Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth (2011-2013)

When you think of religion, do you then think of sexuality? Does the connection then become a drastic dis-connection, a sentiment of incompatibility and impossibility, as the mind wanders over abortion debates, family planning, and the ‘sins’ of homosexuality? These collisions are apparent in recent UK debates on the Civil Partnership Act (2004), The Equality Act (2006) and the proposed Con-Lib plans to legalize gay marriage by 2015. All have generated significant controversies, frequently positing Christian ‘backlash’ against more integrative calls for inclusion. Representations of ‘sexual citizenship’ are still positioned as separate from and indeed negated by religious rights and some religions are (mis)positioned as more hostile, tolerating and welcoming than others.  Sweeping claims are made about the representation of broader secular publics where some suggest that ‘Religious Leaders are out of Touch with Sexuality Issues’. Over time policy-makers and the media have variously positioned religious leaders and communities as (un)wise and (in)competent citizens; with – or without – the capabilities and connectedness to contemporary British publics. The voices of those most vocal are heard here, where gaps exist between prescription and practice and between official institutional stances – in being in or out of touch – and what is experienced on the ground at congregational level. Against this often highly intense social context young LGBT Christians try to find a sense of belonging and identification, which Making Space for Queer Identifying Religions Youth (ESRC, 2011-2013) focuses upon. Starting with a focus on the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the project offers insight into the management and development of excluded and in some ways ‘contradictory’ identity positions. How might religion and sexuality serve as a vehicle for various forms of belonging, identification and political expression where these have been pitted against one another?  

Young people are often invisibilised in Equalities provisions which speak to/produce the adult consumer as tax-payer, employee, consumer, resident with individual/familial responsibilities and capacities, economically, socially and politically.  These capacities are loaded with value, both morally and materially, and youth are positioned as becoming (future citizens) and ‘at risk’. Questions around the propriety of gays and lesbians engaging in civil partnerships and other practices (e.g. adoption) have created a number of thought provoking stances in a heightened moment of sexual citizenship– but what remains unanswered is how young people experience and situate themselves within such moments. They are seen as not-yet inhabiting these (adult) spaces and subjectivities, where even attention to the rise of alternative spiritualities and to processes of (re)sacralisation have again been skewed in representing older adults. At the same time, sexual/religious debates continue about the ‘best interests’ of young people, now incited to act to protect certain futures as The Guardian headline reveals Catholic church urges pupils to sign anti-gay marriage petition’.

In sharp contrast from the above headlines, many participants have so far spoke about coming-out’ before God as a religious act, an act of conscience and care, of being true to oneself, one’s family and a larger community. There were expressed worries about acceptance and forgiveness, with some respondents quoting from Scripture as well as querying these statements about the non-acceptance of homosexuality (sometimes reinforced in schooling settings as in the above headline example). For instance, Andrew (24) expressed concerns about Church debates and anxieties about sexuality, reconciling this in his belief that he, too, was ‘created by God’. These sentiments of being ‘born this way’ whether as an act of God, or a biological fixity, have been long debated within and outside LGBT community: clearly these debates still resonate for a younger population. Interviewees so far have been mostly from middle-class backgrounds and these class positions were reflected in anticipated – and actualised – trajectories, via higher education, which for some acted as a buffering zone to ‘come out’ in terms of religion and sexuality (see Liz McDermott in Classed Intersections: Spaces, Selves, Knowledges):

‘…if you’d asked me kind of within the first three months before I went to University ‘How long have you got until you go to University?’ I could tell you the exact number of days; I started counting down from 100. When I was in year 9 I could tell you, it was like ‘6 years until I go to University, 5 years before I go to University’…’ (Nicola, 21).

That said, in anticipating certain futures, even more middle-class young people felt doubt about educational and employment success, where being young was experiences as being ‘in-between’, as a ‘queer’ state in an adult world. What has emerged is the importance of education is facilitating and blocking belonging, mobility and identification, with all interviewees expressing a policing of gender and sexual identities in the classroom: in the context of Equalities legislation these educational endurances and inequalities stick with young people as they map their own pathways, intersecting religion and sexuality in their lives in a context which frequently positions these as impossible, incompatible and contradictory. As the young people’s maps and diary exercises show, they do this with creativity, ‘making space’ for themselves and challenge ongoing inequalities through alternative and ‘queer’ evaluations of community, while still negotiating the material forces that restrict young people’s uptake of public space. Their accounts present challenges for compulsory and post-compulsory educational provisions, where the language of ‘tolerance’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘acceptance’ and the reality of exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination, often bring into effect the social ‘contradictions’ shaping young people’s movements.

Yvette Taylor, LSBU


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