“I’m just aware they’re labels”

Researching Western Buddhist Practices of Gender and Sexual Identification


  • Sharon Smith Independent scholar




Buddhist, identity, LGBTQI, minority, queer


This article discusses fieldwork in two research projects on Buddhists in London. It explores issues involved in researching lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning and/or intersex (LGBTQI) Buddhists. It also considers issues around heterosexual identities in Buddhist communi-ties. In researching dynamics of gender and sexual identification of participants it was observed that at times participant narratives treated these identities for these axes of difference as provisional and contingent rather than essential, fixed and a basis for socio-political organization. This contrasts with much of the work on religion and sexuality in mainstream theistic traditions, where their LGBTQI members often argue a “reverse discourse” asserting their place in a “Divine Order” in which their sexual/gender identity is a key part of “who they are.” It is argued that theoretical approaches based on queer theorizing could be particularly applicable to research on Western Buddhist perspectives on gender and sexual identities. This is attributed to the anti-essentialist approach Buddhism takes to questions of subjectivity and identification and its non-hegemonic status in the West. Such queer theorizing would, however, need to acknowledge the constraints to “border crossings” between identity positions arising from oppressive forces from gender minoritization, class status, minority ethnic origin, and so on. It is also suggested that research on the heterosexual majority can elucidate ways in which faith communities are gendered, racialized and stratified by class.


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Author Biography

Sharon Smith, Independent scholar

Sharon Smith was a Research Associate of the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Sussex. She was a sociologist of religion whose interests were in the ways religious/spiritual spaces and identities are taken up and further inscribed by other axes of “difference” (particularly “race,” ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality). Her doctoral research was a feminist ethnography of Western convert Buddhist movements in East London and their interactions with people minoritized due to their being people of colour and/or working class. She was also postdoctoral research fellow for the AHRC/ESRC funded project Queer Spiritual Spaces at the University of Sussex. Sharon passed away on 13 March 2011. All queries about this article should be forwarded to the guest editor, Professor Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip ([email protected]).


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How to Cite

Smith, S. (2013). “I’m just aware they’re labels”: Researching Western Buddhist Practices of Gender and Sexual Identification. Fieldwork in Religion, 7(2), 179–193. https://doi.org/10.1558/firn.v7i2.179