Virginia Ramey Mollenkott graced last month’s Transforming Faith–Divining Gender conference not only with her warm and wise presence, but with a wonderful keynote address. In it she laid out seven reasons that religious groups should embrace their transgender members. Here’s a summary, taken from my notes:
- The scriptures are trans-friendly; people who value them should be as well. For example, note the Yahwist creation account, in which God’s original creative impulse is toward a hermaphroditic creation. Jesus speaks well of eunuchs and condemns the use of “Raca,” which scholarship has shown means “effeminate” or “sissy.” Once we shed our cultural proclivities, we can see an ethos in scripture that takes a favorable view of gender variance and diversity.
- Transgender members help congregations transcend gender stereotypes. The binary gender construct does not merely differentiate between genders, but unjustly elevates one over the other. Transgender people provide congregations with a unique reminder that stereotypes are not objectively concrete and need not bind us.
- Transgender members remind congregations to use diverse and inclusive language when speaking about God. In Mollenkott’s words, “If God is male, then male is god.” Transgender people are particularly sensitive to the injustices caused by gendering God inappropriately. Transgender people do congregations a great service when they insist upon more accurate language for God.
- Transgender people have traditionally been recognized in many cultures as bridges between the seen and unseen worlds. Mollenkott made particular note of how Milton genders his angel characters in Paradise Lost. There is tremendous depth to this tradition.
- Transgender people have often reflected deeply on the connections between faith, justice, gender, and sex. Our congregations’ hang-ups on these topics have distracted them from far more important matters. Transgender people can educate their congregations on our lives and issues; they are “particularly suited to teach congregations about the multiple connections between sex, gender, and justice.” As outsiders, we bring a perspective our congregations need. Jesus himself defied many gender norms, and yet in spite of his gender transgression, subordinationism holds sway in many congregations. (Mollenkott drew very interesting linkages between the lengths to which some churches and theologians go to justify subordinationism and the reappearance of Arianism.)
- As occupiers of the “forgotten middle,” transgender people can help congregations get over their addiction to certainty. Our dualistic, “good vs. evil” worldview threatens to destroy humanity and the world. (I was reminded here of Karen Armstrong’s work on the Axial Age, a period of history marked by terrible violence out of which arose today’s great religious traditions with their focus on selflessness and compassion.) “Sympathy cannot be confined to our own group,” Mollenkott said. Transgender people know what it means to occupy a middle that defies artificial dualism. This makes us particularly well suited to teach others to love the Other across dualistic divides; we’ve learned to let our pain express itself as support for others. (She made note here of the Drag Mothers who mentor young trans people in Chris Beam’s Transparent.)
- Transgender people demonstrate powerfully that just as all races share one blood, so do all genders. Mollenkott reminded us of the old “one drop” rule of race, by which anyone who had one drop of African American blood was considered African American and a legitimate target of bigotry. The same rule, she said, holds today for gender norms. One drop of femininity equals feminine or “sissy,” as opposed to the pure or normative male. If we lined up the entire human race from darkest skin to lightest skin, she asked, where would “black” end and “white” begin? Similarly, if we lined up from most masculine to most feminine, where would “masculine” begin and “feminine” end? And, more importantly, what would those distinctions even mean in that context?