Article by Patricia Valoy. Originally published on Everyday Feminism, 8 May 2013.
Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call me a “radical feminist” and accuse me of trying to destroy religion and traditional values.
People on the Internet are both my biggest critics and my most enthusiastic supporters. But because of them, I have been forced to truly question my own beliefs on the compatibility of feminism and religion.
I think that they can coexist. Here’s why.
The thing about feminism is that it’s about empowering women — and that means all women – regardless of differences. And while I may personally find most religions inherently misogynist and oppressive, that does not give me the right to deter any other woman from finding spiritual nourishment in a religious community.
If feminism becomes synonymous with anti-religion, we risk alienating the women we seek to uplift and support.
If anything, feminism and religion are deeply connected because our views on gender are very much based in religious doctrines. And we cannot fight for equal rights by disenfranchising those who reconcile their religious beliefs with feminism.
Because while modern religions are all very male-centric, they simply mimic the world that we live in.
That is, religion isn’t the problem.
Our world is male-centric. And our job as feminists is to make spaces for women to be the person they choose to be and to live their lives the way they best see fit.
Women of faith should not sacrifice their spiritual beliefs because organized religion is inherently misogynistic, just as we do not abandon our parents who might believe in traditional gender roles.
Feminism should give those women a platform to speak up. It shouldn’t shun women because some feminists don’t find religious faith compatible with their beliefs.
In fact, feminism has an important role to play in religion in order to help remove any ingrained bias and discrimination.
Given the nature of religions and their followers, progressive change will not come by external forces. Progressive change comes when the people within demand it. Not when they abandon it.
If we truly want religions to become more accepting and forward-thinking, we have to accept the women and men who are trying to make progressive change happen from within their religious and spiritual organizations.
Being religious and feminist means that these women and men have already challenged the authority of fundamental tenets of their faith. And that’s an amazing thing.
I am a secular feminist. I find no peace of mind or soul-nourishment in religion or spirituality. I derive all my love and passion from my fascination with science and nature.
Yet I know women who find their strength to be compassionate, understanding, and egalitarian from the gospels of Jesus Christ or from Wiccan goddesses.
And who are we to decide which is an acceptable source of feminist thinking and which isn’t?
I propose that as a feminist community, we work harder to be more inclusive of women of faith. Here are six places to start.
1. Do not expect feminists of faith to defend the acts committed by others who follow her religion.
It is very tempting to start a debate, to question a particular religion’s role in condoning bigotry. But we must remember that a woman who has chosen to be a feminist has (likely) already asked herself those questions.
Instead of judging her for adhering to her faith, try praising her for being a progressive voice for her religion.
2. Do not dismiss her lived experiences.
Listen to her.
Our lives may be different, but our struggles are the same. Disagreeing with her beliefs should not interfere with our ability to empathize.
3. The ultimate goal is the same.
Understand that while their route to equality might look different than yours, all feminists want to be treated with dignity and have full autonomy.
We fight for those goals within secular and religious organizations.
4. Ask her how religion or spirituality helps her be a better feminist.
Dialogue gives us a way to find common ground.
Through dialogue, I learned from a friend that she did not learn her feminism from bell hooks or Gloria Steinem, but from reading the story of Junia in the New Testament, who is described as “outstanding among the apostles.”
5. Try learning from religion or spirituality.
Don’t mock it.
Believers seek spiritual nourishment.
If you are secular, try finding serenity with a ritual. You can even make one up for yourself!
6. Remember that feminism and religion share a common objective: inclusion and connection.
It is important to connect on the things we have in common.
Feminism, religion, and spirituality are all about connecting via a common belief and the need for a community.
Secular feminists and feminist of faith might find their inspiration from different sources, but we are all inspired to fight for the same rights.
Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.
Barbell Dancer's thoughts: This article really spoke to me. Everyday Feminism is where I first learned about intersectional feminism and the entire site is a treasure trove that taught me not only about feminism, but also introduced me to the privilege/oppression dynamic and how our own individual privileges/oppressions intersect with our identities, opening some doors and closing others.
As I moved deeper and deeper into my understanding of feminism, the values I learned seemed to clash with my deeply held religious beliefs and I found myself wondering: can I be a feminist and be religious? Sometimes it seemed like the two were chalk and cheese: totally different and not to be mixed.
Reading this article (and others like it on Everyday Feminism and other similar sites) helped me examine and consider my position. Yes, I am a feminist, but I am also religious and I can be both. While I didn't come to feminism through my religion, I can honestly say that my religion has informed my feminism.
I cannot, of course, speak for every religious feminist, but in my own experience I have found numerous examples of feminism in both scripture and practice; and Patricia Valoy's final point in her article resonates the most deeply with me: both religion and feminism seek to bring people together and invite others in. They are not meant to be divisive or dogmatic ideologies.
Organised religion does often favour men and censure women, but this exclusion is the work of people, rather than a deity or deities. The men who control organised religion interpret and quote the scripture for their own purpose (as does the Devil), and pushing back, questioning and keeping faith is the only way we will see change in the churches and the structure of organised religion.
NOTE: The section titled Barbell Dancer's thoughts is not part of the original article and expresses the opinion of the author of his blog. It is not endorsed by Patricia Valoy or Everyday Feminism.
My performance for Pole Divas CS Pole Addiction 2019.
Music: This Feeling by the Chainsmokers feat. Kelsea Bellerini
Click here to see my score and feedback from the judges.
I received a message from a friend shortly after they saw my Pole Addiction performance earlier this year. They had not been in the audience, but had watched the live stream on Facebook and had picked up on an ‘anomaly’ they wanted me to address. The message read like this:
Jewels, just watching your routine live on Facebook, awesome! But I wanted to ask you something: I noticed your top had rainbow letters, for gay/lesbian pride, but your journal had the blue, purple and pink, for bi-pride, and I’m super confused. I know this was your coming out story, but which one are you? You can’t be both!
Now, I love this person very dearly, we have a very deep and close friendship and she knew long before this dance that I was rather less ‘straight’ than the majority of our friendship group. Her message was not condescending, rude, intrusive or an example of ‘concern trolling’, she genuinely wanted to know the right way to identify me so she could continue to be the wonderful, supportive friend that she is.
But, for me, my identity and attraction was never that simple.
I started to realise I was rather different from the rest of the girls at my high school (I went to a Catholic, all-girl’s school in an inner-city suburb) when I was in Year 7. While they were all giggling about the latest gorgeous hunk from Home and Away or discussing which of the current Year 7’s from the nearby boy’s college they wanted to take to the Year 9 dance in two years time, I found myself utterly disinterested. At first I brushed it off as the fact that I was studious, I’d rather be studying than worrying about boys or what my romantic life might look like in two years time, but as one year bled into the next, I came to realise that my differences went far deeper than a preference for study over men.
Men were just there, just people occupying space in the world, so many nameless, faceless people going about their daily lives, who I felt about as attracted to as I would a meticulously painted artwork or a unique feat of architecture: I might spare them a passing glance, but my fleeting interest was purely aesthetic. There was nothing disgusting or repulsive about them (except for the ones who catcalled me on the bus or wolf-whistled as I walked home in my school uniform), I just didn’t see what it was about them that so captivated my friends.
On the other hand, I sometimes felt a little flutter in my stomach when a woman smiled at me on the train, or I’d imagine how it might feel to hold hands with another girl, her fingers locked around mine, or perhaps resting on my leg.
For a thirteen year old girl attending a religious single-sex school, these feelings were utterly terrifying. My school was never rampantly homophobic, by any means, but there was always an undercurrent that we shouldn’t be talking about that sort of thing. My discomfort with my feelings got such at one point that I made an appointment with the school psychologist, to talk them through with someone non-judgemental, who might be able to help me unpack them. When I confided my fears to this woman, her response was to laugh at me. “Jewels,” she said, with what I’m sure she thought was a warm, understanding smile, “perhaps it’s just the fact that, now you’re not around boys anymore, you’re not noticing them as much. You’re a good girl, you don’t have to worry about turning into that.”
Suffice to say, this response did nothing to quell my growing insecurities about my sexuality. But I tried to laugh it off and then tried, with increasing militance, to force myself to be attracted to men and only men. I’d laugh with my friends about their celebrity crushes and pretend to have one of my own, as we got older I’d pretend to be interested in how things were going with their boyfriends, at one point I even made up a man of my own, just to get them to stop asking about my love-life.
By the time I was sixteen and starting Year 11, I knew none of my determined attempts to change myself over the years had worked. My primary attraction was, and always had been, to women and I hated myself for it. It was also during this period that the first signs of the mental health problems that would dog me for the rest of my late teens and early adulthood (and which recently resurfaced this year) began to make themselves known to me. I’d lie awake at night, confusing, frightening ideas taking shape in my head; I thought about self-harm, I researched ways to do it without leaving marks so no one would know. I told no one what I was thinking, I just pretended everything was fine, then I’d find myself wide-awake at one o’clock in the morning, wondering if it would hurt to swallow all the painkillers in the cupboard or step out in front of a speeding car. My marks started to slip, I stopped caring about my studies and I found myself feeling teary and weepy for no apparent reason. I Googled my symptoms, devoured hours and hours worth of articles about depression, anxiety, suicide and getting help, I even called Lifeline a few times, but was never brave enough to hold the line and talk to someone. What if they laugh? I thought. What if they judge? What if they tell me I’m being melodramatic and overreacting?
These kinds of thoughts and feelings followed me from the city to the country when my family relocated later that year. As much as I had begun to struggle in the city, everything came to a head in the country, despite the fact that, on more than one level, things were actually better. My school was much more open and welcoming of difference, the school psychologist I eventually spoke to after I had a breakdown in class one day was warm and understanding, and not once did she ever laugh at me or dismiss anything I told her. I received mental health care from the local hospital and was lucky enough to be able to access this treatment at minimal cost to myself and my family, and I made some very close friendships, many of which I still retain today. However, the isolation of living so far from the city that I loved, the limited choices for life after school and the lack of public transport to take me places I wanted to go soon dragged me down, and lingering in the background of all of this heartache and despair was the knowledge that I was lesbian.
And yet the word didn’t fit. Even when I left the country and moved back to the city, even when I found some stability and started to tentatively search online for articles about sexual attraction and found plenty of affirmations and assurances that my feelings were valid, normal and deserved to be recognised and appreciated, something about the word jarred me. When I spoke to close friends I used it and they accepted me with open arms, yet in my heart I knew the word didn’t do how I felt justice. Romantically, emotionally, sensually and aesthetically I was drawn to women, yet I felt no sexual stirring towards my own sex, no drive or desire to be physically intimate: those feelings seemed to be reserved for men. My thoughts and dreams about any type of intimate physicality were exclusively heterosexual, again, much like when I had been exploring the beginnings of my attractions in my early teens, I was not repulsed or disgusted by the idea of sex with a woman, it just didn’t appeal to or interest me. Romantically, I wanted nothing more than to love and be loved by a woman, to hold her hand, to touch her cheek, to laugh and talk with her; sexually, I wished for a man, although I kept these feelings well hidden and didn’t bother to raise them with any of my friends. They’d accepted me when I’d called myself a lesbian, I didn’t want to lose them now because I didn’t have a name for what I felt or how I was feeling.
For a while, I considered if I might be bisexual, but the majority of definitions surrounding bisexuality seemed to include romantic and sexual attractions to both genders (or all, for those non-binary folks out there), rather than romantically for one and sexually for the other. It was around this time that I was getting seriously into pole dancing and weight lifting, so had made further strong connections with others based on shared interests. I also had stable employment and a steady income, which brought me independence and a sense of place and purpose. Yet, despite fitting so nicely into the many boxes of my life - daughter, sister, friend, pole dancer, weight lifter, early childhood educator - the one box that just didn’t fit, no matter how hard I wriggled and squirmed and pushed, was the sexuality box. The only thing I could say for certainty was that I was ‘not straight’, yet none of the other labels on offer - lesbian, bi, pan, queer, questioning etc. - seemed to fit either; some might be a little more comfortable than others, but all were either far too tight, or much too loose.
Then, while surfing through Everyday Feminism (a site which has helped me shape, reshape and question my view of the world, and reignited my passion for social justice) I came across an article that made me stop dead. It had been published on the site in 2016 and was titled Here’s What It Means When Your Romantic and Sexual Orientations Are Different. Within that article I found a word that seemed to fit, a label I could finally identify with and that, for the first time since I started realising I was different so long ago, affirmed that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me and that I wasn’t alone.
I was cross-orientated.
Cross-orientation, as explained in that wonderful, wonderful article, “also known as ‘mixed orientation’ is a term given to describe a situation where someone experiences romantic attraction to a different gender group to who they’re sexually attracted to.” (Ferguson, 2016). Within intersectional feminist circles, it has long been accepted that romantic attraction and sexual attraction occur on two different spectrums, yet mainstream identity labels lump them both into one phrase. If you are ‘heterosexual’ then it is assumed you feel both romantically and sexually for the opposite gender, yet a person who is cross-orientated may be heterosexual and homoromantic (as in my case, being sexually attracted to the opposite gender, but romantically attracted to my own gender).
From my research into cross-orientation (sadly, it’s still considered something of a ‘fringe’ concept, and there’s not a lot out there beyond people who are not cross-orientated asking if it actually exists, and being answered by other non-cross-orientated people that it absolutely doesn’t [newsflash: they’re wrong]) I discovered a resource which discussed the Circles Of Sexuality concept, which went deeper into how many aspects of our lives cross over into forming our sexual/romantic identities. It doesn’t mention cross-orientation, or orientations outside ‘The Big Three’ - heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual - but it is a good resource to start breaking down the idea that sexuality is fixed. It can move and change over time, and this helped me put to bed the constant, nagging worry about the changes to how I felt as I moved through my teens and into my early adulthood.
Before I close, there is one other aspect of my story I want to touch on. During the extremely confusing period of my mid-late teens, as I was struggling with my sexuality and mental health, I attended church. I was baptised, by choice, when I was fifteen and I attended a very forward-thinking, progressive Catholic church in St. Albans. An example of this was during the debate in Victoria to decriminalise abortion, the sister stood up at the end of mass and informed us that, as Catholics, we should be voting against changing the laws and speaking out to protect God’s unborn children. The parish priest allowed her to finish speaking and agreed that yes, that was the Church’s teaching, however he then said, most sincerely, that Jesus would call us to do whatever it was we felt was right in our hearts, whether the Church taught it or not, and that the only measure of being ‘a good Catholic’ was to do whatever it was we felt Jesus had called on us to do. It was, he said, between us and Jesus and wasn’t to be dictated by scripture.
At the time I thought it was a rather radical thing for a priest to say, although it certainly aligned with my values about abortion (pro-choice all the way!), but it was the way things were done within the parish. The priest believed very strongly that our individual relationships with God and Jesus were out own to forge, each as valid as everyone else’s, even if they were different, and that Jesus would always call on us to do what we felt was right, even if the scripture was against it.
Despite the accepting and forward thinking ways of this parish, I never told anyone there about my sexuality, but through my attendance at that church and the relationship I gained with God, I came to be certain that, whatever my orientation/sexuality happened to be:
1. God knew.
2. God loved me.
3. God would continue to love me.
I recognise that I am very fortunate in this regard, and that many young people from religious communities who struggle with their sexuality and orientation have not had this kind of guidance or felt they can form a relationship with their God or Gods outside of scripture or dogma. The church I attended briefly in the country, before walking out on organised religion altogether and instead focusing on my own relationship with God and Jesus, was a very dogmatic, unwelcoming place and I was very glad I was already sure of the strength of God’s love before I found myself there.
So, how did I reply to my friend who sent me the message after Pole Addiction? I told her that everything within the dance, every piece of costume, each pose and position had a meaning for me. I wore the rainbow letters because I am homoromantic, my journal had bi-pride colours because (for now) cross-orientation has no pride flag (maybe I should start creating one of my own?) and bi-pride was the closest, easily recognised symbol I could come across which represented both genders. My dance told a story of exploration, of being told that I was wrong, of discovering I wasn’t, of keeping faith throughout my struggles, before finding the courage and strength to tell everyone NO, and saying YES to myself.
YES, I know who I am.
YES, I’m not the same as you.
YES, I don’t fit into a mainstream box.
YES, I’m still learning to be proud of who I am.
YES, I’ll get there one day.
Don’t care who you are or who you love: I got your back, Jewels.
You don't have to like me. I'm not a Facebook post.
Me With No Apologies.