—Our Collective Path of Consecrated Action
What is queer dharma? How does it serve the greater good? How can it provide a path toward healing during this year of global pandemic and social unrest? Hari-kirtana das, ancient yoga wisdom text teacher and activist, argues that dharma’s relevance “to the contemporary world is that it’s a handbook for social activism in pursuit of non-sectarian spiritualization of modern society.” He continues, “The beauty of the Bhagavad-gita is found in the universality of its philosophical conclusion, namely, that all relative dharma-s are subordinate to one ultimate dharma: complete and fearless surrender, motivated by love, to the will of the Supreme Person.” Queerness is a powerful contributor to that “ultimate dharma,” encompassing behaviors, embodiments, and devotions. Queer dharma, or the essential nature of queerness, is the set of lived practices that comprise the social duties queer folx contribute to the Universal Self.
The inherent political action in queerness provides an ideological foundation of queer dharma. Queer theory was founded on similar principles of mobilization. It emerged as an intellectual discipline and academic framework in 1991 with the scholarship of Teresa de Laurentis, drawing from feminist and cultural theories. One of its main assertions was that lesbian and gay were pluralistic identities based in actions. Annamarie Jagose’s genealogy of queer constructed in 1997 avoids articulating a clear definition of the term but does distinguish it from gay. Unlike gay, she argues that queer avoids being defined by sexual acts with another person; rather its character comes from how the philosophy is integrated into everyday life as exertions of individuality and freedom. Emily Drabinski adds that:
Rather than taking [gay and lesbian] identities as stable and fixed, queer theory sees these identities as shifting and contextual. Where gay and lesbian studies takes gender and sexual identities as its object of study, queer theory is interested in how those identities come discursively and socially into being and the kind of work they do in the world. Lesbian and gay studies is concerned with what homosexuality is. Queer theory is concerned with what homosexuality does.
This emphasis on activism encourages us to consider dharma as the ethical response to our contemporary political moment and recognize it as an ever-changing process. Moreover, queer dharma is concerned not only with the performance of these acts of service but, even more so, with how these acts of service are performed. A linguistic manifestation of this intervention is “folx,” an attempt to destroy the binary nature of language. In identities like Latina and Latino the work of the x is to create non-gendered identities like Latinx. In words like folks, the work of the x is to generate broad inclusivity. Folx, when used as queer folx, welcomes those that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, asexual, and anyone else that does not conform to heteronormative or cisgender identies. The result is broad inclusivity.
Hari-kirtana das also reminds us that dharma is experienced through the Gita as “spiritual activism . . . principles of universal morality collectively known as dharma. In the Vedic yoga tradition, dharma is composed of four values: austerity, purity, mercy, and truthfulness.” Through this yogic lens there is no conflict between personal lives and social action, as long as the acts one participates in serve the greater good by working on behalf of the “welfare of all living beings.” Understanding ourselves as interconnected beings participating in the survival of one another is the motivation for this activity. Ancient yoga teachings may seem at odds with our 21st Century globalized culture that prizes individual interest over collective responsibility and materialism over spirituality. However, the disconnects only emerge when inherent nature and social obligations are viewed in opposition to one another.
Queer folx have been historically marginalized because they live personal and public lives that challenge the heteronormativity that underpins Western patriarchal sociopolitical structures. Dominant culture’s resulting fear and anxiety sequesters queer folx into liminal spaces as “enemies.” A reorientation through the lens of yoga principles, however, teaches “that dharma, as a function of social duty, does not exist in isolation from dharma as an expression of an essential nature.” Any expression of individual duty performed with the intention of universal uplift, then, transcends the socially constructed bias that seeks to persecute queer communities.
Performing queer dharma as spiritual activism and social intervention in service of universal uplift is karma yoga, the path of consecrated action. It contains the “threefold harmony” of mind, body, and spirit that upholds the cosmic order. An early use of queer in secularized dharmic terms is recognizable in Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “America,” a protest against the United States’ mid-20th Century heteronormative culture. He, an openly gay man with far left political leanings, defiantly calls for change with the line, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” That phrase reappropriates Aesop’s Fable called “Hercules & the Wagoner,” written by the Greek slave and storyteller between 620 and 560 BCE. In the morality tale, Hercules appears to a farmer whose wagon is stuck in roadside mud and advises him to “Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it? Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself.” Inserting queer into the expression, Ginsberg transforms it from an idiom teaching good work ethic and self reliance in support of hegemony into a rebellious act of self empowerment. The poem’s template for political intervention begins with a proclamation of spiritual activism and culminates in the action of collective healing.
Sixty-four years later in 2020, Covid-19 forced the cancelling or rescheduling of global events, inevitably altering social behaviors. One of the most notable absences in New York were empty streets during Pride month in June. A year after the huge 50th anniversary celebration of the Stonewall Inn rebellion, LGBTQIA+ communities were relegated to party on Zoom. Dancing in the streets during the annual parade transformed into watch parties held together by internet stability. It was a paradoxical change. On one level, it returned queer socialization to liminal spaces. On another, it was an empowering transformation in which queer culture developed innovative connections within the new normal of Zoom interaction. Without the physical intimacy of dancefloors, the spaces where so much of queer identity from drag balls to AIDS activism was mobilized, videoconference dance parties like Club Quarantine offered partiers opportunities to share their personal spaces (homes, living rooms, etc.) with a global community. This claiming of digital space was a political act adhering to the call of contemporary dharma.
The resulting interconnectedness allows us to see queerness as a dialectical construction of performance and its consumption. The Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs of classical yoga, offer a foundation for understanding this spiritual and political liberation. When we view brahmacharya through the lens of purity, we are invited to understand “the principles of religion as they pertain to sex are the same as the principle of brahmacharya in yoga: the direction of sexual energy toward a spiritual purpose.” When we view acquisition and consumption through the lens of austerity, we avoid the pathological poisoning that comes with the prejudice of myopic definitions of sexual identity. When we view ahimsa, or nonviolence, through the lens of mercy, we develop compassion for individuals with different lifestyles and belief systems. And when we view interpersonal and social relationships with satya, or truthfulness, we avoid socially constructed bias and defer to authoritative sources of love for the Supreme Person.
To queer these ethics is to mobilize them by understanding queerness as contributing to the harmony of the cosmic order and as a mechanism against political injustice. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a press release on the twentieth of March, 2020 announcing the suspension or closure of many state legislatures in the US due to Covid-19. It included an active list of proposed legislation targeting the LGBTQIA+ community through, from the denial of local protection to the use of religion to justify discrimination. These blows came just one year after celebrating gains made in the 50 years since Stonewall. So where does the movement go next?
Queer dharma takes as its duty the building of equity and justice through interconnection. A yogic understanding of the self asks practitioners to see themselves as contributing a purpose to the collective whole. Within this service is the recognition that each individual plays a unique role in supporting the greater good. Their singular paths are at once influenced by and influential on the synthesis of all beings. Those spiritual truths conflict, however, with the sociopolitical realities of systemic oppression in material existence. An intersectional analysis of discrimination illustrates that race, class, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, neurological abilities, and other factors create a messy web of prejudice and discrimination that supports white supremacy. Queer dharma, then, can only be enacted by working in the name of universal liberation.
Equity and justice for the LGBTQIA+ community and no others would be like Arjuna battling for his self interest alone, without any concern for duty beyond himself. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 proclamation is perhaps truer now more than ever: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” When King wrote these words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he referred to racial injustice, but an intersectional lens reminds us each injustice impacts all bodies. The only way to break those chains is for the LGBTQIA+ movement to co-organize with concurrent social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Disability Rights movement, progressive religious movements, and others doing the work for change. This compassionate approach welcomes honest co-collaboration, inviting all beings to put our shoulders to the wheel and take the path of consecrated action.