God is Transgender (And So Can You!)

In seeking liberation for themselves and subversion of the dominant meta-theologies, contextual theologies often do violence to or ignore other marginalized voices. For instance, Womanist theology—theology done from the experience of black women—has brought up the issue of where  black women fit into white women’s theology, especially in relation to the history of oppression at the hands of white women. Delores Williams reminds us of the past actions of white suffragettes and their lack of concern for slave women and their active role in perpetuating this oppression in order to benefit from it.1 Williams quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who when running for the New York legislature in 1866 remarked, “We prefer Bridget and Dinah at the ballot box to Patrick and Sambo.”2

Likewise, “Latinas have become suspicious of [feminist Anglo-European movements in the United States] because of its inability to deal with differences, to share power equally among all those committed to it, to make it possible for Latinas to contribute to core meanings and understandings of the movement, . . . because of the seeming rejection of liberation as its goal, having replaced it with limited benefits for some women within present structures, benefits that necessitate some groups of women and men to be oppressed in order for some others to flourish.”3

In a similar fashion many theologies have failed to pay sufficient attention to the bodily experience of transgender people. Transgender women are met with suspicion or in some cases outright contempt by feminists. One feminist argued, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, and appropriating this body for themselves. . .transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”4 Mary Daly also posits that male-to-female surgery is a collusion of male doctors with transsexuals to invade women’s space.5 

Even in theologies that are not outright hostile to transgender people, there is a gender binary that is simply taken for granted. For instance, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “…all the persons we know are either male or female.”6 But this fails to take into account the experience of people who are transgender or transsexual. We know of people who are both male and female, or who are genitally male but identify as female, or who do not fall into any recognizable gender categories, because as many feminists argue, gender norms are socially constructed. This rejection of transgender experience is detrimental to the main arguments propounded by contextual theologies, which can, by the adoption of transgender/transsexual experience, help to liberate all people in their relation to God and each other.7 When theology acknowledges transgender experience, it liberates both men and women from a strict gender binary. Transgender people know that the genders male and female do not adequately describe themselves. This shows us that male/female as totalizing categories do not work. We can then argue along with Paul that in the Christian community “there is no longer male or female,” we are all one.

Two recent essays in Body Theologies demonstrate that there is a robust apophatic as well as incarnational theology to be gained from paying attention to the experience of people who are transgender. The first essay, by Susannah Cornwall, begins with a critique of the common “treatment” of gender variance. These “treatments” seek to erase any ambiguity in gender/genitals. Doctors are uncomfortable with transsexual people who wish to retain both sets of genitals.8 Many queer theorists, theologians, and activists, also uncomfortable with ambiguity, set up homonormativity over against heteronormativity as totalizing categories; But as Cornwall points out, “That the very binary homosexual/heterosexual cannot stand is exemplified in those who are biologically ‘homosexual’ but socially ‘heterosexual,’ which includes many transgendered people.”9

Cornwall argues that there is resonance between a) rejecting “proscriptive homonormativity” as no more liberating than heteronormativity and b) apophatic theology. “[C]lassic apophatic theologies stress that rejecting a given image or metaphor for God as too limiting or simplistic must not then entail the unproblematic adoption of an ‘opposite’ image.”10 We have to speak about God but we know that our speech always falls short. “This tension. . .[echoes]. . . considerations of the kinds of ‘knowledge’ it is possible to maintain about sex, gender and sexuality.”11 Gender binaries are problematic for our knowledge of transgender people—as well as, for instance “effeminate” males or “butch” females—who transcend these binaries. Becoming more comfortable with an apophatic, ambiguous  view of gender, could resolve the ‘issue’ of transgenderedness and genderedness altogether.1213

 

In the second essay, Martín Hugo Córdova Quero14 explores the second century patristic debates on the incarnation of Jesus. The fact that Jesus does not reject our fleshy bodies “has tremendous consequences for a liberating understanding of body/ies as the indwelling place of God, along with the whole creation.”15 Christian theology has not taken the incarnation seriously enough and has often rejected bodies as hindrances to God. But Hugo reads Gregory of Nazianzus’ maxim, “what is not assumed in not healed” as including all human bodies. He asserts that the bodily resurrection of Christ “is the beginning of his process of returning (apokatastasis) to unity with God. Therefore theosis/theopoiesis (or the process of divination/deification) is also the materialization of the apokatastasis of humanity and all creation returning to God after the event of the incarnation of Christ.”16 Bodies have eschatological significance.

Hugo asks whether Gregory of Nazianzus’ affirmation includes transgender and inter/sex peoples’ bodies. He recalls Rosemary Radford Reuther’s inquiry of whether a male savior can save women.17 If Jesus is only male then salvation for non-fully-male people is impossible. We must then queer Jesus’ incarnation. “We must not forget that notions of gender, performances of sexuality, power and order are intrinsically related to the incarnation, and conditioned by culture, political environment, economic relations, historical events and social processes.”18 Hugo concludes that as bodies are not constrained to fixed constructions there is room within heteropatriachal systems to disrupt heteronormativities, thus opening us to reception of transgender experiences.19

Hugo’s insight into the incarnation is worth exploring further in that as we free gender from its heteropatriarchal bifurcation, female  and male difference becomes much more ambiguous. I would add that since God transcends gender ontologically, the second person of the Godhead, Christ, is eternally trans-gendered, neither male nor female exclusively (that is unless we want to ontologize gender which is as Graham Ward points out an unrecognizable abstraction [see note 12]). Christ is incarnated in what is recognized in the first century to be anatomically male. Therefore, Christ in his transformation from non-gendered to male is equivalent to a post-op male transsexual.

These insights have the potential not only to assist feminist and other contextual theologies, but also to assist our conversations about Gay and Lesbian Christians. If we become more comfortable with an apophatic, ambiguous view of gender, perhaps we can view theology as a transcending of contextual theologies (e.g. Feminist, Womanist, Mujerista, Queer, Black, Liberation, etc.). We will still listen in a kataphatic way to these important voices, but we will know that the divisions cannot remain in the presence of the community of God, and that God is ultimately bigger and more inclusive than we can imagine.

 

  1. Williams quotes bell hooks: “They [the nineteenth-century white women's rights' advocates] attacked slavery, not racism. The basis of their attack was moral reform. . . .While they strongly advocated an end to slavery, they never advocated a change in the racial hierarchy that allowed their caste status to be higher than that of black women or men. In fact, they wanted that hierarchy to be maintained. Consequently, the white women’s rights movements, which had a lukewarm beginning in earlier reform activities, emerged in full force in the wake of efforts to gain rights for black people precisely because white women wanted to see no change in the social status of blacks until they [white women] were assured that their demands for more rights were met.” [BACK]
  2. Delores Williams, “The Color of Feminism: Or Speaking the Black Woman’s Tongue,” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 398-417. [BACK]
  3. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, “Mujerista Theology: A Challenge to Traditional Theology” in Contemporary Political Theology, 418-437. [BACK]
  4. Susannah Cornwall, “Recognizing the Full Spectrum of Gender? Transgender, Intersex and the Futures of Feminist Theology” in Feminist Theology 20:3 (2012):236-241, doi: 10.1177/0966735012436895 (accessed October, 15 2012), 239. [BACK]
  5. Ibid., 238. [BACK]
  6. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 55. [BACK]
  7. What follows is a tentative exploration of God’s relation to transgender people. I am open to critique/comments. Just be polite. [BACK]
  8. Susannah Cornwall, “Apophasis and Ambiguity: The ‘Unknowingness’ of Transgender” in Trans/formations, eds. Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (London: SCM Press, 2009), 13-40. [BACK]
  9. Ibid., 16. [BACK]
  10. Ibid., 17. [BACK]
  11. Ibid., 20. [BACK]
  12. Elsewhere I have explored Graham Ward’s notion that one needs to define sexual identity/gender in theological terms rather than simply biological terms. Ward takes as his starting point our relation to God, and our relation to one another. He writes, “there is no pure difference. Difference qua difference is an abstraction no one could recognize. Difference is relative, and distance spatializes that relativity and also suggests the possibility of a temporal dynamic.”(Graham Ward, “There is No Sexual Difference” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 81). Ward sees sexual difference as relative and temporal. Difference is sexed only in relation to the “bodies of other responsive beings. . . . It is somewhere in the engagement between sight and touch that bodies become sexualized, somewhere in the junction between reception and response within the body’s own knowing. Such that desire for knowing or being with the other is simultaneously an attraction to the other” (Ward, “There is No Sexual Difference,” 82). Sexual difference and sexual attraction are not positivistic, but transcend purely empirical categories. As David McCarthy Matzko notes, “one’s body and the body of the other communicate a reciprocal discovery of self. . . . A person comes to awareness of his or her own embodiment through the bodily presence of the other”(David McCarthy Matzko, “The Relationship of Bodies: A Nuptial Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Unions,” Theology & Sexuality 8 (1998): 110).

    Ward also notes the work of feminist Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who argues that there is no “essence of woman, no experience of being a woman, that is universal” Likewise, there are as many ways to be male as there are men. Therefore, in Ward’s theology of gender and sexual difference he does not start from what it is to be a man or a woman. This would be based on a Cartesian ontology that posits that maleness lies in some sort of “masculine individuality” Rather he begins from a view of what it means to be a person through difference and relation to the Trinity. Human beings are sexed creatures; they are not androgynous, but their personhood, not to mention their sexuality, is not defined by their genitalia, but by their relation to God and the part they play in God’s salvific work. [BACK]

  13. Sarah Coakley’s interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa’s thought shows us a transformative way through gender binaries. As Coakley reads him, Gregory argues that gender is a secondary feature of human existence and that we are constantly moving towards a transformation, becoming more perfect, which for Gregory includes an eschatological de-gendering; “If humans image a genderless God, then gender is not an absolute or ultimate aspect of human identity either.” (Susannah Cornwall, “Apophasis and Ambuguity,” 27-28. [BACK]
  14. Martín Hugo Córdova Quero, “This Body Trans/Forming Me: Indecencies in Transgender/Intersex Bodies, Body Fascism and the Doctine of the Incarnation” in Controversies in Body Theology, eds. Marcella Altheus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (London: SCM Press, 2008), 80-128. [BACK]
  15. Ibid., 106. [BACK]
  16. Ibid. [BACK]
  17. Ibid., 109. [BACK]
  18. Ibid., 110. [BACK]
  19. Ibid., 115. [BACK]

11 thoughts on “God is Transgender (And So Can You!)

  1. Hi Matt! Got sucked in by your Facebook link.

    I really want to affirm your opening thoughts–we need more voices who are aware of the effect of their cultural biases on their theologic.

    AND, your initial paragraph on the incarnation is excellent. I’ve been becoming more and more convinced that the statement “what is not assumed is not healed” is foundational to a robust Trinitarian faith. It requires Jesus to be earthy and real, fully human in body, soul, nature (which is not to discount his full divinity). Jesus’ bodily incarnation absolutely gives value (eschatological, certainly) to the human body and visceral experience. AND there is salvific hope only in the full, true deity/humanity union (who could know God and give God but God?).

    I have to wonder, though, if your next thoughts go too far. If you’re saying that Jesus, in assuming humanity as a man, could only save men, you may unwittingly be saying that manhood is essentially a different kind of humanity than womanhood (or, to your point, any other gender experience). And I don’t think you believe that at all. The gospel is dignifying and unifying in that Jesus assumed humanity and offers salvation without qualifiers; we are the ones who tragically pervert and withhold human dignity.

  2. Thanks Kelsey, I appreciate the feedback.

    I quote Reuther to show that many feminist theologians find problematic the idea that Christ was only male, in that feminist critiques of patriarchy posit that men have not had the same experience of oppression and marginalization as women.

    I think that an apophatic view of gender assists with this problem. I absolutely agree with you that “The gospel is dignifying and unifying in that Jesus assumed humanity and offers salvation without qualifiers; we are the ones who tragically pervert and withhold human dignity.” And this, I think, is one of the points of this essay.

    I think a queering of gender and the experience of transgender people helps us see that gender is more fluid and socially constructed than we generally discern. In Christ there is no male or female, therefore, Jesus offers salvation without the qualifiers of male, female, transgendered, homosexual or heterosexual.

  3. To put it more succinctly. I think that humanity transcends gender, ontologically and eschatologically. Transgender people help us realize this. I agree with your last paragraph and think it complements my essay rather than contradicts it.

  4. Sure. I agree that humanity transcends gender; being male, female, gay, straight, transgender, etc. can’t add to or negate your humanness (or your salvation). Humanity is something beautiful: the truest picture we have of God, in fact. But I’m not convinced that we have to say God is transgendered in asserting that he is ungendered.
    Gender is a human category, and Jesus Christ assumed humanity in a physically male body. (To Reuther’s point: Resisting Jesus on grounds of males having suffered less oppression/marginalization may be premature–no other human person has suffered more injustice/oppression/misunderstanding than the sinless crucified Christ.) I’m just thinking it through, but being transgender seems like a relatively unique experience. Can biological males or females identify? Maybe, but it seems to me simpler to allow God his other-ness/supernaturality and remain ungendered, full in manifestation of himself.

  5. First of all, we don’t disagree very much on this, just in shades of meaning, which is nice.

    A few things I’m thinking.

    1. Here is more context for Reuther: http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/ruether1.asp

    2. saying God is transgendered is similar to saying god is black. James Cone, a black theologian explains this construction: “The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism…. The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering…Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)”

    So, God is transgendered means God indentifies with the plight of transgendered people.

    But also, if gender is culturally mediated, I’m not sure what the difference between God being non-gendered and God being transgendered is. God is neither male or female. transgendered/transsexual people are not strictly male or female, but the culture makes them choose. Therefore, we impose categories like, post-op, pre-op. But if we were open to a more ambigous apophatic view of gender, Transgender people could remain just that, trans-gendered (transcending gender).

    3. I agree with your last sentence, and again, don’t think it contradicts my views. It would be stronger if you had written it, “it seems to me simpler to allow God God’s other-ness/supernaturality and remain ungendered, full in manifestation of Godself.

    Becasue in ascribing gendered pronouns to God, you are gendering God, whether unwittingly or not.

    Ultimately I think we say apophatically, God is male, God is not male, God is female, God is not female, God is transgendered, God in nongendered.

  6. As a two-spirit person I must point out that God is love. And love, conquers all and is above all. Love is genderless.

  7. As a transsexual woman I think i can say pretty confidently that you are misappropriating our experience. The ovetwhelming majority of us understand ourselves as men or women. Indeed, this is why we transition in the first place. Few of us indeed understand our deeply felt sense of who and what we are to be socially constructed. Further, by calling people like myself “transgender men” you are actually just reinforcing the very radical feminists you take to task. We are women, not men. A transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth but transitions to male so that their body matches their mind.

  8. First off, my aim was not to apropriate anything. Only to listen to the many voices of different experience, of which yours is a welcome addition.

    The terminology “transgender men” instead of transgender women was just an oversight. No disrespect was meant. I’ll change that as soon as possible. I apologize. No ideological stance was meant to be contained in that statement. My practice is to refer to trans people by their preferred nouns and pronouns.

    As for gender being socially constructed, I am just following the majority of queer theory. I have heard and read experience of those who do not feel they fit in a gender binary system. Am I reading you correctly to say that you do fit into a gender binary and wish to maintain the current binary?

    I am truly thankful for your comment.  I would love for you to share your experience. 

  9. Also, in this essay, when i critique the binary I am mainly critiquing the binary of gender norms. I wonder if for instance gender roles and norms were more fluid would you still have felt the need to transition?

  10. Hope I wasn’t too rude with my initial post!

    I don’t believe in the gender binary per se. Its pretty well established even in biology that no one is 100% men or female; everyone has elements of both and gender is therefore a continuum. Be that as it may, most trans people (as with most cis people) are very firm in their understanding of themselves as men or women. Its not so much that I want to uphold the gender binary as that it isn’t an issue in my life. Nor is it an issue for most other trans people I know.

    Would I still transition if society was more fluid about gender roles? Yes! Your question makes the common mistake of conflating gender expression with gender identity (or what Julia Serano appropriately calls “subconscious sex”). As a woman, I would still experience significant distress at being born with an inappropriate body. This is primarily about our relationship with our bodies and is most likely neurobiological in nature (as a great deal of scientific research strongly suggests).

    My impression of non-binary people is that their issue is mostly one of gender expression rather than gender identity. These people are typically fine with their body and don’t transition. i think people should be able to express themselves in the way they feel is most appropriate, but I believe these are for the most part two separate issues with some overlap.

    As for queer theory, I think too much attention is payed to social influence and not enough to biology. In my understanding, gender expression runs downstream from biological intrinsic inclinations (but only inclinations, mind you) in men and women. These inclinations then interact with and are modified by larger society. They become codified into social law and the outliers who break those laws are then punished.

    Hope this has been helpful!

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