Spiritual, Sexual—and Religious?
Sexual dissidents have long created new arts and rites.
Illustration by Jun Cen c/o Heflinreps Inc.
By Mark Jordan
Even in these jaded days, we tend to start conversations about religion in the United States by assuming that it is somehow the opposite of sex. The habit has obvious causes—from the suspicion of sex in historically dominant Christianities to the success of specific rhetorical campaigns in our contentious politics. (Nothing like sexual disgust or hidden shame to rile a crowd.) But any claim that religion is the opposite of sex ignores their mutual attraction. When religions take pleasure in the detailed regulation of sex, or condemn it with flushed faces, they draw on its energies. At the same time, many of our sexual symbols—our sexual scripts—borrow shamelessly from the language and ritual of local religions. I once remarked in class that some of the most heartfelt invocations of deity occurred during sexual activity. It wasn’t exactly a joke.
Oppositions between religion and spirituality are similarly ambivalent—if not so blatant. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” asserts an opposition. We add “but not” to resist any assumption that spiritual sensibility is the same as religious membership. I appreciate the protest. (I sometimes say that God is so powerful that she can work anywhere—even in churches.) Still, “but not” raises further questions. Is there really a well-bounded thing, spirituality, that can be neatly set apart from another thing, religion? Is there also a third thing, sex or sexuality, that can be kept at a safe distance from both? Treating abstract words as precise tags is a fantasy—or, really, a vice—fed by arrogant confidence in our power to define. We do better when we remember that definitions, outside of formal systems, are at best props for teaching. They never capture what they try to encircle. Instead of seeking definitions for religion, spirituality, or sexuality, we should ask what people mean to do when they invoke those abstractions in specific situations.
I recall these tricks of language because they conceal something important in recent traditions of spirituality. Many Euro-American authors now claimed as queer or LGBTQ appeal regularly to spirituality. Indeed, much of the older energy in the phrase “spiritual but not religious” comes from queer protests. If these authors oppose established religions, they also claim to be doing better what those religions only pretend to accomplish. One reason for the superiority of queer spirituality, so their arguments go, is that it speaks truthfully about sex, as both an ethical challenge and a site of revelation. (To put that in Christian terms: the first theological question about sex is not what you are permitted to do, with whom, and when, but rather how God teaches you through it.) To understand queer spiritual traditions, we need to reverse the assumptions I named above. Sex is not the opposite of religion or spirituality. It is a realm in which some spiritualities engage the deep preoccupations of what we usually call “religions.” Spirituality often becomes religious—or religion becomes spiritual—in the candor of erotic bodies.
For many older queer writers, the connections are obvious. We have trouble seeing them partly because of our favorite stories about sexual liberation. Narrating the rise of movements for LGBTQ rights, media managers or textbook writers often focus on violent religious oppressions—which are old and ongoing. But that framing leaves out the religious or spiritual motives within queer organizing. Many of the heroes of sexual politics were also advocates of queer spirituality. Harry Hay, who borrowed an idea from Lenin to found the Mattachine Society in the 1950s, helped two decades later to convene a national gathering of Radical Faeries, players in vivid rituals and seekers after ardent visions. Carl Wittman, who wrote the Gay Manifesto (1969) after serving in radical student movements, left cities a few years later to experiment with magical arts in the woodlands. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are rightly honored as leaders of the Daughters of Bilitis; founders of the pioneering lesbian magazine, The Ladder; and the most efficient organizers of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. They were also longstanding members of a New Thought group, the Prosperos. Archives in San Francisco preserve pages of notes from the group’s classes in Lyon’s careful hand. The two women stood by their affiliation in print: “As for ourselves, we are members of the Prosperos, a metaphysical group that offers spiritual enlightenment and a sense of being that has meaning for us.”1
Tangled with New Thought lineages were the many queer “neo-pagans”—another inadequate label. Consider Arthur Evans’s Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture (published in 1978 by a Boston collective). This counter-history of gay people begins with an invocation to Isis, Diana, and Kali. It ends by calling for a new, revolutionary socialism based on magic, “the art of communicating with the spiritual powers in nature and in ourselves.”2 You can take this as one reminder—there are many others—of the role that magic once played in political protest. (Levitate the Pentagon, anyone?) You can also see in it the interpretation of sexual categories as a special calling to transform the world through powers beyond ordinary calculation.
We don’t hear the voices of queer spirituality because we now reduce sexuality to sexual identities understood only as social, psychological, and legal.
We have trouble hearing these texts, I’ve said, because of the stridently secular narratives of LGBTQ political progress. A deeper problem lies in the language those political movements have produced. We don’t hear the voices of queer spirituality because we now reduce sexuality to sexual identities understood only as social, psychological, and legal. What is worse, we talk about these identities as if they were clear and complete, transparent to those who bear them or certify them. Our trust in the scheme of sex and gender identities ignores the arduous struggles with language in so many queer writers. They struggled for words that would convey—though never capture—what they were just beginning to glimpse.
Over the last few years, I have traced the use of the word “spirituality” by sexual dissidents to describe emerging figures of embodied life. I conclude that their writings offer more helpful language for sexuality than our current tables of identities. So, I have started to train myself not to speak of identities, whether for sex or gender. (Training is required. I challenge my students to talk for 10 minutes about their erotic dispositions without mentioning “identity.” You might try the experiment on yourself.) Following hints in texts about spirituality, I replace “identity” with “calling.” I like the old word’s richness, its religious puns. “Queer calling” means being called by your own name, being called to (vocation), calling for (exhortation), and calling as crying out—for help, in desire, with the hope of finding your kin or the invisible powers. These multiple meanings guide me through neglected archives of queer spirituality. Gathered together in the word “calling,” they remind me how much imagination is required to transform language in a way that opens new forms of life.
One San Francisco night more than 20 years ago, Gayle Rubin took me on a pilgrimage through the old “leather” district along Folsom Street. Though the gentrification of SoMa was not yet accomplished, though no one imagined the city suffocated by gold from Google and its frenemies, many of the neighborhood’s queer sites had already closed. Gayle would stop every few feet and explain what club had stood on the spot—or who had lived there—or what famous episode of resistance had taken place. I was struck in her stories by the juxtaposition, block after block, of different spaces: dance clubs, sex clubs, fetish shops, artists’ studios, writers’ studies, and sites for what I could only call spiritual exercises. Queer spiritualities need networks of spaces. The networks are like maps or tableaux of a spirituality’s own complexity—of the practices, arts, and ecstasies that enable it to change lives.
Like most of what we call “religion,” spirituality is not chiefly a set of propositions collected into a creed. In that San Francisco neighborhood, as in many other places around the world, queer spirituality repurposed spaces for new rites that demanded new languages: communities of bodily asceticism and fantastic arts accompanied experiments in language able to register the conviction that something in human sex is uncontainable. The particular bodily practices in SoMa struck many as disgusting—but then, ritual strong enough to transform selves often scandalizes. The extravagant mythologies of SoMa sounded to many like bizarre fictions—but then, our category “literature” carries most of what premodern writers counted as religious speech. As for the conviction that there is something uncontainable in human sex: how could any student of religions find that improbable? The most erotic book of the Hebrew scriptures, Šîr Haššîrîm, or Song of Songs, has supplied Christians over centuries with the vocabulary for the highest union with God.
That San Francisco neighborhood is just one example of sacred precincts for queer spirituality. Alongside those spaces, there are libraries. You could write a history of queer spirituality using only the experiences and creations of women. Another in French—or Spanish—or German. There is a version of queer spirituality that reads only “science fiction” or “fantasy,” in writers as different as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. One that focuses on dance-mixes of diva anthems. I mention only the records of speech I’ve found. Whole libraries of material remain unknown to me, while others have gone missing or were never written down.
I am embarrassed by my ignorance of what survives, and I mourn the loss of what did not. Still, I don’t read archives to gather evidence for narratives about the past. I read them to find more adequate languages for more hopeful futures. I really do worry about our growing reliance on categories of sexual identity. My complaint is not that it is a recent invention. We urgently need bold efforts at inventing languages for sex and gender. My complaint is that identity-names are flat, boring, unimaginative, unambiguous, pseudo-scientific, overbearing—in sum, very poor names, indeed. They barely begin to call up the alluring possibilities in naming. Much less do they leave room for spiritual echoes or overtones.
Where should we look for more helpful terms? Which communities of bodily asceticism, artistic invention, and spiritual seeking are likely to make languages for queer spiritualities? These are hard questions. Many of the queer “churches” (sometimes Christian) that sprang up in the 1970s are dwindling or have closed. So have most queer bookstores, which served as community schools. In the late 1990s, I did a standard circuit of signings at nine gay/lesbian bookstores across the country. Eight are now gone. LGBTQ community archives struggle to keep their doors open and their holdings intact. Independent feminist and queer presses have mostly stopped publishing. Similar stories can be told about bars and dance clubs, which were, among other things, spaces for public ritual or (let me say it) liturgy. A queer travel guide published in 1979 (Damron’s Address Book, for the nostalgic) lists 22 bars or dance clubs in Boston and Cambridge, not counting restaurants. If you combine current online lists, you can maybe reach ten—by including restaurants.
The loss of so many queer spaces is especially significant because most queer folk are not raised in queer families. We depend on institutions outside the home for whatever cultural creation and transmission there will be. The Internet!, you object. The Internet, we are learning, regularly transforms bodies into disposable caricatures while favoring the most distracting, destructive coinages or slogans about them.
The cultural losses are real, but they need not be decisive—especially for queer spirituality. “Spirituality” is used most often by queer writers as a placeholder or place-maker. It says: Not the mechanized modern world. Not the arrogance of scientists or social engineers. Not the neon brightness of Enlightenment reason. Not the disciplined tedium of late capitalism. Not the policing of churches, synagogues, mosques. The denials performed by “spirituality” open a space in language—just as negation or apophasis does (to use a technical term from Christian theology). What appears within that cleared space? For much of queer spirituality, the answer is: unnamed and perhaps unnamable bodies. “Spiritual” has been used so often to insult the erotic body—to condemn it, to cast it aside. Now it can be used to protect bodies, to open space for their acts, groans, cries—and, eventually, their stammering in new speech.
Queer spirituality was an elusive ghost of the dominant culture—its ritual secret, its ironic satirist, its reader of hidden meanings, its drag queen.
What does this imply for building sustainable shelters within which to make new languages for queer spiritualities? It means, at least, that the shelters won’t look like other institutions. Their forms will stand in apophatic relation to dominant structural forms. Their success will be measured not by their corporate longevity or scale or wealth but by the inventiveness of their negations. How successful are they in creating new bodily rituals, finding new arts, sustaining the tension of a vocation to go beyond the limits of ordinary experience?
An example may help. I count among the most “successful” communities of queer spirituality a poetry workshop that began in 1967 at San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights. It was both a space for making new languages and a site from which to broadcast them. With Robert Duncan as its adviser, the group drew writers who would go on to produce remarkable work. It led to the founding of Manroot, a poetry journal, which published in its first eight issues work by Kathy Acker, James Broughton, Marilyn Hacker, Denise Levertov, Judy Grahn, and Paul Mariah (its chief editor). Grahn would later write an extraordinary meditation on queer languages, Another Mother Tongue (1984). Hacker would compose Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986), which fuses sexual slang with traditional poetic forms to trace the passion between two women. Near the aching end of Hacker’s book, there is a poem titled “Letter on August 15.” That date is the Catholic memorial of the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven.
Queer spirituality can find unlikely shelter for its experiments with bodily practices, artistic forms, and unbounded yearnings—but only if it resolves to conduct them. We are now assured that we have won irreversible political victories in the United States—for whatever such assurances are worth in the present political moment. Even if the country doesn’t lurch further into fascism, our recognition as human beings and citizens has demanded assimilation. We have been accepted—so far as we have been—on the condition of becoming similar. The liberal pact for our toleration permits us to retain some folkloric curiosities or indigenous art forms. But the pact doesn’t quite know what to do with someone who wants to claim that queer orgasms might be mystical. You may think that another joke, but one of the first sex manuals for gay men ends with a section titled, “Mystical Aspects of Gay Love.” Here’s a sample from it: “What’s the nature of this [male-male] love, and why does it seem so wonderful? I think it’s because it unlocks the secret reality, the secret self inside each of us, and provides a doorway to revelations.”3 Being accepted has sometimes made us less ready to claim revelations.
I don’t blame my good-hearted allies—or even calculating politicians—for imposing assimilation and its spiritual flatness. The demise of queer institutions devoted to asceticism, arts, and the pursuit of a call is largely a queer failing. It is one result of the tyranny of our movement politics. The success of queer activism made a certain political logic the measure of queerness. It required the surveillance of terminology and topics: some things couldn’t be said in public. It insisted that whole areas of queer life be closeted once again—because queer folk, and especially gay men, had to prove themselves decent sexual citizens. This is a sadly familiar story in minority groups. It has been written about by theologians as differently placed as Kelly Brown Douglas and Marcella Althaus-Reid. I recall their lessons to emphasize that spaces of spirituality can be closed from outside queer communities and from inside. Queer rites can be driven into hiding both by the state’s police and by campaigns for equal rights—when rights are reduced to the limits of currently acceptable political speech.
This expansive version of queer politics is based on a mistake about human beings. Straining desire cannot become policy. It cannot guide legislation. The most to be hoped for is a relatively tolerant government and a culture with some taste for difference.—As I write, even that hope is imperiled.—The political future that queer spiritualities need is a future of dispersed resistance strong enough, steady enough, to resume the creation of other languages—other rites, other literatures or arts—for unexpected lives.
It is a fundamental misunderstanding to assume that the difficult experiments of queer spirituality proceed by clear stages toward one goal.
If this were either a homily or a rally speech (the genres are close cousins), I would end with a confident prediction of ultimate victory. That would undo most everything I’ve written. Queer spiritualities cannot be managed so confidently—not by churches, political movements, or (let me add) universities. It is a fundamental misunderstanding to assume that the difficult experiments of queer spirituality proceed by clear stages toward one goal. Quite the contrary: we should never pretend to know how people will talk in 50 years about what we call “sex” or “spirituality.” What we can affirm is that the desires behind our inadequate words will not disappear—no matter how sharply repressed. “Queer spirituality” has a future, even if the two words we use now to name it do not.
I am tempted to say that whatever lies behind those words is basic to human religious sensibilities. But if “religion” means for you the institutional logic of clear plans and certain victories, call the sensibility “spiritual” instead. And then label me spiritual but not religious—because I don’t think that we can ever claim to have comprehended the end of our meanings or desires.
- Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Lesbian/Woman, 20th anniversary ed. (Volcano Press, 1991), 41.
- Arthur Evans, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A Radical View of Western Civilization and Some of the People It Has Tried to Destroy (Fag Rag Books, 1978), 148.
- Mitch Walker, Men Loving Men: A Gay Sex Guide and Consciousness Book (Gay Sunshine Press, 1977), 147.
Mark D. Jordan, the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor at Harvard Divinity School, is a teacher of Christian theology, European philosophy, religious rhetoric, and sexual ethics. This essay samples the arguments in his forthcoming book, Queer Callings.