Embracing Disruptive Coherence

Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice

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Kathleen T. Talvacchia
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , April
     2019.
     142 pages.
     $19.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532648885.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

As a politically liberating action, coming out has been seemingly discredited by queer theory. And yet, coming out continues to be a meaningful practice of overcoming stigmatization and oppression for many people in queer communities.

Kathleen T. Talvacchia’s book Embracing Disruptive Coherence lays out a new framework for understanding coming out as a practice of embracing disruptive coherence. As the title suggests, this book’s proposition is not a simple or straightforward matter. The book describes holding together contradictory features of living amidst intersectional power structures and stigmatization. The title names what the book develops as a meaningful concept, points to the central conundrum it seeks to productively engage and describes the way the author engages the task. Located in practical Christian theology, the book draws on queer theory, Christian theology, ethics, and autobiographical reflections.

Talvacchia’s project takes for granted that coming out is contested in many queer contexts, and for good reason. If coming out is understood as a singular event in which an individual reveals their unchanging or essential truth, we miss the necessarily ongoing processes of identity practices amidst complex negotiations of intersecting and multiple communities; descriptions of coming out can then too easily reinscribe or uphold normative notions of identity based on false binaries and can become a disciplinary tool aimed at uncritical conformity or assimilation.

At the same time, since she is familiar with the critique of coming out as a liberatory activity, Talvacchia has a keen eye for the nevertheless deeply meaningful negotiations of truth-telling among queer communities of various sorts. Her own reflections on negotiating multiple generations and several cultures in coming out to her Italian Catholic parents and her Korean evangelical in-laws at different times illustrates from the outset that the theoretical, theological, and ethical reflections are grounded in lived experience. Rather than throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, Talvacchia proposes to focus on coming out in a new way that takes seriously how for some people coming out describes the meaningful engagement of intersecting power dynamics. Talvacchia writes specifically from within a Christian context and her proposal is aimed to be descriptive, not prescriptive, or in her words, “an exercise in constructive queer theology in which I am reflecting upon a critical experience of many queer communities, and then using those insights to develop broader statements about what might be considered consistent communal practices that make sense within specific cultural contexts” (7).

The first few chapters lay the groundwork for understanding coming out not as a singular act but as an ongoing spiritual, erotic, and ethical practice. Beginning with a queer reading of the biblical account of the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, Talvacchia suggests that coming out can be understood as a form of meaningful truth-telling that is always relational, is located within complex power-structures, and can contain experiences of disruption as well as stability or coherence, all while contributing to a larger project of seeking justice. Within a subsequent review of queer theoretical and theological resources foundational to her project, she proposes understanding coming out as a series of ethical practices. Thus, coming out is less a singular act of telling or revealing a “true self” than an ongoing and complex process of engaged practice, or what she calls “becoming-selfhood-in-the-world” (27) and “becoming-selfhood-in-relation” (86). Understood as practice, coming out becomes meaningful through developing relationships in lived reality that can include transgressive disruptions and challenges to existing norms as well as experiences of meaningful belonging and coherence.   

The fourth and fifth chapters develop the central concept of the book, “disruptive coherence.” Talvacchia defines disruptive coherence as “a transgressive action of embodied truth-telling that is formed from moral convictions for the purpose of resisting normative discourses that perpetuate injustice” (85). Central to her proposed concept is the claim that practicing disruptive coherence draws on developing moral convictions and spiritual maturity. Embracing central values of “prioritizing justice-love and honoring communal relationships” (70) in turn can shape ethical practices of “embracing erotic embodiment and interrogating discernment” (73). Understood in this way, coming out is not centrally concerned with the articulation of a particular identity, but is more interested in the process of ongoing learning about oneself and others in relation to, and imbricated in, complex networks of normative discourses that reward compliance and sanction transgression.

The book demonstrates the deep reflection on complex intersections of power and the messy complexity of queer lived experience that the author proposes to account for in a new way. Talvacchia carefully lays out the numerous perspectives and contributing bodies of scholarly literature, describing both the importance and the limitations of each, resulting in “putting into practice” the kind of disruptive coherence Talvacchia finds valuable in her conception of coming out. Indeed, Talvacchia manages to present in this thin volume a clearly structured, meaningful review of several decades of debates around queer identity, negotiations of power, and assertive practices of embodied belonging. She presents exceedingly complex issues in exceptionally clear prose while foregrounding throughout an unflinching commitment to justice within shifting and intersecting complex communities.

Most of the book develops the conceptual groundwork for the careful and meticulous exploration of how to think about coming out as erotic ethical practice. It is not until quite late in the book that specific examples of “disruptive coherence in praxis” are discussed (though earlier autobiographical reflections, as well as several examples and references to other literature, offer rich ground for exploration). Some illustrations of practices that can create opportunities for expression of difference, or moral convictions of counter-normativity, alongside the creation of communities that are actively inclusive of difference and multiple identifications conclude the book.

I agree with the author that, in the end, the final pages appear “more like an exhortation than a conclusion” (116). This book offers an innovative beginning for what hopefully will be further contributions of Talvacchia and others to account for the meaning-making found in queer embodied practices that wrestle with strategies of disruptive coherence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claudia Schippert is Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Central Florida.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She is co-editor of Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015), an anthology examining the lived religious experiences of LGBTIQ Christians, and authored Critical Minds and Discerning Hearts: A Spirituality of Multicultural Teaching (2003). She served as the chair of the Status of LGBTIQ Persons in the Profession of the American Academy of Religion.

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