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Writing about religion

Amy Leibowitz religion spirituality writing advice

The last time I wrote about this subject was almost four years ago. I posed the question, “Does religion belong in LGBTQIA books?"
I’ve been thinking about this again because a colleague of mine, F.E. Feeley Jr., has written a series of blog posts about the effects of fundamentalism, particularly on mental health and queer lives. Heavy content warning for anyone wanting to delve into this—he doesn’t shy away from anything. If you come from a similar background, make sure you’re practicing self-care. For everyone else, this may make you very, very angry at the people who inflict this kind of pain on anyone.
F.E. Feeley posed some thoughts to fellow writers, namely that much of LGBTQIA+ fiction doesn’t quite fit with many of our real life experiences in fundamentalism. It can be treated as a caricature of conservative religion without actually capturing the cult-like atmosphere and the brutal ways families and church leadership treat members.
I began thinking more about this. I usually write from Jewish and/or Christian perspectives because those are the religions I’m familiar with. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I’m not angry that I was dragged into fundamentalism and treated as both “special” (Jews as God’s chosen people) and bound for hell (for the crime of non-belief in Jesus as savior). I was attempting to escape the chaos of my upbringing, and instead I spent years trying to unlearn so much self-hatred. Recently, as an apostate returning to my Jewish learning, I’ve had to field well-meant but nauseating conversations with Christians who are worried about my eternal soul.
This, my friends, is why it’s so hard to escape fundamentalism.
When I read F.E. Feeley’s blog, so much of that pain returned. But it also made me think: Why do we assume Abrahamic religions are the only ones deserving of attention in books? There is so much more out there, and there’s a real lack of exploring those themes in both contemporary queer lit and in queer romance.

I can definitely think of a few authors who write about non-Abrahamic religions and spiritual practices, but the majority of those seem to fall into fantasy or science fiction. Not that this is a bad thing, but where are all the real-world stories featuring characters whose spirituality is vital to them?

Most of the books I’ve read fall into three broad categories: angry ex-religious/agnostic/atheist; currently practicing an Abrahamic faith (mostly Christianity); or no mention at all. There’s a range within the first two categories. With the ex-religious, it’s usually of the aforementioned caricature variety, but there’s some wiggle room. With the second, it’s anywhere from casually mentioned to preachy.

I’m not saying other books don’t exist, only that they’re much harder to find. I’m a population of one, so I obviously have not read every book in existence and can only offer anecdotal evidence based on my reading history.

Since I’m not one to shy away from offering unpopular opinions, here’s another one: If you haven’t experienced something, do more research before writing it. Don’t make assumptions about the influence of religion and spirituality, and definitely don’t project your own experiences onto queer folks if you’re not one of us. You can’t simply translate one thing into another, and queer lives and bodies aren’t your playground for working out your own issues.

(As a side note, I think one of the most disturbing things I’ve read was a couple of MM/gay romance authors talking about the reason they write being out of “pity” for the poor gay men alienated by Christianity. I mean, did these self-identified non-queer folks realize that some gay men are, in fact, Christians? And some didn’t grow up with that kind of hate? And that there are queer folks who aren’t gay men and who also experienced trauma from religion regarding their gender and/or sexuality? It was...weird. Please don’t do this.)

At the same time, don’t be shy about exploring things outside of what might be considered more traditional/familiar religions. There’s a whole world out there, most of which is less traumatizing than fundamentalist Christianity.

For my part, I will still explore the things I’m most familiar with when I write. But I’m going to be on the lookout for more spiritually/religiously diverse books.

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