« Sexual Minorities » – S. Knauss

« Sexual Minorities: The Rainbow-Colored Body of Christ   »

By: Stefanie Knauss

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

Sexual minorities are in some respects ‘different’ from other minorities. Queen Victoria even famously believed that there isn’t anything like lesbian sex, but sexual minorities are invisible even in societies that do recognize the existence of practices that differ from those considered normal and normative, namely heterosexual, monogamous relationships. Invisibility, ‘being in the closet’ or ‘passing’ as heterosexual, can, in fact, be a successful strategy to avoid discrimination, chosen by many LGBTIQ individuals, that is lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender or transsexual individuals, intersex persons, or those who question their sexual identity or orientation. Also, sexual minorities are  invisible in a legal sense as they are not or only partially included in the anti-discrimination laws that protect other minorities, for example in the United States.

In addition, as a minority, LGBTIQ individuals are in a somewhat ‘queer’ place because they cut across the distinction between powerless and powerful minorities. On the one hand, they experience discrimination, violence and persecution on the part of the hegemonic majority for being different. According to a 2015 United Nations report, at least 76 states criminalize individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and in seven countries, homosexual relationships may be punished by death. Hate crimes against LGBTIQ persons are widespread and cruel, and they face abuse and ostracization in their familial and social context.[1] But on the other hand, in some cases, LGBTIQ individuals are a part of the economical and cultural elite of their context, enjoying the advantages and access to power this position brings with it. The considerable buying power of the US LGB population makes them, for example, an influential section of the population whose behaviors and practices are important for marketing to take into account.[2]

[1] UN Human Rights Council Report, Discrimination and Violence against Individuals Based on Their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, 1 June 2015 (accessed 19 October 2016).

[2] Human Rights Campaign, ‘LGBTQ Buying Power’ (accessed 26 October 2016).

Christianity has been influential in the creation of a gender system that understands men and women as fundamentally different, yet complementary in their divinely created nature. Consequently, many Christian communities, most outspokenly the Catholic church, recognize only heterosexual relationships between a man and a woman as morally right because in conformity with the created order.[3] The claim of divine legitimation of these norms of gender identity and sexual behavior has contributed to the establishment of firm power structures that reach far beyond what happens in the privacy of somebody’s bedroom. Heteronormativity impacts the social organization of relationships, legal regulations, for example regarding inheritance,  and the realization of freedom, human rights and social justice. While transgender, like homosexuality, clearly contradicts the understanding of an individual created as male or female in his or her unchanging essence, intersexuality represents a different case because it is a biological indeterminacy of gender. In many cases it is resolved through surgery in order to make an individual’s body align with the binary system as either male or female.[4]

[3] See for the Catholic position: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1993 (accessed 17 October 2016); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986 (accessed 17 October 2016). Other Christian denominations vary, sometimes considerably, in their evaluation of queer identities from absolute rejection to complete acceptance.

[4] K.A. Karkazis, Fixing Sex. Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); S. Cornwall, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ. Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology (London: Equinox, 2010).

In this contribution, I want to think about what it would mean for theology to take the experiences of those who are considered sexual ‘deviants’ as central to the theological enterprise. In particular, I want to focus on the ways in which sexual minorities, situated as they are both at the inside and the outside, challenge categories of theological thinking, and how their presence asks us to reconsider how we speak to and about God and about the body of Christ which is the church.

1. How Queer is Theology?

One might argue that theology is, when done well, queer. But what does ‘queer’ mean, and how is it possible to say that theology is or should be queer? ‘Queer’ has an interesting etymology:[5] in the past it meant ‘strange’, ‘eccentric’, and was used, as a derogatory term, for homosexuals. Since the 1980s the originally negative term has been reappropriated by homosexuals with a positive meaning, as a proud self-description. Over the last decades, ‘queer’ has come to be used as a term covering all those individuals who differ in some way or another from the heterosexual ideal, implying the transgression of norms in those individuals’ bodies, desires and practices. In the context of queer theory, ‘queer’ relates to the theoretical interest in uncovering the constructedness of supposedly natural categories of gender identity (male/female) and consequent norms regarding sexual behavior (heterosexuality). Queer theory questions the western way of thinking in binaries – either/or patterns of thought that are based in the binary of man/woman – and the hierarchies that this way of thinking helps to construct: unsurmountable, stable boundaries between man and woman, mind and body, heterosexual and homosexual, white and black, human and divine, saved and damned. Fixed categories are used in constructing otherness and legitimizing exclusion (‘they are not like us and therefore less valuable’), so in doing the theoretical work of deconstructing binaries, queer theory also contributes to creating a reality of greater justice: in queer theory, as in queer theology, the boundary between theory and practice, systematic speculation and a commitment to further social justice is one of the many boundaries that are dissolved.

[5] See P.S. Cheng, Radical Love. An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 2–8.

The different meanings of the word ‘queer’ are reflected in queer theology as well: some draw on the experience of queer individuals as the source of their theology and speak about God specifically to or as queer individuals. In doing so, they open theological reflection up to the ‘perverse’ or deviant experiences of individuals at the margins and jolt it out of its comfortable association with what is culturally dominant, reminding it that the original site of theological reflection was and is the encounter with those at the margins of society – the lepers and tax collectors, the drag queen wearing kinky boots, the butch lesbian, the person who refuses to be labelled with binary gender pronouns – whose voices have a particularly prophetic quality in pointing out where we fail in love and justice and in helping to envision the good life for all.

Other queer theologies take to heart the critical significance of ‘queer’ and aim at deconstructing categories and rethinking methodologies in theology, often connected with a liberation theological interest in critiquing the ways in which theology has contributed to maintaining structures of dominance. This critical work can be understood as an attempt to bring theology back to what it is: ‘a queer thing’, as Gerard Loughlin writes.[6] Theology should be odd, out of place and strange in a materialist, commodified, empiricist world, and it is ‘queer’ in that it tries to understand what is, by definition, beyond knowledge – God. In addition, the main teachings of Christianity defy unambiguous, binary categories of thinking: the incarnation challenges the boundary between human and divine, the trinity asks us to imagine three persons in one being, the resurrection challenges the distinction between life and death.

[6] G. Loughlin, ‘Introduction’, in G. Loughlin (ed), Queer Theology. Rethinking the Western Body (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 7.

The late Argentinian queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid underlines sharply how the heterosexual norm has shaped, and been reinforced by a ‘T-theology’, a ‘Totalitarian Theology’, based on the exclusion of scandalous sexualities and desires.[7] The real scandal, however, is how in Latin America, heterosexual theology has served to divinely legitimize a system of colonial domination, reproduction and exchange in which women have been exchanged or forcibly taken by men for sex, and non-heterosexual relationships have been delimited because not productive.[8] Queer theology’s critique of binary hierarchical categories of theological thinking and the privileging of one set of experiences – heterosexual, male – in the tradition helps to uncover the hidden or denied connections between theology, sexuality, economics and politics as they are experienced, especially, by those on the margins of the system: women, homosexuals, transsexuals, queers. In the next section, I will look, in turn, at three central theological topics, God, Christ and the church, to highlight the insights of a queer theology emerging from the marginal experiences of sexual minorities as a boundary-crossing, consciously embodied and sexual, and perpetually questioning theology.

[7] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (Newe York: Routledge, 2000), 8.

[8] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, 20.