Tackling Sexual and Gender Rights Within the Paradox of Faith


Faith is a powerful shaper of identity and meaning. It influences social norms, values and behaviours. All too often though, organised religion does violence to those who do not conform to dominant gender and sexual codes.

Melanie Judge (right) and panelists Hanzline Davids (left), from Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, and Pharie Sefalie (middle), from the Traditional Healers Forum, speaking on 'Keeping the Faith: Working at the Crossroads of Religion and Sexual and Gender Rights' at an engagement hosted by Nelson Mandela University's Centre for the Advancement of Non-racialism & Democracy in August 2019.
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Melanie Judge (right) and panelists Hanzline Davids (left), from Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, and Pharie Sefalie (middle), from the Traditional Healers Forum, speaking on 'Keeping the Faith: Working at the Crossroads of Religion and Sexual and Gender Rights' at an engagement hosted by Nelson Mandela University's Centre for the Advancement of Non-racialism & Democracy in August 2019.

Yet religion, and faith practices more generally, are also a potential site for the advancement of sexual and gender rights and justice.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people choose to "keep their faith" even though their churches, mosques or synagogues might not recognise or uphold their dignity and rights. Others leave their communities of faith as a result of the prejudice, discrimination and exclusion they confront. Navigating these paradoxes is necessary to strengthen sexual and gender rights and to counter the marginalisation and violence done in the name of faith.

All institutionalised religions have a tendency to pit religious identity against queerness. The simple formulation of this is the idea that you can't be Muslim and gay, Jewish and lesbian, transgender and Christian, or queer and a sangoma. This communicates the notion that a "true" religious identity is incongruent with being an LGBTI person.

A consequence is that institutions, structures and practices of organised faith tend to exclude non-heteronormative gender and sexual expressions, and are frequently unwelcoming and unsafe spaces in this respect. The fear of being ostracised, or of facing direct expulsion or other forms of discrimination, make it difficult to be visible and to organise politically around sexual and gender rights within religious communities.

These realities are enabled by religious discourses that deny LGBTI people, casting them out as deviants, sinners and lesser humans. By labelling queerness " sin", "abomination" and "demonic" – justified through selective readings of sacred texts – discrimination against LGBTIQ people is legitimised.

Religion plays a primary role in the policing and control of sex, sexuality and gender. This relates to obligations to act in accordance with social norms that are patriarchal, heteronormative and cisgendered.

These norms shape the conditions under which it is acceptable to have sex, to procreate and to form families and communities of belonging. They also determine roles and structures of authority within religious communities based on hierarchies of inequality. When these hierarchies are not conformed to, the consequences are often stigma, rejection and even physical or sexual violence.

LGBTI people face multiple and intersecting discrimination at the hands of faith. This connects to their sex and gender status, as well as their race and class location, rendering black queer people particularly vulnerable to violent exclusion.

The linking of sex and sexuality with silence, shame and criminality in Africa has its origin in colonialism. The narrative of "homosexuality as sin" was introduced by Victorian missionaries who used the Bible to advance colonial rule. Control over African bodies was central to colonial systems of governance. This is most strongly evidenced by penal codes introduced by colonising powers to regulate African sexualities, which included the criminalisation of same-sex sexualities. The result has been the denial of traditions of African sexual and gender diversity. This history has greatly impacted contemporary attitudes towards sexuality in South Africa.

Most leaders of organised faiths uphold patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies that afford them privilege and protection. This is supported by fundamentalist interpretations of sacred texts that rely on gender essentialisms – through, for example, stories of creation that naturalise male/female, masculine/feminine and homosexual/heterosexual binaries. Pervasive myths associated with sex and sexuality, and an absence of an informed and open language to talk about these issues, contribute to their silencing.

The language we use to express sexual and gender diversity is  largely shaped by the western cultural idiom. A lack of vernacular terms to speak of the LGBTI experience in affirming ways, reinforces the idea that people are "going against the ancestors". This is also because of a Christian-centric approach that gives less attention to Muslim, Jewish, and African traditional belief practices. In respect of the latter, there is a tendency to overlook the multiple and sometimes contradictory faith identities that African LGBTI people inhabit. 

The political deployment of homophobia by ruling elites in Africa is frequently justified through the use of religious rhetoric that is anti-LGBTI, anti-women and anti-democracy. Particularly in Africa, the swing towards Pentecostalism and its "prosperity gospel" relies on the promise of wealth as "the answer" the church provides. In contexts of poverty and historical dispossession, this false promise of faith is gaining traction.

Inadequate theological education inhibits the capacity of faith leaders to deal with matters of sex and sexuality, and they are frequently ill-equipped for this crucial arena of human interaction. Added to this is a resistance to contextual bible readings that can empower people with more relevant responses to contemporary life.

At the same time that these barriers inhibit equality, rights and justice for queer people, long-waged struggles have cast the issue of sexual and gender discrimination out of the religious shadows.  There is a vast amount of work being done to advance sexual and gender rights at the intersection with faith, and we have seen both significant progress and resultant backlash.

Challenging the foundational frames of religious thought and belief is an important site for continued activism. This requires tools and capacities to enable norms of rights, equality and justice to find more space in faith settings. Engaging faith leadership through an examination of power - work that Inclusive and Affirming Ministries spearheads - remains key. Such work seeks to disrupt how religious power silences certain voices and experiences, and exposes faith leaders to contextually-based understandings of doctrine and its socio-historical implications. Drawing on liberation theology, sacred texts can be interpreted in ways that respond to, rather than perpetuate, contemporary injustices. This also requires equipping people to refuse certain texts if their interpretations are fundamentally unjust.

As a form of power, faith is implicated in systems of injustice that are the result of regimes of inequality, evident in all social institutions, and that are related to race, gender, class, sexuality and other markers of difference. This calls us to recognise how the racial oppression of colonialism and apartheid have shaped cultures of faith in South Africa, and addressing these dynamics is key to changing current religious power arrangements.

Orthodox beliefs on sex and sexuality can be challenged by giving a voice to LGBTI people, frequently neglected in traditional models of faith leadership training. This transformative work places the embodied presence of LGBTI people at the centre of struggles for justice.

Foregrounding histories of sexual and gender diversity within contemporary faith contexts will contribute to the queering of African faiths and bring traditional faith practices into closer engagement with Abrahamic traditions through the lived realities of African sexual identities and cultures.

LGBTIQ people should be at the centre of public discourses of faith that directly affect them, in particular those that deny and denounce our rights and experiences. Ultimately, a vision and practice of radical and transformative gender and sexual inclusion is necessary – with or without keeping the faith.


This opinion piece is based on an extract from Melanie Judge's Discussion Paper on Critical Issues, Actors, Initiatives and Opportunities, associated to our 'Keeping the Faith: Working at the Crossroads of Religion and Sexual and Gender Rights' project. The project seeks to explore and support faith as a site for strengthening human rights and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people. It was originally published by News24 on the 5th of September 2019.