Unorthodox: LGBT+ Identity and Faith

Edited by Sean Richardson Unorthodox brings together a series of stories drawn from oral history interviews conducted throughout the UK as part of Sean ‘s doctoral thesis. In his own words: “As a queer person and a Catholic, one question has plagued my life: how can you be religious and LGBTQ+?  This question has been posed to me just as much by my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters at dinner parties as by those involved in religious life … Unorthodox brings together queer Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs by offering an interfaith collection of stories that reflect on the relationship between gender, sexuality and religion … This book is a reclamation that shows what it means to be queer and a faith in Britain today”.

Some of the twelve contributors may be familiar including The Rev Canon Rachel Mann and Rabbi Mark Solomon. All have something to contribute in a way which adds to the understanding which allows us to make sense of our journeys as people of faith.

For me there was much that was familiar. As I look at the jigsaw-ed landscape of my own life, still with many aspects unclear, there were many snippets of reflection and revelation which allowed me to re-examine some of the fuzzy bits and also to add a few more of the missing pieces of the picture.  Looking at queer faith through the eyes of people from different traditions has much to offer the process of teasing out my understanding of faith.

A common theme from the different authors is the significance of being LGBT+ and being a person of faith in the understanding of personal identity.  Another common theme was a stage in the evolution of each individual in which they clung to orthodoxy, traditionalism (or any of the other words we use) to describe the tick box conformity rules often applied by religions which struggle  to make sense of the God given LGBT+ faith experience. It strikes me that these religions often dump their struggle on vulnerable LGBT+ people and in so doing fail in their responsibilities to develop rounded adults of faith. Mark Solomon puts it very simply (p109) “along with being gay, faith is the main thing that defines who I am”. So why do religions and society so often deny us adulthood: just as we are in the fullness of our creation.

So there were things that I took away from the book (more below), but that said, when reading some of the stories I found it difficult to maintain focus; finding little interest in some of the narrative / historical detail. To some extent I would have preferred to be sitting with each of the writer’s sharing our stories over coffee.  About two-thirds of the way through the book I did consider not continuing. On the flip side of that, each of the writers has an incredible biography. And as I say, all of them would make great coffee companions with whom I could have dug deeper under the skin of each history.  That in itself leaves me with some self-reflection. A couple of takeaways for me were:

  • (p27) “liberation theology tries to ‘restore the courage of those who are oppressed, confident that those who suffer truly understand God’s message and, in standing against injustice, embody God’s will in the world”, and further on the same page “This might upset some people, but, at their core, the Abrahamic religions are socialist religions. There is a massive disconnect with the founding principles and beliefs within religions and how people are choosing to practice them today.”
  • I had an overall sense that the LGBT+ experience illuminates the faith aspect of our journeys in a very unique way. Like all the other aspects, we regularly have to pick it up, examine it from all sides and work out what it means outside the cultural and normative tick boxes the majority of our heteronormative, cis siblings take for granted.
  • (p53) it [talking about a particular faith] “is the things I can’t describe or put into words. Now my faith is not so much a part of me as something that is around me, something that I am in relation to. If I claimed it was a part of me it would feel too definite.”

Would I recommend the book?  I’m not the most tolerant of readers nor the most focused.  I need to be gripped early on and I like to feel as if I know the main characters or can resonate with them. I’m not saying don’t read it. I guess what I am saying is have a look at a copy in a bookshop and flick through and you will know if it’s for you or not. It’s an important work and I’m glad it’s on the bookshelves, available to read.

Interestingly, I went to an event where the editor and his colleague were being interviewed about the book and it was a fantastic evening, really interesting.  There wasn’t coffee but there was wine and nibbles.  My need to dig deeper was realised at that event. Gerard Swan

Unorthodox is published by Five Leaves Publications,978-1-91017-060-1