Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology

by Patrick S. Cheng
     
 

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Cheng provides a historical survey of how queer theology has developed from the 195s to today and then explicates the themes of queer theology using the ecumenical creeds as a general framework.See more details below

Overview

Cheng provides a historical survey of how queer theology has developed from the 195s to today and then explicates the themes of queer theology using the ecumenical creeds as a general framework.

Editorial Reviews

Carter Heyward
“Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love is an excellent introduction to queer theology. It is readable and nuanced, a marvelous teaching resource.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781596271364
Publisher:
Church Publishing Inc.
Publication date:
03/01/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
176
Sales rank:
854,869
File size:
0 MB

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RADICAL LOVE

An Introduction to QUEER Theology
By PATRICK S. CHENG

Seabury Books

Copyright © 2011 Patrick S. Cheng
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59627-132-6


Chapter One

What Is Queer Theology?

What is queer theology? For many people, "queer theology" is a troubling term. They may ask: What does theology have to do with "queerness"? Isn't "queer theology" an oxymoron or an inherent contradiction in terms? Isn't "queer" a derogatory word? For some, the word "queer" has painful connotations, especially if they were subjected to it as an epithet as a result of perceived or actual differences in sexuality or gender identity.

In recent years, however, the term "queer" has been used increasingly by scholars in a variety of theological and biblical contexts. One such example is the anthology Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, which is a collection of provocative essays by theologians on the intersection between theology, sexuality, and gender identity. Another is the groundbreaking The Queer Bible Commentary, a commentary on each of the books of the Christian Bible—from Genesis to Revelation—written from the perspective of those with marginalized sexualities and gender identities.

So what exactly is queer theology? Simply put, if theology is defined as "talk about God" (that is, theos [God] + logos [word]), then queer theology can be understood as queer talk about God. This, of course, leads to the question of what exactly is meant by the term "queer," which is a more complicated issue. As such, we turn to a discussion of queer terminology.

Queer Terminology

This section will discuss at least three meanings of the word "queer": first, as an umbrella term; second, as transgressive action; and third, as erasing boundaries. Since the early 1990s, LGBT scholars (that is, scholars who have self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, or allies) have reclaimed the word "queer" from its previously negative connotations.

Historically, the term "queer" has been used in a negative way. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary Online defines "queer" as "[s]trange, odd, peculiar, eccentric" as well as "relating to homosexuals or homosexuality." The OED Online traces the word back as far as a 1513 translation of Virgil's Aeneid, and it speculates that the word is derived from the German word "quer," which means "transverse, oblique, crosswise, at right angles, obstructive."

The OED Online notes, however, that although "queer" was originally used in a derogatory sense, since the late 1980s it has been used as a "neutral or positive term," citing a 1987 newspaper article that reported on a humorous sign at a march that said "We're here because we're queer." As such, we now turn to a discussion of three "neutral or positive" meanings of the word "queer."

"Queer" as Umbrella Term

One common use of the word "queer" is as an umbrella term that refers collectively to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, and other individuals who identify with non-normative sexualities and/or gender identities. The term "queer" also can include "allies" who may not themselves identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning, but stand in solidarity with their queer sisters and brothers in terms of seeking a more just world with respect to sexuality and gender identity. In other words, "queer" is a synonym for acronyms such as LGBTIQA.

It may be helpful here to review the difference between the concepts of sexuality and gender identity. Sexuality refers to the ways in which people are attracted emotionally and physically to the opposite sex, to the same sex, or to both sexes. Women who are primarily sexually attracted to other women are "lesbians," whereas men who are primarily sexually attracted to other men are "gay." People who are sexually attracted to both women and men are "bisexual." People who are sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex are "straight" or "heterosexual." In general, people within the LGBT community prefer the terms "lesbian," "gay," and "bisexual" to the more clinical term "homosexual."

By contrast, gender identity refers to the ways in which people self-identify with respect to their genders ("female" or "male"), regardless of the sex that they were assigned at birth. People who identify with a gender that is different from their assigned sex at birth are "transgender." Such people may or may not have had medical treatment (for example, hormones or surgery) to align their physical bodies with their gender identities. By contrast, people who identify with a gender that is aligned with their birth sex are "cisgender." People who decline to identify with one gender or the other are "gender queer." Finally, people who are born with ambiguous genitalia or genitalia of both sexes are "intersex."

It is important to note that gender identity is a concept that is distinct from sexuality. In other words, the fact that a person is transgender is separate from that person's sexuality. Thus, a trans woman (that is, a person who was assigned the male sex at birth but who is self-identified as female) may be a lesbian (that is, sexually attracted to other female-identified people), heterosexual (that is, sexually attracted to male-identified people), or bisexual (that is, sexually attracted to both female-identified and male-identified people).

To summarize, the term "queer" is often used as an umbrella or collective term to describe people with marginalized sexualities (lesbian, gay, or bisexual) as well as with marginalized gender identities (transgender) or genitalia (intersex). We see this use of the word "queer" as an umbrella or collective term in the works of LGBT theologians such as Nancy Wilson, the current moderator of the Metropolitan Community Churches, and the late Robert Williams, one of the first openly gay priests in the Episcopal Church.

"Queer" as Transgressive Action

In addition to the umbrella sense of the word "queer," there is a second meaning of "queer" that is an intentional reclaiming of a word that previously had only negative connotations. In recent years, the word "queer" has been used by many LGBT people as positive label that proudly embraces all that is transgressive or opposed to societal norms, particularly with respect to sexuality and gender identity. This use parallels the reclaiming of the word "black" by African Americans during the 1960s as a positive term of pride. Prior to that time, the preferred term was "colored" or "negro," since "black" had a negative connotation in a racial context.

The use of the word "queer" as a positive term of pride for LGBT people can be traced as far back as the late 1980s. The Oxford English Dictionary Online cites a 1989 article that describes the LGBT community as a "queer nation" that is "assertively coed, multi-racial and anti-consumerist." In 1990, the radical organization Queer Nation was founded with the goal of fighting anti-LGBT violence and prejudice through activism and confrontational tactics such as outing closeted politicians and celebrities. Queer Nation has used a number of slogans including "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" and "Out of the closets and into the streets!"

Along these lines, Robert Shore-Goss, an openly gay theologian and minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches, has described queer theology as a fundamentally transgressive enterprise in his book Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Indeed, Shore-Goss has argued that transgression should be seen as a central metaphor for queer theologies. For Shore-Goss, the term "queer" is used to describe an action that "turns upside down, inside out" that which is seen as normative, including "heteronormative theologies." In that sense, the act of queering traditional theological discourse has a "prophetic edge."

Thus, the second meaning of "queer" is a self-conscious embrace of all that is transgressive of societal norms, particularly in the context of sexuality and gender identity. In fact, this term is best understood as a verb or an action. That is, to "queer" something is to engage with a methodology that challenges and disrupts the status quo. Like the function of the court jester or the subversive traditions of Mardi Gras, to "queer" something is to turn convention and authority on its head. It is about seeing things in a different light and reclaiming voices and sources that previously had been ignored, silenced, or discarded. It is proudly asserting a worldview for which LGBT people have been historically taunted, condemned, beaten, tortured, and killed.

"Queer" as Erasing Boundaries

A third meaning of "queer" is grounded in the academic discipline known as queer theory, which arose in the early 1990s and is indebted to the work of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. Put simply, queer theory views sexuality as something that is "continually undergoing negotiation and dissemination, rather than as a mere natural (let alone medical) fact." In other words, queer theory challenges and disrupts the traditional notions that sexuality and gender identity are simply questions of scientific fact or that such concepts can be reduced to fixed binary categories such as "homosexual" vs. "heterosexual" or "female" vs. "male." As such, this third definition of "queer" refers to the erasing or deconstructing of boundaries with respect to these categories of sexuality and gender.

In other words, queer theory argues that the significance of traditional categories of sexuality and gender identity are actually social constructions. For example, Foucault demonstrated how the term "homosexual" was only invented in the late nineteenth century in Germany. This is not to say that there weren't people engaging in same-sex acts prior to that time. In fact, there certainly have been people engaged in same-sex acts throughout history and across cultures. What Foucault was saying, however, was that this was the first time that a person's identity was defined or categorized in terms of the gender of her or his preferred sexual partner(s). Thus, sexuality became an issue of being—that is, who one was—as opposed to what one was doing.

Although in some ways it may be helpful for a minority group (such as "homosexuals") to identify itself in essentialist terms for purposes of achieving greater political or legal power, ultimately such classifications are problematic because, as Foucault pointed out, such classifications are actually a means by which society circumscribes and exercises power and control over the classified group.

For example, we could imagine a world that limits marriage to people who only have a hat size less than 7 &fra12; or only people who prefer Pepsi over Coke. In such a world, such classifications—that is, one's hat size or preferred brand of soda—would have significant consequences for its inhabitants. However, these classifications are no less "natural" than classifying people on the basis of the gender of their preferred sex partners. For example, for much of history, people were classified in terms of whether they were the penetrators (tops) or the penetrated (bottoms) in sexual acts, and not by the gender of their preferred sex partners."

As such, categories of sexuality are ultimately social constructions. Furthermore, the fact that sexualities are traditionally reduced to the binaries of "homosexuality" vs. "heterosexuality" ignores the more complicated notion that sexuality occurs across a spectrum. Indeed, the existence of bisexual people is a challenge for straight people as well as lesbians and gay men because it threatens the neat categories of "homosexuality" vs. "heterosexuality."

The same analysis applies to gender identity. The existence of transgender and intersex people challenges the traditional binary categorization of gender and sex as "female" vs. "male." This is precisely why cross-dressing can be troubling for many people; it threatens our society's neat, socially constructed notions of gender expression and sex. As Judith Butler has argued, gender is a performative act as opposed to a matter of essentialism or nature. That is, gendered notions of "femaleness" and "maleness" are culturally constructed and are not necessarily related to one's biological sex. Thus, whenever a person refuses to engage in the "correct" gender expression that is expected of her or his biological sex (such as in the case of cross-dressing), this threatens the social order and, as such, reveals the socially constructed nature of gender identity.

Gerard Loughlin, an openly gay theologian at the University of Durham, has described "queer" as that which "seeks to outwit identity." In other words, "queer" destabilizes that which is perceived as "normal" identity—for example, the binary choice between "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality"—by erasing the boundaries between such polarities and thus symbolizing a "difference, a divergence." For Loughlin, queer theory is a means by which "heteropatriarchal Christianity" can be destabilized and deconstructed.

Thus, the third meaning of "queer" is the erasing or deconstructing of boundaries, particularly with respect to the essentialist or fixed binary categories of sexuality and gender. As we have seen, this meaning of "queer" is grounded in the academic fields of queer studies and queer theory, which in turn is based upon the work of academics such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Defining Queer Theology

So what exactly is queer theology? If theology is "talk about God," then, in light of the above three definitions of "queer," there are at least three possible definitions for "queer theology." First, queer theology is LGBT people "talking about God." Second, queer theology is "talking about God" in a self-consciously transgressive manner, especially in terms of challenging societal norms about sexuality and gender. Third, queer theology is "talk about God" that challenges and deconstructs the natural binary categories of sexual and gender identity. Let us examine each of these three definitions in turn.

First, in light of the umbrella or collective term definition of "queer," queer theology can be understood as LGBT people "talking about God." In other words, queer theology is a shorthand term for theology that is done by and for LGBT people. Thus, instead of writing the phrase "talk about God by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning people as well as our allies" over and over again, we can simply use the term "queer theology" as shorthand. As we have seen, Nancy Wilson has articulated what she calls a "queer theology of sexuality" that is grounded in bodily hospitality. For Wilson, this queer theology speaks to gay men, lesbians, bisexual people, and others who identify as "queer."

Second, in light of the definition of "queer" as transgression, queer theology can be understood as a theological method that is self-consciously transgressive, especially by challenging societal norms about sexuality and gender. Thus, queer theology refers to a way of doing theology that, in the words of the Magnificat, brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. In particular, this theology seeks to unearth silenced voices or hidden perspectives. One example of this kind of theology is the "indecent theology" of the late bisexual theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid from the University of Edinburgh. According to Althaus-Reid, queer theology should shock people out of their complacency and help them see theology in a new light. Althaus-Reid certainly did that in her books Indecent Theology and The Queer God, which contained provocative chapters such as "Oral Sex: sexual his/torias in oral theology" and "Kneeling: deviant theologians." Hence, queer theology differs from prophetic discourse in that queer theology is self-consciously transgressive in terms of methodology, whereas prophetic discourse involves speaking on behalf of the divine and subordinating one's will to that of God (which, of course, may also be a transgressive act).

(Continues...)



Excerpted from RADICAL LOVE by PATRICK S. CHENG Copyright © 2011 by Patrick S. Cheng. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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