, and so on.

But ‘queer’ also stands for non-dogmatic lustful and joyful attitudes beyond any systems, categories and boxes. It alludes to fashion, glitter and glamour which are supposed to surpass the assumed old serious, boring and strictly dogmatic character of lesbian and gay political activists. Whether that picture of LGBT activists is right or wrong, is another question. That is at least how queer activists often present it.

The ‘queer challenge’ of cruising across all gender and family categories and of being critical to separation, ghetto building and exclusions, led to fluid processes of new social constellations and movements. They are more open to mainstream processes than hiding and closeted subcultures and radical in-group structures.

And that is precisely why it is rather easy to capture queer ideas, and use them for market strategies in the US and elsewhere. The TV show “Queer eye for the straight guy’ is a good example. From the sofa of mainstream we watch five gay men who try to change heterosexual guys into more sensitive, cleaner and more cultivated creatures. The ‘naturalness’ of heterosexual desire is not questioned but supported and celebrated.
Also the American TV show ‘The L-Word’ or the British ‘Queer as Folk’ show how much it is nowadays possible to mainstream a certain ‘queer notion’ as long as it is not too political and too critical. But certainly it’s fun to watch those shows!

In general we can summarize, that ‘queer’ is a political expression that is constantly changing its meaning according to shifting strategies and social and political movements. It can thus not precisely be defined, but has to be constantly contextualized a new. ‘Queer’ constellations are more fluent, moving, visibly cool and non-dogmatic and thus, relatively easy to combine with market interests and commercialized role models across the lines of hetero and homo.

My personal experiences with queer

Liberation theology just as much as queer theory and theology are based and grounded on personal stories and experiences. They are not neutral and they don’t want it to be. I will therefore tell you a little about my journey with ‘queer’.

I had my coming out when I was 22 years old. At that time I was a young and inspiring theology student and my world almost fell apart. How could I be lesbian and theologian or even an ordained parish minister at the same time? All I read about church statements on homosexuality discouraged me. I understood: I had to choose: Either be lesbian or a theologian. Both were not possible at the time. I was about to resign from my theology studies. Fortunately I found a feminist theological group that showed me that critical feminist and lesbian thoughts and experiences and Christian faith do not contradict one another. We discussed feminist theology books from the States, from GB, Scandinavia and eventually also from Germany. I learned that it is all about telling your own stories. The churches are only as strong as the people that belong to it. And we are church, too! We form it and create it through our experiences, through our activities and through our doings and beings. If church does not accept this richness of people that they claim to welcome but actually exclude, it is not a church worth carrying that name.

I got more self assured and proud about who I was. I came out to my family and friends, and though it was not always easy it showed me that being honest and outspoken was the only way for me to live my life. I finished my degree, wrote a dissertation about lesbian theology and started my work as a minister in church. My church accepted me, and also Randi as my partner. We lived in the minister’s house with conflicts and times of trouble and crisis, but basically the parish accepted us eventually the way we are. We learned from one another, got more thoughtful and respectful of one another along the way and lost a lot of prejudices and clichés.

Why am I telling all this? Because it is a personal expression of the three step program of liberation theologies: Seeing, analyzing, and acting. In our feminist and later in LGBT Christian groups like the European Forum we learned to first of all perceive and see power structures, homophobia and discrimination in churches through our own experiences and stories very clearly. We interpreted it as what it is: they are ideological means of white middle class men who – for centuries – secured their power and their influence by using biological and theological arguments to strengthen power structures and legitimize their teachings by literal bible interpretation. That way they ‘proove’ that male authority persons have to lead churches and countries so that discipline and order can be secured and the ‘others’ who threaten that system can be excluded and sanctioned. Having understood these power structures we made them visible from feminist and LGBT perspectives, and secondly analyzed the way they functioned. With those results we could thirdly set up steps and strategies to change these unjust patriarchal and homophobic structures.

We try to do the changing of churches from within and experience success and disappointments along the way. Our goal was and is to end homophobia and discrimination in churches. That is also what the European Forum tries to do.

Our involvement and conviction were built upon liberation theologies which respect women, LGBT and other outcasts as subjects and not objects of society. They are experts of their experiences and have to be listened to as a first step out of oppression. That is also why Randi collected the 95 stories of lesbians from all over Europe to make their voices and stories be heard in the Forum book project.

All these activities are done in the light of the biblical God who – according to the biblical stories – has always been supportive and still is in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Liberation theologies highlight this fact through the story of ‘Exodus,’ when Moses and the Israelites could escape out of the Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt while God helped them day and night to survive the soldiers’ persecution and all the different dangers in the desert. This motive of the Exodus – liberation from any kind of expression – is the basic foundation of all liberation theologies and help up until today to fight for justice and respect for everybody in and outside the churches.

Liberation theology clearly was and is the theological basis of my LGBT work.

However, ‘queer theory’ and theology widened my horizon in many aspects.

I first heard about ‘queer’ when I was visiting New York in 1995. I saw Drag Kings and Drag Queens, transvestites and androgyn artists, Afro Americans, Asians and migrants from just about everywhere with very different gender expressions and features, beauty ideals, and gender roles. I was fascinated and confused at the same time. People were more colourful and more fashion oriented, more crazy, and less engaged in uniformed and segregated sub cultures than I knew it at that time from back home. I got curious and started to look for explanations. I got acquainted to several books and people who are engaged in queer activities, and we discussed a lot. I also experienced the fist ‘Act Up’ activities like a kiss-in in front of a church and street performances. I thus understood quite quickly that queer was not only about theory but also about praxis. When I started to read and hear more about it, I also started to understand better the process of differentiation in Germany and Europe in the nineties: It was a ‘queer’ wisdom not to build upon ‘essential’ and ‘natural’ categories like ‘a lesbian is a lesbian is a lesbian’ who is automatically similar to me and shares the same experiences. Of course, it is not that way! I started to see more clearly the different cross roads of cultural and social influences that not only shape our gender behaviour, but also shape our sex as being man or woman, and that also try to control our sexual desire in many different ways.

While I was a fairly radical feminist in the eighties with rather dogmatic and political correct attitudes, I started to see situations and people with different eyes in the nineties. Not all lesbians were the same. It is banal and yet, not so easy to handle. We all have different backgrounds, heritage and upbringing. We are rich or poor, educated or not, Christian, Jews, Muslim or atheist, we are white or black, young or old, in different ways disabled and all equipped with our personal back pack of experiences, highs and lows. I understood that within certain subcultures separation, idealization, and oppression of differences was going on. A certain lesbian and gay mainstreaming had taken place, which was sometimes built on quite questionable dogmatism, narrow minded attitudes and exclusion processes just like among heterosexuals. Lesbians with long hair, lesbians with skirts and make up, LGBT with kids, or wishes for a baby and married friends were seen as conservative betrayers, or no ‘real’ lesbians. Transgender people were treated sceptically because of the change of their ‘biological sex’, gays were seen as too naïve and patriarchal and so on and so forth. I learned that the lesbian paradise was not such a great place that I had dreamed of. The ‘queer notion’ of going across dualistic categories and being sceptical to all kinds of definitions, ‘natural’ and theological truths and systems helped me to become more aware of details, of differences and positively – of other potential friends, partners and supporters. Maybe it was also the age that made me wiser and calmer, and certainly a Norwegian girlfriend that liked nail polish and fashionable skirts, but I started to see the world more colourfully. And yet, I was still aware of hate crimes, discrimination and homophobia that were going on in church and society in spite of positive developments in some countries and churches. The joyful and the critical belong together and do not contradict one another. It is of course no new discovery of queer, but they clearly underline this balance more than many others do. It thus, often turns into an ‘either… or’.

The ‘queer’ view helped me to understand better the often ‘bodiless’ approach of liberation theologies. They were created by critical priests and theologians in Latin America and extremely important for grassroots groups and simple people whose experiences were taken seriously sometimes for the very first time in their lives. But some of the liberation theologies are quite patriarchal and moralistic themselves. They are critical against church hierarchy but often set up or strengthen norms related to gender hierarchies, to body-brain dualisms and to certain moral issues. They often oppose body awareness, lust and sexual activity beyond procreation. Of course, liberation theologies have been developed and re-contextualized also by feminist and LGBT liberation theologians, so that sexuality and body theology eventually were included. However, very often they keep up dualistic categories from body and brain, good and bad, normal and other, hetero and homo, while queer highlights very body inclusive approaches and crosses through the dualistic etiquettes of hetero and homo.

Liberation theologies try to lift up the significance of LGBT and fight for equal rights. That is very important. But they stay in the dualistic framework of heterosexuality and homosexuality which is needed to reproduce and strengthen the logic of heteronormativity.

‘Queer’ also helped me to get a more critical understanding of identities that are not just ‘naturally done’ and therefore cannot be discussed and questioned, but to see them as constant process of producing so called ‘natural truths’ which are actually cultural and social assumptions in disguise. There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ male or female body, or a ‘natural’ gender role or a ‘natural’ sexual desire. From the very first second of our birth they are shaped, marked, characterized and controlled in many different ways according to culture and social context.

Liberation theologies often criticize moral issues like pornography, prostitution, and some radical family images. Queer criticizes that critique.

Please, do not get me wrong: I think that we need to talk about all these issues because they are ethical challenges for all of us no matter whether we are heterosexual, LGBT or something else. But it is too simple to only discredit these issues without talking about it more openly and critically. We all know that our experiences are often different from what strict ethical stand points tell us. We have to be careful with too fixed dogmas, while on the other side we should be careful in not proclaiming ‘anything goes’! Violence, rape, psychological and physical damage are the clear limits of all these debates.

It also belongs to my personal story that I am fascinated about the queer concept, but sometimes also frustrated about it. It often is very theoretical and complicated. And if everything is constructed culturally and everything has to be de-constructed and shifted, one might ask about the criteria to do so. It might seem that the queer concept is extremely bias, and that it is introducing a rather naïve mentality of ‘anything goes’! I don’t think that it necessarily has to be that way, but one has to be aware of it while working with queer.

Queer is doing gender differently

The publications of Judith Butler are the main theoretical base for queer theory. In her books ‘Gender Trouble’ and ‘Bodies that Matter’ the central message is focussed on the so called ‘naturalness’ of a hetero normative gender structure. In short according to her understanding gender is the consequence of a performative process. I.e. gender isn’t anything natural or biologically existing, but it is seen as a constant trying, a process of intended repetitions that aims to create an ‘authentic gender’. Or, as one can also put it: there is no such thing as gender, one can only do it!

Butler introduces the term ‘heterosexual matrix’. She sees it as a contextual horizon for gender politics that shapes everything according to heterosexual norms. According to her it is a cultural configuration on three levels: First, the anatomic sex, second, the social gender role and third, the erotic desire. These three dimensions are mutually related to one another.

It means that our sexual desire is depending on our sex (girls fall in love with boys).  And sexual desire affirms our sex (you are a real woman if you are desired by men). The result (or better the characteristic of heteronormativity) is that human beings are clearly divided into two separated sexes which are already culturally constructed. Those two different sexes (male and female) – produce two different gender roles (male and female behaviour). And both can only have heterosexual desire. The inter relatedness of sex, gender and sexual desire shows according to Butler that the biological sex role is not purely natural, but it is always woven into a cultural and ideological construction. There is no pre-existent starting point which precedes the whole process.
The distinction between biological sex and the social role, gender, exists already for a while. Since decades it was an extremely important point of departure for the women’s movement and for feminist sciences and politics. It showed that biological ‘givens’ should not determine social destinies (like only because I am a girl I am not bad in mathematics). But the feminist movement accepted a biological and therefore natural sex, whereas Butler questions any kind of natural pre-given and shows that also sex – as in male or female – and not only gender is a cultural construction.

Gender is seen as norm and as process to reach the societal ideal. Of course, it does not work. All people try to comply with the ideal of a man or a woman. All try to be a real authentic man or woman how they are presented in movie productions, commercials, soap operas and shows. And still, it does not work. Sometimes it is the body which is not perfect, sometimes it is the social behaviour which does not fit to expectations, or sometimes sexual desire is expressed towards the wrong sex. Whoever is not doing the ‘right’ thing in this context is queer. Thus, not only LGBT but also straight people can be queer!

Whoever repeats the norms correctly and tries to reach the ideal will be rewarded and gets privileges and presents. Whoever breaks with the rules will be punished and excluded from respect, social privileges and acceptance.
Gender is thus not to have or to be, but to do!

Where and how does queer analysis help us in ‘real life’?

The findings can encourage us not to stay passive about sex and gender myths. They are constructed. Thus, they can be de-constructed. There are ways to change ideology and gender myths, since they are not naturally pre-given but socially formed- according to certain interests and standards. We need to establish counter strategies that include activities, provocative performances and public debates to question natural and philosophical “givens” that are used to silence LGBT and other non-fitting people.

It is Butler’s interest to widen life possibilities, and to change norm networks in order to make people re-think and actively re-model so called facts.  She and others try to show possibilities, to understand the fluid character of gender constructions in order to change them, interrupt and disturb them. She does not want to create a new rule system of how sex, gender and desire are related to one another, but it is rather the goal to question the norming function of the constellation itself.

The theoretical inputs that I got through Butler’s thinking and through queer theory fit well to theological and ethical subjects that are important to me: the sexual categorizing into good and bad people, groups and actions; the activities of Christian liberals who stayed within the dualistic framework of known – foreign, good – bad, normal – others so that ‘the others’ are utilized to strengthen the position of the ‘normal’. It is about theoretical re-thinking of categories, but it is also about real human beings whose existence had been excluded from the acceptable and understandable.

One result of a queer approach is to widen the view from the fringes of society, where outcasts and the excluded are situated (as liberation theories and theologies did in the past), right into the centre of normative networks and their interconnectedness. Only by doing so, one can understand the functioning of the system as a base for critique and changes. It is an important insight and a difficult challenge of queer theories.

Queer Theology

In terms of queer theology I do not see it as a contradiction to liberation theologies. I more see it as an additional tool which actually helps to shift perspectives. The critical analysis of power structures within church and society that liberation theologies have done clearly has to stay.  But ‘queer’ points out that the critical reviewing has to be widened to the heart of hetero normative myths and sex and gender constructions, in order to remove dualistic power structures and categories all together.

In a theological perspective all analysis results have to be discussed in relation to the biblical sources. They have to be used the way liberation theologians use it by researching the background of the biblical texts, putting it into the social and historical context and transferring it critically into our every day life world. As I have already shown liberation theologians do so with an attitude of respect and solidarity. They point out that the outcasts have been supported and strengthened by God and his Son Jesus Christ. Their goal is to find ways to move out of slavery and oppression and discrimination today, and encourage the people to do so by preaching an image of God, who stays with the oppressed and encourages them to leave their personal and social prisons behind. They claim that all human beings are created in the image of God and nobody can be expelled from it. They preach the one ‘Body of Christ’, to which everybody belongs – with all their different abilities and gifts. This one Body is sick, if only one person is excluded from it. This attitude leads to an open and welcoming church for all and to church activities that include the service and the support for LGBT people.

The new perspective that queer brings into the picture is to go beyond the division of hetero and homo, normal and other,  in order to leave that dualistic structure behind. Being straight is neither the only ‘natural’ nor the only God given life style, but is just one among others which are within and outside of church walls.

Queer theologians also set a specific tone to other theological subjects: In terms of bible interpretation they use a certain way of a so called ‘hermeneutical cruising’ around biblical texts. It is a non dogmatic, provocative re-reading and re-evaluating of biblical texts across traditional interpretations. They dare to see the image of God as erotic, bodily shaped and sensitive to joy and lust, sorrow and grief. This image of God has consequences to how we see human beings as bodily shaped, sensual and marked by joy and sufferings.

Queer theology questions hetero normative bible interpretation, church history, Christian systematics and ethics. It speaks openly about biblical stories where polygamy, slavery, death penalty, and certain purity rules are taken for granted, in order to clarify the cultural characteristics of the biblical texts, and to show how much it is necessary to contextualize and transfer every biblical story into a modern bible re-reading and re-understanding.

Queer theology is open for dramaturgical elements, artistic interpretations; digital installations and multi media set-ups in order to create various new and different perspectives to bible texts and Christian teachings. These are consciously subjective and provocative ways of doing theology in order to show that every theological approach is subjective and has to say so.

As to family concepts, queer clearly underlines that there is no such thing than natural and God given family structures. The bible knows polygamous relationships and harems just as much as single men and women with friends and social network, divorced, married again or widows. Founding and living different family models today can therefore not be sanctioned and controlled by biblical allegations or by conservative hetero normative marriage and family ideologies.
Queer theology also points out, that non-dogmatic coalitions beyond ideological and theological identity boundaries in church politics are just as important as a sensual and joyful way of being in church and doing church. In that sense it is a fruitful and ongoing process to learn from liberation theologies and queer theology approaches in order to create new roads to research and to do theology. I am happy to be part of this searching road with crooked paths, queer outlooks and strange but exciting new views about churches, theological teachings and about ourselves.

Thanks for listening!