It’s often hard to be religious and queer. At least, depending on the religion. Many segments of Christianity as well as other mainstream religious schools of thought put queerness firmly into the realm of “abomination”, to some degree or another. A popular mentality in many conservative Christian sects is that queerness goes against the natural order set into place by God when He created Adam and Eve as partners, making same-sex attraction “disordered”. This often translates to an understanding of queerness as either a mental illness, which could be healed with prayer, or a vice that, like a desire to gamble or steal, can be resisted through faith-based strength of character. While this attitude is not representative of all religion, nor, in Christianity’s case, true to Christ’s actual teachings, the fact remains: it’s damn hard to be religious and queer.
And while it remains hard to find good representation of queer characters, and good representation of religious characters, you’re more likely to catch a Mewtwo at your local grocery store than you are to find a meaningful and balanced representation of someone who ticks both boxes.
Instead, we often see religious characters in genre fiction who, while part of a societal out-group that could stand as a metaphor for queerness, are not actually queer themselves. Furthermore, they often believe or have been taught to believe that this otherness is, yes, an abomination, leading them to make terrible choices based on their internalized hatred of themselves or others like themselves. Perhaps God has singled them out as martyrs, challenging them to live a godly life in spite of their inherent (ungodly) differentness. Unfortunately, these portrayals do nothing but serve the tired stereotype that closeted individuals are often responsible for anti-queer hate crimes, rather than dealing with the more realistic issues surrounding internalized religious homophobia.
Trigger warning for discussions of self-harm and suicide after the cut.
Take Eli Ever, from my recent superhero-genre punching bag Vicious. Eli is, among other things, devoutly Christian, although we are never given a specific denomination. At the beginning, however, his beliefs do not appear to be particularly conservative. He is a dedicated student investigating advanced neuroscientific possibilities, and typically a strong fundamentalist Christian background might preclude a career in the hard sciences.
Their research leads Eli and his best friend Victor to stumble onto the “recipe” for creating EOs, humans with “ExtraOrdinary” abilities: a near-death experience. They decide to take turns nearly killing each other to see if it works, and while it works on the first attempt for Eli, Victor doesn’t die quite enough to come back changed. Eli develops a seriously powerful healing factor as his EO ability, and sees his success against Victor’s failure as a sign from God that he has been chosen for some higher purpose. This is not particularly surprising—there are plenty of Christian sects that believe a person’s deep faith is tied to whether or not they will heal from injury or illness.
Eli’s girlfriend dies in Victor’s second (successful) try, and Eli’s hatred of Victor and his pain control powers eventually grows into a hatred of all EOs. While Victor and Eli may be the only intentional EOs (the “recipe” remains secret, and no one else believes EOs exist, let alone links NDEs to people with powers), it is easy to see how Eli might come to the idea that EOs are unnatural, the result of playing God, in a word: disordered. While some Christian sects believe that they can “pray the gay away” and “restore” queer people to their “proper” heterosexual ways, the scientific side of Eli knows that there is no reversing the creation of an EO. He ultimately comes to believe that God granted him his healing factor because he was ordained to use it to protect himself as he wiped out all other existing EOs. He goes on a killing spree until Victor is able to stop him, and he never stops believing that he was in the right, only becoming more and more devoted to his cause as the story progresses.
Another example is Teren Santoro from The Young Elites series. This series is set in a magical world similar to Renaissance Italy, where catching a certain disease as a child leads to both disfiguring marks and special magical abilities of varying strength and usefulness. These marked people are designated malfetti, and are considered lesser, second class citizens generally hated and feared by the unpowered, unmarked populace. Teren is a young prodigy, the head of the Queen’s Inquisition, and has a special zeal in his religious hatred of the malfetti, pulling them from their homes and into camps, and persisting in his persecution of them above, beyond, and even against orders from the throne.
While this world is more inherently magical than that of Vicious, which is more based on (pseudo-)science, Teren also understands that because it is the immediate result of a physical disease, there is no undoing the malfetti. He too embraces a policy of destruction, as he believes that by killing malfetti, he is saving their souls. However, he is also a malfetto, whose powers have manifested in (coincidentally enough) a powerful healing factor. We are treated to gratuitous scenes of Teren self-harming with a whip, a classic callout to the weird stereotype of the self-harming religious ascetic as well as a testament to his own disdain for his “flawed” form.
A common factor between these two examples is that, in their worlds, there is a clear cause for the otherness that stands in for being queer, a cause and an effect that can be mapped and eradicated. Meanwhile, in the real world, there is no known “cause” of queerness. Even queer groups have rejected the idea that being queer is necessarily genetic. While it may seem at first that this makes it more difficult to “cure” queerness—there is no disease to be inoculated against that causes it, no situation to avoid that reduces your likelihood of becoming gay—it actually makes it easier to misrepresent. With no physical symptoms or proof of how it supposedly started, it’s far easier to argue that queerness is a state of mind that can be shed through the power of prayer and right-thinking.
Despite this difference, these characters stand as simple metaphorical reflections of the oft-related stereotype that internalized religious homophobia is the root of many potentially religiously motivated hate crimes. In fact, the idea for this post first came to me in the wake of the Orlando shooting, as the media speculated on the idea that the shooter had been gay himself, and was motivated by the homophobia he had absorbed from conservative Muslim teachings to resent that in himself. However, while this is sometimes the case, and people like to point to things like a conservative, anti-gay politician getting caught soliciting gay sex as gotcha moments—the truth is that this model of how internalized homophobia reveals itself is not in the majority.
I recently read the fantastic and moving The Miseducation of Cameron Post. While it’s not a book for this blog in and of itself, being contemporary fiction, it focuses on a lesbian teenager whose born-again Christian aunt (her legal guardian) sends her off to conversion therapy bible camp upon discovering her “sinful” predilections. Cameron is not particularly religious and is therefore not very affected by the camp’s messages, eventually (spoiler alert) escaping the camp and running away with the friends she’s made there. However, that doesn’t hold true for everyone at the camp. One boy, who seems like the poster child for successful conversion, ultimately snaps under the pressure of trying to reject his gay desires and nearly kills himself trying to cut off his own penis. This may seem unrealistically extreme, but it is something that happens. LGBTQ+ youth who are rejected for their queerness are at higher risk for homelessness, depression, drug use, disease, and suicide.
While this is a far more typical representation of the effects of internalized religious self-hate, there aren’t many more realistic examples like this that come to mind from speculative fiction. X-Men 3: The Last Stand, despite its general lack of redeeming qualities, is one movie that attempts to address this metaphorical homophobia. One of the overarching conflicts of the movie is the development of a potential “cure” for being a mutant. In one powerful scene, we discover that Angel, whose father is at the forefront of the cure movement, is a mutant himself, and has been trying to cut off his wings to hide them rather than revealing his mutant status to his bigoted father. However, there’s nothing implicitly religious about this scene or the desire to cure mutantism; the metaphors are doubly thick.
Ultimately, a happier end goal would be to represent characters in speculative fiction who are legitimately queer (rather than subbing in some other mythical minority status), and who happily and healthily engage with their queer-positive religion. However, in the dearth of these examples, I would call on creators to at least do their due diligence to representing the way internalized religious homophobia, even in cases of metaphorical queerness, typically presents itself—in self-hatred and self-harm, not in violent lashings-out. Religious queer people are oftentimes suffering already from the disheartening, dehumanizing messages they are receiving, and do not need the fiction they turn to for comfort to suggest to them that they are more dangerous and potentially evil than they’re already being told they are. Furthermore, fiction could also look at the flip side and show us religious queer people who refuse to accept that they have to choose religion or queerness to be happy. More queer theology and discourse from within the community can help change the negative mentality from the inside and help internalized religious homophobia—in both fiction and real life—become a thing of the past.