My first introduction to queer culture, or the gay lifestyle, was as a teenager in the 1980’s. Like most teens I spent a lot of time in my bedroom listening to music and taking drugs. Growing up in the Sunshine State, I was an outsider and hated sunshine for a start! Dressed in black, I was interested in darkly creative pursuits such as Wicca, and was mostly alienated from my family during these years. I hungered for another type of life, away from the rural suburb, the working-class conventions and the strange Pentecostal Christian beliefs that I was raised with.
Music was an opening into a much broader imaginative world, especially music that questioned heterosexual norms. Two favourites were Bronski Beat and the Communards, who sang about men loving men, while critiquing the bible. There were many more, like Depeche Mode and Tracy Chapman whose haunting, challenging lyrics set me on a journey of discovery that has not ended.
I had to get out.
A young woman, 17 years of age, living on the streets, sleeping in many different beds, in and out of homeless shelters for a number of years, again it was queer culture that introduced me to the specifics of safe sex practice. In the early 1990’s, the era of AIDS awareness, it was via gay activists, inclusive zines, gender queer friends and outreach workers who were themselves deviant that I came to understand the importance of using clean needles, and having protected intercourse with women and men, while avoiding extreme violence. Together they showed me how to live into the concept of harm minimization, without stigma.
I was beginning to understand my place in the world as a unique adult human.
In more recent years I have surrounded myself with non-gender conforming individuals and also become a part of the academic culture that is working to break down heteronormativity. There are sex workers I have known and loved such as Ali, Chris, Jo and Anthony, who broke the rules of being gay and straight, giving the gift of expansive life to me. And thinkers like Judith Butler whose scholarship shows that gender identity is always a performance within a system. How does the system expect us to behave? Queer theologians like Bob Goss, former Catholic priest and long-time activist and scholar in the US, whose own account of coming out (and all that entailed within a religious system) is breathtaking. And finally, importantly, my local lesbian community whose friendship and support in recent years has been integral to my flourishing in an isolated area of Australia.
For these people and many more, I am grateful.
So when Christian leaders make statements like ‘We don’t approve of the gay lifestyle’ what are they really articulating here? First of all they are denouncing homosexual sexual activity. Promiscuity and sex outside of marriage is condemned. LGBTQI people are judged as being voraciously sexual and focused upon one thing only. Human beings are reduced to fucking machines. This is a capitulation to stereotyping in an effort to dismiss the possibility of a rich and varied life, not a lifestyle. Neither does heterosexual promiscuity rate a mention in this debate.
Secondly, difference, deviance and questions are erased as traditional gender norms are reinstated as being God’s plan for humanity. There is no sense of ‘we are in this together’ or ‘we are on a journey exploring the sacred in the world’ or even ‘let’s use our power to challenge oppressive gender regimes.’ Religious authority is used, via sweeping statements, to narrow the field of divinity and discriminate against anyone who does not perform essentialist gendered roles based upon monogamous heterosexuality.
Finally, stigma is reinforced by focusing solely upon the cliché of homosexual promiscuity, and thus condemning the abundant, sacred gifts that queer individuals and culture has bestowed upon this world.
My own interactions with those who are gender non-conforming has revealed ways of being that are reasoned, peaceful and mature. I have found life, wisdom, beauty and community around the queers! Christians, especially religious leaders, who fail to acknowledge the nuances and breadth of queer culture are not adding anything of value to the current discussion about human rights. There is no moral authority in this position, rather what is revealed is an ethical limitation. An inability to learn from ‘others’ in their own beingness and appreciate the unique perspectives that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex persons bring to the table of life.