EMBODIMENT, GENDER, AND RE-LIGION.
Her shirt: "Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?" Photo by author from Women's Convention, Detroit, MI, October 2017 Father's sneering comment to his young son: "That's one of them funny eople, she used to be a man." Son: (after a moment of silence) "I hope that never happens to me." "I'm seriously offended that there is such a thing as this [LGBTIQ+] movement. Society cannot and should not except [sic] this behavior. I have a right to be offended and will always be offended by this fake movement which requires no special attention but by people with an altered ego and fake agenda." From a Facebook post by Madison County, Alabama, Deputy Jeff Graves, following a black gay teen's suicide. '"Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump, BBQ:' Deputy on Leave After Writing an Anti-LGBTQ. post Mocking Bullied Dead Teen" Kyle Swenson, The Washington Post, April 24, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation /2019/04/24/liberty-guns-bible-trump-bbq-deputy-leave-after-writing-an -anti4gbtq-post-mocking-bullied-dead-teen/?utm_term=.635fc8265af5
Historians trace eras and anthropologists research societies where a gay or trans-person had a place and purpose in those social structures. This body of scholarship across time and culture proves that gender categories are socially constructed. In the last fifty or so years, medical researchers and biologists have proven that the binary constructions of sex, strictly male or female, are not true representations of biology, which are much more complex than a simple box 1 or box 2. This essay will not spend time focusing on any of these disciplines. Instead, I'll hold all this as background and foundational for the direction I'm taking: a religious and sociocultural consideration of gender-focused oppressions and connections with other oppressions.
Issues of gender identity had been hardwired into the United States' various cultures, evident in the above father-son conversation and in the heartless post by an Alabama deputy responding to a black teen's suicide. However, these ideas of binary-only identities are being challenged by the number of people recognizing their own sexual realities and publicly claiming their identities. Gendered restrictions are challenged by some who support social acceptance of non-conforming gender identities. Yet, unlike the woman in the T-shirt at the beginning of this essay, there is serious pushback against gender diversity. As a result, GLAAD, with the Harris Poll, conducted the 2018 Accelerating Acceptance report and the results are mixed:
For decades, as more and more LGBTQ people were out, visible, and threaded through all walks of life, non-LGBTQ people became more comfortable. This year, more non-LGBTQ. U.S. adults reported being uncomfortable learning a family member, doctor, or child's teacher is LGBTQ, However, 79 percent of non-LGBTQ. U.S. adults still agreed with the statement 'I support equal rights for the LGBT community.' (1)
But there is another layer of complications: The emphasis on LGBTQIA+ issues often has a male face, particularly in the media. This reflects the male bias in American society. A black gay man who considers himself a progressive wrote: "Masculinity operates like whiteness: It demands control over any space it enters. It plants itself in the center and shoves anything coded as feminine to the edges.... And just as these ideas confine the minds and hearts of men, they corrode public life." (2)
The very extension of the categories--LGBTQIA--causes confusion for some people: Where did all these forms of sexuality start? Is it, as the deputy claimed, just some kind of movement? Is it some people choosing to perform weird sex acts? A bizarre lifestyle? Lesbian and gay, transgender women and transgender men, intersexed and bisexual people, are not new species of humanity caused by, say, recent solar flares. Yet, binary sex identity is promoted too frequently, and anything else is denigrated too often, transmitted on many frequencies, indicated by the father-son conversation above.
Not a choice of a lifestyle, no person can catch LGBTQ, and no person can promote gender fluid identities. The seeming expansion of identities involves people claiming their own space and giving themselves a fitting name, as well as finding communities who accept them. Civil rights movements and human rights awareness have assisted a wider change in social consciousness in our times. The days when designated experts could decree what a group or person should be called, ended in the twentieth century. Part of the struggle is that twentieth-century thinkers haven't gotten that news or haven't believed that the change is true. So, we in the United States witness a struggle in many places across the country because of the allowance of same-sex marriage. There is now a backlash with new governmental efforts to excise transgender people from the military. And to establish laws that determine that only the at-birth sex designations are allowed. And that gay and lesbian people have no rights to adopt children. These and other backlash activities are enshrined in a pious language of saving society and saving ourselves, but they are activities of pseudo-salvation. It is illogical to think that throwing bombs at a clinic or a synagogue or a black church is salvific any more than thinking that policing gender is godly. It is as illogical to act in ways that demean other people, demean them so severely that gay teens believe they should kill themselves.
Sex sells, marketers have believed. And so sex has been able to sell the correctness of white patriarchy. But think about it: If patriarchy wants to retain control, all sex that is not approved has to be beaten back into the binaiy boxes and this includes women and the roles they may play. When "real men are men and real women are women," Victorian ideas of gender identity can become infused into our theological language. It is no surprise that women become another front line in the battle to retain the binary sex world that supports patriarchy. The old construction of women as fetus carriers is blessed by religions that ignore all lives outside the womb. One author who had been involved in the Christian right-to-life movement has come to another awareness: "The anti-abortion movement pays lip service to caring for women, but what the recent spate of laws shows us is that in the end there is only one thing they care about: the embryo or fetus. The lives of young rape or incest victims are accepted as collateral damage, and women who want to protect their health are as cast sinister actors incapable of searching their own consciences for a way forward when a wanted pregnancy goes awry." (3)
The enforcement of heteronormative gender identity happens in many ways, including and especially churches. It is in this matrix that religious and sociocultural gender troubles brew. So many churches and religious groups in the U.S. promote, by omission or commission, a patriarchal world view that also endorses binary sex identifications with men in charge--after all, it is argued, "male/female" is in the Christian version of the Bible and women are told to be silent in churches. But so is concubinage written into scripture. And rape. And slavery. And selling in the temple. And Pharisaical self-righteousness. None of these concepts are necessarily supported by Christians today. But the carefully cherry-picked Scriptural references can build theological views that end up promoting social actions. Concubinage, rape, and slavery might be out of consideration today, but selling in our houses of worship happens from the gift shops to the ATM machines.
Self-righteousness? An excellent example is found in the words of an evangelical preacher who took to Twitter about a gay candidate for President of the United States. "As a Christian, I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman--not two men, not two women... The core of the Christian faith is believing and following Jesus Christ, who God sent to be the Savior of the world--to save us from sin, to save us from hell, to save us from eternal damnation." (4) Self-righteous may seem a harsh designation for this quotation. But this preacher lives and works in the United States. Here, any church, from Anglican to Unification, has every right to demand that the professed members adhere to their accepted theological beliefs. However, with a constitutional foundation that supports freedom of religion, no church has a legal right to impose its views on the rest of the country.
One meaning of religion is tied to its Latinate root, religare, to bind. RE-ligion is meant to bind its followers back to the meanings of the founders, those who initially envisioned what it means to live a holy life. But the politicization of religion, in the United States and across the globe, has turned the binding to human definitions of holiness. Sexuality, gender, race, and class can be changed into weapons that bind members to the words of the self-righteous. Sex and gender are especially powerful forms of RE-ligious talk at this time.
That imposition of religious concepts crafts definitions of who is or is not fully human. Not just a sinner within that tradition, but a transgressor everywhere else. In fact, the very humanity of other people gets tied up in these definitions. There is a long American tradition of using religion to define the Other. Native Americans were tied to stereotypes of "savages," and church groups built Indian schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; children were taken from parents and brutally taught to conform to someone else's idea of "civilized." Black people were tied to many stereotypes. Churches used these to support the idea that skin color was indicative of necessary (for-your-own-good) bondage, supported by a "curse of Ham" myth (5) and the Scriptural absence of any rejection of enslavement. (6) While such concepts may have historic roots, in fact, they seeped into the marrow of this country including churches. The methods of Other-ing people have become violent national sports--of this reality, LGBTQIA+ people are sharply aware.
Each instance of Othering is accompanied by lessening the acceptance of the person as fully human. Stated by Lisa Isherwood and Marcella Althaus-Reid, "A gender-thinking, white-race colouring of reflection and a class bias have lain behind the making of many reflections in the Church without having been explicitly acknowledged." (7) They mention the significance of both race and class in informing our gendered and religious views. Both need more exploration here.
Threats of white violence haunt black lives and target black bodies. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a black queer woman, wrote of the realities of such living: "I was not expected to or encouraged to survive.... We lived a precarious life on the tightrope of poverty bordered at each end with the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors preached and then the first Black president preached--they preached that more than they preached a commitment to collective responsibility. They preached it more than they preached about what it meant to be in the world's wealthiest nation and yet the place with extraordinary unemployment, an extraordinary lack of livable wages and an extraordinary disruption of basic opportunity." (8)
What Cullors describes begins in childhood, as the report, Black Girls Matter, defined. (9) While there are harsher punishments for both black boys and girls from elementary school ages, the cumulative effect on girls undermines their sense of belonging and safety and increases their experiences of bullying, including sexually, and the incidences of interpersonal violence. (10)
Sexuality combined with race through history has led many black Americans to view the subject of sex and bodies as taboo. Many black churches avoid these discussions, so much so, that their anti-HIV and AIDS programs emphasize needle exchanges as the only points of transmission. Kelly Brown Douglas writes of sexuality and the black church, and highlights the history wherein white people condemned black people as unable to control their own desires which, therefore, proved that blacks are lesser humans. These white theo-social constructions emphasized
Not simply the sinfulness of the body, but also the vileness of blackness. This double-burden of sin fundamentally forces black women and men to develop an intransigent attitude toward sexuality, all in an effort to at least sever the tie between it and their blackness. Practically speaking, black peoples' hope for "social" acceptance and salvation is contingent on one pivotal requirement: a "radical" rejection/ denial of sexuality. Such a rejection potentially invalidates white characterizations and assures divine affirmation. With one radical act of sexual denial, black people can affirm their humanity and redeem their soul. (11)
The costs of the radical act of sexual denial to LGBTIQIA+ bodies include "economic insecurity, violence and harassment, HIV and health inequity, religious intolerance, and criminal injustice." (12)
Social class, particularly poverty, multiplies the stigmatization of non-heteronormative persons. Homelessness for LGBTQIA youth occurs when families reject their gender non-conforming young. Bullying occurs at schools with no protection from teachers and parents who may not know what to do. Higher rates of suicide occur even as programs like "It Gets Better" may not reach into poorer communities. Related health care, whether it is access to antiretroviral drugs which lower the chance of HIV transmission or access to gender reassignment surgery and/or drug therapy, is not readily available, if at all, in poorer communities. "To envision the LGBT poor, you only have to think about the young gay man who is kicked out of his home and ends up at the Greyhound Bus Station in Hollywood; the transgender woman being turned down in job interview after job interview for entry level jobs; or an elderly lesbian whose partner's death means less social security income and possibly the loss of her home." (13)
So, race and class surface in different ways when entering discussions of, or actions on, sexuality and gender. We might hear arguments about transgender people in the military or same-sex couple adoption. But the less-reported higher rate of abuse and murder of trans women of color or rates of suicide for a gay teen or lack of access to health care or bullying--this list can go on, fully enacting violence against LGBTQIA persons. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) extensively reported on the experiences of violence and were careful to incorporate intersectionality and the effects--persistent social injustice.
The IACHR examines the situation of violence faced by persons at the intersection of non-normative sexual orientations, gender identities, and variations in sex characteristics, on the one hand, and the following factors on the other: ethnicity; race; sex; gender; migration status; age; status as a human rights defender; and poverty. These groups can suffer from a continuous cycle of violence and discrimination caused by impunity and a lack of access to justice. (14)
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that all oppressions are equivalent and interchangeable. I am stating that what is at risk in every act of hatred and every Othering is our very humanity for the deepest flaw in the hate-those-Others argument is that acts of destroying others by law or violence or word ultimately destroys the humanity of the person steeped in the hatred. The acts of pseudo-saving by enacted law or theological concept are no less acts of hatred because they deny the complex beauty of humanity by trying to flatten it into a single shape. And for Christians, the question has to be: Who do you think created those you have Othered?
While I do not teach a course called world religions any longer (undergraduate students wander away at the end of the class thinking they are experts in all religions!), I will emphasize one of the points I tried to make during the time I taught the class: At the heart of every religion is the idea of love of humanity. For Christians, it might be paraphrased in the parabolic question of those who are damned: "When did we see You hungry, naked, homeless?" and the response: "As you did it to the least of these..." When religions call their members to exclusion, whether Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, or Lucumi, the point is not to stand inside "our" shed and condemn all others outside. We are called inside to learn how to save ourselves and find out how to be better humans in a given tradition. We are called to the vision of the founder, RE-ligion. If we feel that we are called inside to learn how to hate, then we have fallen into a false religion. The idol at the center of that false religion is still material and embodied: It is our own mirror image.
The relationships between these forms of oppression also turn back to a core feminist principle: intersectionality. Just race or class or sex or gender or ability could become a basis for constructing oppression, but each one overlaps another and multiplies the effect. The embodied reality is that the intersection of each of these crafts a power grid that keeps people invisible and powerless in society. Kimberle Crenshaw Williams coined the term intersectionality and discussed the complexity of its meaning: "I would say at the outset that intersectionality is not being offered as some new, totalizing theory of identity.... My focus on race and gender only highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed." (15)
The rights of transgender persons are components of those grounds of identity, and part of the social world's construction. These rights are tied up with race, class, and sexuality, in other words, tied to embodied, intersectional realities. Religions and theologians have not always embraced these bodily concerns as points of analysis, especially if the religion has offered a view of holiness that denies the significance of the body.
The biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson brings a necessary embodied focus to the tasks of theology, placing the current challenges for transgender rights in the context of years of struggles for human rights. He recognizes that people who have been working for racial equality, women's equality, and acceptance of same-sex people and same-sex marriage may have activist-fatigue when it comes to one more battle. (16) But, he cautions, theologians risk failure by closing out embodied realities when they try to avoid the complex discussions of sex and gender.
Theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and--for goodness sake!--biology.... Theologians are required, then, to give as much attention to the specifics of human experience in live human bodies as they do to the exegesis of ancient texts in dead languages--and not least because the special arena of God's self-disclosure is the human body. (17)
So what can be done? I often hit a wall of exhaustion as the waves of anti-everything-but-white-patriarchy batter my heart. Recognizing that the intersectional nature of oppressions, the social constructions of Othered categories of humans, and the inherent permission to be violent against those Others, is but a beginning for me to critically analyze what is happening in our world. Even that beginning can lead to activist-numbness and a sense of disempowerment. For instance, it was reported that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act on Friday, May 17, 2019. "The bill would address a remaining gap in civil rights laws: While there are already federal laws protecting people from discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and disability, there are no such federal laws explicitly protecting LGBTQ. people from discrimination." (18)
This seems wonderful. But quite a few religious leaders penned a letter to the House and Senate, stating: "Not only is it incompatible with God's Word (the Bible) and the historic teaching of the church, but the Equality Act is also riddled with threats to religious liberty and the sanctity of human life. For these reasons, we must state that we adamantly oppose this proposed legislation." (19)
And then I see a woman in a T-shirt which throws out the challenge: "Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?" And I realize that despite all the binary-sex-real-women-real-men backlash, there is no way to un-see the road to freedom and RE-ligion that directs its members into the vision of the founder.
(1.) GLAAD, "Accelerating Acceptance 2018," http://www.glaad.org/files/aa/Accelerating%20Acceptance%202018.pdf
(2.) Wright, Kai, "The Misogynist Within," The Notion, December 20, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-misogynist-within/
(3.) Powers, Kirsten, '"Heartbeat bills' Reveal Extremist Anti-abortion View That Values Unborn Over Women," USA Today, May 14, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/stoiy/opinion/2019/05/14/heartbeat-bills-anti-abortion-laws-late-term-women-christian-column/1190340001/
(4.) Swenson, Kyle, "Not Something to be flaunted. Praised or Politicized: Franklin Graham Blasts Buttigieg for Being Gay," The Washington Post, April 25, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/04/25/not-something-be-flaunted-praised-or-politicized-franklin-graham-blasts-buttigieg-being-gay/?utm_term=.1178bc1e0e28
(5.) The so-called Curse of Ham is derived from Genesis 9 and was used extensively during the Transatlantic Slave Trade as evidence of God's approval of enslavement. In depth analysis of the impact of such false theology in David Whitford's 2010, "A Calvinist Heritage to the 'Curse of Ham': Assessing the Accuracy of a Claim about Racial Subordination," Church History and Religious Culture. Brill: 90(1), 25-45.
(6.) For instance, before the Civil War, a Baptist preacher, Thornton Stringfellow taught: "When God entered into covenant with Abraham, it was with him as a slaveholder... The institution of slavery existed in every family... at the time the gospel was published to them." Stringfellow, Thomas, "A Scriptural View of Slavery," in Slavery Defended: Views of the Old South, ed. Eric L. McKittrick (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963), pp. 97-98.
(7.) Althaus-Reid, Marcella and Lisa Isherwood, 'The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God, and Politics (New York: T and T Clark International, 2004), p. 2.
(8.) Cullors, Patrisse Khan and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist, A Black Live Matter Memoir (New York: St. Martin's Press 2018), p. 5.
(9.) Crenshaw, Kimberle, Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015).
(10.) Crenshaw et al, cited among the key observations, pp. 8-10.
(11.) Douglas, Kelly Brown, 2003, "The Black Church and Homosexuality: The Black and White of It," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 57(1-2), p. 40.
(12.) "Being African American LGBTQ.: An Introduction," Report by the Human Rights Campaign, https://www.hrc.org/resources/being-african-american-lgbtq-an-introduction. Accessed May 1, 2019.
(13.) Sears, Brad and Lee Badgett, "Beyond Stereotypes: Poverty in the LGBT Community," TIDES | Momentum, The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, Issue 4, June 2012, https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/williams-in-the-news/beyond-stereotypes-poverty-in-the-lgbt-community/
(14.) Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Persons in the Americas executive summary Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Organization of American States, OAS/Ser.L/V/II.rev.l Doc. 36, 12 November 2015 P 15, http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/ViolenceLGBTIPersons.pdf
(15.) Williams, Kimberle Crenshaw, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color," in The Public Nature of Private Violence, eds. Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk, (New York: Routledge 1994), p. 94.
(16.) Cloutier, David and Luke Timothy Johnson, 2017, "The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities," Commonweal, March 10, 19.
(17.) Ibid, 21.
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|Title Annotation:||overlap of oppressions through social historical lens|
|Author:||Mitchem, Stephanie Y.|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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