Thinking Through Religion
The inaugural issue of The Against Nature Journal delves into the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which sexual and gender minorities are considered and shaped by world religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and their denominations. The concept of “against nature” as a kind of dividing machine between what is natural and what is deviant is rooted in religious morality. The conceptual framework of our project is situated as an active response to the so-called laws against nature that still criminalize sexual and gender minorities in many parts of the world. We recognize that for various belief systems “nature” is the expression of the divine, a superior force that is separate from yet threatened by human action. It is common in most religious traditions to conform to God’s judgment of whether a body or an act is either natural or unnatural. Religion as well as spirituality more generally are also sites from which to imagine and live a different relationship to the divine.
This first issue points to the historical foundations of determining the “unnatural” within dominant belief systems. Khanu vs Emperor (1925) is a case in point: one of the most inﬂuential lawsuits in Indian anti-sodomy law, it redefined the scope of Section 377, and for many years became the guiding judgment for interpreting anti-sodomy laws throughout the British colonies of South Asia, East Asia, and East Africa, as lawyer and activist Vivek Divan reflects on. How anti-sodomy laws in these regions play out today is evident in the Columns section of this journal, focused on current news from such places where against nature laws still prevail (including India, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Kenya, and the Caribbean), along with debates from Europe, Latin America, and Brazil where there are continual regressions of reproductive, sexual orientation, and gender identity rights.
While often perceived as repressive and constraining, religion and even less regulated faiths and forms of spirituality have been and continue to be the refuge in which artists, writers, poets, and activists rethink the question of what is “natural.” A special focus of this issue is on the literary practice and activism of Kenyan, gay, HIV-positive writer Binyavanga Wainaina (or the Binj, as he was so fondly called) who passed away in May 2019. Described by the New York Times as a “pioneering voice in African literature,” Wainaina not only inspired a new generation of writers in Africa but his work served to critique the spread of homophobia by Pentecostalism and the politicization of homosexuality. And yet, Wainaina also embarked on a personal spiritual quest. Writer Amatesiro Dore, one of many protégés mentored by Wainaina at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Nigeria, pays tribute to his lifework in these pages alongside the first piece of fiction that Wainaina ever wrote (originally published in 1996 on a now defunct literary website, but made available in print here for the first time). This early story is (somewhat surprisingly) about pagan spirituality and is accompanied by an introduction written by Achal Prabhala. Dore’s own breakthrough poem “Joy,” a beautiful, queer take on sexuality and religion has also been republished as another companion piece.
The issue showcases progressive approaches to religious thinking and practice that contribute to the ways in which we experience our own “nature,” our own sexual and gender identities. Theologians Martti Nissinen and Linn Tonstad, coming from differing perspectives, provide inspirational reflections on this matter. Nissinen’s text, originally published in 1998, reviews the “unnatural” as intrinsic to ideas of creation and gender in the biblical world. Tonstad, in a text specially commissioned for this issue, questions from a queer perspective who the “we” implicated by the journal might be. These essays are accompanied by the poetry of Abu Nuwas, one of the most important poets of the Islamic world in the eighth century, and contemporary, queer writer Chekwube Danladi. They both welcome an accommodating spirituality.
Danh Vō inaugurates the artist’s pages of The Against Nature Journal. Vō’s conceptual art practice is concerned with the histories and meanings of sacred objects across cultures. He shares two bodies of work on the theme of this issue, both of which consider the intertwinement of religion, colonialism, sexuality, and ultimately violence. Originally documentation, these reworked testimonies of Catholic missionaries in the nineteenth century and the personal records of the sexual behavior of American agents in Vietnam show Vō’s long-term commitment to finding poetic spaces and elegant forms for objects that carry contradictions and speak to power.
The closing section of the journal is dedicated to the central topic of “against nature” and the related terms of “natural order” and “nature” itself. Across all editions, this section will be dedicated to key theoretical texts, making accessible to our readers a potential resource for advocacy. This issue includes the writing of Lorraine Daston, whose far-reaching philosophical work on our guiding concept has been an inspiration since the beginning of the project. Her essay is accompanied by a world chart illustrating the geographic scope of the against nature laws.
All in all, the contributions to this inaugural issue of The Against Nature Journal, which can be read in order, out of order, altogether or as individual reflections, expand our understanding of nature, religion, and social justice in important and exciting ways.