Queer Spirituality

Peter Sweasey discusses sexual identity as help and hindrance on the path towards spiritual discovery.

Peter Sweasey
1 March 1998
rainbow dharma, lgbt, lion's roar, buddhism, shambhala sun
The Buddhist flag (right) debuted in Sri Lanka in 1855 and was adopted internationally in 1952. The rainbow pride flag, designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, has become a symbol of LGBTIQ hope and progress worldwide.

Peter Sweasey discusses sexual identity as help and hindrance on the path towards spiritual discovery.

Homosexuality and spirituality do not seem, at first sight, particularly compatible. Gay people are still routinely condemned by prominent religious figures. Many Jewish and Christian organizations see homophobia as proof of orthodoxy, while fundamentalists generally believe that the more you love Jesus, the more you should hate faggots.

Some religious groups have gradually adopted more liberal views-but their acceptance of queers is often hedged with qualifications, such as refusing to acknowledge gay marriages. The majority of western Buddhist groups take a more positive line, although, as the Dalai Lama controversially pointed out recently, they are going against some Buddhist cultural traditions in doing so.

Just as religion rejects queers, so queers reject religion. Angry people, wanting to fight back after suffering years of oppression, find an obvious enemy in religion, which so brazenly proclaims its prejudice. For many queers, religion is seen as “a straight thing”-you may have had it when you were younger, but after coming out it should be left behind. Now you’re out and proud, and the only pilgrimage you should make is to Ikea.

To come out is to join people with well-established beliefs and traditions, spaces and rituals, culture and community. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual becomes a way of life in itself, fulfilling many of the roles traditionally played by religion. Who needs “spirituality” when you’ve got lifestyle, fashionable celebrity icons, the best nightclubs, and lots of beautiful people to have sex with? Or, for the more earnestly inclined, when there’s equality to win, a health crisis to survive, and homoculture to consume?

And yet, in spite of this mutual hostility, and in spite of the virtual taboo around spirituality in most queer contexts, there are many lesbian, gay and bisexual people for whom both spirituality and sexuality are sources of strength and joy. There are queer Buddhists, Jews, Quakers, Episcopalians, Catholics, Neo-Pagans, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoists, and New-Agers of every complexion. Some of these people practice in predominantly heterosexual organizations; others join lesbian and gay synagogues and churches, or groups dedicated to gay spirituality, like the Radical Faeries.

There are people who draw on a number of these and other spiritual traditions without fully belonging to any of them; and there are still more who identify themselves as “spiritual” but would have reservations about anything resembling organized religion. Some turn elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance, perhaps to nature, art, drugs or sex.

How do these people manage to integrate their sexual and spiritual identities when there is so much pressure from both sides to choose one over the other? Why do they bother to do so? How does their sexuality affect their understanding of spirituality -and vice versa?

I put these questions to a large number of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, from a variety of different spiritual traditions, while I was researching my book From Queer to Eternity (Cassell, 1997). In their answers, there was a lot of agreement about some key ways in which being queer can affect your spiritual journey. Some people told me that their sexuality, far from disqualifying them from spiritual involvement or causing them to reject it, was actually what caused them to set out on their journey, and that it has been helpful for their spiritual growth.

“When you’re confronting your own sexuality, you’re confronting yourself at the very deepest level of your being-and it’s in that deepest level of your being that your spirituality dwells as well.”

Queerness may be a spiritual advantage even if it is a religious handicap, even though some religious groups will close their doors to you. Queer people are very quick to make a distinction between spirituality and religion.

Elizabeth Sarah, a lesbian rabbi, explains that “when people think of religion they think of institutions, hierarchies, things that are fixed and try to control them. The word spirituality seems more autonomous, about where people are coming from in their own lives. It’s about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to be part of creation.” Chris Ferguson, a gay man and Buddhist, makes a similar distinction: “Religion is trying to make you what you’re not. Spirituality is trying to make you who you are.”

Chris, Elizabeth and many other gay people emphasize the inner life over external dogma. This is partly a distinction that queers are forced to make, because the public aspects of religion have so often been hostile to us. Turning inwards is more than a defensive response, however; it is an inevitable part of realizing you are lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Spirituality arises from the ultimate questions: why am I here, how do I live? To realize that you are other-than-heterosexual in this society is to initiate a process of self-analysis that can include, or eventually lead to, those same Big Questions. To be queer is an existential condition; at least for that time when people are in the closet and thus locked inside themselves, they are forced to ask: if I am not like others that I see around me, what am I about? What do I want out of life? Who am I?
“Because we’re told that we’re not meant to be here,” says Jason Oliver, a Pagan, “gay people go out of their way to find out what they are really here for.” Once you’ve started asking those big questions, it’s difficult to stop. As a result of this process, we fall out of innocence; queers come across the big existential questions much sooner than many other people may have to.

As Diana, a Christian priest, said to me, “When you’re confronting your own sexuality, you’re confronting yourself at the very deepest level of your being-and it’s in that deepest level of your being that your spirituality dwells as well. A lot of straight people think they’re `normal’; they never actually look at who they are because they don’t think they need to, they just get on with life. So because they don’t go through that process of delving deep inside themselves, they may never get to that level of looking at their spirituality either, or even realize that they have a spirituality.”

The catalyst for this crucial process of questioning and turning within is the feeling of not being able to identify fully with the surrounding world, the experience of not fitting in: “queerness.” David Philbedge, now a Buddhist, told me of how, from an early age, he’d felt like an outsider. “If you have a sense that you’re different from what’s around you, you’re not going to get sucked in without thinking, you’re not going to accept received wisdom. All worthwhile spiritual paths involve asking questions: it’s that sense of being an outsider that begins that process.”

Another Buddhist, Fernando Guasch, agrees: “This radical form of dislocation is fundamentally the core of the gay experience. Jung says consciousness comes out of friction: where you clash with the rest of things. It makes you very aware. Being gay allows you to `read the world differently,’ as the native American say. Gay people can see through many of the `god-given truths’ that so many straight people seem to believe are moral/ethical facts about the world-they’re good myth busters. Gay people have always been able to point at the emperor and say he has no clothes.”

When people realize that they are not heterosexual, they may also realize the illusory nature of so much of what they are told life is about. They begin to awaken. Most humans get a wake-up call sooner or later-when someone they love dies, perhaps, or when achieving material goals fails to bring the happiness they expected-but queer people, if they are to have the chance of living honest and fulfilling lives, are forced to act on this call earlier in life than most.

Coming out involves rejecting social programming and expectations, and asserting that they will live by the truth of their experience instead. And in refusing to keep up any sort of pretense (about this aspect of their lives, at least), they are laying the groundwork for a healthy, open spirituality. They are learning something about who they really are instead of who they are told they should be, and as a consequence, the act of coming out can be a source of spiritual insight.

“When I allowed in the `truth’ that I am gay,” says Philip Joyce, a father of three, “it was an overwhelming insight, enabling me to make sense of so many of my previous feelings and experiences. It released an enormous amount of energy. I experienced a powerful sense of self, and a human warmth towards other people, which were new to me. I was illuminated and exhilarated, and it changed the course of my life. It was a new truth by which I had to live. It was so inspirational that I would say this was a major stage in my spiritual growth.”

A lesbian called Kate told me that when she came out, “I felt `born again,’ or rather that I had finally found who I really was. From being monochrome, life had become glorious Technicolor.”

Kate is not the only person to use religious terminology in describing coming out. Realizing you are gay can cause a kind of death-of the former, ill-fitting heterosexual identity and expectations-but it leads to the experience of new life. Spiritual growth similarly involves a shedding of old assumptions and illusions, ideas about who you are and what your life will be like, in order to make space for a greater truth or liberation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he uses the words “come out” (John 11:43).

Lazarus is often depicted as being reluctant to come out, since the tomb, like the closet, has the apparent comfort of a certain security. It’s a risk that has to be taken, however; in the words of Harvey Fierstein’s anthem to gay pride, “Life’s not worth a damn till you can say, I am what I am.”

That song provides another interesting cross-over with religious terminology. “I am what I am” is a classic statement of spiritual truth as well as gay identity. In the Old Testament, these words are how God is identified: when Moses asks the voice in the burning bush to name itself, it replies “I am what I am.” To be oneself, to be aware, to be conscious, to be; awareness, consciousness, being: these things have been the concerns of spiritual traditions throughout history, and they are signified by “I am what I am.”

Having admitted and asserted this much truth, queer people are unlikely to surrender their hard-won insight into the way things are. If the existential questions provoked by being queer cause them to look to religion for answers, they have a yardstick with which to judge what they are told. If they’re told that they should not exist, or that their sexuality is wrong, they have reason to doubt the veracity of anything else that religion may say.

Queer people are skeptical of anything that will not acknowledge or allow the truth of their experience. They have a built-in-some might say God-given-bullshit detector. This is valuable, since there’s a lot of bullshit in religion, as well as a lot of good. Any spirituality worth its salt survives skepticism; a lot of conventional religion does not. Being queer may force them to throw out the bathwater, but that doesn’t mean they can’t keep hold of the baby.

This confidence in the authority of personal experience is a marked trait of spiritual queers, and is important whether the individual concerned is following an orthodox tradition or a looser, more individualistic path. To people with a paternalistic concept of religion (God commands, we obey), it may sound heretical to value personal experience over the supposed authority of religious institutions and scriptures. I would argue that, as well as being the only rational course, it is crucial for psychological survival and spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity requires growing from childish dependence to adult independence (or interdependence), from external religion (with all the fear, conformism and habit that may involve) to the freedom of internal spirituality.

As part of this process of spiritual growth, queer people who had some sort of faith before they came out often find themselves renegotiating their relationship with religious authority. Rabbi Mark Solomon told me of how, when he was Orthodox and in the closet, he saw religion as a matter of “fitting in to patterns that had already been established.” When he came out, he realized that “there are no answers that are identically suitable for everybody…each person has a personal relationship with God which is different, because no two people are precisely the same. God is beyond all the narrow concepts and systems to which we confine God and confine religion.”

Another gay man, Peter Ashby-Saracen, was formerly involved with fundamentalist Christians. “Christianity was something I wanted to protect me from the hurts of life and to take away certain things I couldn’t handle at the time, like my sexuality.” After coming out, he began to practice the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin.

“Nowadays I look on life as a voyage of discovery. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as a tool-rather than a prop, which is something one leans on for support, something I see as static. I like the emphasis on the practice serving the individual, rather than the individual serving the religion. It is a liberating experience to know that there is a non-restrictive practice aimed primarily at encouraging you to be what you are. Being able to become the real me is of immense importance. If I ever felt that Buddhism wasn’t serving my purposes any longer I would reject it without hesitation.”

He believes because he chooses to; because it is beneficial for him to do so. He is not disempowered by his faith. In this, he is typical of queer believers.

“If your spirituality doesn’t work on the ward at the AIDS hospice, it’s not worth it. What the spiritual practice is about is coming to terms with the reality. And transforming it, somehow.”

One of the more common objections to any notion of spirituality or religion is that it’s a crutch, a sign of weakness, something for feeble people who can’t accept life as it really is. The lesbian, gay and bisexual people I spoke with would reject this claim. Since queers are not encouraged to acknowledge their spirituality, those who nonetheless persist, and overcome all the hurdles put in their way (by their own community as well as certain religions), must do so out of genuine desire.

Queer people who follow spiritual traditions are not doing so because of social convention; nor do they surrender their intelligence. They are well aware of the routine and obvious objections; their spirituality has been fiercely tested-by themselves as well as others-and survived. As Rabbi Lionel Blue has said, spirituality in the lives of lesbian and gay people tends to be “honest, not rhetoric. It does not avoid or evade. In a packaged society, such plain and simple truth is rare and valuable.”

Religion is frequently guilty of sentimentality and escapism, but I saw very little of either quality among the queer people I came into contact with. Jonathon Andrew, a Christian who has lived with HIV for over a decade, said to me: “I don’t think by having a spiritual practice you can exclude yourself from the hard reality. If your spirituality doesn’t work on the ward at the AIDS hospice, it’s not worth it. What the spiritual practice is about is coming to terms with the reality. And transforming it, somehow.”

Another gay man, Steve Hope, is a Quaker; he finds “the freedom lies in being as open as possible to ever more realities and experiences, and to share and be enriched by other people’s experience. Being open to God is being open to more and more reality. If your spirituality doesn’t work on the ward at the AIDS hospice, it’s not worth it. What the spiritual practice is about is coming to terms with the reality. And transforming it, somehow.” Another gay man, Steve Hope, is a Quaker; he finds “the freedom lies in being as open as possible to ever more realities and experiences, and to share and be enriched by other people’s experience. Being open to God is being open to more and more reality.”

Being truly open to reality means letting go of certain ideas about ourselves and the world. So far I’ve suggested that the potential advantage of being queer is that it can encourage people to do precisely this-to feel less restricted by what society decrees to be “normal,” and to be freed to follow their own truth instead of obeying social or religious orthodoxies.
However, there is always a strong temptation to substitute the discarded orthodoxies with new illusions of your own invention-more appealing and subtle than the ones they replace, perhaps, but illusions nonetheless. Queers, for all the potential spiritual insight of their experience, are as susceptible to this temptation as anybody else.

One way in which gay people have responded to so many years of being marginalized by mainstream society is to create a very strong cultural identity of their own. If you read any of the lesbian or gay magazines or books now available, or watch some of the numerous lesbian and gay movies that have been released in the last few years, or go to the pride marches and festivals which take place in most major Western cities, you’ll quickly pick up how gay men and lesbians dress, what music they listen to, what they do with their leisure time, and much else besides. This process is strongly consumerist-there are few items which you can’t buy emblazoned with the colors of the rainbow “freedom flag,” symbol of lesbian and gay pride.

These are just the superficial trappings of two very deep-rooted beliefs: that sexual orientation is centrally important to your life, and that there are defining characteristics of gay men and of lesbians beyond their sexual preferences. It’s not just what they do and how they look, it’s what they’re like inside. Gay men, for instance, are assumed to be sensitive, witty, creative, caring, have good taste (in clothes, interior design, etc.), and get on famously with straight women. Crucial to their definition is that they are the opposite of straight men-who are emotionally inarticulate, obsessed with sport, money and cars, and intrinsically violent. Similar logic can be found underlying a lot of lesbian discourse (although there it is tempered by the feminist imperative to identify with all women).

I am over-simplifying and generalizing here, but one way queer people have reacted to being told for so long that they are worse than everyone else, is to end up thinking that they are fundamentally, innately different-and sometimes, even, that they are better. The world can be divided into two camps of people, Us and Them, and the gulf between these groups is caused by sexual orientation. Modern lesbian and gay people are happy to divide themselves off like this because they understand their differences from heterosexuals as being positively to their advantage-and because queers are the ones making this distinction, not the victims of it.

Some queer explorations of spirituality reflect this us-and-them division. Mark Thompson, author of Gay Spirit and Gay Soul, sees the role of queer people as “carriers of soul to a world that prefers to dwell on surfaces.” Along with gay anthropologists like Will Roscoe and Randy P. Conner, he argues that queers have played this role throughout history.

The “Gay Spirituality” movement that they are involved in takes as its role models people from earlier cultures who deviated from the dominant gender and sexual norms, and undertook spiritual work and leadership-most famously, shamans and Native American berdache. Modern queer people, like the berdache, can provide a bridge between men and women because they have characteristics of both. They can also, as shamans did, bridge the profane and sacred. Queer people are inheritors of spiritual skills (healing and divination, for instance) and, although scattered across the world, are all part of one special tribe-if only they would realize it.

As a gay man, I have in the past found these ideas deeply appealing. Of course I would love to believe that I am spiritually gifted and have a crucial role to play in saving the souls of the world-and that this comes to me without effort, simply because I was born queer. However, ultimately I must reject this Gay Spirituality for the same reason that I reject homophobic religion-because it does not acknowledge the vastness of reality, nor does it correspond to my experience.

You only need to listen to the conversation going on in your average gay bar to realize that queers don’t, automatically, represent a higher order of consciousness. Gay men, for instance, can be just-if not more-macho, objectifying, emotionally inarticulate and misogynist as the next (straight) man (and I know many straight men who display none of those characteristics). True, there have been some remarkable homosexual visionaries and artists throughout history, but there have been some remarkable heterosexual visionaries and artists too. If we believe it is up to the queer tribe to save the world, we write off the majority of humanity.

If queers are destined to play this spiritual role, what’s left for straight men and women to do? The idea that only queer people can have easy access to both “masculine” and “feminine”characteristics traps the majority of human beings in the restrictive gender roles that, following the lead of feminism, we have finally begun to deconstruct.

There is nothing about feeling sexually attracted to people of the same gender that predetermines your spirituality; spirituality grows out of our experience.

The spiritual gift of queerness is a certain freedom from social and religious norms. But the notion of queers as intrinsically enlightened-or, more basically, the notion that we’re fundamentally different-could easily become another “norm” that disguises the full complexity of who any of us is; or another distraction from reality. The dualistic division it creates between queer and straight limits our ability to identify with all others as human creatures like ourselves, and so could hinder that most basic of spiritual virtues, compassion. Of course queer people want and deserve equal rights, but do we have no concern with the world beyond the way it treats us? Will we not act on the (noble) truth that all people are suffering?

“You’ve got to keep away from elitist attitudes,” warns Rabbi Lionel Blue, who is much-loved in Britain for his regular radio and television appearances, and came out in his sixties. Although homosexuality was illegal for much of his life, and caused him a great deal of personal conflict, he says “Everything that gays go through a straight person goes through too. The scenery is somewhat different, but the same dramas are played out. It is easy to escape from a ghetto imposed on you, and then to build one of your own because it seems safe and cozy. The aim of gay liberation is to make people whole, not to increase their divisions.”

Being queer does not automatically make you “special,” any more than it automatically makes you evil or sick. It has no inherent, objective meaning. There is nothing about feeling sexually attracted to people of the same gender that predetermines your spirituality; spirituality grows out of our experience. There is some experience that most queer people at this time have in common-some of which I outlined earlier in this article-and that experience can be very valuable to work with. That experience is not innate, however. In a future society that freely acknowledges the whole spectrum of human sexuality, homosexual people will no longer be “queer” outsiders and coming out will no longer be the same catalyst for self-realization that it is currently.

Such a society is still some way off. But even here and now, some queer people-in the light of their spiritual beliefs-argue that sexual identity is given undue emphasis. “You limit yourself by over-identification first of all with your own sexuality, and secondly with the group of people that you belong to,” says Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist. “Your sexuality is only a part of you. It doesn’t have to be that big a part of your life even. It’s not a problem, but neither is it a status-or a career.”
Someone once told Maitreyabandhu that their sexuality was the foundation of their life, like a chair that they sit on. “I said, well it will break. It’s not big enough to contain what life is about. To try to understand life from the basis of being gay drastically restricts human potential.”

Peter Ashby-Saracen agrees, while clearly valuing the experience his sexual orientation has brought him: “Being gay is one manifestation of being human, and being human is, among other things, to be aware of our place in the wider `scheme of things.’ Being gay doesn’t satisfy everything in my life, though it’s probably the thing that affects it most. I need some expression for my feeling of the infinite and where I fit into it, and my spirituality does this for me.”

However big a part sexuality may play in our lives, infinity is, obviously, bigger. Spiritual traditions aspire to encompass the whole of reality-the breadth of human experience, the mystery of existence, the immensity and variety of the cosmos-which is not something lesbian and gay identity, however proud, can do. Coming to this realization can be a continuation of the process that starts with coming out.

“You’ve got to bring more than your sexuality out of the closet,” advises Nagaraja, a gay Buddhist. Spiritual growth, like coming out, requires you to “know thyself,” to keep asking that central question, who am I? “A queer person” is a good answer, because it is honest and shows some self-knowledge-but it is still only part of the answer. There’s a temptation to think that “a lesbian” or “a gay man” is “who I really am.” But we are mistaken if we think what we have found on coming out is our ultimate identity. Instead it is a signpost that points to the greater truth: the fact that, in many further ways, we are more than the culture around us would have us believe. Coming out is not the final destination; it is just the beginning of the spiritual journey. By starting with what we know -that we are lesbian, gay or bisexual-we may be led to universal human issues of mortality and meaning, of justice and suffering, of our place in the universe.

“If we are not careful,” warns Maitreyabandhu, “our gay liberation will become gay limitation. We need to rediscover our radical roots and reconnect with the urge to change ourselves and the world.”

For me, that means queer people should not be putting so much energy into building a permanent, fixed identity, and instead should be questioning why we are categorizing ourselves by our sexuality anyway. We will not change ourselves or the world if we remain content with roles based on who we have sex with, whether we feel good about playing those roles or not. As Maitreyabandhu suggests, being queer in itself is no longer the radical challenge it once was. “Lesbian and gay” has gone mainstream; spiritual traditions, however, remain revolutionary. The Buddha and Jesus invite us to look beyond how the world seems to be organized at the moment, and the place we are assigned within it.

In arguing that sexual orientation should not be our ultimate concern, I am not for a moment suggesting that it is not important, or that we should deny who we are. Being open about our sexuality, while seeing it as just one facet of our complex humanity, is very different from staying silent about our sexuality because other people force us to. For political reasons, it is still crucial in many situations to identify publicly as queer. And for queer individuals, without the crucial act of honesty and self-realization that coming out represents, any sort of spiritual growth (or fulfilling life, for that matter) is impossible.

Our journey can only start when we know where we are coming from. We can only understand other people when we begin to understand ourselves; we cannot comprehend universals until we acknowledge our own particulars. There will be many things that make us different from other people-sexual identity is one, but national identity is also important, and so are gender, race, class, education, age and many other characteristics. All of these are significant; they are the material we have to work with, the fuel for our spiritual journey, the grist for our mill. And yet we must avoid clinging too tightly to any of them, in case our ideas about who we are get in the way of our spiritual task-which is simply being who we are.

The final irony is that this sexual identity some of us have fought so hard for becomes, in the silence of meditation or prayer, just another part of the psychological baggage that we need to leave behind. In the words of Lev, a man I spoke to who belongs to the Jewish havur’a movement and Radical Faeries, as well as drawing on Eastern traditions, “When I’ve felt most spiritually connected is when I’ve had the strongest and clearest sense of my core being, rather than being a Jew, being a gay man, being a professional, being white, whatever. It’s what’s underneath all that.”