Identity and Community

Rev. Miller Hoffman

“Most people live with a great deal of inconsistency in their lives.”

For many LGBTQ people, and generally for the U.S. popular imagination, queer sexuality is understood and experienced as incompatible with faith. Across the research studies examined for this chapter, people of various religions often rejected queer sexuality as a viable, natural expression of faithful relationship. Though gay people tend to prioritize sexual identity in their self-identity organization, religious communities are largely formed rather by encouraging parishioners to organize self-identity around shared community beliefs and practices (Thumma, 1991). “A particular view of the world becomes the sacred canopy which makes sense of all other experiences. The more a person is encapsulated and indoctrinated in a religious perspective the less likely he or she is to change” (in Thumma, 1991, 334).

“Obedient and faithful”

Despite popular assumptions and the challenges that anti-gay religious communities impose, studies show that queer people are not less faithful. Participation by gay men in such activities as church attendance and prayer was found to be equal to straight men and greater than lesbian or bisexual women (though this may be complicated by religious patriarchy). Involvement in religious life and community is stronger when people receive community support: conservative Christian gay men who engaged with the pro-gay conservative religious organization “Good News” were more religiously conventional and devout after becoming members than they were before, reported more traditional views on sex and relationships, and engaged in more bible study, prayer, and devotions (Thumma, 1991). With Mormon men, regardless of Kinsey score, those who completed a mission were three times more likely to marry (Bradshaw et al., 2015). “Returned missionaries were more orthodox, more integrated, and were less inclined to report negative emotions or mistreatment. They were also more active in the organization” (Bradshaw et al., 2015, 322).

A photo of the USGA (Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship) at Brigham Young University, one of the most unfriendly college campuses for LGBTQ students in the US. 

“I don’t want to taint the name of Islam.”

Because many LGBTQ people of faith actually experience conflict between their sexual self and their religious community, resolving it is often assumed to be a choice between abandoning either the faith or the sexual identity. Forty-two percent of Mormons reported in one survey that their own lapsed church attendance was due to an incompatible lifestyle (Bradshaw et al., 2015), and Mormon men who in adolescence had similar religious beliefs were twenty percent less likely to complete a mission and even less likely to marry for each Kinsey unit they scored (Bradshaw et al., 2015). Eighty-nine percent of Evangelical Christians believed queer sexuality to be “immoral behavior” and 98% of Southern Baptists believed it not to be “a viable Christian lifestyle” (Thumma, 1991). In a study of “Good News” members, 74% indicated that they contacted the organization because of their desire to resolve tension between their gay feelings and Evangelical faith, which they found to be intolerable (Thumma 1991). In Siraj’s 2012 examination of lesbian Muslim women, queer sexuality is characterized as sinful and deviant. Four of the study’s five participants remained deeply conflicted about their sexual and religious identities; some even compared their sexuality to alcoholism or described it as the source of family members’ illness. Queer Muslim U.S. women in another study felt compelled to abandon their faith in order to embrace their sexual identity (Siraj, 2012). Notably, Yip cites a lack of “theological capital” for queer Muslims to form queer-affirming, inclusive faith communities and identities like those found in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues (Siraj, 2012). Unlike “Good News,” Metropolitan Community Churches, and affirming synagogues such as Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, inclusive Muslim faith groups like Imaan, formed by Faisal Alam, or Unity Mosque, formed by Imam El-Farouk Khaki, are still relatively isolated from one another and have not found significant acceptance within Islam by other mosques or Muslim organizations (Siraj, 2012).


El-Farouk Khaki, founder of Unity Mosque, speaks at Ted-X about being a social justice advocate and a queer Muslim.

 “God as a loving, nonjudgmental individual”

Some queer people of faith use interpretative theological strategies to reconcile faith and queer sexuality. Not everyone understands their choice to be limited to rejecting one or the other: gay Mormons, for example, describe using compartmentalization and integration (Bradshaw et al., 2015). Self-acceptance is bolstered by focusing on inclusive aspects of religion, such as employing gay- or queer-affirming textual interpretations of scripture and reconceptualizations of the divine, highlighting God’s role as creator“God made me gay!”emphasizing love, compassion, and mercy as foundational biblical and Qur’anic principles, as well as elements that promote inclusion, peace, tolerance, and justice. Although queer Muslims in the Minwalla study left their faith, others were able to retain a loose, referential connection to Islam and establish “meaningful spiritual paths where the acceptance and love of Allah are found” (Siraj, 2012).

Thumma’s 1991 discussion of a socialization model of mediating identity describes these processes of reconciling tension between sexuality and faith, and in some ways predicts the work of Fuist (2016), discussed below. Identity negotiation does not necessarily require destruction of one or another identity, but is ongoing and internalizes and reinterprets social meaning within social environments to continually create and re-create self-concept. For the gay Evangelicals in his study, neither the gay identity nor the Evangelical Christian religious identity was fundamentally compromised. And although neither orthodox Evangelicals nor liberal Christians, participants combined identities to form a core self-understanding as a gay Evangelical Christian (Thumma, 1991).

“It just always seemed like it wasn’t a big deal.”

Whereas for Thumma, the focus is to reconcile faith and queer sexual identity, Fuist questions the necessity and centrality of reconciliation. Fuist argues firstly that queer identities haven’t cornered the market: “straight religious identities also require identity work” (2016, 771). He also critiques the assumptions about “incompatibility” in queer religious identity research. A host of literature begins with the bedrock belief that queer and genderqueer relationships are uniformly, officially condemned by religious leaders, and it assumes that LGBQ people of faith automatically experience a conflict between these expressions of their sense of self. But Fuist argues that these studies neglect core aspects of identity formation, namely its ties to community interaction (practice, narrative, relationship), and treat religion as a uniform block in ways that both reproduce homophobic religious beliefs and also, importantly, ignore participants’ religious understandings and actual lives. Though the influence of power on creations of truth cannot be ignored, power should not be considered settled or absolute (Fuist, 2016). That is, for each religious power or institutional figure evaluating LGBTQ people there is an LGBTQ person or group creating alternate and competing appraisals of themselves. Communities espousing queer-positive frameworks of religious expression are sometimes, then, the congregations sought out by LGBQ people of faith and are sometimes the ideological groups within which the queer religious identity emerges. Therefore, many queer religious identities are not incongruent and do not require “reconciliation.”

In his study, Fuist found a group of identity formers which he called “reconcilers,” who did experience identity conflict and needed accommodation; “selectives,” who withheld or shared their queer identity depending on whether it would be supported by their audience, and “integrators,” whose religious and LGBQ sexual identities were never in conflict. This highlights the variety and the interactive and experiential nature of identity formation, what McGuire calls “lived religion” and what Ayishai emphasizes as “something people do, in social interaction” (Fuist, 2016). Importantly, Fuist’s work highlights the ways that conflict can be experienced not necessarily because of an inherent incompatibility between the religious and queer self but because of a lack of community support for connecting and living into both the religious and queer selves. “In other words, the religious style of a specific site constrains and enables the religious agency of social actors within it, providing different tools to them for the performance of religious identities” (Fuist, 2016, 781).

“Something in that hooked me, and I started going back and I’ve been going ever since.”

Part of what creates a gender/queer-affirming “religious style of a specific site” includes relationships with other LGBTQ people of faith and affirming faith leaders, and practices that liturgize and sacralize gender/queer culture and experience. These can include queer theologies (discussed below), gender/queer rituals, and sacralization of AIDS and AIDS activism.

Humor, holidays, shared norms, and ceremonies all mark the spaces as LGBT, ultimately embedding members’ LGBT religious identities in sacred stories and rituals. By operating from the assumption that LGBT and religious identities are integrated, and embedding those integrated identities in the stories and rituals of the community, the congregations provided cultural anchors that helped members support their understandings of themselves (Fuist, 2016, 782).

The work of “Good News” and other queer-affirming faith groups support this analysis. After offering a gay-positive intellectual framework for biblical interpretation, “Good News” provides community support for both the Evangelical and the gay identities through shared evangelistic activities, like witnessing to gay men at clubs and attending “straight” churches to create dialogue, and through queer social events like gay rights rallies and AIDS benefits (Thumma, 1991). Fuist (2016) provided this story about an MCC pastor who created a ritual to sacralize HIV and AIDS ministry. A dying man with AIDS had asked for a final communion, and a congregant named Kayla told the story:

The man insisted that Jim [the pastor] serve him [communion] and he told Jim to go get some bread from the kitchen and some grape juice. All that Jim could find in his panic was a Styrofoam cup and a napkin, and the gentleman was like “that’s enough” … and then Jim served him communion. And so up on the communion table at MCC, instead of a chalice … there was a Styrofoam cup and … (Kayla pauses as she becomes emotional) you know, so many people died during this time, so it’s always like, you know … (composing herself) … and this napkin. And Jim related his experience, goes through the consecration … Something in that hooked me, and I started going back and I’ve been going ever since.

“It seems like every day, everywhere I go, I’m a problem for somebody.”

Gloria Anzaldúa

Reconciliation or integration are not the only ways that queer people of faith understand the relationship between their various identities. In O’Brien’s (2004) study, the experienced conflict was not religious rejection of queer sexuality alone, but rather the experiencing both religious homophobia and also secular queer anti-religious bias. None of O’Brien’s participants identified with her language of “stigma,” or “double stigma,” but simply understood these dynamics as their life, “living a contradiction that defines who I am” (2004, 181). Drawing upon Gloria Anzaldúa’s work (1987) narrating mestiza consciousness, O’Brien describes queer people of faith as in frictious social positions who “find themselves traversing the boundaries, or borders of multiple worlds” (2004, 191). O’Brien describes this group as peculiarly aware of their marginality in a way often perceived as beneficial: an “articulation of contradiction itself as useful and worthwhile in the shaping of a Christian identity” (2004, 192).

“Everywhere you turn you have to jump into a different closet.” or “I reject assimilation.”

Although several authors of the identity work discussed in this chapter argued that their findings were applicable beyond the context studied, due to messaging and doctrinal similarities across highly conservative faiths (e.g., Bradshaw et al., 2015), most were very small, specific samples which cannot easily be generalized to larger LGBTQ religious populations. These sampling limitations and the difficulty of generalizing across culture and faith community becomes intensely more evident when examining the collusion of multiple marginalizations of queer Muslims. whereas O’Brien’s subjects rejected “stigma” or “double stigma” terminology, discrimination and oppression are in the forefront of Abraham’s (2010) treatment of queer Islamic identity in Australia importantly addressing the unique triangulation of homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism.

Abraham uses the language of “closeting” to describe a life that necessitates “changes in behavior, constant self-censoring and self-doubt” (2010, 401). He pulls from Gramsci’s 1971 work to describe how hegemonic underpinnings of culture, coercion, and persuasion/consent complement its use of overt violence (Abraham, 2010). Abraham asserts that the dominant expectation within conservative Muslim communities for gender conformity, straight marriage, and children meant that his participants were compelled to closet themselves as queer in order to receive community support from Islamophobia and racism (2010, 399). The impact of racism on queer Muslims emerged in other studies, as well, such as Yip’s (2004, 2005) studies of South Asian participants in the United Kingdom and Minwalla’s (2005) work in the United States: More than one author working outside of the U.S. noted the creation within the U.S. of a gay rights movement that centers whiteness and affluence and that marginalizes non-Europeans (see, e.g., Abraham, 2010). Feeling forced to conceal identity cut in all directions for this group. when seeking support from homophobia within queer community, Abraham’s participants also often felt compelled to closet their Muslim faith: “’to them’ – meaning the mainstream queer community – ‘everyone is like the Taliban’” (2010, 403).

Abraham described strategies for resistance employed by these gay Muslims, different from “reconciliation” or “integration,” that emerge from their specific location of intersectional prejudice and exclusion as gay Muslims of color. The first, which Abraham identified as a private-spiritual-liberal strategy, is to spiritualize Islam and individualize (and privatize) both sexuality and “’the connection between the self and God’” (Abraham, 2010, 408). The second strategy is public, explicitly religious, and politically radical and asserts a counterhegemonic stance that defies the model minority and rejects the Western, liberal, capitalist underpinnings that tames or neuters Islam (Abraham, 2010). Abraham calls the latter a form of hybridity, a strategy that requires an ongoing formation and transformation of traditions and beliefs, rather than “mere liberal negation or disavowal” (2010, 410), in order to construct social identity and relationships.

The critical concept of hybridity has emerged as a postcolonial alternative to the “queer theory” most popular in the United Kingdom and its former colonies: Critical theorist Homi Bhabha “speaks of a hybrid third space emerging when what is produced by the fusion of parent cultures becomes sufficiently ambivalent that one cannot say where one culture begins and the other ends” (Abraham, 2010, 411). Although Abraham finds Marxist and other criticism of hybridity to be overly optimistic about individual freedom to reconstruct identity, he  appreciates the usefulness of hybridity to challenge both liberal multiculturalism and Australian Muslim hegemony (Abraham, 2010).