Whitehot Magazine

A Prayer for Queer Futures, A Review of Frances Marshall’s Queer Religion (2023-2024)

Mthr. Christina Beardsley SMMS. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall.

By EMMA CIESLIK March 6, 2024 

Frances Marshall, a lesbian opera and classical music photographer and atheist, never set out to capture queer religious joy. Raised Roman Catholic in Ireland, she rejected the Church around the age of 19. She was raised in the Catholic education system and notes that it was the Church’s discussions of queer sexuality that caused her to leave the faith. It wasn’t until she moved to London and became fascinated by the religious melting pot that she first felt inspired to capture the city’s religious diversity through photography. This inspiration would produce a collection Queer Religion (2023-2024) that explores queer religious existence and interfaith activism.  

Marshall first began this project while she was living in Canning Town, eager to document the diversity of London’s religious communities and spaces as opposed to the Catholic homogeneity of her home town in Dublin. “Even though I am a staunch atheist, I’ve always been fascinated with religion,” she explained, “because it really gets into people. People make huge life decisions based on their faith. They shape their whole week around their faith, they shape meals around their faith. It really fascinated me how it completely is in the embroidery of our existence, no matter if we’re atheist or not, and is in the embroidery of a country [such as Ireland].”

Shaira Choudhury, Muslim and Co-Founder of TransActivismUK. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall. 

Initially, she reached out to a priest at an East London Church about the idea, and shortly into their discussion in the pews, he started in on the sins of abortion and homosexuality. Suffice it to say, Marshall checked out early in the conversation and left the church once again feeling defeated. “There was no way I was going to elevate this voice or any like it,” she remarked, “even as a documentary project, I couldn’t give oxygen to this misogynistic, queerphobic rhetoric that surrounded my childhood.” She decided to park the project idea for several years. 

Cantor Tamara and Rabbi Anna Wolfson. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall. 

It wasn’t until she attended London Pride, however, that she began thinking about it again. Standing amongst a crowd watching a drag show in Soho, she looked up to find a priest leaning out of a window with a pride flag draped below him. He was just as enthralled by the crowd, and Marshall snapped a quick picture. Shortly thereafter, she was at a dinner party with her friends when she met a gay vicar and his husband. Despite her first attempt, she decided to get coffee with him. His first response to her project proposal, instead of incendiary rebuttals, ways to ask why she wanted to do this collection.

As they sat across from each other in a pub at Hither Green, he asked her, “why did you leave your faith?” 

She responded, “I was tired of shrinking myself for an organization that had no respect for me.” He understood completely and also had a personal experience of the situation. 

Then he asked her, “what would have made it better for you?”  

“I needed a priest or religious leader to tell me that it was okay to be gay,” she replied, “not just okay, but it was a gift to have the capacity to love and to be loved.” 

“You know those religious figures exist?” He said.

This was her impetus, and she committed to the project right before she became pregnant with her son with the self-described lofty goal of fighting the queerphobia she encountered in these same religious spaces and the cultural understanding that religion and LGBTQ+ identity are dichotomous.  

Fr. Jarel Robinson Brown. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall. 

As she shared with the priest, “the issue was that I didn’t know that anybody like this existed. I had to kind of go a bit underground for it, and it turned out they do and they’re very public. Everybody that’s in the collection is very proud of the work they’re doing, and they pay a huge price for it,” she shared. “They get very regular death threats.” She decided that 95% of the 15 subjects selected needed to be based in London and be part of monotheistic faiths, which she explains was not a value judgment but just a decision made to limit the scope. For Marshall, this exhibition was about capturing the lives of queer religious individuals in their spaces of worship that she and many other London residents had no idea existed. 

Ruby Almeida. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall.

She met her subjects largely through recommendations from each person she photographed, the first being Fr. Jarel Robinson Brown. Brown, a priest, the Assistant Curate at St. Botolph-without-Aldgate and Holy Trinity Minories in the Diocese of London and Vicar-designate of St. German’s Church, Cardiff, was an avid and early supporter of the project. “Black Queer Christian identity has taught me not just to exist but to thrive, as me” the Co-Chair of the LGBTQ+ Christian Charity OneBodyOneFaith shared in the exhibition, “as the person God made me to be - it has gifted me spaces of deep belonging amongst chosen family who, each in their own way, rock my soul, carry my griefs and share my joy!”

She only had one rule--everyone who was featured in the collection had to be very comfortable in this public space because she didn’t want them to face additional consequences from being part of the exhibition, and they had to be comfortable being photographed in spaces of faith. As opposed to other collections exploring queer religious identity like Gabrielle Muller’s exhibition Seminary (2021) in the Yale Divinity School’s Sarah Smith Gallery and Divine Queerness: “Forms and Tools: Methods of Healing (2023) at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City, Marshall’s exhibition showcases queer people of faith in spaces of worship and engaging in practices central to their faith.  

Her goal was to “photograph and spotlight safe spaces within faith that people could go to,” she reflected. “So people walk in [to religious spaces] who are either parents of queer children or are queer themselves, and they look at that [exhibition] and they go, ‘I belong here.’ Rather than feeling like an outlier all of the time,” just like Marshall did when she was growing up, while at the same time, uplifting the stories of these queer religious individuals--many of whom are respected leaders in their communities--as key examples of queerness and religion coexisting within many religious spaces. For her, it always came back to young people who, like her, faced the loss of their families and their communities if they came out. 

“Even if they’re [a queer child] having a conversation with their parents at home, and they’re trying to defend themselves or whatever they’ll be able to say, look at this collection. This is an openly gay priest, at one of the main churches in London. These are not fringe people, like these are people in the main cathedrals, the main synagogues, in London, they’re at the core leadership of the faith world, and you’re telling me it’s still wrong?” The collection, Marshall believes, gives queer children this leverage, this visibility, even if they choose not to remain in the faith, to open a window in the very closed mind of somebody who is using faith to justify abandoning them.  

As a result of her focus on the lives of normal queer religious laypeople and leaders, Marshall only used natural light in her photographs. She remarked that there is a glamorized and televised presentation of queerness that many individuals are exposed to everyday, and while it is true (and sometimes problematic), the most important representation is normal queer people going about their lives and practicing their faith. “What I wanted to show was the normality of a gay vicar, or a trans rabbi, working within their life and working through their organization.” Her is a focus on the queer religious people of everyday life, touching on a divinity of Gabriel Garcia Roman’s Queer Icons (2022) that showcases everyday queer people as divine. 

Interestingly, she picked up a yellow light in all of the photographs, which was completely unintentional because she normally pulls away from yellow. She views this color as significant, seeing that as the connection and unifying theme across people of different faiths. The color of yellow, she believes, represents the age of their religious institution as well as the hope for a brighter future through collective, interfaith action against religiously-motivated queerphobia. Her goal was not to convert people to the faiths of individuals represented in the collection, but rather to highlight how queerphobia is the direct result of the religious doctrine of many faiths. 

Her project sought to get queer people of different faiths talking. There are many queer religious groups specific to faith tradition or community, but Marshall’s project fought this fragmentation--just as it fights the fragmentation of the LGBTQIA+ community on trans identity and rights. Many, if not all, queer religious people have encountered queerphobia at some point in their lives but there has been little work to bring queer people of different faiths together.
“If I’m only looking at the Roman Catholic side, or I’m only looking at the Islamic side, you’re going to find a smaller community. But if you come together, which is what this collection does,” it helps people to find their own interfaith communities that understand their experiences. 

A self portrait of Frances Marshall. Photo courtesy of Frances Marshall. 

It is only through collective interfaith action--in recognizing how multiple religious faiths contribute to social and political queerphobia--that queer people can realize queer religious liberation, and it is only through interfaith queer religious collections that people can see the representation they need to challenge this queerphobia as inherent and permanent to their religious institutions. Her first exhibition opened at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, after Rabbi Igor Zinkov expressed interest in the project--again over a friend's dinner party. 

Her exhibition then traveled to the West London Synagogue with thanks to Rabbi Matthew Turchin and just recently was displayed at a Roman Catholic school in Leicester. This installation was coordinated by George White, a trans man and Catholic teacher of religious education at the same catholic school he attended as a child in Ireland. This upcoming week, the exhibition is headed to King’s College London on March 6th, where Rabbi Harrie Cedar is coordinating an open panel discussion the night the exhibition is first displayed to the public--Marshall views this discussion as a key part of the display of this collection, inviting others to contribute and find community through visibility. 

The exhibition is later headed to the Arts and Minds Festival at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, the university Marshall attended. This is a big step as this university has one of the main seminarian colleges in the country. Prior to this exhibition, the photos were displayed in the foyers, discussion halls, and vestibules of their religious spaces, but at Exeter Cathedral, the photos will be mounted on the walls of the church and propped up into the pews, bringing them even closer to the heart of the institutions. She plans to publish this collection as a book to be sold in religious spaces and religious shops so that her collection can have an international impact and hopes to bring the exhibition to the United States this year. 

I found Marshall’s collection and exhibition Queer Religion to be a wonderful way of holding space for queer people of faith and promoting interreligious queer affirmation and community. She affirms that queer people can have careers and futures within the Church, but most importantly, that queer people need the same kind of communities and support systems that often develop in spaces of worship but which are often lost when they come out. Her exhibition, I discovered, was a ritual in healing and a prayer for queer futures in the spaces that have historically caused LGBTQ+ individuals the most intense physical and spiritual harm. WM


Emma Cieslik

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a queer, disabled and neurodivergent museum professional and writer based in Washington, DC. She is also a queer religious scholar interested in the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, and material culture, especially focused on queer religious identity and accessible histories. Her previous writing has appeared in The Art Newspaper, ArtUK, Archer Magazine, Religion & Politics, The Revealer, Nursing Clio, Killing the Buddha, Museum Next, Religion Dispatches, and Teen Vogue

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