Queer Stories and Heteronormative Assumptions

These last few months have been full: as well as teaching school and uni, presenting at theology and education conferences, working with a variety of organisations, recording music, travel for work and pleasure, and family time, I’ve been presenting and workshopping in different spaces on issues to do with theology, the dignity of each person, inclusion, and liberation from structures and systems that restrict the possibilities for all our lives. This work is based in principles of feminist and queer theories and theologies: these approaches aim to liberate people from systems that restrict some from living their fullest life and flourishing. These approaches hope to centre the voices of those who have been marginalised in our narratives: educational or theological. Of course, it’s not only heteronormativity that is centred and protected in society – we must think in intersectional ways about this! Gender and sexuality are merely two markers of human life that are controlled and restricted in our world (think race, language, body size, citizenship, education etc.) but these are the two I present on and have studied – doing the part of the work that I feel particularly passionate about! I recognise that I have privilege in many of the other areas but recognising those privileges doesn’t always prevent me making assumptions out of my privilege.

It strikes me that it is story that connects us. As I’ve been presenting at different conferences and events, broaching the subject of diverse gender and sexual identities opens a space into which people can tell their stories. Maybe because I also share something of my own thinking and story, as well as playing my song Instinct which is a product of my own (and with much inspiration from my friends’) reckoning with gender and sexuality after many conversations with close friends over the last decade. Many people have a story of someone they know who has been misunderstood or marginalised because of their gender or sexuality. And many are keen to share their stories! I’ve been blessed to hear some of these stories, often shared privately at the end of presentations, though many of these are heartbreaking. It is a privilege to be trusted with stories, and to be able affirm the innate dignity of an individual who shares their story, especially when they have been told they are wrong, broken, misguided, sinful, or worse! This is the work – affirming the innate goodness and wholeness of all people just as they are – we are only just beginning to embrace in educational and theological communities.

That some consider it brave or courageous to discuss gender and sexuality in their diversity in Catholic spaces – and this is the feedback I have been getting – tells us something about where we are! It seems we are almost afraid of discussing openly these significant yet ordinary parts of human life. Most school communities are realising that this is an area in which they need more education and formation for staff, because students are much more free than previous generations in exploring and naming diverse expressions of gender and sexuality.

As well as the desire to share personal narratives that relate to gender and sexuality, the other stand-out for me is that we are very quick to make assumptions about a person and how they identify or experience their identity. Everything from our language to our thinking about relationships is marked by heteronormative culture. I think it’s a sign of trust that people feel they can ask personal questions, which I’m happy to discuss – in the case of a conference it usually ends up being over lunch or at the pub over a beverage. These conversations can be helpful in allowing us to recognise our assumptions and blind spots – we all have them! They also allow me to be challenged by others’ thoughts and experiences, because despite my studies, just like everyone else, my own understanding of gender and sexuality is limited by my own experience. For me in recent weeks, they have allowed for helpful conversations around the conflation of gender with sexuality, the performative nature of gender and living outside of a society’s gendered expectations, assumptions we make of a person’s sexuality because of their current relationship, the assumptions we make behind labels like ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘queer’, and ‘gay’, and how we help young people navigate the consideration of identity in today’s complex, media-saturated world.

How do we move forward? Queer narratives are becoming reasonably popular in mainstream culture, so there are an increasing number of ways in which we can stay open to interruption by and learning from narratives different to our own. We allow people to tell us their stories on their own terms, in their own media, in their own time and place.

Whilst I was in Melbourne, I hit lucky timing with the exhibition Queer Stories from the NGV Collection.

NGV Melbourne

This exhibition gives a good outline of queer theory, which I put here for you!

NGV, Melbourne

This approach is older than me, and yet, even the term ‘queer theory’ provokes significant reactions. The term queer can be hard to hear for those who have been accustomed to hearing it used as a slur, even though for the last four decades it has been used to name a theory that challenges heteronormative centres of power in all walks of life. The more we stay open to hearing from people who identify with the term queer, the easier it will become to hear these terms and embrace them as a means to discuss diverse experiences of life.

I went to Queerstories at the Brisbane Powerhouse at the end of May to hear “unexpected tales, stories of pride, prejudice, resilience and resistance, delivered with warmth and humour by some of Australia’s best LGBTIQ+ comedians as well as incredible local storytellers.” (That’s what the promo material says!) I also went to the Guilty Feminist in Brisbane, another podcast show which gives the stage to those outside of the centres of power. I was most excited that Grace Petrie performed and sang her infamous Black Tie! I encourage you to listen to many different people tell their stories: if you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to these yet, you can listen wherever you find your podcasts.

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