Rev. Dr. Joseph N. Goh was born in April 1971 to a family of mostly-Chinese mixed ancestry in the city of Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The elder of two children, his formative years were marked by weekend picnics in the country, Roman Catholic midnight masses, English novels, British and Malaysian sophisti-pop singles (think Sade and Sheila Majid), supernatural horror movies and fiery parental squabbles. Goh became aware that he was ‘different’ at the age of six although he did not have the capacity to articulate the word ‘gay’ until well into his teenage years. As a teenager who tried to date girls but ended up happily interacting with them as sisters, and who developed intense crushes on his male classmates, Goh’s inner conflict was exacerbated by the fact that his elders were pillars of the local Roman Catholic community. In fact, his maternal great-grandfather had left China to minister as a catechist in Sarawak and his paternal grand-aunt was a highly respected religious sister. He was deeply conflicted as being gay was (and still is) associated with illegal behaviour, abnormality, shame and sinfulness in many sectors of Malaysian life.
Fearing rejection and ridicule, the young teenage Goh disguised his sexuality from his family and friends for as long as he could. Nevertheless, he found in the Creator God a refuge of unconditional acceptance and the source of being gay. He read up as much as he could on Roman Catholic teachings and practices, and gradually considered the real possibility of channelling and transforming ‘forbidden feelings’ into a life of dedicated service to God. A lot of his time was spent in duties as an altar server, a member of the Legion of Mary, and quiet moments in prayer and discernment. Three months shy of his twenty-second birthday, and after a brief foray in secondary school teaching, he left Kuching for full-time training in religious life and the priesthood in Singapore. In the process, he found himself schooled in philosophy, theology, and practical ministerial matters. Goh professed permanent vows and was ordained by the time he was thirty. After his ordination in 2000, Goh was sent to a semi-rural parish in Malaysia to serve the mostly indigenous Bidayûh and Iban people whom he grew to respect and love. He also served on numerous ecclesial commissions in and beyond the Archdiocese. He was happy but he still could not find the inner peace and reconciliation for which he was craving. Despite experiencing the deep love of God, the official church teaching on same-sex attracted people as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘objectively disordered’ continued to haunt him.
After eight years of full-time ministry, Goh received permission to undertake graduate studies in systematic theology (sacramentology) at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California in 2008. During this time, he made many good friends at the School, the parishes to which he supplied masses, the religious communities at which he stayed, and in the wider east bay and bay area. At the end of a two-year programme over three years, Goh finally earned Licenciate in Sacred Theology (STL) and Master of Theology (ThM) degrees. The life lessons he learned during this period were both cathartic and transformative. It was at this time that his passion for academia, research and education was further fuelled. More importantly, meeting ordained and non-ordained academic and non-academic staff and students who were LGBTQ or allies – especially those who were Roman Catholic – introduced him to a whole new world of possibilities to live happily as being an out gay, ordained Christian man. In 2019 at Berkeley, Goh was inducted into the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Island Religion Scholars (EQARS) group and was introduced to a variety of queer theologies.
Goh gradually learned to relinquish Roman Catholic exceptionalism and embrace a more radical, progressive and inclusive form of Christianity. He was finally able to see that God was so much bigger and more magnanimous than he had originally thought God was. Goh could finally separate God from church, which meant that in good conscience, he could no longer preach and uphold heteronormative, cisnormative, sexist and patriarchal forms of theology. Several alarming incidents in community life also caused him to doubt that he was actually suited for religious life. After many nights of tears, pain and negotiation with God, he finally decided to leave the Roman Catholic religious life and priesthood in 2010. He still cherished his calling to the presbyteral ministry and eventually transferred his credentials to an Independent Catholic jurisdiction in 2011. However, he is currently searching for a more established community that will allow him to explore his transgressive theological sentiments, and which can accommodate his combined vision of an academic career, ministerial service and a committed relationship.
Upon returning to Malaysia in 2010, Goh broke the news of his departure from Roman Catholicism and came out to his parents who, much to his relief, welcomed the news well. His dad said to him, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, you’re still our son and we love you’. He had come out to his sister many years earlier and she had accepted him then by telling him that she understood how ‘some people prefer coffee and others prefer tea’. Eager to experience new forms of service after 17 years of ecclesiastical ministry, he ventured into not-for-profit work and served as an HIV Counselling and Testing Manager at PT Foundation, a community based organisation concerned with issues of gender, sexuality and sexual health in Kuala Lumpur. Goh’s world expanded again, as he found himself working alongside diverse colleagues who hailed from diverse communities of gay men, lesbian women and other queer people, transgender women and men, transgender women sex workers, female sex workers, People Living with HIV and People Who Inject Drugs, as well as interns, volunteers and resource persons who either identified as LGBTQ or were allies.
Goh saw his time at PT Foundation as a form of ministry which was vastly more challenging than parish ministry, but he was also invited by the pastor of the open and affirming Good Samaritan Metropolitan Community Church (which became Good Samaritan Kuala Lumpur church in 2012) Joe Pang to deliver sermons and lead worship on a constant basis for the benefit of its mostly gay and lesbian congregation. It was also in 2010 that Goh met a handsome, intelligent, kind, generous and funny, 6’3” (190.5 cm) man – ‘R’ – a non-Malaysian who had been working as an academic at a local university for close to decade. They took to each other instantly as they shared many common interests. After a brief period of dating and falling in love, they entered into a committed relationship in 2011. Goh is grateful that R, a non-believer, became for him an embodiment of God’s love and taught him how to become a better Christian. They shared 5 years, 4 months and 18 days of happiness together before R finally succumbed to a terminal illness in 2016. Although they did not have the opportunity to officially marry, Goh still considers R as his late husband.
In 2012, Goh made the decision to embark on full-time doctoral studies. He left PT Foundation and began conversations with Sharon A. Bong, a feminist religious studies and gender studies scholar at the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia who was to become his doctoral advisor. Goh also reached out to queer theologian Robert E. Shore-Goss in the United States who agreed to act as his co-advisor. Aside from the desire to transition to a career in education and research, and the pursuit of a sense of achievement and fulfilment, his decision to engage in an intensive, full-time, research-based, three-year doctoral programme was also based on his intention to consolidate his thoughts on being both gay and spiritual in a coherent and cohesive manner. His research on gay and bisexual men in Malaysia culminated in a thesis which blended the social sciences and theology entitled Piercing Transcendence: A Queer Theorising and Theologising of Non-Heteronormative Malaysian Men, for which he was awarded a doctoral degree in 2015. In 2016, he successfully applied for the position of Lecturer in Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences. In 2018, Goh and Sharon A. Bong and Vizla Kumaresan were awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity and Inclusion Award for the design of a blended Monash Education Academy module entitled ‘Understanding Gender Inclusivity in Malaysia’. Goh was promoted to Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies in 2019.
Although Goh researches primarily at the intersection of gender, sexuality and theology, he is also interested in broader LGBTI and queer studies, sexual health issues, religious and theological studies, sexual ethics, human rights issues and qualitative research. As a theological activist, he enjoys writing on issues of religion and theology, particularly in their intersections with LGBTIQ subjectivities, and has written extensively in these areas. For him, writing is a profoundly spiritual practice. Goh is the author of books such as Doing Church at the Amplify Open and Affirming Conferences: Queer Ecclesiologies in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man: Gender, Society, Body and Faith (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), and Living Out Sexuality and Faith: Body Admissions of Malaysian Gay and Bisexual Men (Routledge 2018). Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man received the ‘Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade’ in the International Convention of Asia Scholars Book Prize 2021 Accolades in the Social Sciences section. He has also co-edited Gender and Sexuality Justice in Asia: Finding Resolutions through Conflicts (with Sharon A. Bong and Thaatchaayini Kananatu; Springer 2020), Unlocking Orthodoxies for Inclusive Theologies: Queer Alternatives (with Robert E. Shore-Goss; Routledge 2020), and Queering Migrations Towards, From, and Beyond Asia (with Hugo Córdova Quero and Michael Sepidoza Campos; Palgrave Macmillan 2014).
Goh’s works have also appeared in various journals, anthologies, and reports. His opinions and expertise have been sought after for workshops and expert commentaries. Goh is a member of the Advisory Committee of the Institute for Advanced Study in Asian Cultures and Theologies (IASACT) that is administered by the Divinity School of Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in collaboration with the United Board of Christian Higher Education. He sits on the editorial board of two online journals, Religión e Indicencia Pública and Conexión Queer: Revista Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Teologías Queer. He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the Queer Asia book series (Hong Kong University Press).
Goh enjoys reading and writing, road trips, supernatural horror and scary science fiction movies, floral shirts, all kinds of Asian food, sweet desserts and snacks, arts and crafts, brisk walks and the occasional meet-up with close friends. He is uncle to a wonderful niece and godfather to an amazing pair of twins. Goh hopes to make the world a better place for all, especially LGBTIQ people in Malaysia.
(This biographical statement provided by Joseph Goh. Photo credit: PUAH Sze Ning.)
Biography Date: September 2021
“Rev. Dr. Joseph N. Goh | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 24, 2021, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/joseph-goh.