Queering Theology: Defining

This is part of an ongoing series on the project of Queer Theology for the month of August.

One of the things I like about Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love is his definition of queer as that which challenges and erases boundaries between previously existing binaries. As a queer woman who finds herself attracted to people of all genders, I really appreciate this idea of challenging and erasing the binaries. But before we get to the project of erasing those binaries, we need to discuss what those binaries are and what the terms are that are important in queer theology.

Cheng spends the first chapter of his book talking about the definitions of queer, as it has frequently been used as a pejorative that has been reclaimed. It also has an academic sense in terms of how it’s been applied in theories in the past thirty or so years.

Queer, for many, is still a term with a lot of baggage. For decades, queer was an invective, a slur, an insult. According to Cheng, in the late 1980s, groups began to reclaim the word “queer” – the famous “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” slogan came out of this time period. The reclamation of the term allows, too, for the simplicity of the language – instead of saying a long acronym like “LGBTQIA,”[1] one can say “queer” and it functions as a catch-all term.

Queer, too, is about transgression. Cheng writes of the theologian Robert Shore-Goss that he viewed “transgression … as a central metaphor for queer theologies. … ‘[Q]ueer’ is used to describe an action that ‘turns upside down, inside out’ that which is seen as normative, including ‘heteronormative theologies.’ In that sense, the act of queering traditional theological discourse has a ‘prophetic edge.’”

This, for me, is the more important definition of “queer.” It is something which challenges the normative practices, and overturns previously accepted social constructions. Queer as transgression is how I will be using the term throughout the month when referring to the practice of queering theologies.

A major part of the practice of queer theory and therefore queer theologies is challenging the idea that gender and sexuality exist as binaries. Male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, etc, are false, socially constructed categories. This is not to say that the categories are not useful or do not exist, but that they are inventions of society, not necessarily innate creations.

The idea of homosexuality as a categorical identity is only a couple of centuries old. Cheng points out that defining one’s sexuality by the gender of their partner is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the late 19th century, there literally wasn’t an identity or category for people who primarily slept with one gender or the other. This means that queer theologies are still developing and still a very new field, which is both exciting and a challenge.

Something being a social construction means that our understanding of it is built off a human construction of identity and values, which also means it is infinitely changeable. The project of queer theologies, then, is to break up that previously normative social construction, to show it for the façade it is, and to bring some new ideas into the world that challenge and transgress those binaries.

In addition to queer, there are any number of terms that need definition when talking about queer theologies. What follows here is a very basic introduction to terms as I use them within this blog space.

Gay/lesbian – people who are attracted primarily to people who identify as the same gender as they do.

Bisexual – people who are attracted both to the opposite gender and to their same gender (often this umbrella for people who are attracted to genderqueer folks as well, though that may also be called “pansexual." I personally use the term "queer").

Transgender – an umbrella term for a person who has a gender identity different from the gender they were assigned at birth. This may or may not include medical treatment to change physical appearance to reflect that internal identity.

Genderqueer – Like transgender, this is a term used by people who have a gender identity outside the binary. They do not feel that they fit either as male or female and therefore identify as genderqueer. Related terms include bigender, two spirit (used only by Native Americans), and third gender (used primarily in Asia to refer to both trans and genderqueer people).

On Friday, we’ll pick back up this project of queer theologies by discussing the short history of the movements and the various theoretical ideas that contribute to a robust understanding of the relationship between queerness and Christianity.


[1] I will note here that one of Cheng’s shortcomings here is his inclusion of the term “ally” within this acronym, which can be interpreted to mean that straight, cisgender allies of the queer community can themselves claim the term queer. I vehemently disagree with such adoption of the label by straight cis allies, and therefore do not use “queer” in exactly the same way Cheng seems to be. For me, the "A" in LGBTQIA stands for Asexual.