Religion and queer identities- often these two things are seen as conflicting forces. If you are one, you cannot be the opposite. Religion and being queer cannot exist hand-in-hand and when they do, it is often not only in conflict with the person, but within their community at large as well. Religion and queer are seen as conflict and negative, rarely as something ever positive. Even when the topic of queering religion comes up, it often comes up in the form of gay and lesbian members of the Judeo-Christian churches. Narratives focus on them and their sexuality, within the context of how they manage to reconcile their sexuality with their religion. These forces are still seen at odds as opposed to complimentary modes of support that create a whole rather than conflicting parts.
Rarely is the queering of religion spoken about as the involvement of transgender and gender non-conforming religious and spiritual people. Maybe occasionally, but not in the same vein as queer sexualities in regards to religions. Then again, this tends to be the case with anything that does not follow the Big Gay focus of marriage and assimilation.
Thus, religion as a positive force is rarely ever explored when it comes to queer identities, let alone gender. Even rarer is the exploration of how religion can help one better express their gender and their identities and relationship with their gender and their religion or spirituality. Religion is often such a negative influence that we often forget the positive that religion can do for people and communities, the help religion can provide as well as the guidance it can bring.
I’d be dead if I had not transitioned. I can’t pretend God didn’t have a hand in that. I couldn’t ignore the truth.
Michelle tells me after her story of her life, explaining how religion was there in her life as a guiding force, helping her get out of the dark times by changing her life. She describes her relationship with God as “a weird one” and as one that “will not resonate with a whole lot of people”. She cannot deny that God helped her come to terms with her identity as a trans woman, despite all the suffering and pain she has experienced from it. “God showed me the road, even if I was scared of what I found, or, when I found it, it was too much of a burden to take with me.”
For Eric, a genderqueer trans man, religion has always been a driving force in his life. In fact, his religion helped him come to terms with himself as trans. The two are intertwined together, complimenting each other. “Exploring and coming to terms with my gender helped open me up to my faith… how could I not believe that the Almighty wants me queer and trans? And the more I explore and become comfortable with both, the more confident I am both in my identity and my Christianity.” Eric’s experiences start with being involved in the Church from a child, and continuing even after transitioning. After being accepted into the Church’s choir in need of another male voice, by people who knew him before he transitioned, he began to look towards the Bible for more confirmation of himself and his journey. He describes name changing in the Bible, Saul became Paul, Simon becoming Peter, and so forth. Change was common and welcome in the Bible.
Accepting myself led to accepting my faith, which in turn strengthened my sense of self and myself in relation to my faith.
Judeo-Christian religions are not the only religious and spiritual experiences that affirm or help guide transgender and non-confirming people. One genderqueer person talked about how their closeness with their spirituality and their gender basically led them to stop caring if it was real or relevant. All that mattered is that it was real to them.
It’s spiritual in that I’m perfectly happy to put off the question of whether or not something is “real” in favor of asking whether or not it’s useful and holding beliefs to that standard has worked very well for me.
After a vision in which a woman controlled everything about her, including her destiny and how she reacted and lived her life, Filene realized something in her had changed in regards to how she viewed herself.
The feeling of being loved by something that could essentially doom me–and actually feeling and understanding this personalized love–awoke something in me. This needed the contrast of what “I” was being completely subjective and subject to change. How can you love something that’s not physically standard? (You essentially love the history of it.)
God to Filene isn’t a finite and definite thing. This realization and acceptance, that God is part of all of us like we are all part of the universe only furthered her realization in her transfeminine gender expression. “That I wasn’t limited to simply my actions or my definitions–but I could figure new, “non-conventional” ways to exist that had been practiced throughout even the human race’s history.” Stepping outside of a binary understanding of religion and spirituality helped Filene realize that the same rules can be applied to more than just religion.
Religion is so often seen at conflict with queer identities that the possibility of a complimentary relationship is often shunned inside religious and queer communities. As previously mentioned, they are seen as forces that are not only incompatible, but ones that bring active negativity. Religious people, especially religious queer people, are seen as foolish, ignorant, self-hating, and so forth despite the love they share for themselves and their religion/spirituality.
When you turn to HaShem, you are supposed to be completely honest with not only him, but yourself. You should “distance yourself from the words of falsehood” and “not say one thing while having something completely different within your heart. If you are not one hundred percent honest with your inner self it is considered turning your back on God and being false in your prayers.
For Jeremy, being true to his Jewish faith also means being true to himself. There is a story that resonated with Jeremy that was told to him by a Jewish trans woman:
I knew a trans woman that visited the Wailing Wall in Israel (which is considered to be one of the most holy places in the universe for a Jew) before she was out to the public and before beginning to “present female.” She said that while she put her prayer note into the cracks of the wall, on the men’s side, she felt as though the entire thing was a farce. She said that because inside, she was hiding who she truly was from the world and from HaShem, there was no way that her prayers could be heard. She moved forward with her transition to not only better herself and be recognized as the woman that she was, but also to become closer to her religion and her God. Rather than allowing herself to be shunned by Orthodox Judaism, she embraced it and made the teachings her own. I hold that story very dear to my heart whenever I think about my relationship to Judaism.
Jeremy also has realized that the apparent contradictions within Judaism in regards to his transition and his religion aren’t necessarily true.
“If I am to protect my body and my spirit from death, from breaking… I have to modify. I am a transgender person that chose to physically transition for my mental health which extends to my physical health as well.”
Scripture is not a definite. There will always be contradictions as well as understandings. From all the religious transgender people I talked with for this piece, there was always acceptance from their God or gods. It is always about mutual understanding and respect for themselves, their religion, and that which they hold Holy. They did not believe their identities were are conflict, but part of the path that was set for them.
Another transgender Jewish person I talked with, Duncan, shared a similar connection to his gender and his exploration of religion.
I started to read about the gender presentation of Jewish men in Yiddish culture – learned, quiet, bookish, nebbish, non-confrontational. I realized I could find other ways of being a “man.” I found out about the Jewish Talmudic tradition that speaks of six different gender/sexes (the medieval text doesn’t differentiate of course between sex and gender). I started seeing queerness throughout the Jewish texts.
Through his religious studies Duncan found story after story rejecting the binary and Western notions of gender for various types, definitions, and acceptance for the variance in gender. Duncan currently does not know what he identifies as “and I feel much of that loss of connection with being a “man” has to do with finding ambiguity and variety in Jewish texts”. His journey is because of his religion, not in spite of it; it is due to the eye opening experiences he has found within his religious texts and among religious peers.
Talk of religion and queerness are so often shunned and hushed. While there is a great validation of this through the religious lobbying that fights against trans people accessing basic needs like bathrooms, to the violence enacted on trans people in the name of homophobia and transphobia, there needs to not be a silencing of positive stories. There is currently a one-sided discourse of religion and spirituality in queer spaces, not just in regards to queering religion but in how religion can be a positive influence in the lives of others. If we continue to silence these stories, silence the involvement of religion in the community, there will not be a full story. We cannot be a unified community, erasing and hiding voices in favor of others.
Being queer and religious are not mutually exclusive.
Lucian Clark is a trans activist and writer. Read more of Lucian’s work at genderterror