This article originally appeared in the Faith Forward section of Patheos.com, March 25, 2015.
Several times over the past few weeks, people have asked me, “What does the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ stand for?” One of them, oddly enough, segued into asking, “What is the ‘Q’ source in biblical studies?” I am by no means an expert, but this is how I understand things.
The answer to each question is roughly, “it stands for that which is unknown, indeterminate, or hypothetical”.
The ‘Q’ in LGBTQ stands for either “questioning” or “queer”. Or both. And, according to some people, “queer” is more or less the opposite of “questioning”.
“Questioning” addresses what is unknown. It applies to people who are uncertain as to their sexual orientation or gender, as well as sexual and gender identity. Sexual orientation has to do with sexual attraction. Many people, including but by no means limited to adolescents, may not have concluded who they are sexually attracted to. They don’t know whether they are straight, lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual.
The term also may apply to those who have questions about their gender. Western societies break down gender into two categories: male and female. Some wonder whether they fit into either of these categories. Some feel these gender definitions don’t reflect who they are. Hence, the “T” for transgendered in LGBTQ. Others, for example, may feel they are “third gendered” — both male and female at once but not in an inter-sex way. Others may indeed be inter-sex, having gender characteristics of both male and female.
Identity has to do with which group a person identifies. It is possible, for example, to present as female, but identify as male. Those who both present unambiguously to others as either male or female and also identify unambiguously the same way they present are sometimes referred to as being “cisgendered”.
Questioning can address the need many people have for an answer. Typically, someone who is questioning wants, often desperately, to find an answer.
The word “queer” carries the opposite meaning. It addresses that which is indeterminate. Annamarie Jagose has written a helpful little book called simply, Queer Theory. In it she says that one of the purposes of “queer” is to establish the elasticity of gender. Queer is, she says, “less an identity than a critique of identity.”
What I think she means by this is that she sees gender as a construct in much the same way that race is a construct. In other words, “queer” suggests a couple of things. One is that the categories we use to identify ourselves and others is something of a trap. Gender categories can be confining. They can tend to hedge in personality rather than release it.
Another way to think of the “queer” approach to gender and sexual identity is to raise these questions: Where does straight stop and bi-sexual begin? Where does bi-sexual stop and lesbian begin? Where does male stop and female begin?
This is the same issue being raised in race studies. Where does white end and black begin? Is the medium skin toned girl with green eyes shown in this iconic photograph white or black? Technically, according to race constructions, because she is Afghan, she is Caucasian or white. But in the deep South where I grew up, she would not have been considered white. The question being raised in race studies is, “how helpful are these categories? Do they reflect reality? Are they artificial constructions? Why were they constructed? Who decided? Who benefits?
“Queer” suggests the same kind of concern. Gender and sexual categories, some believe, are constructions which are artificial and don’t reflect reality. Like the concept of race, it can set up winners and losers.
Ostensibly, “Q” in biblical studies has nothing to do with sexual orientation, gender, or identity. Ostensibly.
“Q” is short for the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”. It is the label given to the hypothetical source, the Q source, for Jesus’s sayings found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. There is the presumption, widely held by current biblical scholars, that there was a written source which contained the sayings of Jesus. And prior to the written source, that there was an oral tradition of his sayings. The idea is that both Matthew and Luke had access to the Q source and used it in formulating their gospels.
The Q source calls into question the determinacy, the ability to know once and for all, the origins of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Yet, the Bible as a whole, as well as our readings and deconstructions of it, necessarily have an aspect of indeterminacy about them. We can speculate about the Bible’s authors’ and redactors’ intentions, for example, but we will seldom be able to reach uncontested answers. By the same token, there is an enormous gulf between ancient cultures and 21st century cultures, between biblical writers’s intentions and our post-modern responses to what they wrote, and between God and our ability to comprehend God.
My purpose in throwing the Q source into this essay on “questioning” and “queer,” the Q in LGBTQ, is this: the Bible is being invoked in efforts to silence, marginalize, bully, and discriminate against LGBTQ persons. In my opinion, we would do well to show a little humility when using the Bible to satisfy our fears and prejudices. We would do well to respect our own inability to know once and for all whom God would have us love.