Queer Women and Religion
Written by Lilith Adler (1961 - 2000).
For the past few years, an international political movement has sought to deprive homosexuals of basic civil rights all over the world. In the United States, this became evident after Hawaii considered legalizing gay marriage. It seemed that every state in the Union scrambled to enact just-in-time legislation to ensure that a queer marriage recognized in one state would be null and void elsewhere.
This hullabaloo was not spontaneous. It was orchestrated by the Christian Coalition and various other conservative groups and foundations, many of the same people who killed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980's. Recently, the Coalition is also responsible for the repeal of a Maine law that guaranteed homosexuals protection against housing and job discrimination. The longtime Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, is largely known for his anti-abortion crusade, which aims to move women out of the workforce. His successor, Randy Tate, is mostly known for his record of supporting anti-queer legislation. Clearly, the religious conservative agenda has broadened from an attack on abortion and women in the workplace to an attack on homosexuals.
The religious conservative platforms have always been justified by Biblical quotations, which grant the political figure a divine right to his policies of hatred and inequity. Yet there exists a whole field of feminist and queer scholarship which attempts to reconcile Biblical texts with the feminist and queer search for tolerance. At the same time, another field of scholarship rejects the Judeo-Christian model totally, and seeks either to construct new forms of spirituality or to reconstruct old female-centric religions.
In other words, religion is a problematic issue for queer women. And now it's becoming a political issue. The political repercussions mean that even queer atheists are affected by other people's religions.
With this in mind, I put out a call for work. I wanted to know the response of queer women artists to the religious and political issues of the times. And this is what I found.
There are those who felt strongly about the Judeo-Christian tradition. Barbara Kyne calls herself "an Irish Catholic lesbian who rejected much of the Church's teachings from a young age." Yet her work intimates that the Church rejected her, not the other way around. Her photographs are filled with barriers -- locked gates, windows, and walls, through which the viewer regards icons of spirituality that cannot be reached. They give the impression of a poor kid with her nose pressed against the window of a candy shop, who will never have the money to buy what the other kids can. As a result, in Kyne's photographs, the barriers cannot be surmounted, and the promise of spiritual fulfillment is a kind of torture, from which she has no choice but to walk away.
So Barbara Kyne left the tradition in which she was raised. Angela Marise Gleason took another tack. "I was a hyperactive girl in plaid," she says, "I was in trouble every day of my life." Yet she stuck it out, and remains with her religion. "I see my Catholic background as a cultural experience. It is not simply a religion I can walk away from." So Gleason's focus is on how to cope with a tradition that rejects you. Her answer is to change the tradition, and her tool is to poke fun at it. "I believe in the subversive power of humor. The weakest points in the patriarchy are the arenas within which they take themselves too seriously.... So I challenge the doctrine and culture using their own sacred images." Hence her heretical twists on traditional religious imagery -- an unthinkable "Girl Pope" that raises the question, "why not?", and an "Adoration of St. Barbara", where a Mattel Barbie doll stands in for the saint, and raises whole reams of questions about the nature of ideal womanhood in a Christian, western, capitalist culture.
My own work falls somewhere between Gleason's and Kyne's. It talks about the spiritual impoverishment of the religious conservative political movements, and questions their motives. I come from an orthodox Jewish background, whose foundation was the premise that religion was the guide to ethical behavior. But from observation I have found that religion is often used as a justification for unconscionable behavior. My "Mitzvah" depicts the irony that a Jewish man will ritually kiss the Torah to demonstrate his love for the Law, but will also repeat the daily prayer which expresses his contempt for women. In this fundamental discrimination, Judaism puts following the letter of the law above following the spirit of the law. At its very core, it is unethical. Unlike Gleason, I can't laugh at this -- I want it changed. And this is because like Gleason, my religion is my cultural heritage; I can't leave it.
And as to my paintings about the Christian right, the cultural memory of thousands of years of institutionalized, state-sanctioned rape and murder gives the urgency to my claim that "Hatred in the name of Jesus is perversion". So while I am talking about the perversion of using Christianity to justify hatred against women and homosexuals, I am talking with the cultural memory of inquisitions, pogroms, and the Holocaust that sees history once again poised to repeat itself against the Other -- women and homosexuals.
There are those for whom spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion. Valerie Jacobs maintains, "the spiritual is the personal" and rejects organized religion on the grounds that it is spiritually bankrupt. Her winged figures derive from a formalistic process of overprinting lines in a biomorphic shape, and then interpreting the resulting image. As the lines accumulate and develop, they take the form of a woman -- Jacobs herself -- "as an emerging figure...coming through" into her own direction and power. In a sense, they are a depiction of Everywoman as her own Goddess.
Then there are those who devise alternatives. Petrouschka A.M. Zandvliet explains, "I grew up in a household without a Bible or any other book with 'the Words'. My closest contact with written religion was [with] Greek mythology.... because women played a far more active and adventurous part in [myths] than in traditional fairy tales. The women I identified with were Diana, Kassandra and Medusa." So just as an anthropomorphic god, prophet, or saint serves as a role model -- a requirements list of an ideal being -- these strong woman figures Zandvliet found in Greek mythology serve the same purpose. They give her direction. She just happened to have chosen a strong woman figure who struck terror into the hearts of men.
This range of responses shows a common alienation from the Judeo-Christian tradition and a search for a place of acceptance. It shows a yearning for love and equality which is not being satisfied by organized religion. Perhaps that is because the Judeo-Christian tradition may be about love, but it is certainly not about equality.
And that is its weakness.
Jewish-American artist Lilith Adler died at the height of her artistic career.
She left behind a collection of her more famous art pieces (the more controversial ones), and with them she left behind writings/musings on individual pieces and topics. In life she was a staunch supporter of people thinking for themselves (as opposed to religious/racial brainwashing), lesbian/gay marriages, feminism and women's rights.
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