Raffaella Taylor-Seymour

Raffaella Taylor-Seymour


Martin Marty Center Fellow

My research aims to understand the role religious beliefs and practices play in negotiating historical and contemporary social change, and how they develop and adapt in response. My research focuses on Africa — specifically Zimbabwe — and the entanglement of multiple religious traditions, in particular ancestral spiritual practices, mission Christianity, and Pentecostalism. In a context in which colonialism forcefully upended ideas about personhood, spirituality, and ties between people and place, I investigate how religious life is central to the navigation of pressing contemporary social questions. My dissertation, entitled ‘Intimate Rites: Localizing Queerness through Ancestral Spiritualities,’ takes up these questions by exploring how young people in Zimbabwe are developing new expressions of gender and sexuality through the reinvention of spiritual practices involving ancestors.

Queer Zimbabweans live in a context in which local political and religious leaders assert that the LGBTQ framework is a Western invention, claiming that to be gay is ‘un-African’ and LGBTQ rights are a neo-colonial imposition. In response, gay rights activists contend that LGBTQ rights are human rights, asserting that sexual orientation and gender identity should be protected regardless of religious or cultural context. Yet as my dissertation demonstrates, young queer Zimbabweans neither uncritically receive identity-based accounts of sexuality, nor do they accept the notion that their sexualities are at odds with Zimbabwean traditions and Christian morality. Building on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork, my dissertation shows how young queer Zimbabweans draw on Pentecostal ideas about cultivating a personal relationship with God and go on to embrace the very ancestral traditions from which they are supposedly excluded. In the process, I contend, they untether religious life from the authority of elders, while simultaneously localizing their experience, expressions, and understandings of queerness.

Since my first year at Chicago, I’ve found the Divinity School a great second home and enjoyed being among those working on the anthropology and history of religion, as well as other branches of religious studies. I’m also very committed to the Marty Center’s emphasis on engagement with the world beyond the academy, and aspire in the long term to write for general as well as specialist audiences. I was excited to discover the Marty Center Junior Fellows program, since it will give me a chance to address my work to religious studies audiences more directly and to be among a diverse group of people coming at religious studies questions from various angles.