[Essay] Race, Ethnicity and Queer Theology — Tom Hillsdon

It has been argued that queer theology over-emphasises on sex and sexuality, fails to engage with discussions of ethnicity and ‘race’, and has mainly been written by gay, white males.[1] If this is true, what value does it hold for the Queer Black community? How can queer theology include and speak to the experiences of this community? Does queer theology further oppress Queer Black people and marginalise their voices? These questions are the main motivations for this essay. In order to work through this, I will firstly look at the history of the queer theology movement, assessing some of its central themes and texts in relation to some of the experiences of oppression faced by Queer Black people. I will pay particular attention to the work of Queer Black theologians such as Irene Monroe and Roger Sneed, who have sought to explore issues of Black identity in relation to sexuality. Firstly, this essay will aim to show that queer theology which brings the experiences of Queer Black people from the margins to the centre as a source for its theology is explicitly liberative for this community. Secondly, utilising the framework of intersectionality, I will show that queer theology that does not explicitly refer to ‘race’, ethnicity or Queer Black experience does have the potential to be liberative for Queer Black people. Kimberlé Crenshaw is attributed with forming an identifiable scholarly discourse on intersectionality, and speaks specifically about the experiences of Black women to reject the notion that gender, ‘race’, ethnicity and class are separate and essentialist categories.[2] Using this way of thinking,  we can learn about oppression from different angles.  In relation to queer theology, the recurring themes of oppression, identity and fluidity can enable connections to be made between a variety of issues such as ‘race’, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Queer Theology

It is difficult to precisely date the beginning of the queer theology movement. At the risk of over-simplification, we can locate its founding in the ‘queer’ theological era of the early 1990s, itself preceded by the ‘homosexual’ theological era.[3] Without totalising the different work being down what is now a diverse and established field, it is possible to identify the broader influences that some scholars have argued provided a foundation for what became queer theology. An important first step in describing the emergence of queer theology is seeing how it understands the category of ‘queer’ and distances itself from gay and lesbian theologies. ‘Queer’, although typically associated with issues of sexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, is not an easy category to define. It could be assumed that queer discourses, understood as realising the instability of categories of gender and sexuality, develop simply from lesbian and gay discourses. However, this becomes complicated when discovering that queer theologians have purposefully distanced their theology from the narrower remit of specifically lesbian and gay theologies. For instance, Elizabeth Stuart notes that ‘queer theology is not really “about” sexuality in the way that gay and lesbian theology is about sexuality’.[4] She argues that ‘queer theology is actually about theology’ and, instead of affirming the ‘truth’ of sexuality, it declares sexuality not stable enough to ‘build a theology upon’.[5] Here queer theology is presented as a self-reflexive movement which challenges the way we see theology itself. Adopting a ‘queer lens’ in this way provide stheology with a different focus, a focus which questions those categories we previously assumed to be fixed, stable and easy to define. Additionally, ‘queer’ itself should be understood as an unstable and fluid category which is often the definition that queer theology is based upon. Speaking of queer in terms of its power to question and critique, Susannah Cornwall refers to the method of queering texts as a key element of queer theology.[6] She describes queer not simply as putting a ‘sexual “overlay” on texts’, but as about moving beyond the assumption that there is a ‘single monolithic’ meaning of a text.[7] Therefore, queer takes on an alternative meaning less tied to issues of sex and sexuality. This is highlighted by Deryn Guest who suggests that queer readings of scripture tend to be open to those who apply queer theory, gender theories, or their own experiences of a marginalized or ‘non-normative status’ to a text.[8] However, this broader approach to queer becomes problematized. For Guest, there is a fear that queer hermeneutics does not fully engage with feminist critique and reinforces a sense of ‘universal masculinity’ which is detrimental to lesbian hermeneutics.[9] There is thus contention around the definition and use of queer as an approach to theology and a way of understanding identity. Queer is in one sense about going beyond our initial assumptions or singular interpretations to probe deeper, creating multiple meanings in our thinking and theology. However, the centrality of previous identity markers and their questioning before introducing new categories such as ‘queer’ could also be beneficial and liberative. What is important to realise here is the relatively recent development of queer theories and theologies, and its ongoing process of definition and development.

As well as issues of definition and method, it is important to understand queer theology in the context of its relationship to more normative Christian theology. Patrick Cheng identifies four strands which, he argues, have led to the evolution of the queer theology movement.[10] He lists these as: apologetic theology, liberation theology, relational theology and queer theology
itself.[11] He notes that these four strands are not intended to split queer theology up into four distinct eras, but are useful for understanding its development chronologically.[12] He also argues that these strands overlap, and that they are not mutually exclusive.[13] Therefore, as highlighted by both Cheng and Stuart, it is important to see queer theology in terms of its primary role as a form of Christian theological method. Whilst it tries to question norms and embrace a sense of fluidity, it should be understood as somewhat influenced by the broader Christian theological tradition.

In queer scholarship the Bible is used in creative ways to reclaim it for Queer people in both a positive and constructive way. In Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, Irene Monroe utilises the Exodus narrative in order to reclaim it for African-American women and LGBT people.[14] By suggesting that the Exodus narrative has historically been used only to liberate the figure of the ‘black endangered male’, Monroe seeks to free the narrative from these constraints, enabling it to become a true ‘coming-out story’ for the affirmation of all Black bodies and sexualities.[15] Here we see how certain biblical texts have been used for the liberation of the African-American community. However, it is only the select group of Black heterosexual males that have been addressed in previous queer appropriations of the text. Monroe’s theology reaches further to the margins to include the experiences of oppression faced by all Queer Black people. It understands their marginalisation as a central part of the struggle for African-American liberation and attempts to move these experiences to the centre through the reclaiming of a previously oppressive Biblical narrative.

As well as scripture, Christian traditions such as church history and teachings also serve as an important source for queer theology. For example, queer approaches to understanding tradition have creatively used influential theological figures to reflect on issues of sex and sexuality. One important example of this is found in Marcella Althaus-Reid’s use of representations of the Virgin Mary in Latin America.[16] She refers to the ‘Santa Librada’, a figure found in statues and stamps of young women who look like the Virgin Mary.[17] Althaus-Reid suggests that this figure is ambiguously represented as both a ‘crucified woman Christ of the Poor’ and also a crucified Virgin Mary, therefore rendering the Santa Librada a ‘popular ambiguous divine cross-dresser of the poor, the unstable image of a Christ dressed as Mary’.[18] In looking at this figure in terms of transvestism, Althaus-Reid queers a figure of the Latin American Christian tradition. In terms of its liberative value, Althaus-Reid’s example shows a multi-layered and creative use of a particular aspect of the Christian tradition. Utilising a queer theological approach, she relates the figure of Mary to poor women who have been historically oppressed in society. Thus, through considering Queer Black experiences of oppression, this example of queer theology shows how it is possible to ‘twist the lens’ on a figure of ideological tradition to include the experiences of an oppressed social group. Through the use of an intersectional approach to understanding oppression, it is possible to relate the struggles of the poor women of Latin American to Queer Black oppression as groups which have both experienced significant marginalisation. Such an approach allows us to see experiences of marginalisation and Othering as shared by diverse social groups, enabling queer theology to be liberative in a broader and more inclusive sense.

Queering Classical Theology

LGBT theologians have also used queer perspectives to assess the work of classical theology. For example, Mark Jordan has looked again at the theology of Thomas Aquinas, in order to assess the impact of his texts on the history of ‘sodomy’ within theology.[19] Jordan examines Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, arguing that it cannot be used as a tool in debates about homosexuality and heterosexuality which understands those terms as productive categories of identity.[20] This is because Aquinas talks of sodomy as a ‘vice’ which does not relate to a ‘physiological disposition’ or ‘behavioural consequences’.[21] Jordan also suggests that there is no evidence of references to gender in relation to ‘same-sex copulation’ in Aquinas’ theology.[22] Applying a queer approach in this way, Jordan suggests that Aquinas’ writing has been misused in condemning same-sex sexual acts, and that his texts must be reinterpreted in light of their historical context. In terms of the liberative value of this for Queer Black people, the importance of questioning and rejecting theologies which serve to perpetuate oppression becomes the task of queer theology. Therefore, specific issues of contemporary identity do not stand in the way of questioning the liberative value of classical theologies.

Michael Foucault’s influence on theology is partly evident in his ideas of the hermeneutics of the self.[23] Foucault argues that to understand the self we should not focus on what it is positive, but should instead focus on how the self has been developed through the technologies of history, with the task being to change these technologies.[24] The queer theologian Jeremy Carrette uses Foucault’s ideas to question the problematic parallels between discourses of theology and sexuality, as they have both presented sexuality in terms of an oppressive heteronormative sexuality.[25] Carrette’s central argument here is that Foucault’s hermeneutics of the self helps to destabilize the essentialism of sexuality and the self – and also Christian theology.[26] Seeing queer theory as ‘reason’ therefore helps to destabilize the somewhat restrictive and oppressive categories found in discourses of sexuality and theology. Therefore, in terms of the benefits of an intersectional approach, by using queer theories to question sexuality we can similarly question other categories such as those of ‘race’ and ethnicity due to connected issues of oppression. Thus, intersectionality can provide a useful framework for understanding Queer Black experiences in terms of interrogating multifaceted and diverse forms of oppression produced in theological discourse.

Queer Theology & Queer Theory

Queer theory may act as a useful resource in unpacking categories of identity within liberative discourses. Christina Hutchins utilises Judith Butler’s work on identity in order to question the limitations of the Christian tradition when interrogating lesbian identities.[27] She uses Butler’s views on gender as ‘performative’ and as only becoming ‘stable’ as a result of repetition in order to suggest that identity should be understood as an ‘ongoing, creative process’.[28] In light of this, Hutchins suggests that institutional churches have used fixed outlooks on identity and have thus ‘failed’ at ‘remaking…dissolving, breaking’ such categories, which is a necessary step in getting to grips with the diversity of identity.[29] Hutchins highlights the previous stances of the church on identity and central themes of queer theory to suggest an alternative and more fluid way of looking at how people self-identity. This approach can therefore aid a discussion of how the Church and its theology impose oppressive and restrictive notions of identity upon communities. Furthermore, whilst these examples do not speak directly to issues of ‘race’ or ethnicity,  the work of Hutchins can be used as an intersectional framework in order to think through other categories of identity such as ‘Queer’ and ‘Black’. It is this questioning-style of approach to identity that enables us to destabilize and decentre oppressive theological notions for Queer Black people. This does not mean that categories such as ‘lesbian’, ‘Queer’ or ‘Black’ are no longer of use for these groups, but it does stress the importance of expanding our definitions and of not allowing our discourses to be bound by such categories.

Previously, scholars have used various sources to speak about the experience of Queer Black people and religion. For example, speaking of Black gay men’s experiences of the Black church, Roger Sneed argues that they are made to appear as the ‘threatening Other’ by Black heterosexuals, enforcing that the Black church has presented them as ‘immoral and operative outside the bounds of nature’.[30] Sneed responds to this and uses the work of novelists such as E. Lynn Harris to show how Queer Black characters come to realise happiness when they make their ‘sexual selves’ visible to others.[31] Therefore, we see how writers react directly against the oppressive treatment of Queer Black people, specifically gay Black men, in order to bring their experiences to the fore as the main source of reflection.  Here we see a conscious acknowledgement of the experiences of the Queer Black community and their treatment within the Church. It is through the use of literature that queer scholars can analyse Queer Black experiences and realise the importance of theology as an inclusive resource for understanding sexual and racial difference. Therefore, the use of experience within queer theology can be truly liberative when it places the struggles of Queer Black people at the centre.

A great deal of discourses on issues of sexuality, theology and religion has looked at how positions of oppression relate to faith. For example, in a volume entitled Queer and Catholic, Trebor Healey talks of how he reconciled his Catholic faith with his Queer identity.[32] He refers to his own childhood experiences of praying to Mary and using her to solve the troubles he faced after realising he was Queer.[33] In light of this, Healey initially rejected the Church by not attending mass on a Sunday and not practising the Catholic faith explicitly.[34] However, he reconciled his troubles by building his own church around himself, through understanding his own possessions as Eucharists and Saints.[35] Therefore, we see an attempt in works of queer theology to use experience in order to reconcile oppressive forms of religion with Queer identity. In terms of Queer Black experience, this approach to doing theology has clear liberative potential. By rejecting oppressive forces in society, in this case the Catholic Church, people who have become marginalised can still use them as tools to in turn reclaim them and liberate them for themselves, despite whether their oppression is based on their sexuality, ‘race’, ethnicity or other.

Queer theology is liberative in two ways. Firstly, the theology of Queer Black scholars has moved the voices and experiences of Queer Black people from the margins to the centre. Additionally, by understanding different forms of oppression as connected, those queer theologies which may not specifically mention issues of ‘race’ or ethnicity can still be a liberative resource. Therefore, it is important to understand queer theology as an evolving discipline. In light of this, it can be used in relation to the varied experiences of oppression of Queer Black people by always queering, being queered and questioning and destabilizing oppressive theologies, institutions and categories of identity.


Tom Hillsdon graduated with a BA (Hons) Religions & Theology and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, both from the University of Manchester.

picture credit: New York Times

[1] Cornwall, Controversies in Queer Theology, p. 73.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”, University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1989), p. 139.

[3] Mary E. Hunt, “Theology, Queer”, in Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (eds), Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 298-299.

[4] Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), p. 66.

[5] Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies, p. 66.

[6] Cornwall, Controversies in Queer Theology, p. 64.

[7] Cornwall, Controversies in Queer Theology, p. 64.

[8] Deryn Guest, When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics, (London: SCM Press, 2005), p. 45.

[9] Guest, When Deborah Met Jael, p 46.

[10] Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), pp. 26-40.

[11] Cheng, Radical Love, p. 26.

[12] Cheng, Radical Love, p. 26.

[13] Cheng, Radical Love, p. 26.

[14] Irene Monroe, “When and Where I Enter, Then the Whole Race Enters with Me” in Robert E. Goss and Mona West (eds), Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, p. 83.

[15] Monroe, “When and Where I Enter” p. 90.

[16] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics, (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 47-83.

[17] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, p. 80.

[18] Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, p. 82.

[19] Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 136-158.

[20] Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, p. 155.

[21] Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, p. 155.

[22] Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, p. 155.

[23] Michel Foucault, “About the Beginnings of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth”, Political Theory, 21:2, (1993), pp. 222-223.

[24] Foucault, “About the Beginnings of the Hermeneutics of the Self”, pp. 222-223.

[25] Jeremy Carrette, “Beyond Theology and Sexuality: Foucault, the Self and the Que(e)rying of Monotheistic Truth” in James Bernauer and Jeremy Carrette (eds), Michel Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p. 218.

[26] Carrette, “Beyond Theology and Sexuality”, p. 225.

[27] Christina K. Hutchins, “Unconforming Becomings: The Significance of Whitehead’s Novelty and Butler’s Subversion for the Repetitions of Lesbian Identity”, in Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville (eds), Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 143.

[28] Hutchins, “Unconforming Becomings”, p. 122.

[29] Hutchins, “Unconforming Becomings”, p. 142.

[30] Roger A. Sneed, Representations of Homosexuality: Black Liberation Theology and Cultural Criticism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 152.

[31] Sneed, Representations of Homosexuality, p. 152.

[32] Trebor Healey, “I Was Always a Marian Heretic” in Amie M. Evans and Trebor Healey (eds), Queer and Catholic, (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 58-60.

[33] Healey, “I Was Always a Marian Heretic”, p. 52.

[34] Healey, “I Was Always a Marian Heretic”, pp. 58-59.

[35] Healey, “I Was Always a Marian Heretic”, pp. 58-59.

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