BY KELLY COGSWELL | I noticed nobody in the queer community is rushing to chastise Brandeis University for caving in to pressure from religious groups and right-leaning academics in deciding not to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali the honorary degree it had promised. Apparently all our high-mindedness about free speech and academic independence doesn’t apply when we’re dealing with a Somali-Dutch woman with a decidedly un-PC stance on Islam, once calling the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
We’re much more comfortable dealing with rage against them inbred hillbilly Southern Baptists or the Catholic Church. We lionize our own queer prophets like David Wojnarowicz, who railed against our whole Christian country, especially that “fat cannibal” Cardinal John O’Connor, who sent queers to their deaths with his anti-gay, anti-condom policies. Plenty of us queer folks were thrilled when ACT UP went into the belly of the beast for a demo at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
If Wojnarowicz were alive today and up for some honorary award that got rescinded, you can bet we’d be out in force. But apparently you have more street cred dying of AIDS thanks to the Church than getting your genitals chopped up by local Muslims as Hirsi Ali did. Or being forced to flee your country and live in hiding after writing the script for a modest film against Islam’s treatment of women. Her collaborator, Theo van Gogh, was actually killed for his work on “Submission.” And it’s still not over. Hirsi Ali is still at risk, and every day she has to read about more murders done in the name of Allah, wars waged, girls just like her killed, raped, or burned with acid for daring to uncover their faces or learning to read.
I don’t see a huge difference. Except Wojnarowicz is white, like his most visible Christian targets, and Hirsi Ali and her targets are mostly not. And even progressive people of color shy away from condemning Islam for anything at all because so far we refuse to distinguish between justified fury and a race-based Islamophobia the West indulges in at great length. An exception is when Christian bigots get worked up at the UN and make unsavory alliances with the likes of Iran to keep women and queers in their respective places.
Another factor in our silence is the growing visibility of LGBT people of all faiths who keep telling us how benign their religions are. And while I admire their work –– and bravery –– and agree we need to create change on all fronts, I have a problem with most religions, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Censor what you like, speak of love, but the Bible simmers with disdain for women and erupts occasionally into pure hatred. It encourages people to stone women practically every time we open our mouths, and creates a terminal hatred for two men lying together. Yes, I could describe all those religions born of the Book as a variety of “destructive, nihilistic cults of hetero-male supremacy.” I’ll even put that into quotes so you can conveniently extract it.
The problem is that even if you could contact the typesetters and eliminate those verses demanding death for people like me, hate will remain behind in the blank spaces. And there will always be Christians, always Muslims and Jews who will seize on those verses and, like queers of faith, claim that their version of their religion is the true one. And like queer Muslims, Christians, Jews, discounting inconvenient passages inciting either love or hate. Religions can go either way, creating a food bank for the starving or a fund for anti-gay campaigns abroad from Russia to Uganda.
You’re married to your entire faith, for better or worse. And all the people of the Book are stuck with dead queers. Queer refugees. All the frightened LGBT people trapped where they are. Some of them fighting, most hiding in fear for their lives. Plus all the dead and ravaged women. These days, much of that is due to Christian America, now celebrating Holy Week and remembering the suffering of the Christ.
I have my own, more modest wounds. A mother who said she wouldn’t accept me until I was the girl God wanted me to be. My sense of precariousness every time I step into the street, because some days I’m not up to insults and I’ve had so many friends beaten for being queer. Then there’s the invisibility. Watching a movie, reading a book, and never seeing myself. Which means queer kids, coming up in their hetero-households, are all newborn. Without role models. Without histories. Blank, terrified slates each faith writes on, scribbling self-loathing and hate.
I’m even sick of the big religious conventions in which “progressive” religious folks assert that, yes, I am human enough to be saved, to participate in their rites. To speak to God. Thanks ever so much. Yeah, I try to be tolerant around my religious friends, but I’ve never seen a church I’m not tempted to burn.
Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger, from the University of Minnesota Press.