With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion
The historically fraught relationship between Abrahamic religions and LGBT+ identities provides the backdrop to The Book of Queer Prophets, a collection of twenty-four meditations by public figures who identify as both religious and LGBT+. The book's curator, the former CEO of Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, assembles the reflections in five overlapping sections. Recurring themes include the writers' identifying of differences between textual evidence and the influence of patriarchal, homophobic and cisgender cultures that have, at least over recent centuries, dominated textual interpretation. The chapters reveal periods of both self-repression and personal resistance by many of the writers against their respective religions, before textual re-examination reveals queer-friendly qualities, prompting in turn a re-born relationship with God.
This sense of journey is evident in some of the harrowing episodes alluded to in the early life of some of the writers, Garrard Conley and Garry Rutter respectively noting their subjection to ineffective conversion therapies. Reflecting on a Mormon upbringing, Dustin Lance describes the kind of impact that will be familiar to many LGBT+ individuals who spent a portion of their lives in the closet, with feelings of,
'Shame. Self-loathing. These quickly robbed me of any confidence. My first solution: to stop talking altogether. To stop contributing at school. To not stick out in any way. To make no friends. To get close to no one who might discover how evil I was. To vanish.'
In such accounts we see narratives, of course, that can occur in atheistic households too. One thinks of Slavoj Žižek's atheistic leftist opposition to LGBT+ identities, with his Freudian lament for 'the "decline of Oedipus"' to be replaced by the 'polymorphously perverse' (1999: 292), with transgender identity especially being 'naïve and incompatible' with the truth of Freudian patriarchy (2019). One sees the influence not of religion, per se, but of patriarchy in its different forms, including its apparent influence on organized religion.
From self-repression we see the emergence of a re-examination of religious texts, typified in the chapters by Pádraig Ó Tuama and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, who both invoke Moses' defiant stand against the Pharaoh, 'Let my people go!', and those by Jeanette Winterson and Lucy Knight citing St Paul's 'Letter to the Galatians' (3:28): "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ." Perhaps the most fascinating personal journey is Amrou Al-Kadhi's. Initially in their adolescence they renounce Islam and the Arabic language, only to return to them years later with Al-Kadhi now an internationally renowned drag queen. Al-Kadhi cites the Islamic tradition of itjihad, namely informed critical thinking within Islam, as well as the schools of Sufism on individualized, ecstatic encounters with Allah, and the works of the medieval Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi, 'whose dazzlingly spiritual poems are burning with homoerotic desire.' The sensuousness of Al-Kadhi's new relationship with Allah, separated from the strictures of patriarchal instruction, vividly encapsulates the writer's own passion and joy.
Beyond the issue of Abrahamic religions, in fact, is a study of ideology, and the way the ingrained, unconscious shaping of a patriarchal worldview is subverted by the indefatigable desire of LGBT+ people for self-actualization. Al-Kadhi talks of the initial dissonance between personal nature and social norms, so overwhelming as to create, in the beginning, a sense of personal fragmentation. Knight highlights a major anxiety of the LGBT+ figure potentially trapped within an unforgiving culture, where 'if you don't stick to the particular formation of beliefs that have been drummed into you, everything will fall apart.' In turn, Jack Guinness describes the trend of a gradual and evolving response to the dissonance with 'Unification [as] a life-long pilgrimage … The journey that so many LGBTQ+ make is one towards a unification of these disparate parts.' Erin Clark meanwhile articulates the nuances of the individual's identity in accommodating such cultural divergences, by accepting identity as being formed by multiplicity rather than monolith. Clark says, 'We are hybrid creatures, having many different roles which define us to a greater or lesser degree.' Similarly Knight rejects the idea of identity as monolithic, challenging the idea of a single core essence, 'The world is full of so many different expressions of what it means to be human. And if we – as humans – are made in the image of God, then God must be richly complex and multi-faceted.'
Because of the relevance of this struggle of self-actualization within a hostile culture to all kinds of lives, not just religious, or LGBT+, The Book of Queer Prophets is valuable for reflecting broader moral questions. Judith Butler's study of the philosopher Adorno connects usefully here with the themes of the book:
'It is not that there was once a unity that subsequently has come apart, only that there was once an idealization, indeed, a nationalism, that is no longer credible, and ought not to be. As a result, Adorno cautions against the recourse to ethics as a certain kind of repression and violence' (2005: 4).
In The Book of Queer Prophets, we are provided with the testimonies of writers who have in some form confronted a conservative ethics inclusive of repression and violence. Their sense of liberation indicates the danger of social unity narratives, either at a religious or nationalistic level. In this respect, I welcome Juno Dawson's chapter at the end. Writing as an atheist, Dawson sees parallels between spiritual and LGBT+ identities, as 'something that goes above and beyond believing or thinking?' and which, for that reason, suggests a valuable allyship. The insights that come from The Book of Queer Prophets, it can be concluded, go beyond either religion or LGBT+ issues to one of the profoundest philosophical questions as identified by Butler and Adorno, on the nature of 'the universal interest and … the interests of particular individuals [that] make up the problem of morality.' Whether or not the reader is religious or LGBT+, in other words, there are profound reflections to be discovered here.