Most of my time is spent around queermos, trans folks, lefties, and feminists, people who spend a lot of time talking about oppression and privilege, social justice and anti-capitalism. People who try to make themselves aware of how things like racism, misogyny, classism, and transphobia work in the world and in themselves.
It really raises me up to be around people like this, and I listen intently to what people say about these things, both formally and casually. Engaging in these discussions teaches me so much about the world and the privileges that I carry around it, but almost every time I end up leaving the conversation frustrated. For all the anti-oppression talk that goes on, people seem to feel entitled to get their hate on about one subject: religion.
I get where it comes from. Growing up in cultures based around Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, can be tough for queers, trans folks, women, especially in more socially conservative places. And when these religions are used as justification for the erasure of your identities or for the enactment of violence upon your body (in all the myriad ways that queers, trans folks, women, and people of colour experience violence), it’s hard to not just throw up your hands in frustration at “religion,” hard not to paint it all with the same brush.
Ask any sampling of queers in North America what they think of religion and you’ll be overwhelmed with responses along the lines of “I don’t believe in religion, but I’m really into Buddhism/Zen.”
But when I hear this, when I hear queers-lefties-trans folks-feminists bashing “religion” as a whole, what I’m really hearing is a lot of racism and colonialism. When you talk about “religion” in general, but actually mean Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, you are perpetuating a historical narrative created by colonialism that seeks to de-legitimize the hundreds of other religions in the world and establish the supremacy of the Big Three. Anyone who has spent time reading about the European colonization of most of the world will know that one of the key priorities for colonists was to establish, often by force, their religion as the supreme religion in the conquered areas. They went so far as to create the meaning of religion in English to only include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And, so, when you treat all religions as the same, and thus treat them as the same as the Big Three, you are perpetuating a racist colonialism.
Another part of the racism and colonialism that I feel is inherent to these discussions is the exotification of “Eastern” religions, or, more specifically, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Ask any sampling of queers in North America what they think of religion (or even check out what people have on their “religious views” on FaceBook), and you’ll be overwhelmed with responses along the lines of “I don’t believe in religion, but I’m really into Buddhism/Zen.” This construction of Tibetan and Zen Buddhism as a completely secular philosophy is an entirely Western creation (as I’ve learned from my Buddhist Studies grad student roommate/former lover). The idea that Buddhism has no gods, no spirits, no magic, no ritual – these things make no sense in most of the strands of Tibetan and Zen Buddhism practiced in Asia.
And I feel excluded, personally. You see, in addition to being a trans person, a woman, a queer, and a former sex worker, I’m also an initiated priest in a religion called Lukumí, or Santería. So, when people say that “religion as an institution is homophobic/transphobic/anti-woman/racist,” I feel like a big part of my identity and my culture is erased. There’s no room given for me to talk about how my religion was historically used to create safer spaces for queers in colonial Cuba, no room to talk about how most of the strands of the religion were started and perpetuated by powerful women of colour and queer men, no room to talk about how one of the key figures of the religion was the madam of a brothel, no room to talk about how my religion has and continues to be violently persecuted by police in Cuba, the United States, and other countries.
I’m not a proselytizing person. I actually don’t give a shit what you believe about God(s), the universe, and everything else. But I’m also not willing to put up with having people treat me, or other religious people, as second-class queers-trans folks-feminists just because we’re not trendy atheists, or crystal-hugging agnostic New Age yoga enthusiasts, like everyone else in (white-dominated) Queerdom.