What is Queer Theology?

This is the first essay I wrote for the Queer Theology subject at Pilgrim Theological College of the University of Divinity. I only had 1000 words to work with, so it is not my best work, but I thought I’d put it here just in case it might be of interest to others.

“As with becoming Christian or woman, one is not born but becomes queer; one learns to live as a promise of the future.”[1]

God is queer. The original and ultimate “identity without an essence,”[2] God is radically unknowable; and yet Christianity believes that this radically transcendent God entered creation out of love. Jesus Christ is queer. A human man who is also God, he dies and returns to life, breastfeeds his followers with his flesh, marries avowed virgins, and gives birth to the church. The church, the multi-gendered Bride and Body of Christ, is queer. Its eyes on the eschaton, it problematises every human identity. Theology may be the queerest thing of all, because theology seeks to use human words, human lives, and human creativity to speak about the God who is utterly Other.

By making such claims, queer theologians seek to make all theology queer. They disrupt ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ readings of Christianity.[3] Queer theology, in the words of Susannah Cornwall, “whips away the rug from beneath theological feet” by problematising everything traditional theology has taken for granted.

Queer theology is born of a union between queer theory and the quest of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and other (LGBTIQ+) Christians to find a place in the church. To extend the metaphor, queer theology is the product of a shotgun marriage. Lesbian and gay liberation movements within churches used “the ethnic model of identity”[4] to argue that, since sexual orientation was an intrinsic human characteristic, gays and lesbians were a legitimate minority group to be welcomed in churches like other minorities.


Queer theory rejected the ethnic model of identity, instead reconceptualising identity as a process, ongoing and always incomplete.[5] Michel Foucault’s analysis of those with marginalised sexual identities argued that they were not the pre-existing victims of the operations of power; instead their sexual identities were produced by those very operations of power.[6] In the same way, Judith Butler described gender as a contingent cultural fiction.[7] Neither Foucault nor Butler argued that one’s sexuality or gender could be freely chosen, or that they were mere performances, but nor did they hold them to be essential aspects of a coherent and unified subject. Their creation could be interrogated.

Queer theorists developed this instability of identity, arguing that ‘queer’ refers not to an identified group of people like ‘gays and lesbians’ as opposed to ‘heterosexuals’ but to all those whose lives, thoughts, and politics resist whatever is normal or sanctioned. ‘Queer’ became an identity ‘available to anyone who is or who feels marginalized because of his or her sexual practices.’[8] Whether that resistance to normativity needs to be specifically sexual or gendered, or whether it can refer to any type of stigma, remains a matter of debate.[9]

Lesbian and gay liberation movements within the church had been based on people telling the ‘truth’ of themselves to the churches that welcomed or rejected them. Queer theology questions whether there is any such intrinsic ‘truth’ to declare. As Mark D. Jordan writes:

No matter how much my pulse races, how deeply I blush, how tearfully glad I feel in speaking at last (I have felt all this and more), “coming out” is not the final revelation of my inner truth. It is, at best, one move in a strategy of resistance. At worst, it is just another script distributed by biopower. This is a hard truth. It is the beginning of queer theology.[10]

But while queer theory means that we can no longer rely naively on the ‘truth’ of LGBTIQ+ lives, LGBTIQ+ experience remains a vital source of queer theology, since it is often the dissonance between our lives and the traditional teachings of the church that prompts us to challenge heteronormativity.[11] It is simply important not to assume that any story, experience, or coming out is final.

Patrick S. Cheng argues that queer theology came of age with the publication of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics in 2000.[12] In it Althaus-Reid argued for indecent theology, theology done from the margins that interrogates the centre.[13] This theology can only be done when theologians have the courage and the honesty to come out of all our various closets and bring our lives into our work.[14] Grounding theology in our lives and the lives of other ‘indecent’ people means theology becomes a caminata, a walk with others.[15]

Queer theology is indecent, and in Australia marriage equality means that some elements of LGBTIQ+ life have become ‘decent’. Oscar Monaghan believes that queer demands for recognition are an investment in settler colonialism, producing “homonormativity”.[16] If Australian queer theology is to remain on the side of the indecent then it must recognise “the underlying relationship between sexuality and the racialised white nation, and how that relationship has travelled through all of frontier and post-federation history and into the present.”[17]

Queer theology reminds Christianity that at its core it is, or should be, about love. The God we worship is in God’s very self a community of love, the God whose love spills out in Creation, the God who became human out of love for us,[18] the God who goes willingly into exile with God’s people, the God who remains with us on the margins when the centre rejects us.[19] In its insistence on ‘radical love’ as the meaning of the faith, queer theology is the grain of sand inside an oyster’s shell that creates the pearl of great price for which we will sell all that we have.

[1] Gerard Loughlin, “Introduction: The End of Sex,” in Queer Theology, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 11.

[2] David Halperin, quoted in Loughlin, “Introduction: The End of Sex,” 9.

[3] Chris Greenough, Queer Theologies: The basics (London: Routledge, 2020), 34.

[4] Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 1996), 60.

[5] Jagose, Queer Theory, 78-9.

[6] Jagose, Queer Theory, 80.

[7] Jagose, Queer Theory, 84-87.

[8] David Halperin, quoted in Loughlin, “Introduction,” 9.

[9] Linn Marie Tonstad, Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), 67.

[10] Mark D. Jordan, “In search of Queer Theology Lost,” in Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies, ed. Kent L. Brintnall, Joseph A. Marchal and Stephen D. Moore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 300.

[11] Loughlin, “Introduction: The End of Sex,” 10.

[12] Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 37.

[13] Greenough, Queer Theologies, 38-9.

[14] Greenough, Queer Theologies, 40.

[15] Greenough, Queer Theologies, 76.

[16] Oscar Monaghan, “Dual Imperatives: Decolonising the Queer and Queering the Decolonial,” in Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives (Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press, 2015) 202-203.

[17] Madeleine Clark, “Indigenous Subjectivity in Australia: Are we Queer?” Journal of Global Indigeneity, 1 no.1 (2015): 3.

[18] Cheng, Radical Love, 140.

[19] Greenough, Queer Theologies, 40.

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