Blog: LGBTQ+ History Month: Queering Religious Spaces; Mie Astrup Jensen (she/her)
29 January 2021
Mie is an ESRC funded PhD scholar in Gender & Sexuality studies and Hebrew & Jewish Studies. Her PhD ‘Being Queer and Jewish: a Cross-Cultural Study of Ethno-Religious Experiences and Divides' explores LBQ secular and observant Jewish women's sexual and religious lived experiences in Israel and England.
Many LGBTQ+ people, including myself, have experienced religiously motivated LGBTQ phobic comments, such as: ‘G*d doesn’t like people like you’, ‘it’s a sin’, ‘G*d created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’, and ‘you’re going to hell’. In the secular sphere, I’ve often been questioned too. Questions about my beliefs arise early due to my work. Many LGBTQ+ people identify as spiritual and/or religious; yet the view that you cannot be both persists despite socio-cultural changes.
I grew up in a secular/agnostic family in Denmark. We never really talked about religion, so it came as a surprise when I, at the age of seven, stated that I wanted to attend service. I was conscious of being ‘different’ from a young age. Feeling wrong in society, I found peace in a spiritual realm. Indeed, before embarking on an academic career, I wanted to become a religious leader. I found it life-affirming that I could experience the circle of life in a week (births, coming of age rituals, weddings, funerals), and, of course, there was the spiritual and pastoral care side.
I’ve never experienced explicit homophobia in religious spaces, but I’ve experienced silence. LGBTQ+ people were invisible. Whenever family and relationships were discussed, it was always in heteronormative and cis terms.
It wasn’t until 2019, when I attended a Pride Shabbat in Tel Aviv, that I experienced the difference that a welcoming environment can make. The rabbi talked about marriage equality and LGBTQ+ relationships and families. That life-changing moment was when I decided to pursue my PhD.
LGBTQ+ inclusion in religious spaces isn’t new. Most of us just haven’t learned about it.
Allen Bennett became the first openly gay rabbi in the United States in 1978. Rabbi Lionel Blue became the first openly gay British rabbi in 1980. Rabbis Elli Tikvah Sarah and Sheila Shulman, the first lesbian rabbis in Britain, were ordained in 1989. There are now more than twenty LGB rabbis in Britain. Other developments within Liberal and Reform Judaism include:
- When civil partnership became legalised in 2005, these movements introduced a blessing ceremony. While the word ‘marriage’ was not used, the Hebrew word for marriage, נִשּׂוּאִין (nissuin), was because most cannot read Hebrew.
- These movements actively participated in the Equal Marriage Campaign.
- Some rabbis work on making prayer books gender inclusive. Hebrew is a gendered language and prayers are masculine. They work on nuancing it with more inclusive language. They also draw on American LGBTQ+ prayer books that have prayers for non-binary Jews, for coming out, and prayers before top and bottom surgery.
- Some rabbis advocate for B-Mitzvah, a gender-inclusive ritual, rather than Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
- These movements have introduced gender-neutral pronouns on ketubot [marriage contracts].
- Many synagogues hold Pride Shabbat and mark Trans Remembrance Day and World AIDS Day.
In my work, and during February, I frequently reflect on the decades of work, led by remarkable individuals and social movements, that has enabled me to feel more comfortable as a religious LGBTQ+ person.