Thoughts on Secular Queer Spaces

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Alex Gabriel argues that queer groups should stay secular, free from pandering by Christian organizations. Gabriel’s overarching reason is purely pragmatic: queer-identified people have faced trauma from religious (read: Christian) institutions and might need a space from religious discourse:

Many in queer communities have histories of religious abuse, whether ordinary queerphobia or physical, sexual or emotional varieties: the mere presence of guests in holy orders, even entirely friendly ones, can make an event a no-go area. There are apostates from all forms of religion who feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in LGBT groups that have been godded-up, as I did at university.

Gabriel goes on to assert that many who are queer-identified persons within these groups who have reservations about the role of religious (again read: Christian) groups have with purportedly non-religious/Christian organizations. Gabriel’s blog has spurred a lot of thoughts I have had about the relationship between queerness and religion (indeed, it has spurred me to start-up my blog once again).

Praise for Gabriel’s Article

Gabriel is correct that queer groups spend significant amounts of time focused on religious (read:Christian) issues, and this lends some credence to religious privilege (specifically Christian privilege). The fact that queer-identified people must focus on religious issues reinforces a narrative that queer-identified people will only be able to gain legitimacy through religious acceptance of queer people. This is not dissimilar to the critique Jasbir Puar makes about what she calls “homonormativity,” drawn from Lisa Duggan, in which queer ideologies that “replicate narrow racial, class, and gender national ideals” (Puar 2010, xxv). Here one might add religious national ideals as well in following Gabriel. In order to gain ascendency, queer-identified persons must cling to the modes of religiosity that are dominant and normative (at least speaking of the United States). For instance, it should come as no surprise voices such as Michael Vines dominates the conversation about queer religious inclusion that panders to white evangelicalism. Even Jay Michaelson’s book, God vs. Gay? reified the conversation around white evangelicalism even while Michaelson himself identifies as Jewish.

What is more is that the feeling I get as a queer Jew is often one of suspicion from affirming Christian groups because it seems as if their larger goal is still to either win converts or to win back souls who have strayed from the Church. Of course, this has no basis in fact, but is rather a feeling. Yet, I think it speaks to the larger issue that Gabriel hints at, namely, the pink washing of Christianity’s past. I am fully aware, following Michael Satlow’s dictum that “there is no history of Judaism but only histories,” applying it to Christianity. This is what Gabriel hints at when he states, “[i]f as liberals claim, Christianity’s impact over millennia has been antithetical to Jesus’ words, the question is not why Christians have missed Christ’s real message – it’s why Jesus was the worst communicator in human history.”

But the sense in which Christianity has failed to fully address this past lends some credence to my suspicion on interactions with affirming Christians. The question I want to ask, “Can Christianity be queer-affirming without some form of radical reconfiguration?” It seems like the model that Vines and Michaelson promote is that Christianity (or more broadly) religion can go on without some form of radical reconfiguration that allows religion to be inclusive in any real way. 

To move forward, the larger part of Gabriel’s point that I worry others might miss is that Christianity has played a significant role in religious trauma. Queer groups, in his opinion should function as spaces for those who want to be removed from that trauma, and thus, religious groups should keep arms distance from queer groups. Thus, Gabriel’s point, and I think it is important concern.

Critique

Although I share Gabriel’s concerns, I believe his position must be critiqued because  Gabriel’s position takes much for granted. First, Gabriel asserts religious trauma as if religious institutions are the only institutions that have (or still do) promote queer antagonism. Second, Gabriel appears to evoke “safe space” without fleshing out a definition of a “safe” space. Third, although Gabriel discusses “the secular” instead of “secularism,” Gabriel presumes that “the secular” offers a neutral ground.

To speak to the first issue, Gabriel relies on the proposition that religion is inherently queer antagonistic. I do not mean to belittle the point: religious institutions have been the dominant force in perpetuating oppression against queer-identified persons. Yet, it is valuable to critique Gabriel here because religious institutions are not alone. It crafts an essentialist history about Christianity in particular and religion more generally. Secular (or explicitly anti-religious organizations) have likewise perpetuated queer antagonism. The forms of queer antagonism that I have faced as an individual were neither implicitly or overtly religious in their tone. Again, this is not to dismiss Gabriel (religious institutions do play a large role in oppression), but rather to ask whether focus on religious trauma obscures non-religious forms of queer antagonism? 

To speak to the second issue, that is the issue of “safe space,” I want to legitimately ask if safe space is actually possible. Here I can only think of my own evolution of the concept of “safe space,” which has been formed in light of drug use within queer spaces (not religion). Some, following Eric Peterson, would argue that the notion of safe space enforces racism and transphobia, where “safety,” the freedom from fear, allows for internalized (and not so internalized) racism and/or transphobia to manifest themselves. Although I believe there are significant issues with Jack Halberstam’s piece on trigger warnings (Halberstam misunderstands what a trigger warning is), Halberstam’s larger point that coalitional politics has given way for neo-liberalism, which focuses too much on individualism. In what ways can the very idea of safe space promote the neo-liberal individualism that Halberstam critiques? Again, I am unsure if I have an answer whether or not we abandon the notion of safe space in general. Yet, I think it is worth questioning the concept of safe space because whose safety is privileged. 

Lastly, I think it is worth questioning whether a secular space actually functions as a neutral space. Again, William Connolly has noted of Asad’s critique of secularism, secularism itself can be a carrier of harsh exclusions. What is more is that by creating a new definition of “religion,” (a private practice), secularism amoralizes problematic aspects of Christianity. In the United States at least, it becomes common practice for religious conservatives to argue, “we’re not bigots, we’re just practicing our religion.” Thus, I am less convinced that the so-called secular space offers a neutral space as Gabriel suggests.

Conclusion

None of the critiques I have provided is to suggest that we should abandon Gabriel’s key points. Indeed, I believe it is imperative that we formulate a discourse of br oader societal queer-inclusion not based on religious rhetoric alone, which I believe only privileges Christian rhetoric. Nevertheless, I am not wholly convinced by Gabriel’s argument, in part, because I study religion in such a way that attempts to avoid essentialist formulations (religion as homophobic). Moreover, I am unconvinced that secularism hasn’t played a role in espousing queer antagonistic ideas and practices. Christianity, in the end, wins only because it’s been around longer than secular movements. Though, as I would continue to maintain, the point of this post was not to come down on either side of the issue.

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