Right-wing and reactionary forces in the USA and UK are once again stoking panic about trans people and practices of gender and sexual variation. Their arguments, though, rely upon faulty assumptions about gender, particularly in relation to history and religion. Such assumptions can be challenged by understanding that gender has never been fixed in the way they argue—neither today nor in the ancient context of the biblical texts often enlisted in so-called religious objections to trans and queer folks.
The relation of this past to our present is crucial. Roman imperial forces tried to dismiss, legislate, and mock people they considered to be gender-variant into even further marginalization. They used terms like “androgyne” and “eunuch” to classify people, and attempted to sort who they found acceptable, even virtuous, and who they found worthy of mockery and condemnation, and thus excluded from elite forms of family, authority, and inheritance. Biblical texts and communities repeated or resisted these assessments in a variety of ways, sometimes reinforcing Roman imperial stereotypes of these “scare figures” (at several points in Paul’s letters), sometimes conceding or just revealing that some gender-variant people were central to those communities (also in Paul’s letters, or in the famous “eunuchs” saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 19:12).
Why might this matter to people now? These ancient and biblical efforts reflect a similar anxiety, as well as an accompanying knowledge that not everyone finds gender-variant people and practices to be a problem, then or now.
Today transphobic forces tell one kind of story, and have gained degrees of legal, cultural, and religious traction in the UK and USA. Late last year, the High Court of England and Wales constrained the kinds of medical care trans youth could access. This legal decision comes in the wake of orchestrated campaigns against the Gender Recognition Act in 2017, and a corresponding spike in hate crimes against British trans folks. People identifying as feminist have played large roles in these contexts, engaging in tired, if potent forms of fear-mongering, smearing trans people as “predators” in bathrooms, prisons, and sports.
Just this year in the USA, one influential extremist organization (designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) has successfully directed regressive and reactionary legislation against trans youth in at least 20 states. Bills aiming to restrict transgender youth’s access to health care and school sport activities claim a similar rationale of “protecting” women and children, interwoven with claims about nature, time, and religious liberty. Even senators and congress members have echoed these talking points, targeting the first transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate as well as the child of a fellow congresswoman.
“In both the past and the present, gender is neither a strict boundary, nor even a continuum, but better viewed as a constellation.”
The gender systems of the first and the twenty-first centuries are no doubt different from each other. The prevailing perspectives of the biblical past panicked about purportedly out of place women or unmanly males, within or besides growing populations of enslaved and conquered people. Yet, this anxiety and the resulting violence they directed against those they considered to be appalling bodies is not the whole story. The gospels and letters of the Christian bible show how their communities included a number of people from these groups, often in active and leading roles.
The question before us today, then, is: what lessons should we learn from this past?
The first is: gender and sexuality and embodiment have always been richer and more complicated than those who claim they have the one, stable, and clear view on them. In both the past and the present, gender is neither a strict boundary, nor even a continuum, but better viewed as a constellation. In the Roman imperial context, for example, people were seen as more than just male or female; only a rather select set of elite, free, imperially powerful citizen males counted as “men” (or viri, in Latin), with the vast majority of people functioning in a variety of ways as “un-men” (for lack of a better word).
The second and related lesson is that arguments about gendered threats often multiply the harms against already marginalized and stigmatized people. If your apparently feminist argument for protecting women targets people on the basis of their already marginalized gender, sexuality, or embodiment, then reconsider these politics in light of both our present gender constellations and longer histories and structures of harm. Right now trans and other gender nonconforming youth are far more regularly the targets, rather than the sources, of ongoing harassment, harm, and violence. In the USA, they report extraordinarily high rates of harassment (78%), physical assault (35%), and sexual violence (12%), leading at least 15% to leave school entirely.
“Religious texts and traditions have been, and still can be, a resource for how marginalized people can negotiate, survive, and even struggle against horrifying conditions.”
The third lesson is that the relationship of religion to gender, sexuality, and embodiment is also far richer and more complicated than certain, publicly predominant voices insist. It is not at all clear that biblical texts or communities would endorse the targeting of already vulnerable and stigmatized people. The lengths that Paul went to convince supposedly unruly women or unmanly males, and (or among) Gentile and enslaved members of these communities, to conform to his advice and arguments, demonstrate how vibrant and varied their gatherings were. The biblical past should haunt so many who claim to be acting in its name now.
Reactionary forces have been very successful at convincing people that to be Christian or even religious inevitably puts one in certain opposition to others, including feminist, trans, and queer people. One heart-breaking irony is that some claiming to be feminist have aligned themselves with the very reactionary groups that also seek to constrain and confine women. Another is that religious texts and traditions have been, and still can be, a resource for how marginalized people can negotiate, survive, and even struggle against horrifying conditions.
The history of trans rights and women’s rights and religious practices are themselves intertwined, not opposed. Some of the most exciting projects in religious and theological studies begin from this combination, from a constellation of genders, and from a commitment to counter rather than multiply the forms of harm facing trans and gender nonconforming people today.
Both the past and the present demonstrate how, in times of trans panic, appalling bodies matter more.
Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon