gay ambivalence: on gay men and queer theology

A prompt in a conference call read: What does it mean to identify as a gay man in the era of queer theology? The general answer I have for you is that it means something. There is still something in identifying as a gay man as long as sex between men is difficult to speak of in Christian theology and the church.

First, a prior question: is this the era of queer theology? The answer might be an obvious yes or girl, please. Two introductions to queer theology have been published recently by Linn Tonstad and Chris Greenough, as have collections like Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects and Theologies and Queer Theologies: Becoming the Queer Body of Christ. In popular books, Mihee Kim-Kort has written Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith. That’s all since 2018, and of course there is earlier work, like Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Queer God (2003), the Blackwell volume edited by Gerard Loughlin (2008), and Patrick Cheng’s introduction called Radical Love (2011).[1]

As soon as 2002, theologians were already offering genealogies of the emergence of queer theology from gay and lesbian theologies in the 1990s. Elizabeth Stuart does this in her book Gay and Lesbian Theologies, as does Robert Goss in Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus ACTed Up. Stuart traces the emergence of queer theology from Goss’s earlier book, Jesus ACTed Up, published in 1993 and from other theological projects engaging Foucault.[2] For Stuart, queer theology emerged from gay and lesbian theology’s failure “to respond to the experiences of those living and dying with HIV/AIDS,” too focused as they were on repeating orthodoxies rather than “dealing with the profoundest theological questions raised” by AIDS.[3] Taking its cues from queer theory, as it ought to in Stuart’s mind, “queer theology is not an identity-based theology, indeed it is an anti-identity based theology. . . . queer theory and, to a large extent, queer theology have emerged from the rubble of gay and lesbian theory/theology. The performance of lesbian and gay identity did not prove to be terribly convincing theoretically or theologically.”[4] Put crudely, gay and lesbian identity was theologically impotent, and AIDS killed it, leaving “queer” to heroically rebuild sexual theologies.

Goss’s Queering Christ also traces the emergence of queer theology from the failures of gay theology. He parses a complicated history of how the gay theology of the 1970s and 80s “inevitably became problematic in its singular focus on gay male issues, excluding lesbian voices.”[5] Goss argues it was also exclusive of bi, transgender, Black, and brown people. Finally, AIDS drew gays into activist coalitions with lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals, leading to theological cross-pollination and queering. Unlike Stuart, Goss doesn’t see queer as simply being anti-identity. He writes, “Queer theologies… will not ever abandon identity and gender as categories of knowledge or liberative practice but will render them open and contestable to various meanings that promote coalition politics.” Like Stuart, Goss’s understanding of how queer theology engages identity is based on his understanding of how queer theory engages identity: “Queer theory aims not to abandon sexual and gender identity as an epistemological category but to render it more flexible, permanently open to revision, and changeable.”[6] Like Stuart, Goss narrates theological development as succession, with new theologies critiquing the life out of old ones. He prophesies, “Bisexual theologies will certainly undermine gay/lesbian and heterosexual theological discourse,” and that “we can expect [transgender theology] to undermine heteronormative and gay/lesbian normative constructions of maleness and femaleness with new interstitional gender spaces.”[7] This language of succession presumes that there is no overlap between bisexual and gay or lesbian, or between transgender and gay or lesbian.

These readings raise some familiar and relevant questions of a genealogical nature. Is queer anti-identity (as Stuart has it), or does it render identity more flexible (as Goss says)? Does queer theology depend on the simultaneous cannibalization and rejection of gay and lesbian theologies as too backwards, too focused on identity? Or can queer theology occur alongside gay and lesbian theologies, the former reminding the latter of the contingency of identity, while the latter encourages the former to linger with particularity?

One more point from Stuart that I find illustrative: Stuart compares how gay, lesbian, and queer theologies approach sex. She writes,

Queer theology though it usually begins with issues of sexuality is not really ‘about’ sexuality in the way that gay and lesbian theology is about sexuality. Queer theology is actually about theology. In gay and lesbian theology sexuality interrogated theology, in queer theology, theology interrogates sexuality. . . . Queer theology denies the ‘truth’ of sexuality and hence declares that it is not stable enough to build a theology upon.[8]

Here, gays and lesbians are sex-obsessed in a way that queers are not: not only are our desires perhaps more fixed, but we want our desires to make some sort of sense, bear some sort of truth. Our theology remains connected to our sexuality and to our sex. So gay theologians build their houses on sand, while queer theologians find more… stable ground? Stability is queer?

Queer theology strays from sex in a way that gay and lesbian theologies do not, at least according to Stuart. Because she says that queer theology is “actually about theology,” it sounds like she sees the turn from sex and sexuality to (“actual”) theology as a good turn. For me, it is not. It is, first, an exclusion of sex and sexuality from the purview of theology. Second, this exclusion of sex reinvests in the theological disavowal of sex that is precisely the disavowal that gave rise to queerness in the church via sodomy. It is, third, an example of how histories of the relationship between gay and queer come to associate gayness with fixity and queerness as endless fluidity.

Queerness-as-fluidity sometimes involves speaking of sexual desires as malleable, be they naturally so, changing across a lifetime, or through intentional reflection in response to how desire is shaped by histories of colonialism, racism, sexism, and transphobia. Queerness-as-fluidity sometimes frames gayness as fixity. It also can involve a methodological fluidity: queer as the site for interrogating how racism, colonialism, etc. are interwoven with configurations of sex and gender, or queer as unmoored from sex and gender altogether. Ubi transgressio, queer ibi est. Where transgression is, there queer is. And often for queer theologians, Deus ibi est. Any kind of transgression is queer is Godly. Take queer sex out and it all gets conveniently flattened into one. In theological registers, where queerness-as-fluidity leaves sex behind, it can easily be confused with Christianity itself. To be a good queer is actually to be a good Christian, and vice versa.  

I’ll try rephrasing the question again, with more specificity this time: What does it mean to be a man who has sex with men in an era in which the church and its institutions at their worst still exclude gays from their sacraments and leadership and at their best peddle a queer theology that would prefer not to talk about gay sex—what it means, what it reveals, what it doesn’t mean or reveal, what kinds of relationships it forges, what kinds of pastoral care (not correction) it requires?

A recent example of queerness-as-fluidity leading to the flattening of queerness into Christianity is found in Mihee Kim-Kort’s Outside the Lines. Citing the 2007 volume After Sex: On Writing since Queer Theory, she writes,

Queerness has undergone numerous challenges and transformations. It began as a way to describe certain expressions of sexuality and gender, and now it includes other markers of identity, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, and more. Yes, it’s rooted in matters of gender and sexuality, but queerness is not meant to be exclusionary. In fact, any kind of exclusion would be counter to queerness, because queerness is about bodies, and we all have bodies.[9]

First, Kim-Kort is absolutely right in naming the relationship between queerness and race, and some queer scholars of color have made the even stronger claim that queerness has never been separate from race. Second, though, she posits a contrast between gender and sexuality on one hand and inclusion on the other. To insist upon queerness’s association with gender and sexuality is to be exclusionary, which she says, is counter to queerness. On my reading, this risks aligning gayness with exclusion, fixity, and backwardness.

Now, some contributors to After Sex do argue that queer theory can be illuminating for more topics than sex and sexuality, but these arguments are more about what queer can do as an analytic than about what can be called queer. Other contributors, as the editors point out, resonate with the claim of Sharon Marcus that “If everyone is queer, then no one is.”[10] Heather Love writes, in her contribution to the volume,

Before we get too excited about the expansive energies of queer, though, we have to ask ourselves whether queer actually becomes more effective as it surveys more territory. In many cases the intentions in generalizing are good. . . . The problem with such a broad vision of queer is… that the intention to be answerable to many different constituencies can end up looking like a desire to have ownership over them.[11]

Or take the chapter by Richard Rambuss, whose own version of “after queer” and “after sex” includes being a gay man talking about how men are hot. He, too, finds room for an expansion of objects of study: “Gay male sex and what gay men find sexual may be much more, or even quite other, than love of the cock. For some, it might also, or even instead, be love of the ass, the male ass.”[12] Even instead! Anyway, Kim-Kort glosses the variations, more and less subtle, within After Sex, and cites the volume as support for suggesting that queer sex is no longer necessary for queer life.

Indeed, for Kim-Kort, queerness “can matter to anyone, whether we identify with queerness or not, whether it resonates a little or a lot—because whenever we love ourselves and our neighbors with the boundary-breaking love of God, we enact this queer spirituality in the world.”[13] Queerness and Christianity are both about a kind of transgression that sounds a lot like a basic Christian ethic of love your neighbor as yourself. This definition leads Kim-Kort to give accounts of queer friendship and promiscuity without sex. Promiscuity is really just radical hospitality.

The problem with queerness-as-fluidity-without-sex is that it makes things easier for the church. Queerness becomes what the church needs it to be, so it doesn’t have to think about gay sex or challenge homophobia and transphobia; rather, the church can just go ahead and consider itself queer—while replicating a phobic silence around queer sex that makes things harder for queers whose queerness is related to their sexual desires and practices.[14]

I am not claiming that gay men experience the worst oppression in society or in the church. Especially not able-bodied cis white gay men like myself. Nor are we alone in this position of being screwed by queerness-as-fluidity-without-sex. Lesbians experience it, too, and when I speak of gays and lesbians, I am speaking of cis and trans gays and lesbian. And pan- and bisexual people who have queer sex and relationships.

Another way of revisiting the prompt: What does it mean to insist upon keeping your gay sex life in your theology?

I think I’m coming around to an answer. In the era of queer theology, gay men inhabit a tension between relevant and irrelevant objects of discourse and subjects of thought. Also, we are simultaneously sex-obsessed and unsexy (not the hot new thing). Where queer becomes more and more capacious, more and more uncritically Christian and desexed, to be a gay man is to remain with the stigma of gay sex.

Although I’ve critiqued queerness-as-fluidity quite a bit, there are things to critique about gayness-as-fixity as well—putting all of one’s subjective weight into a sexual identity. In Telling Truths in Church, Mark D. Jordan offers a brief “Negative Theology of Sexual Identities.” Jordan writes, “the negation of the label ‘homosexual’ is truer in theologically important ways than its affirmation. . . . Negating the identity ‘homosexual’ means something [] like remembering what imposing that identity leaves out.”[15] By this, he means that homosexual is not ultimately adequate “for capturing the erotic passion of persons.” It “is too crude, too silly, to capture what God has done underneath it.”[16] Jordan is worried that our identity categories will too heavily overdetermine how we understand our erotic lives and God within them, all the while misrecognizing how the identities we assume have been constructed for us, how they manage us. For him, the erotic “is our deepest experience of grace,” so to limit our language for our erotic lives limits what we can say about God.[17]

Personally, I’ve not (yet?) felt as if identifying as gay has limited my theology of eros—if anything, it has absolutely blown it open, stripped it of readymade meanings. This rupture is not due to some inherent transgressiveness of a man desiring men but due to the heterosexual Christian context of my upbringing, and indeed, of the church today generally. Jordan admits, “We who live through being gay or lesbian may even need to inhabit fixed identities for a while in church debates before we can set to work dismantling them.”[18] This is identification as a strategy of resistance.

As I continue to see queerness-as-fluidity-without-sex appear in Christian discourse alongside gayness-as-queerness-without-sex (for another time), identifying as a gay man and identifying with gay sex have felt more pressing and fun. It is worth embodying the shame and sin heaped onto us by the church. It is worth putting a face to theologies intended to deface us. Not so they can see whatever hurt we carry with us, or so that we can try to prove that we too are human, or so that we can die on the hill of “gay is good,” but so that the church (including gay and queer people within it who intentionally distance themselves from the stigma associated with queer sex) can see our freedom, our joy, our Rumpelstiltskin-like spinning of shame into pleasure and isolation into vibrant life, which I believe is made possible in the Spirit. 

I’ve got two endings for you. One looks back, and one looks forward. 

i. In 1989, what was then called the Gay Men’s Issues in Religion Consultation within the American Academy of Religion hosted a panel called “Constructing Gay Theology.” In the concluding section of his talk, J. Michael Clark, one of the founding co-chairs of the Unit, writes,

If those of us who are gay men, particularly those of us who deeply identify with the gay ghetto and subculture, are truly going to claim and celebrate our experience as a theological resource, how honest with ourselves are we really willing to be? How much deeper are we willing to delve into our experience and how willing are we to share that experience in the public forum of theological dialogue?

Specifically: Can we acknowledge God’s presence in our personal rituals of preparation… for sex—from weight-lifting, exercising, and dieting to grooming and dressing? Is the numinous not pungent in the frenzy of disco music, the sweat of dancing, the smell of poppers, the activities of cruising and pairing up for sex? If indeed, “nothing that is of us can be alien to our theology,” then not only must we not be embarrassed by this side of our experience; we must in fact make such an affirmation.[19]

I’ll have more things to say about Clark in the future, especially his work later on in the 90s. For now, I love the specificity of this passage. I think it’s the only time I’ve read the word “poppers” in a theological text. But it isn’t the recognizable to the point of stereotypical picture of gay male life that draws me to the passage for our purposes today, but rather the framing of those particulars. How honest with ourselves are we willing to be? What are we willing to talk about in a public forum, even the hyper-particularized kind of space that this unit is? Does embarrassment shape our scholarship? What would we write if we felt truly free? And what, if anything, does that tell us about the state of our field and the institutions where it has found lodging?

ii. In June 2021, the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin hosted a conference called, “What Happened to Lesbian and Gay Studies?” A strong theme in the presentations was a complication of the narrative that queer theory came along in the early 1990s bringing its anti-identitarian axe to gay and lesbian studies, which had been too narrowly focused on discrete identities.

In his introductory talk, Ben Nichols nuances and tweaks this narrative. Following the “core moment of anti-identitarian high theory” of the early 1990s, the late 90s and early 2000s saw explicit discussion of identity as a concept peter out as queer theory turned to the problems of normalization and assimilation. In the 2000s, he notes, queer theorists developed critiques of homonormativity and homonationalism, looking at the gay and queer complicity in nationalist projects. In the 2010s, Nichols claims, queer projects took a “categorical turn,” in which it became possible to think in and through sexual identities while maintaining conceptual validity. Think Halperin’s How to Be Gay, Darius Bost’s Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence, or Natasha Hurley’s Circulating Queerness: Before the Gay and Lesbian Novel, he lists. Or recently, Jeremy Atherton Lin’s memoir, Gay Bar, and Jafari Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life. Nichols asks, “What will queer studies be about if it does not have to or cannot ethically be about everything?” Nichols lingers with the distancing of queer from identity, saying, “I wonder how much of the ease with which we fault and displace the identities that might otherwise be seen to ground our work in gender and sexuality studies is a symptom of a basic aversion to those identities. So if we just liked them more, would we be so keen to jettison them?” He asks, “What is it about them exactly that lets us down so badly?”

In Rachel Corbman’s talk, “Identifying Gay and Lesbian after Queer Studies,” she unearths anti-identitarian impulses in gay lib and feminist movements of the 1970s, when gay was basically a “proto-queer catch-all,” quoting Jeffrey Weeks. Then, through a reading of Queer Nation’s history, she argues that queer activism in the 90s was actually much more identitarian than the familiar narrative allows: “Queer… functioned as a loose synonym for gay and lesbian.” She notes that even Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, often hailed as one of the founding texts in queer theory alongside Gender Trouble, says that structuralist approaches to gender and sex run the risk of being used to homophobic ends. And in their readings and examples, both Butler and Sedgwick’s texts didn’t stray far from gay and lesbian spaces. In summary, Corbman writes, “In overemphasizing queer’s rejection of gay and lesbian, we overdetermine queer, lesbian, and gay in ways that fundamentally distort history.”

So, I return to the question after the question I started with: is this the era of queer theology? In an obvious sense, yes, but this story may require complication as well, as gay and lesbian theology is still being written. For work largely pertaining to gay men, we could cite Richard Rambuss’s Closet Devotions, published in 1998 and Donald Boisvert’s Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality from 2000 as early signs that there would be more gay work to come. We could note Roger Sneed’s Representations of Homosexuality: Black Liberation and Cultural Criticism, published in 2010, and Dirk von der Horst’s Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference, from 2017.[20] There are a multitude of fiction writers, essayists, and poets whose work span gay and theological topics. And of course there is the myriad of apologetic gay Christian books like Justin Lee’s Torn, Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, and God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, to name a few.

While I think it’s a fair question of whether or not there is a “gay men and religion” field and even whether there needs to be one, there iswork to do in this domain. I’ll admit I have a stake in this, as many of the projects I am interested in pursuing are about gay men and gay desire. In Christian theology, where I work, heterosexuality has been made core to the symbolic order through the alignment of the God/Church relationship to marriage and the alignment of sex and procreation, meaning that gay sex has historically been considered a threat to nature. There is a purpose in lingering with the specificities of gay sex––what it has been made to mean, what it might yet mean or not, and what meanings it shatters.

To study gay things and men and sex and desire and religion, we don’t need to conceive of gayness as an unchanging category, either historically or within the lives of those who identify with it – sex, religion, and men aren’t particularly stable categories, either. And we don’t need to see the study of gay men and religion as an entirely separate thing from queer studies in religion and queer theology; neither would it need to “center itself” within queer studies and theology—no one wants that. It doesn’t need to be particularly ambitious or large. It doesn’t need to be the only discourse to which a scholar contributes. But, with relevant critiques of identity in mind, why not study gay men? Why not do theology that is actually about sexuality and theology, from the cultural milieus sexuality engenders?

If it does look a little backwards to some, let them enjoy the view.

[This essay is based off a paper I gave for the Gay Men and Religion Unit of the American Academy of religion. The panel was called “Gay Men and Queer Theory: Reflections on the Shape of the Field.” The paper resonates with “Queer/Christian Collapse,” as I was revising that around the same time I wrote this.]

[1] A lot is obscured by lumping all of these differently queer projects into one category or era.

[2] Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies, 79–81.

[3] Stuart, 75.

[4] Stuart, 89.

[5] Goss, Queering Christ, 241–42.

[6] Goss, 237.

[7] Goss, 236.

[8] Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies, 102–103.

[9] Kim-Kort, Outside the Lines, 3–4.

[10] Marcus, “Queer Theory for Everyone,” 196; Halley and Parker, “Introduction,” 7.

[11] Love, “Queers ____ This,” 183.

[12] Rambuss, “After Male Sex,” 201.

[13] Kim-Kort, Outside the Lines, 6.

[14] Halperin, Saint Foucault, 65. The concerns I’m raising are not new ones. Writing in 1995 on the initial rise to prominence of queer, David Halperin writes [and I quote at length],

“What makes “queer” potentially so treacherous as a label is that its lack of definitional content renders it all too readily available for appropriation by those who do not experience the unique political disabilities and forms of social disqualification from which lesbians and gay men routinely suffer in virtue of our sexuality. . . . ‘Queer’ can even support the restigmatization of lesbians and gay men, who can now be regarded (once again) as sad, benighted folks, still locked—unlike postmodern, non-sexually labeled, self-theorized queers—into an old-fashioned, essentialized, rigidly defined, specifically sexual (namely, lesbian or gay) identity. Lesbians and gay men can now look forward to a new round of condescension and dismissal at the hands of the trendy and glamorously unspecified sexual outlaws who call themselves ‘queer’ and who can claim the radical chic attached to a sexually transgressive identity without, of course, having to do anything icky with their bodies in order to earn it.”

[15] Jordan, Telling Truths in Church, 68.

[16] Jordan, 69.

[17] Jordan, 74.

[18] Jordan, 70.

[19] Clark, “Prophecy, Subjectivity, and Theodicy in Gay Theology,” 41.

[20] Michael Ford’s Disclosures: Conversations Gay and Spiritual (2005) and Michael Bernard Kelly’s Christian Mysticism’s Queer Flame: Spirituality in the Lives of Contemporary Gay Men (2021)—both lean heavily on conversations and interviews in their methodology but are certainly relevant to theology. Broader, but certainly representative of a desire for scholarship on gay men and religion, is Ronald E. Long’s Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods: An Exploration into the Religious Significance of Male Homosexuality in World Perspective (2004), complete with a naked blond white model on the cover.

Published by Samuel Ernest

I am a doctoral student in theology at Yale.

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