Making Space Across Religion, Gender and Sexuality: Canada-UK Connections

At the last Gender and Education Association (GEA) conference, hosted by the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, LSBU, we were both part of the ‘Sexuality, Spirituality, and Educational Experience’ symposium, presenting on our research projects, the UK-based ‘Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth’ (ESRC funded) and Canadian-based ‘Religion, Gender and Sexuality among Youth in Canada,’ funded by the Religion and Diversity Project (see here). Since then, we’ve both had time to reflect on the resonances between spaces and subjects, as we differently explore the importance of sexuality and gender in doing and living ‘religion’.  Many of these connections are highlighted in forthcoming collections, Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity (edited by Heather) and Queering Religion, Religious Queers (co-edited by Yvette and Ria Snowdon).

The lived experience of religion is arguably changing and contested, as well as celebrated and challenged, and not least by young people themselves, who rarely find themselves easily included into religious practices, spaces or statement: when we think of the ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘where’ of religion, do we think of young people in the UK and Canada? Do we see young people represented in debates on religion, sexuality and gender in times of debating, for example, same-sex marriages, women Bishops, and Equalities Legislation?  If lived categories of ‘sexuality’, ‘gender’ and ‘religion’ are positioned as incompatible, different and distinct, as rehearsed in policy debates, everyday commentary, and in institutions such as schools and Churches, then who can these subjects, often rendered ‘out of place’, be part of place-making, for researchers as well as their ‘researched’?

What became clear to us was that an international research dialogue reflecting on queer religious youth – or the queerness of ‘religious youth’ – would offer critical insights across countries, locating questions of citizenship, belonging, community and identity more broadly. Building on contemporary literature regarding lived religion, as something beyond doctrine and dogma, our research into the experience of sexually diverse youth now moves towards an international comparison, aiming to facilitate meaningful dialogue and deepened understanding of religious identities and sexually diverse identities, importantly including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth as well as heterosexual youth. To name these sexual-gender positions is our standing point against a backdrop of contestation, and sometimes, ‘contradiction’.

UK and Canadian Cases: Empirically Exploring the ‘Queerness’ of Religion and Youth

The Religion, Gender and Sexuality among Youth in Canada (RGSY) project is a multi-phase, mixed methods research project (PI, Pamela Dickey Young, Queen’s University, co-investigator Heather Shipley, University of Ottawa, research assistant, Ian Cuthbertson, Queen’s University).  The RGSY project was developed through the generous support of the Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-Faith Exploration initiative run by Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip (PI), Michael Keenan and Sarah-Jane Page in the UK (2009-2011).

The RGSY project has four primary aims:

  • To explore the constructions and management strategies undertaken by young adults (aged 18-25) concerning their religious and sexual identities, values, and choices;
  • To examine the significant social, cultural, and political factors that inform the above-mentioned processes;
  • To study how these young adults manage their religious, sexual, and gender identities;
  • To generate rich qualitative and quantitative data that will contribute new knowledge to academic and policy debates on religion, youth, sexuality, and gender.

The Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth (QIRY) project also uses a mixed-methods approached, based on interviewees (n=38) with young people who identify as ‘queer’ and ‘religious’, across three UK locations (Newcastle, Manchester and London). Originally intended as a case study of the Metropolitan Community Church, as founded in, by and for the LGBTQ community, the research moved with respondents own identifications and ‘Church hopping’ practices, to include a variety of Christian Churches and religious practices.  As well as interviews, the project adopted a mapping exercise as well as diary writing (see here and here).

The QIRY project asked the following questions:

  • How do young people perceive their religiosity? Do they see is as part of the rise of ‘progressive spirituality’? What motivates their involvement and commitment? Is this experienced as a ‘contradiction’ in terms of youthfulness and/or in terms of sexuality? When do such ‘contradictions’ – or intersections – become relevant?
  • How is identity negotiated within different spaces? Do different spaces/sites generate various dis/identifications? What facilitates or impedes access to and comfort within ‘community’ spaces?
  • What material and subjective (im)possibilities are fostered or negated in occupying marked religious and sexual positions? How do these intersect with, for example, gender and class?

Youth studies have become an area of increasing concern, particularly in response to multiple tragic instances of bullying and cyberbullying.  The UK and Canada have a shared history and shared parliamentary system.  Developing a comparative analysis between the two offers the opportunity for two similar countries to reflect on those similarities and consider their differences in their response to the ‘queerness’ of religion and sexuality among youth.    The QIRY and RGSY projects provide the beginning space for developing a shared analytic assessment of the spaces that are, or are not, made available to youth in order to work toward more sound, nuanced policy regarding youthful religiosities and sexualities.

Contestations and Contradictions: Canada and UK Contexts

Youth identities and youthful vulnerabilities are hotly debated within particular contexts in both Canada and the UK. Recently sex education policies included a suggestion for gender identity and sexual orientation recognition and redress in the sex education curriculum.  In Ontario the sex education curriculum was put on hold in response to opposition.  Subsequently,  anti-bullying measures for the province included the requirement for all publicly funded schools to permit gay-straight alliances (including the Catholic School Board, which receives public funds); in the UK, Section 28 (1988, 1986 in Scotland) may feel a long way off, but comprehensive sex education is still highly contested across (non)denomination, faith-based and secular, schools.

Although youth experiences and youth identities are the focus of much concern and consternation, youth voices are often not directly engaged within public dialogues or events; instead conversations foreground an older ‘adult’ citizen (as educator, religious leader, concerned parent, proper family). Such exclusions – and ‘hyper-inclusions’ as ‘risky’ subjects in need of protection (‘anti-bullying’, ‘sex education’) – are mirrored in UK debates on Civil Partnerships (2004) and Same-Sex Marriage Act (2013) and revisions to Canada’s Civil Marriage Act. Sexual orientation has been protected as an analogous ground in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (s. 15) since 1995; same-sex marriage was first legalized at the provincial level in Ontario in 2003 and The Civil Marriage Act was revised in 2005, changing the definition of marriage from “the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” to the more inclusive “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others” (Bill C-38: The Civil Marriage Act).

Despite immediate and future implications for young people in how they imagine themselves as subjects and citizens, they are often assumed to be too immature for or distant from ‘adult’ dialogue, with their citizenship and conversational status effectively deferred until a later date. Such dis-connections continue, despite the somewhat obvious connections between the ‘here and now’ of educational and familial contexts, in living out a viable and chosen future.

The possibility of creating a dialogue with queer religious youth seems not within the public imagination, with religion and sexual diversity still positioned are inherently opposed to one another, despite policy circulations. For example, in 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper (leader of the Conservative Party of Canada) suggested a policy entitled the ‘Defence of Religions Act’ (DORA) as well as suggesting the reopening of the same-sex marriage debate in the House of Commons, only a year after marriage had been redefined to include same-sex couples. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has supported a mainstreaming of marriage for good tax-paying gay families, while instigating extreme anti-welfare measures on other (gay and otherwise….) families.  Differently, these measures show the precarity of Equalities provisions and the continual setting-up of some rights and provisions against others, with sexuality and religion endlessly forced into an awkward collision.

International collaborations

While the policy decisions in both Canada and the UK, outlined above, extend rights for same-sex couples, what is not as prominent in either country is further consideration of spaces of acceptance and inclusion that need to be fostered among youth.  An international collaboration which incorporates queer, religious youth would seek to create the space for consideration of youth identity at multiple crossroads, for example, spaces of possibility for both queer and religious youth (often only seen as oppositional in public discourse and policy). Our collaboration will connect international research on youth, bridging countries and disciplines.  The QIRY and RGSY projects will be presented at the Society for the International Study of Religion annual meeting in October 2014, in a session on “Queer Religious Young People.”  We will use this opportunity to further develop our international dialogue and begin to develop a broader network, please be in touch if you are interested in joining us.

Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre and Heather Shipley, Ottawa.

‘Fabulous and Beautiful’ image from QIRY project, and Gender and Education conference panel.

KMBT_C364-20130613130347GEA 053GEA 054


Queering Religion, ReligiousQueers discount flyer:




Taylor, Y. and Snowdon, R. (eds) (2014) Queering Religion, Religious Queers (Routledge)

Taylor, Y and Snowdon, R. ‘Mapping Queer, Mapping Me: Visualising Queer Religious Identity’, in Shipley, H., ed. 2014. Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity: Contexts, Contestations, Voices, “International Studies in Religion and Society,” Brill Academic Press.

Taylor, Y. and Snowdon, R. (2014) ‘Making Space for Young Lesbians in Church?’ Journal of Lesbian Studies

Snowdon, R., Falconer, E. and Taylor. Y. (in-progress 2014) ‘Queer Youth, Facebook, and Faith: Facebook Methodologies and Online Identities’ New Media and Society

 Taylor, Y., Falconer, E. and Snowdon, R. (in-progress 2014) ‘Sounding Religious, Sounding Queer’

Shipley, H. and  P. Dickey Young. (2014) “Values and Attitudes: How are Youth Integrating Religion and Sexuality in their Daily Lives?” Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity: Contexts, Contestations, Voices, H. Shipley, ed, “International Studies in Religion and Society,” Brill Academic Press.

Shipley, H. and  P. Dickey Young. (in progress – 2014)“‘A Protestant with a seatbelt, I guess’: Christianity, Gender and Identity,” The Brill Handbook of Global Christianity, S. Hunt, ed, Brill Academic Press.

Young, P. Dickey and H. Shipley. (in progress – 2014) “Belief, not religion: Youth Negotiations of Religious Identity in Canada,” Handbook on Child and Youth Studies, J. Wyn and H. Cahill, eds, Springer.

Shipley, H., ed. 2014. Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity: Contexts, Contestations, Voices, “International Studies in Religion and Society,” Brill Academic Press.

One response to “Making Space Across Religion, Gender and Sexuality: Canada-UK Connections

  1. Thanks to Yvette and Heather for this informative comparison. Having been working on the Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth project this year at the Weeks Centre, which focuses very specifically on the U.K context, it is really helpful to gain insights into international perspectives and parallel research studies in Canada. As you point out, whilst there are important localised issues to be explored, there is significant scope for greater international collaboration with regard to issues of youth, sexuality and a multitude of faiths. I look forward to seeing these ties strengthen, as these projects have room for expansion. It appears there is much rich and innovative data into youth, religion and sexuality that taps into a multitude of socio-political issues on both a local, regional and global scale. For example, the QIRY project is currently involved in collaboration with both the University of Kent and Rice University in Houston Texas, to create an Online Resource that explores issues of Religions and Embodiment from a range of perspectives.

    It’s great to see some of the colourful images created from the project data too. Those who have an interest in some of the creative methods used to research youth, sexuality and faith should attend the ‘Making Space for Queer Identifying Religious Youth Diary and Mind Map Art Exhibition’ at the Critical Diversities Conference on the 10th-11th July 2014: During the conference, there will be an opportunity to view the exhibition, which displays powerful images, drawings, reflective diary extracts and colourful mind maps from the research data gathered from the project. There will be an additional opportunity to view the exhibition towards the close of the project in July 2014, which will be publicised shortly.

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