Religion and homosexuality are often considered mutually exclusive. With people quoting from scriptures to support their homophobia, religious leaders that seem to shy away from any conversation around homosexuality, and some even calling for a more radical course of action to deal with the same, it almost seems like the two cannot co-exist.
For those who don’t fit into sexual and biological binaries, finding a space for themselves in religious contexts can seem difficult. And, so for the most part it is assumed that most queer people must be atheists or at the very least, agnostic. But, in reality, along the rainbow spectrum of sexuality and gender, there is also a space for those who have faith in a higher being.
Queer and Unbelieving
Many LGBTQIA++ members do keep their distance from religion because of skeptical or hostile statements expressed by religious groups, and in other cases, because of personal experiences of exclusion. And, of course, for some, like Rishi R, it simply never clicked. For them, the fracture from religion happened after a small silly incident involving a few kids who stole their stationary pouch in school. “As a kid who was coming to terms with their sexuality, the only thing that comforted me, my pouch, was stolen, I just could not wrap my head around the fact that God had allowed something that comforted me to be taken away,” she says. This incident acted as a starting point for Rishi to start questioning the existence of God.
While the initial fracture from the religion was not in any way connected to their queerness, as social media entered their life, they found more reasons to distance themselves. “As I got more active on social media (Facebook), I came across many atheistic pages and made friends who subscribed to the same thought process as [me]. Eventually, I began calling out practices I disagreed with across religions. When I posted pictures and memes criticizing Islam, people called me anti-Muslim and I even received death threats,” they say. Even though they called out the problematic parts of Christianity and Hinduism, they were not met with such harsh criticism. Over time, they found their true space — queer activism.
However, they still have not been able to come to terms with religion. “I know many people who are gay and staunch believers. A friend of mine who is a gay Christian, says that people are misinterpreting the Bible”. They even cite the example of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who has given religion a central role in their life. “It just seems more realistic for me to not believe. I think if you are religious you are cherry-picking the parts that suit you. I don’t get that, but for others, faith makes sense. I just choose to see people for who they are, regardless of their faith, or lack thereof,” they explain.
Zoya, however, always kept her distance from religion as she has oscillated between atheism and agnosticism, the one thing that has remained constant is her questioning of the existence of a superbeing. “I have read quite a lot of religious books and made myself aware of different kinds of religions. There are many practices, across belief systems that are positive and negative,” she says. However, ultimately, for her, the fault line has been the fact that where there is faith, there is no room for logic. “Faith doesn’t allow room for questions, and it expects the status quo to remain,” she says.
Zoya’s family, while religious, never enforced their belief system on her. But, she has not really been able to completely separate herself from her religion. “I have a legal name that I have to use for various purposes, like for legal documentation. Now, my name is one that carries a religious connotation,” she explains. With Islamophobia on the rise, Zoya has been on the receiving end of some skin-crawling interrogations once she shares her name. “Five years ago, when I was house hunting in Mumbai, I experienced this. What was interesting was that people from all kinds of backgrounds, would invariably ask the same questions. No matter where or who, the bias is the same,” she says.
While Zoya acknowledges that her privileges have allowed her to avoid the worst versions of this bias, grappling with where she fits in eventually led her to the conclusion that religion does not need to have a huge space in her life. “12-15 years ago, when cyber cafes were popular, I would frequent them and read up about sexual orientation and gender expression and their space, other than the binary in Islam, and the answers from ‘scholars’ were disheartening. There was no room for any of it, even being slightly effeminate,” she says.
Having read religious texts of all Abrahamic faiths only deepened her doubts. “When they all are so similar and differ in so many ways, despite having the same historical points of view, how do we take it at face value?” she says. While she did try to engage and understand these faiths more deeply, she always experienced an inevitable chasm. “The information that exists, that I have to cover, is still quite a lot. But, they are also filled with personal interpretations of various people over generations, which I feel has diluted the real meaning,” she says. At the of end the day, despite her lack of faith, it is the words of the prophet, who asked people to use logic when the book and his way of life didn’t prove sufficient, that she chooses to somewhat abide by.
Creating Queer Conversations In Religious Spaces
While Zoya and Rishi’s point of view seems to be the norm, there are also many who don’t fall in line with the same thought process. There are many who are both LGBTQIA++ and religious or spiritual.
Some have had to deal with conflict between their sexual orientation or gender and their religion’s principles. However, many others believe that who they are are in accordance with God. And, for some others, their faith is what aids them in combatting LGBT-hostile environments.
Tashi Choedup, a practicing Buddhist monastic, says that since childhood, faith has been their refuge. “I had no friends, I was isolated and faith became a coping mechanism,” she says. For them, faith and spirituality have been an integral part of their daily life, and the way they see it, their spirituality and queerness are not separate from each other.
While Tashi agrees that religion always comes with its own set of issues, they feel that being queer has given them some sense of freedom to engage with faith in their own way. “I have been able to try and figure out what it means to me, personally. I engage with it from a location of being a queer person. So, faith did help me with coming to terms with my queerness, and I now, try to make my faith more inclusive. I don’t know if I would have engaged with faith otherwise,” she says.
Tashi also refutes the idea that religion and queerness make for strange bedfellows. “While many progressive movements have kept a distance from engaging with religion, the fact is, religion touches queer identities in ways we are only learning to comprehend,” they explain. While institutionalized faith becomes hard to engage with due to the various ways in which minority groups and identities have been targeted, and humiliated, the journey can be so varied. “We have to engage with the religion. Questions and challenges might be the same across faith systems, but the stories vary,” they say.
Born into a Hindu family, his foray into religion and faith was through the one that they were born into. “I gave up the religion I was born into to become a part of the religion I believe in. I openly engaged with my religion and others and the more I understood Buddhism, the more I found it to be aligned with who I am and who I want to be. My arrival to Buddhism, hence, came from my queerness, because I found a sense of collection and reliability with this faith,” they explain.
While he agrees that transphobia and homophobia are very much alive in Buddhist spaces, they believe that at the crux of it Buddhism is an inclusive and all-affirming space. “People shouldn’t have to leave their religion because the way some faith is practiced is patriarchal, misogynistic, and sexist. There is a certain type of denial, a silence around these concepts. As monks, we are celibate so conversations around gender and sexuality is easily avoided. Gender exists in binary terms, such as laymen and laywomen or monks and nuns,” they say. However, as with any religion, there is scope for change, and this is why conversations are important. “Apart from those who are asexual, many of us, within the Buddhist community, are sexual beings. Celibacy means abstaining from a desire that exists, and an integral part of that abstinence is accepting and engaging with the desire. Viewing it as an abstract concept can lead to abuse. Talking about it in a healthy, and acceptable manner and making it part of the everyday conversation is how we can hope to change the status quo”, they add.
Finding Safe Religious & Queer Spaces
For London-based Anish Kumar Pathak too, his faith has been a grounding force. “My mom brought us up as Sathya Sai Baba devotees and she identifies herself as a spiritual being. The five values of human life according to Sathya Sai Baba are Love, Peace, Truth, Right Conduct, and Non-violence. So, when I began exploring my sexuality, I thought I would be accepted no matter what as long as I practiced these five human values. Unfortunately, I was not aware of any explicit guidance or positive statement of LGBTQ+ acceptance, and this became a point of struggle,” he says.
He spend his early 20’s exploring his sexuality and for the most part, the people that he surrounded himself with did not particularly identify with any religion or practices.
“Although deep down, I was still connected to the religious world and believed that there was a larger presence amongst us, I eventually became detached from that world because I didn’t think I could be both religious and gay,” he shares. However, this disconnect was rectified in his mid-20s.
“I began actively searching for different community groups that provided a space for people to embrace both their queer and religious backgrounds, and I was so surprised to find that so many spaces existed. In these spaces, I felt like I could speak more openly without the fear of being judged, which made me feel freer to explore my religious and spiritual identity even further,” he says. Being a part of these groups, allowed him the opportunity to meet other people who were flourishing in all parts of their identity. One such person that became a source of inspiration for Anish was Asifa Lahore, Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen. “Stories of people like her made me realize that there are South Asian people that are out, loud and proud; who would talk about their identities (religious, sexuality and so much more) in a joyful and uplifting way,” he says.
In his quest for such spaces where he too could embrace all parts of him, he found a Sai Centre in Russell Square, London. “I chose this worship center because one of the organizers is gay and he made a real effort to make me feel safe and included. I also know many people who have continued to practice their faith in their usual places of worship. They see it as their personal connection with God and their identity does not need to be “announced” to the community,” he says, before adding, “I totally respect that”.
For Anish, the universal values of Sathya Sai Baba are enough proof of the fact that the belief system would accept him. “I also understand that few queer people have personally attested to the fact that Sathya Sai Baba when he was alive, gave them his blessings,” he says, adding that knowing this makes him feel warm inside and that he wishes he know of this during his teen years.
He understands that queerness has always been a part of Indian culture, religion, and mythology. “I am learning that queerness has always been a part of India, but colonialization and mass migration (amongst many other reasons), especially in the UK, has affected our communities and the culture has become more conservative, which in turn has trickled down to religious conservatism and a need to maintain tradition. However, the spiritual leaders are realizing the importance of embracing our queer community, and I understand that priests and leaders are delivering marriages that are less misogynistic and accepting of queer partners,” he says. “Things are changing and hopefully that inspires more people to embrace themselves, both their queer and religious identities.”
Does he face criticism for being queer and religious? He says no, as he spent a lot of time finding groups that spark joy in him and embraces him for who he is, and he is now more open to the religious community from his youth, who are also embracing him with open arms.
Finally, he adds, “If people don’t think queer souls have a place in religion, I would just respond with love and embrace them for who they are, and hope that they embrace me for who I am in time.”
Redefining Faith and Religion
Lauren, who considers herself spiritual, says that her understanding and definition of faith have always existed, however, the form it has taken has evolved over the years. “When one grows up within the intersection of queerness and religion, trying to find faith within yourself comes to the forefront,” she explains. The conflict between what you believe in versus what a group of individuals think you should believe in is a tough one to navigate. “This conflict happened quite early on when I found myself refuting the idea that the body is a gift from God. I remember saying that if it was a gift, I wouldn’t handle with as much care as I would were it absolutely mine,” she explains.
Growing up within institutionalized structures, where everything was scrutinized, she never felt like she had the freedom to express herself fully. “I loved the youth group settings where we were encouraged to talk about what the Bible says and offer differing viewpoints. But even there, I felt alone in my efforts to try and question the theme of sexuality within the religious institution,” she shares. Over time, her relationship with religion devolved and she began a search for forces beyond these structures.
“As I learned more about these structures and other people’s relationship with faith, I realized that there is power in people’s search for divinity within themselves. And in that I discovered my queer identity and that any Higher spirit would love me because I am queer and not in spite of it,” she declares.
However, she steers clear of finding a community based on organised religion but instead across the queer spectrum of artists . “I have come across people from different religions who are accepting, and I even reach out to a queer pastor in USA for a sermon once in a while”.
In a sense, she feels that her queerness was about reconnecting with her spirituality. “Recognizing that my body is, in fact, a part of this giant cosmos and seeing it as my own precious and sacred gift helped me. I am still in the this journey of becoming, transitioning, without a destination, maybe even finding my way. For me, experiencing that magic daily is queerness,” she says.
Comfort in Faith
Tejeshwar Sandhoo, who grew up in a Sikh family, has always been religious. “I have always felt that Babaji has always had his hand over me, and always made sure that I survive, which was important for me as a gay man in a cishet-dominated world. My faith has been the cushion that has protected me,” he shares.
However, when he came out to his parents, he experienced, first-hand, how religion would be used as an instrument for conversation. “My parents had a hard time with it. My dad took me to a psychiatrist. Simultaneously, I was made to pray in ten Gurudwaras in the central western region of India, in the hope that it would convert me. They thought grounding me to my religion and the values it espouses would change me,” he shares. However, the whole experience only made his faith stronger. “I would imagine that someone who is made to do this against their will would be angry, and they might lose their faith, but it wasn’t the case for me. I fell more deeply in love with Sikhism,” he shares.
Paath was something he continued to partake in, well into adulthood. “In those moments of doubt, when I was told I was not enough, or my sexuality was attacked, I embraced my religion more,” he says. However, over time, this stopped over time. “Today, I am a reiki healer. And, very recently I spoke to my healer because I had been feeling like something was missing. She checked and she asked me why I had stopped doing my Paaths, which were my source of strength,” he shares. For him, religion, spirituality, and sexuality are all very interconnected.
He too, like Lauren, sees no need for a tribe or community. “It has just always been so personal for me; it is just me and my Babaji (a reference to the Sikh Guru),” he says.