Queer Theology: Blowing Bubbles of Resistance?

In Africa we tell stories. They intrigue, provoke and stimulate us to laugh and contemplate; always meaning more than what they appear on the surface. Never pointing exclusively toward itself, but always directing and lighting the path towards new knowledge and experiences.  As Africans, stories guide us; perhaps away from single meanings or dullness.

When I was growing up I loved blowing soap bubbles. We either bought them at the annual fair or older cousins experimented with old family recipes. Place soapy liquid in a small container and fashion a thin wire with a hole in the middle. Shake the soapy fluid container, soak the wire and blow into the hole where the liquid forms a thin shiny window to blow and, miraculously, bubbles appear. Bubbles with their see-through quality that coloured and reconfigure the world around you- when looking at a tree through a bubble, for example, it might appear out of shape or in a different form. That this delicate, thin creation made out of dishwashing soap, glycerine and breath can mesmerise people of all ages is still remarkable to me. Their frailty makes them vulnerable to anything or anyone.

This year marks the fiftieth year since the Stonewall revolution. A bubble that burst, but we can still see the radiant colour and reconfiguration around the world today. On that day in the late 1960s, a New York bar was raided for being an inclusive space to all who were “different.” Bar clientele resisted police brutality, humiliation, violence and extortion by rioting for a few days. The Western world believes that this burst marked the identity formation of gay and lesbian people. A political movement was born out of this resistance that advocated for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people.

Lobbying for gay and lesbian civil rights soon became a social movement that asked critical questions to the dominant power of heteronormativity. Over centuries heterosexuality, or being straight, formed multi-layered meanings that became the norm of society and the church. Governments legislated heteronormativity into law and the church concretised theological reflections from hetero-experience. A man weds his wife, they conceive, children are born and raised according to specific belief systems formed by customs. Societal norms and the defined identity of God and humanity became and are still captive to powers that serve the interest of dominant groups.

In the context of America and much of the Western world it was also the white male middle class that was represented in legislature and theology. They determined the norms, who God and humanity are. Even in gay and civil rights political movements, the experience of white gay men and lesbian women were in the centre of the movement. Even as activists and advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights fought for their own recognition in society and in the church, the experience of black people, Hispanics and Asians were on the margins.

Within the movement, black and other bodies started to resist the narrowly-defined struggle and another bubble burst. These activists and advocates adopted the derogatory term: queer to destabilise the identity politics of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. In English queer meant strange or peculiar. Soon gender, sexuality, race, class, poverty, health and disability met at an intersection. Whose justice is the most important? The narrowly-nuanced framework was disrupted by yet another bubble of colour and reconfiguring.  

The late South African rights activist Simon Tseko Nkoli was once recorded saying, “I am black, and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man. So, when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions…”. Nkoli brought intersectionality, especially from a unique South African perspective, into the centre of fighting against forms of oppression. The re-appropriation of the derogative term queer transgressed the regulatory normalcy politics; heterosexuality was normal and any deviation from it was viewed as abnormal.

In academia queer theory as a theoretical lens started to develop in the social sciences. The bubble born out of grassroots queer activists’ and advocates’ work founded a queer place in theology. Some theologians think that queer theory enlightened or perhaps provided the lens for theologians to realise that faith and theology have always been queer. Jesus, the Messiah, sat and ate with tax collectors, adulterers and prostitutes.  Jesus destabilised, disrupted and transgressed stable ideas of who God and humanity are. Queer Theology destabilises, disrupts and transgresses stable identities of gender and sexuality that the state, society and church constructed over centuries. Although this is its primary focus, queer theology also highlights dominant narratives in media, politics, economics and social welfare. Queer Theology takes the embodied experiences of all people seriously.

Perhaps as Africans we need to blow some bubbles that colour and reconfigure the long-held “truths” of culture, the Bible and tradition that hold us captive. On the African continent men, some women, and even some LGBTI people themselves keep public and religious spaces heteronormative. Derogative terms exist that dehumanise LGBTQI people and attempt to strip away their human dignity to embody their gender identity, gender expression and sexualities. In South Africa we need to re-appropriate derogative terms like faggot, moffie and stabane. Terms like the often misused IsiZulu term stabane, which refers to intersex bodies but in local vernacular is often used as a general term for all self-identified gays and lesbians, could be used as tools to challenge fixed ideas and “truths” of sex. The confusion around the term often comes from the belief is that when two gay men are having sex, one of the men has a vagina and the other a penis. This misconception highlights the lack of biological knowledge around intersexed bodies, which, if better understood, could disrupt the male and female binary boxes that are the backbone of the patriarchy and challenge conceptions around how people have sex. The re-appropriation of stabane into a theology would help to combat violence towards LGBTI people by challenging the male dominant theology in Africa – patriarchy – which emphasises cultural norms and a literal reading of Scripture. Patriarchal theology depends on binaries and fixed ideas that sex requires only a penis and a vagina. Stabane Theology could be the bubble that colours and reconfigures patriarchy’s stable truths. This is where we could start to blow our bubbles of colour and disfiguration that eventually lead to new life-affirming theologies of justice that resist regulatory normalcy.