When Religion Bolsters Violence

The glasses have been refilled at the Comptoir Voltaire in Paris. | KELLY COGSWELL

The glasses have been refilled at the Comptoir Voltaire in Paris. | KELLY COGSWELL

BY KELLY COGSWELL | I was eating fennel salad a couple weeks ago in this Italian dyke’s house when she asked if I knew why fags there were called “finocchio,” or fennel. And in between bites she explained that in the old days when the Catholic Church burned inherently heretical fags at the stake, they’d throw fennel on the fire so heterosexual nostrils wouldn’t be offended by the stench.

The story made me queasy, but I finished eating anyway, even had a second helping imagining each crunch as a kind of sacrament. Like when I finally went back to the Comptoir Voltaire where a guy blew himself up in November and lifted my glass of pastis to all the Paris dead, men and women killed together for their secular, wine-drinking, music-loving, gender-consorting apostasy.

I also thought of the so-called Islamic State that beheads queers, or tosses us out of window, or off balconies, or any other high place they find because there are sacred texts calling for sinners to be cast down from mountains or be stoned. ISIS regularly features our murders in its video feeds and encourages its supporters to kill us, or maybe some Jews, or school teachers who dare educate the young using nonreligious texts. The list is far longer than that, but you get the idea.

It seems to be working. There was that shooting in San Bernardino. Then all those dead Latino queers in Orlando. There have been several “incidents” here in France. The most recent was just the day after Orlando, when Larossi Abballa killed a cop and his wife, stabbing them to death in their own home in response to the latest, pre-Ramadan call by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani to target civilians in Europe and the US.

No need for big, shady networks. It’s the kind of do-it-yourself terrorism we saw at the height of the anti-gay Culture Wars in the US when our murderers were egged on by the Christian Right and queers dropped like flies. Pat Robertson in particular harangued us as sinners, degenerates, and child molesters, even enemies of the nation, and as a result the public at large cheered our deaths from AIDS. Some took more immediate measures.

In 1992 alone, a student at Auburn leaned out his dormitory window with a gun and picked off members of the lesbian and gay organization. In Virginia, a gang of children — one was eight years old ! — shot a gay bartender. An off-duty cop and his pal attacked some dykes in Massachusetts. A month later, a lesbian couple was shot by their neighbor. Trans hero Marsha P. Johnson was killed and dumped in the Hudson. Brian Mock and Hattie Mae Cohens, a white queer and a black lesbian, were burned alive when some neo-Nazi wannabes threw a Molotov cocktail through their rooming house window in Oregon. And these were just the attacks that were known.

Queers fought back, made progress, but Christians worldwide are still in the queer-hating business, even if plenty of Muslims are challenging their monopoly. A few hours after we were massacred in Orlando by an Islamist zealot, Catholic leaders in the Dominican Republic joined forces with Evangelicals to participate in a previously scheduled march against the “Gay Agenda.” The Vatican fights tooth and nail against marriage equality, sneers at trans youth, continues to demonize us as sinners and degenerates, hideous to God. Plenty of American preachers and politicians responded to the attack saying that we deserved it. The repulsive Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick tweeted, “A man reaps what he sows.” Unsurprisingly, about 500 LGBTQ people have been killed all over the Americas in 2016 so far according to the website Al Momento.

So why consider Omar Mateen crazy when he was just pursing hate and fear to its logical end? If we are abominations to God, why not rid the earth of us? After all, God cleansed the earth with the flood. Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire because of people just like us, some say the Bible tells them. Most of the people screaming outside Planned Parenthoods are perfectly sane, perfectly sure that the care providers are bound for hell and leading others there.

That’s the beauty of religion. It can give such certainty and power. We have God on our side after all. We search the sacred texts to uncover our heart’s desire, and if there is love inside of us that’s what we find. If there’s hate and fear and a desire for vengeance, we can find that, too. Even Jesus lost his cool, overturning tables in the temple and chasing out the loan sharks and tchotchke vendors. He himself was crucified, which is an encouragement to sacrifice yourself with as much blood and drama as possible for whatever you believe in. Yes, what would Jesus do?

We queers, in this religion-loving America, have to face that religion is intertwined with past violence and will be a part of it in the future, too. It intoxicates, like alcohol. Cynical politicians wrap themselves in its authority, use it to justify their own homophobia and misogyny. It guides the hands that pick up the guns we surely have to get rid of. But if there’s not a gun, there’s a knife, there’s a cliff. Or a rock or a bomb. And even one death is too much.

Equal rights aren’t enough either. We have to go after the root, which is pure hatred and an addiction to violence. That means, in part, supporting queer and progressive Muslims and listening to ex-Muslims, too, as they battle for the soul of Islam. Ditto for progressive Christians and Jews, other religious people, former believers, atheists, and anybody else grappling with hate.

But we also have to turn a skeptical eye on the enterprise of religion itself and vigorously defend the separation between the Church (which regularly tries to strip us of our civil rights) and the State (which is supposed to defend them). Because as long as religion exists, we’ll never be safe. Fundamentalists and extremists will always emerge, and the hatred of queers — and of women — is right there in the text.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.