We live in a country with high rates of hate crimes, and it feels like we have very little to celebrate as a queer community. Most traditional organised religious spaces are not safe spaces to be queer and fellowship. There is so much to be sad about, but there is always hope. We spoke to Ashwin Thyssen about intersecting faith and your identity.
What is your background?
I am Veronica Thyssen’s eldest child. I grew up in the Eerste River area of Cape Town. I was at a high school in Somerset West. I came out when I was 15 years old in grade 9. I note this is as important because I never experienced direct homophobia from the learners. Which is much different from other people’s high school experiences. I am so privileged to be able to say this. I also had this bad attitude,and people didn’t mess with me. From a young age I wanted to become a pastor. I studied Theology at Stellenbosch. It was going well and I spent time doing activist work like #FeesMustFall because I saw it as my generational mission. By the final year of my Bachelors degree I realised that I need to make a decision about my life. Most churches in South Africa are not willing to ordain a openly queer person. I decided to then do a research Masters in Theology. Before I knew it I was registered for a PHd programme- I feel I still have something to say and contribute to the world about faith and being queer. My research focuses on how Black Queer people conceive of themselves as religious people.
What are the ways that queer people can navigate their way back to a church/place of worship?
Churches and most religious spaces are violent spaces. It pierces your soul too much. Honestly people should not return. The divine God or being can be confined to an institution. God is so much greater than our imagination. Where the church has been immensely violent to anyone queer – just don’t go back. Find other spiritual practices away from it. Things that can keep faith alive.I see it all the time. Its very middle class but how gay men go for brunches on a Sunday. Its really profoundly spiritual within the confines of the white cisgender gay world, but it is fellowship. Find your community and be together.
One of my most real experiences of God’s presence was when I was in a gay club. I was in Sweden in 2019 doing a student exchange, and I was just dancing and enjoying life. Having queer people in that space was the most alive I ever felt, and the most real way I experienced God’s presence. I think finding communities that enriches one is what I would strongly advise queer people to do. The second thing is to join an affirming community. For me I have tried to create an affirming community in these violent and conservative spaces. I have done this intentionally because I know the language of these spaces. I can argue with a pastor constructively because of my training and I can challenge the power dynamics. I am trying to project a vision for a more wholesome, inclusive and affirming community that embraces everyone.
My studies has shown me that queer communities don’t spend enough time memorialising the dead. Our reality is that we as queer people are mercilessly being killed. These names stay hashtags. We need practices that deepen our faith to deal with the onslaught of violence. On a psycho-social level we as queer people need to be present for each other and hold space for each other to mourn the dead-there is a need for that. Witnessing the violence against queer people daily has had effects on me. My work energises me but I am aware of the risks of just existing as a gay man in South Africa. I have privileges and we need to talk about how that dictates our safety and security as queer people too. I walk through life easier because of my cisgender gayness. This makes me a palatable “gay” man. In the church I can hold my own because I am a man and “passing”. I am also someone with higher education.We need to call out our privilege in society.
Any parting thoughts for us?
Be who you are, and allow yourself to become who you want to and desire to be. José Esteban Muñoz was a queer theorist who said “queerness is not yet here, its a horizon. It draws us all the way deeper into ourselves”. We are always becoming. Allow yourself grace to become. Where you can be a safe space for someone, don’t walk away from them. Be a friend and support where you can.