Category: Gender and Sexuality

Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas

By Randy P. Conner. 2004. New York: Harrington Park Press. 390 pages. ISBN: 1560233508 (hard cover), 1560233516 (soft cover).

Reviewed by C. Lynn Carr, Seton Hall University

[Review length: 642 words • Review posted on October 10, 2006]

A wide-ranging and ambitious treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) participation in “African-inspired” spiritual and religious traditions in the Americas, Randy Conner’s Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions examines GLBT content and practitioners in “Lucumi/Santeria/Regla de Ocha,” Candomble, Ifa, and Vodou. Conner’s book is a timely and groundbreaking contribution to recent scholarly discussion of religious conceptions and treatments of sexuality and gender in the African diaspora.

Contextualizing his work in recent debates on gender and sexuality among the Yoruba, Conner notes that scholars such as James Matory (Sex and the Empire That is No More) and Oyeronke Oyewumi (The Invention of Women) have critiqued accounts of “gender and sexual complexity” among the Yoruba by Western scholars for inaccurate or ethnocentric application of Western cultural conceptions. Nevertheless, he asserts that those who deny the existence of alternatives to heterosexual masculinity and femininity in African cultures have often expressed “hostile attitudes toward homoerotic and transgender behavior” (28) more generally. Conner argues that even if we tentatively accept that GLBT conceptualizations and practices in Yoruba-diasporic spirituality derive from outside the Yoruba culture, we do not have to travel as far as the West to find it. To prove his point, he provides an extensive review of gender and sexual complexity among African (and a smaller review of indigenous traditions in Western hemispheric) cultures that may have influenced Yoruba-derived religions. Given widespread evidence of African gender and sexual diversity, Western cultural dominance cannot be credited wholesale for inculcating “queerness” into African-derived religions in the Americas.

Drawing on extant literature and interviews, Conner catalogues claims of gender and sexual complexity among divinities within the African diaspora: the Lwa of Vodou, the Orishas of Yoruba origin, and the Spirits and Orixa of Brazil. Many are associated with androgyny, homosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered adherents. For example, the Vodou Lwa Ezili Danto is considered by some to protect lesbians (60). The Yoruba-derived Orisha Olokun is alternately described as male, female, androgynous, and hermaphroditic (72–73). The Brazilian Orixa Pomba Gira is associated with prostitutes and drag queens (82).

Conner next turns his attention to the practitioners of African-inspired religions in the Americas. He discusses gender and sexual complexity in both temporary ritual contexts and in communities of GLBT identifiers. In Vodou, Candomble, and Lucumi/Santeria, he recounts evidence of both acceptance and discrimination. He follows with a chapter providing individual summaries of interviews with twenty-one practitioners of “African-inspired” religious traditions (mostly living in the U.S.) and another chapter offering similar “snapshots” of twenty-seven artists, musicians, and writers who express African-diasporic spirituality in their creations. Although a few interviews were conducted confidentially, most interview participants are named, and several are accompanied by photos. Conner ends with several appendices (a copy of his interview questionnaire, a list of those he interviewed, and a glossary of terms) and a brief conclusion examining his personal journey and the status of GLBT identity within African-inspired religious practice in the U.S.

Inevitably, this is a book that proves its point: “queer” folk have always been a part of African-inspired religions. They have contributed greatly to their quality and continuation. Despite discrimination, they will continue to be a part of these religions. Conner asks that priests and priestesses in religions that supposedly promote “cool heads” and individual improvement of character focus on these things rather than on their own cultural biases concerning gender and sexuality.

Although Conner does not present an in-depth scholarly examination of any particular aspect of “queerness” in a specific African-derived religious tradition within a particular geographic location or setting, his book is a pioneering and broad-sweeping exploration that introduces several areas in need of further academic attention. Conner provides folklorists and other scholars the service of mapping the field in an engaging, clearly written text. Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions is a necessary addition for collections of both GLBT and African-diasporic religious studies.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.