André S. Musskopf – « As queer as it gets »

André S. Musskopf

« As queer as it gets »

Stefanie Knauss – Carlos Mendoza Álvarez

Concilium 2019-5. Queere Theologien: Der queere Leib Christi werden
Concilium 2019-5. Queer theologies: becoming the queer body of Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologías queer: convertirse en el cuerpo queer de Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Teologie queer: diventare il corpo queer di Cristo
Concilium 2019-5. Théologies queer : devenir le corps queer du Christ
Concilium 2019-5. Teologias queer: tornar-se o corpo queer de Cristo

I. Introduction

It is very common that articles or reflections on queer theory, studies, theology/ies start and work with a play on words and expressions. Although ‘queer’ as a term is not actually translatable to other languages (at least not with the same meaning and not with the same social, historical and political content), its ‘strangeness’ in relation to cultural norms regarding sex, gender and sexuality allows for multiple appropriations and developments. This play, twist, pun with words and expressions is part of the epistemology and method involved in dealing with those norms, their meanings and their consequences in social life (both individually and collectively), precisely because language is performance,[1] at the same time reflecting and constructing this same social order. This ‘practice’ is rooted in camp, usually understood as a particular kind of humor exercised as a form of subversion in LGBTIQ+[2] cultures, but also in the anger and frustration rising from the lack of intentions or possibilities to conform to socially accepted norms – precisely for its ‘strangeness’. In this way, subverting language and its norms, which at the same time points to the very concrete social and cultural practices that are imbedded in such language, creates a space in which the known is made strange and/or defamiliarized and it is necessary to reorganize and resignify reality. Because it is an open and unpredictable process, the responses and consequences to ‘queer’ (or the act of ‘queering’) vary immensely, both in terms of rejection of the mere idea of interrogations of that which is considered ‘given’, ‘natural’ or ‘normal’, including violence (at an individual level such as violence directed at LGBTIQ+ people, but also collectively in conservative and fascist movements currently rising all over the world with their conscious aim at issues of sex, gender and sexuality), and in terms of new possible arrangements and understandings, or at least new meanings and social implications of such arrangements that are not necessarily so new or original. This is as queer as it gets!

II. The emergence of ‘queer’

Although language plays an important role in those issues and debates, thus the ‘queer’ noun-verb-adjective (queers queer queering), its emergence and use in both political and theoretical contexts points to the materiality of life, relationships and practices which through their very existence question modern assumptions of universality, stability and linearity. There is no queer theory, studies, theology/ies without the concrete lives and experiences of multiple subjects in relation to sex, gender and sexuality as political statements against dogmatic and normative ordering forces and, more specifically, outside of the diverse forms of direct political organization and intervention in different social spheres. In the genealogy of the use of ‘queer’[3] in terms of individual and collective identification, political action and theoretical reflection, the subjective and social identities of the ‘queer subjects’, their impact as a dis/organized collective and the knowledge produced in relation to those experiences and practices are intimately connected and also entail an epistemological claim. There is no neutral, objective and impartial assessment of reality and its reflection as assumed in modern positivism, but only committed engagement, with the critical and creative potential of acknowledging and embracing the different levels and places of situatedness.[4] It is a matter of bodies that matter, their locations, their relations and the meanings and values that emerge from them.[5]

The use of the term ‘queer’ to express such identities and identifications, political action through social movements and theoretical reflections arises from the appropriation of a word used to describe and discriminate against people who do not fit the hetero/normative rules in terms of sex, gender and sexuality. Taken from its original meaning as ‘strange’, ‘odd’, ‘eccentric’ it has been used in English-speaking contexts since the end of the 1980s and early 1990s to refer to LGBTIQ+ people and their ‘strange’ and ‘out of the norm’ experiences, both in social movements and by scholars in relation to the term ‘homosexuality’ (questioning the very idea of ‘homosexual’ as medical category created in the 1860s which established the hetero-homo oppositional binary opening the way for some kind of ‘acceptance’ and ‘normativization’ of homosexuality – so-called homonormativity, a specific and socially accepted way of being ‘homosexual’) and in the field of Gay and Lesbian Studies (questioning the assimilationist perspective of an essentialist identity focus, seeing identity as stable and inflexible, although differing one from the other). In this sense, the term ‘queer’ is used to include different perspectives and experiences being taken by some scholars as an umbrella term for multiple realities and their interconnections and intersections or, as Eve K. Sedgwick states: ‘the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.’[6]

One of the issues that influenced and marked the emergence of such a perspective was the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when it hit northern (American and European) countries, although it is known today that it was actually impacting African countries much before that. According to Tamsin Spargo:

‘With the onset of AIDS, this already fractured collective was confronted by a new set of pressures. The popular discourses that misrepresented AIDS as a gay disease contributed to renewed homophobia and necessitated a review of assimilationist strategies. Acceptance was all too quickly revealed to be tolerance, which was swiftly becoming intolerance. This led, in turn, to a renewed but decentralized radicalism in gay and lesbian politics. New coalitions were formed between men and women, not on the basis of essential identity but of a shared commitment to resisting the representations that were costing the lives of those with AIDS. […] It was in the context of AIDS activism and rejection of assimilationist strategies that “queer” was redeployed in its current fashion both in popular culture and in theory.’[7]

This kind of activism was embodied by organizations such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation. The use of the term ‘queer’ to characterize this renewal in the political movement represents a strategy and methodology that were articulated theoretically in the 1990s. The main focus is to subvert the categories constructed through medicalization in order to resignify terms and adjectives previously used to stigmatize. Appearing for the first time in works by Teresa de Lauretis, Eve K. Sedgwick and Judith Butler, this term was incorporated in the debates in Gay and Lesbian Studies, representing a theoretical perspective that surpasses and breaks away from the binary identity categories constructed and maintained by social movements and academics. It is not restricted to the process of the construction of identities related to sex, gender and sexuality, but is concerned with the multiple intersections of those with other markers, such as race and ethnicity, class, belief etc. Besides queer activism, feminist theories, the paradigm shift in historical and sociological studies in the context of post-structuralism, including especially the work of Michel Foucault, all influenced this new theoretical (and political) perspective. According to William B. Turner: ‘“Queer” has the virtue of offering, in the context of academic inquiry into gender identity and sexual identity, a relatively novel term that connotes etymologically a crossing of boundaries but that refers to nothing in particular, thus leaving the question of its denotations open to contest and revision’.[8]

III. ‘Queer’ in context

The word ‘queer’, as seen, refers to a very concrete and specific context (geographically, culturally and historically). Although it has been appropriated in other contexts and languages using the English word (so much as to become part of the common vocabulary, mostly in academic settings, but in some cases also in the context of social movements and current common language), in other contexts other words or concepts have been used to reflect and align or be identified as aligned with the discussions and political actions in this field. In Spanish, for example, some have used the wordtorcida (‘twisted’)[9] to name this kind of reflection, with not much success or correspondence in social movements or research. In my own work, I have used the word ‘viadagem’ (‘faggotting’),[10] and although this word (‘viado’, a derogatory slang term for male homosexuals) is more or less used and rejected by LGBTIQ+ groups and movements (just as ‘queer’ is in English speaking contexts), it cannot be taken as a translation or as a term that encompasses the multiple and open meanings projected by the word ‘queer’, especially in its specific relation to queer men’s experience (not necessarily only gay, but also transvestites and trans men). There are many other words and concepts in different contexts and languages that are used or can be used to relate to the concept, method and theory expressed by ‘queer’, partially, completely or differently. One of the things that they do have in common and that puts them in the same conceptual, theoretical and political framework is the subversion or perversion of what are understood to be traditional (medicalized and naturalized) norms regarding sex, gender and sexuality, mostly reclaiming hateful and derogatory words, expressions and symbols and using them against themselves in a positive, assertive and affirmative way and, precisely for that, causing discomfort, destabilizing their usual meaning and the power relations that support their use as weapons against LGBTIQ+ people and communities.

So, putting the issue of finding the correct or better word or expression (in English or in any other language) aside, the main issue is the critical reflection on how sex, gender and sexuality are constructed and the power relations that derive from the categorization and intelligibility of some assumed identities or identifications (for example, the heterosexual masculine male in relation to all other possible experiences and meanings that do not fit this paradigm). In her theological reflection from a Latin American perspective, Marcella Althaus-Reid has used the concept of ‘indecency’ to refer to a ‘counter-discourse for the unmasking and unclothing of the sexual assumptions built into Liberation Theology during the past decades but also today when confronting issues of globalization and the new neo-liberal world order. Indecency as a social gesture is extremely political and erotic, and relates to the construction of the identity of the subject through the subversion of economic, religious and sexual identities.’[11] In relation to theology, she states:

‘Indecent Theology is a theology which problematizes and undresses the mythical layers of multiple oppression in Latin America, a theology which, finding its point of departure at the crossroads of Liberation Theology and Queer Thinking, will reflect on economic and theological oppression with passion and imprudence. An Indecent Theology will question the traditional Latin American field of decency and order as it permeates and supports the multiple (ecclesiological, theological, political and amatory) structures of life in my country, Argentina, and in my continent.’[12]

IV. Queer at work

Naming is itself (at the level of personal or individual identification, organized social movements and/or academic and theoretical reflection) an epistemological issue, although also a political and contextual one. In many cases, identifying oneself, one’s political action and academic work as ‘queer’ might be a strategy to align with a larger community, political and theoretical movement. In other cases, using local and native terms and concepts is a way not only to translate (as seen above, translatability is hardly possible in this case), but to think about issues related to sex, gender and sexuality and their relation to other identity and social markers and processes and to enrich the conversations with elements that are particular to a specific context (especially in a post-colonial and decolonial perspective). In this sense, ‘queer’ (as an identity marker and as a theoretical framework) should not be imposed on the analysis of and reflection about any given situation and context, although it can also be a useful perspective to engage in such analysis and reflections, also when considering different historical and contextual experiences. That’s why it is possible, in theological and religious reflections, to talk about a ‘queer Jesus’, or ‘queer subjects and identities in the Bible’[13] (or other sacred texts, narratives, rituals), even if this twentieth-century concept is strange to those contexts. ‘Queer’ is, then, a lens or an analytical category that can be used to analyze, describe and understand social, cultural, political and religious dynamics and their impacts in their own contexts and in our own.

Taking as a point of departure the idea (and reality) of sexuality as a fluid, complex and multiple experience, and not a given one as usually is assumed, queer studies ‘interrogate aspects of social life – the family, intimate relationships – but also look at places not typically thought of as sexualized – the economy, for example.’[14] Following Foucault’s proposals, they show how categories are constructed and attributed according to power relations and add the realities of sex, gender and sexuality to the discussion and investigation of issues and situations in which they are usually not engaged with, proving that ‘the personal life is sexualized – and heterosexualized.’[15] Those are the lenses that queer scholars use to develop their work. What queer studies propose (and do) is to turn sex, gender and sexuality into subjects for academic work in the investigation of every aspect and area of life. According to Rachel E. Poulsen: ‘Because society is organized on a heterosexual model, challenging the presumptive claims of heteronormativity forces the questioning of the logic of government, religion, medicine, law, and every discipline that structures people’s lives’.[16] In this sense, according to William B. Turner, it also questions ‘the scholarly ideal of dispassionate reflection, with reason as one’s only guide, [which] entails a refusal to recognize the multiple ways in which cultural and psychological factors influence what we think and write’.[17]

Stephen D. Moore argues that queer theory or queer studies, more than a closed set of theories and concepts is a sensibility in relation to reality that is, in fact, queer.[18] It is an oppositional perspective since its reflection is centered in the opposition to that which is taken as absolute norm, revealing, through a methodological sensibility, that identity itself is ‘queer’ and does not necessarily follow models or patterns, opening the possibilities for other identities to exist, be acknowledged and valued as a source for political and academic work. So, queer theory, studies, theology/is are, before anything, a political action as all knowledge is related to power. They indicate new ways of reflecting, or at least new ways of looking at existing categories and concepts to question if and how they continue to be relevant and for whom.

V. Theologically queer

In the production of queer theologies there is no fixed place, no closed space, no stable belonging. In each step, the condition of foreigner is evident, the condition of the one who is not in their place and who makes each place their own, open to communication, hybridization, entanglement, syncretism. It is ‘diaspora as a choice, as a need to transit, transposition of borders […]. Diaspora as a desire for self-modification in one’s own and other psycho-geographical spaces.’[19] This permanent condition of being a foreigner in a strange land, with its surprises, violence and pleasures, defines the forms of theological discourse. Diaspora is the place where the questions emerge, which evokes provisional answers and designs a project of queer theologies affirming a positionality that resists to a heterocentric order of theological knowledge. That’s why:

‘Queer theologies are usually biographical theologies. One needs to follow that diasporic movement which allows us to understand the paths crossed, and the ways in which theological identities are still challenged, transformed, retracted and disguised in Christianity. […] Queer theologies go into diasporas by using tactics of temporary occupation; disruptive practices which are not necessarily to be repeated, and reflections which aim to be disconcerting.’[20]


[1] Judith Butler, Lenguagje, poder e identidade, Madrid: Síntesis, 1997.

[2] The acronym varies. In this form it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Intersexual, Queer and other non-heteronormative identifications in terms of sex, gender and sexuality. The changes in the acronym express the continuous struggle and search for visibility of different social groups and their experiences. Being identity-based, the different identities, identifications and experiences expressed by the different forms of the acronym cannot be equaled with ‘queer’ (as ‘queer’ also appears in some versions of it, like the one being used here, for an identity among others).

[3] William B. Turner, A Genealogy of Queer Theory, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

[4] Donna Haraway, ‘Saberes localizados: a questão da ciência para o feminismo e o privilégio da perspectiva parcial’, cadernos pagu, 5 (1995), 7-41.

[5] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, Routledge: New York, 1993.

[6] Eve K. Sedgwick, Tendencies, Durkham: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 8.

[7] Tamsin Spargo, Foucault and Queer Theory, Cambridge: Icon, 1999, pp. 34–35, 36.

[8] Turner, A Genealogy of Queer Theory, p. 35.

[9] Ricardo Llamas, Teoría torcida, Madrid: Siglo XXI de España Editores, 1998. Also Marcela Althaus-Reid, ‘De la Teología de la Liberación Feminista a La Teología Torcida’, in Nancy Cardoso, Edla Eggert and André S. Musskopf (eds.), A graça do mundo transforma deus, Porto Alegre: Editora Universitária Metodista, 2005, pp. 64–69.

[10] André S. Musskopf, Via(da)gens teológicas, São Paulo: Fonte Editorial, 2012. A first essay using this idea in dialogue with Frida Kahlo’s painting La venadita, and the relations between the ‘deer-animal’ and the ‘deer-homosexual/queer’, since the word viado (‘faggot’) is related to the word veado (‘deer’), the later one used to symbolize queer men, is André S. Musskopf, ‘Veadagens teológicas’, in Edla Eggert (ed.), [Re]leituras de Frida Kahlo, Sabta Cruz do Sul: EDUNISC, 2008, pp. 101–120.

[11] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, London: Routledge, 2001, p. 168.

[12] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, p. 2.

[13] See Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe, New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000; Robert Goss, Queering Christ, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2002.

[14] Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer, ‘I Can’t Even Think Straight’, in Steven Seidman (ed.), Queer Theory/Sociology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, p. 135. 

[15] Stein and Plummer, ‘I Can’t Even Think Straight’, p. 135.

[16] Rachel E. Poulsen, ‘Queer Studies’, in Timothy F. Murphy (ed.), Readers’ Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies, Chicago: Fitzroy Deadborn, 2000, p. 490.

[17] Turner, A Genealogy of Queer Theory, p. 5. 

[18] Stephen D. Moore, God’s Beauty Parlor, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 18.

[19] Massimo Canevacci, Sincretismos, São Paulo: Studio Nobel, Instituto Italiano di Cultura, Instituto Cultural Ítalo-Brasileiro, 1996, p. 7 (my translation).

[20] Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, London: Routledge, 2003, p. 8.


André Musskopf recently became a Professor at the Department of Science of Religions at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Prior to that he worked at the Gender and Religions Program and as Chair of Theology and Gender and the Graduate Program in Theology at Faculdades EST, where he earned his Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees studying and writing about theology and sexual diversity. 

Address: Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora, Department of Schience of Religion, Rua Júlio de Castilhos, 75/302, São Leopoldo, RS – Brasil 93030-240