Chances are, you’ve heard scriptural verses wielded as weapons against LGBTQ+ individuals and used to justify legal discrimination. Just this month, the Supreme Court ruled that a baker’s religious objections to homosexuality, based on his reading of the Bible, need to be taken into account in his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. We’ve all heard the harmful talking points that weaponize religion and use it to further marginalize the vulnerable.
But here’s what you might not know: Many religious traditions teach liberating messages about gender and sexuality that people barely talk about. As women of faith, queer and straight, we are appalled that religion is so often hijacked to spread hate, because we know the truth: Our respective traditions hold deep wisdom that can advance the flourishing of all creation.
Let’s begin with Judaism, which makes room for the diversity of creation. People often assume that gender non-conformity is a new phenomenon, and that, until very recently, everyone fit tidily and comfortably into male or female categories. But the foundational texts of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah and Talmud, recognized six sexes/genders. Individuals might be male, female, both, neither or shift between these identities during their lifetime.
The foundational texts of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah and Talmud, recognized six sexes/genders.
The Jewish sages of Late Antiquity did not question whether any or all of these people deserve health care or protection from violence, because of course they do. Instead, the rabbis tried to figure out how a system primarily set up along binary gender lines could be adapted so that everyone could live fulfilled religious lives. And they recognized each person’s unique humanity: Rabbi Yosi taught, “An androgynous person (a masc. noun), she is a created being of her own” (m. Bikkurim 4:5). Creating gender fluidity in the way he constructed the Hebrew sentence itself, he recognized that we should not think about sex in binary terms.
Consider, for a moment, what might happen if this view were the norm. It might mean that intersex and transgender people would no longer be murdered, fired, evicted from their homes, or abused and assaulted on account of who they are. It might mean that all religious voices would celebrate the full diversity of creation in their efforts to build a whole and holy community.
Next, it’s important to note that queer black people have been a part of Christianity from the beginning. The New Testament story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) is one that Christians love to tell as a victorious conversion narrative. Phillip the Evangelist is instructed by an angel to head toward Gaza, where he meets this foreign envoy (a eunuch) who asks him to explain the meaning of the Bible and ultimately asks to be baptized as a follower of Jesus.
Queer black people have been a part of Christianity from the beginning.
But in the re-telling of the story, the racial and sexual identities of the eunuch are generally overlooked. One contemporary scholar points out that the celebration of this conversion, perhaps the first baptized black, queer Christian, is “a clarion call for inclusiveness, radical grace and Christian welcome to all who show faith.”
Anyone who has grown up in or around the Black Church knows that LGBTQ+ folk have always been a part of the community — as congregants, choir members, ushers, musicians and ministers. Some have argued that the movement for LGBTQ+ liberation is an import of liberal white ideology, and doesn’t belong. But queer women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera have been on the front lines of the fight for LGBTQ+ justice ever since Stonewall. The presence of homosexuality and acceptance of difference have been documented in African culture, a value that has persisted despite the efforts of some U.S. fundamentalist Christians “who are doubling down on their attempt of spiritual colonization of Africa.”
Many prominent leaders in the Black Church and community as well as scholars, such as Bishop Yvette A. Flunder, Bishop William J. Barber III, and Bishop Carlton Pearson, are declaring emphatically that there is nothing more Christian than accepting and loving all of God’s children ―especially those who are disenfranchised by society ― in the way that Jesus did. The Ethiopian eunuch reminds us that LGBTQ+ individuals have been a part of the Christian story from the beginning, and that out of Africa comes a call for love and radical inclusivity.
Finally, you may not know that in the texts and practices of Islamic cultures, we find countless teachings that recognize sexual diversity and emphasize human dignity. The Qur’an centers on a God who transcends gender. It mentions, without condemnation, men who do not desire women or who choose celibacy, individuals with ambiguous gender and those who do not reproduce.
In the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, we find stories of gender-ambiguous men within his community of followers. Even religious law, which is often associated with patriarchy and the presumption of heterosexuality, created space for people of all genders.
The Qur’an centers on a God who transcends gender. It mentions, without condemnation, men who do not desire women or who choose celibacy, individuals with ambiguous gender and those who do not reproduce.
Popular literature from the medieval Muslim world affirmed love as a force that undergirds all human partnership, regardless of who is loving whom. It took for granted the inclusion of people who today identify as LGBTQ+. The great poet Hafiz wrote:
It happens all the time in heaven/And some day/It will begin to happen/
Again on earth—/That men and women who are married,/
And men and men who are/Lovers,/And women and women/
Who give each other/Light/Often will get down on their knees/
And while so tenderly/Holding their lover’s hand,/With tears in their eyes,/
Will sincerely speak, saying/My dear,/How can I be more loving to you;/
How can I be more/Kind?
In 19th-century India, the poet Jān Ṣāḥib crafted this lovely visual wordplay: “Dear to God are both the straight and the bent. He’s given the arrow one honor, and the bow another.”
Honoring multiple gender identities and offering a tradition of love-in-partnership — these principles can help ground a conversation among Muslims and others to explore queer identity today.
As Pride month ends, we must ask ourselves, and our communities: What does Pride mean for religious people when LGBTQ+ youth still attempt suicide at nearly five times the rate of their straight peers, driven in part by bullying and religious condemnation? What does it mean when the Department of Health and Human Services tries to let health care providers refuse medical treatment if they have a faith-based objection to a patient’s identity or behavior? What does it mean when the “First Amendment Defense Act,” recently reintroduced in the Senate, defines religious freedom as the right to discriminate against people who do not share your religious beliefs?
It means we have work to do. As people of faith, we cannot stand idly by as LGBTQ+ individuals are discriminated against, in our name or otherwise. We challenge our communities to move beyond overworked snippets of Scripture and rediscover the fullness of religious teachings about gender and sexuality — including those that illuminate the rights and respect due to every human being.
Stop using Scripture to clobber people, and start using it to lift them up.
Dr. Homayra Ziad is an affiliated assistant professor of Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva serves as the Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies and senior faculty fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Bishop Phyllis V. Pennese serves as the senior pastor at Pillar of Love Fellowship & St. John UCC. She is the Midwest regional bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries.