Here is my latest book review, Baby, You are My Religion for Feminist Theology 2015, Vol. 23(3): 330–332. fth.sagepub.com
Marie Cartier, Baby, You are my Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology before Stonewall. New York: Routledge, 2013. 224 pp. £28.00.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
This new book by Marie Cartier is rich in stories, accounts and reflections on gay women and gay bars before the Stonewall riots in New York City on Friday, 27 June to1 July 1969. The book offers a substantial perspective of the difficulties and oppression that gay women have experienced in the decades spanning the1940s to the 1980s. This book provides a good slice of history, social interactions and limitations that were placed on gay women as they tried to live with their sexual identities. It is a good introductory book with an interesting overview of gay women’s lives and the gay bar scene. Furthermore, it offers a religious and theological perspective on gay women’s relationship with the divine.
The book includes many interesting, candid, provocative and sympathetic interviews which open a window to the interviewee’s struggle to live with their sexuality and the challenges they encountered living out their life as faithfully to themselves as they could.
The gay bar is an interesting space where women may be transformed, liberated but also abused. ‘It allows/allowed a certain section, the queerest of the queer-the butches, high femmes and drag queens –the ability to be’ (p.16). Falcon River gives an account of how she was raped, vaginally, anally, or orally, at least once a month during the five years that she patronized the bars in and around Roanoke, Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. She said that the queens got it really bad because there was no one to protect them. This is a tragic part of our history.
Many of the women who were interviewed for the book are now in their 70s or 80s and therefore, have had some time to reflect on their lives. Before 1973 homosexuals were considered mental patients by the medical profession and sinners by all religions in the US (p. 18). As a result, they were considered outcasts within much of society.The book covers the different time periods from the 1940s to the 1980s and ends with a section called ‘Voices from the 1940s’ or ‘50s’ which provides a snap chat of gay women and their lives.
Lots of research and analysis has gone into writing this book and it would be helpful in gender, theology, history and cultural studies. Much of the analysis, however, appears to be about white gay women. What would be most interesting is inclusion of an analysis of gay women of colour during the same timeframe – women who experience different hardships, oppression, and discrimination. There was a short reference to gay women of colour on pages 14 and 15, and a few more were included in the voices section but more analysis of gay women of colour would have deepened the book’s conception of gay women. Perhaps Cartier can explore this area in her future research and publications.
In the midst of the interviews, Cartier was able to weave in some of the religious and theological implications of what it means to be a gay woman. ‘Theology must also take into account gay bar culture –the pre-Stonewall people with no public space provided for them, other than the bar. The 1940s necessitated the creation of two gay communities, one in the war years of the early 40s, and the one in the later 40s at the war’s end’ (p. 40).
Cartier makes a connection with Liberation Theology as new emerging theologies opened up spaces and avenues for gay and lesbian thinking to develop. Liberation theology became a template for other marginalized groups to develop their own understanding of theology working towards justice and freedom. Cartier also gives a survey of different theologies such as Process, Womanist, and Feminist theology. A bit more in-depth discussion would have enhanced the theological dimension of the book. Because gay women lacked the same opportunities as gay men, life was further complicated.
The book proposes ‘Theelogy’ near the end of the book. ‘Theelogy is the discourse of the sacred that was created in the gay women’s pre-Stonewall era. Stonewall defines the beginning for those unfamiliar with the term ‘bar culture’ rather than using a theological marker because it is only in retrospect (through the methodology of deviant historiography) that we can assume that there was a ‘God’ greater than the self inhabiting world of the bar. Before that era, gay women were so isolated they did not know themselves. If lucky, she came to know herself as herself and then in community with others like her, and she could help someone else make this trajectory’ (p. 195). ‘Theelogy is relational by its very definition. Theelogy was practised by all women in all religions who entered the bar with the hope of salvation, being baptized as friend even though they were homosexual…Theology is a non-hierarchical religion that witnesses the presence of God without an intermediary and sees God in each other. It is a religion of community’ (p. 196).
Theelogy becomes a quest to finding God, loving God and loving each other. It is a strong way to move forward for many gay women who feel lost within a religion which has despised them and ostracized them.
This book is a rich addition to the gay women’s literature as well as theological discourse. This is a powerful book for those who are searching for love, for the divine and for themselves. The bringing to light of gay women’s theology will enrich our theological journey to understand God and understand humanity.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is an Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author of Embracing the Other (forthcoming); Here I Am; Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice co-edited with Jenny Daggers; Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style” co-written with Joseph Cheah; Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers; Contemplations from the Heart; Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit; The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other; and The Grace of Sophia. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.