Caeneus and the Transphobic Centaur

CW: Ancient misgendering, ancient deadnaming.

Set up is the story of Caeneus (masculine) who used to be Cainis (feminine). Cainis, as a woman, was raped by Neptune, who then gave her any boon she wanted, so she requested to become a man so she could never be raped again. Neptune made it so they could never even be penetrated in any way ever again, turning Cainis into the man – and ultimately warrior – Caeneus. During the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, a centaur named Latreus comes upon Caeneus and deadnames and misgenders him, trying to put him “in his place”:

“Cainis, you bitch! Must I tolerate you? You will always be female / and Cainis to me. Perhaps you forget your original sex. / Do you ever recall what you did to deserve your reward? Do you think / of the price which you paid to achieve this specious / masculine body? Look at the girl you were born and the shame that she suffered. Then go, / return to your distaff and basket of wool. Go back to your spinning, / and lave the fighting to men!”

Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.469-476; trans. Raeburn

Caeneus subsequently defeated Latreus in battle. Though later the other centaurs buried Caeneus under forest-worth of trees to suffocate him (remember he cannot be penetrated by a sword or spear), and Caeneus transformed into a bird.

Some things never change I guess. Here a hyper-masculine centaur cannot accept that a trans-man is more manly than he is (and, it turns out, he is!), so turns to taunts, deadnames (Cainis to me), misgendering (female … to me). It’s all relational here. But when all the talk is over, when the social posturing is done, Caeneus is more man that Latreus can handle.

Here’s to all my trans-masculine / trans men friends who are such amazing men!

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Trans-Spiritual: The Spirit Blows (Intro)

There are many places one could start a trans approach to biblical materials. Based upon what I’m seeing in various online support groups, Twitter, and the like, “In the Image of God” (Gen. 1:27) seems popular – and is indeed important.

But I think I would like to develop my trans touch to the biblical materials by beginning where the Bible begins (whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox), with the Spirit hovering over the waters.  The liquid, fluid, mercurial, and ultimately flaming spirit resonates so strongly with me.  I grew up Pentecostal.  I can readily dispense with many doctrines I grew up with, but I could not “grieve the spirit.”  While the Pentecostals I grew up with may not understand this on an intellectual level – but maybe on a visceral level – I find in the spirit a reflection of my own self as a trans woman.  The spirit blows wherever she wants to (John 3:8).  

When I came out to my parents – it was a Thursday in late January of 2022 – my father – a former Pentecostal minister and – told me that I could not feel the [Holy] Spirit if I was suppressing my own spirit.  That my Pentecostal father could support his child transitioning to become a woman by citing the movement of the spirit and the clear blockage I have felt by staying in the closet was such a profound moment for me.  I wonder: was it the spirit who whispered in my ear all those years: “you’re really a girl.”  I rejected this calling for so long, but, like Jonah, finally found peace when I accepted myself: “I’m a woman!” (for being trans as a calling, see Tanis, Transgendered; for the Jonah metaphor for trans life, see Ladin, Soul of a Stranger).

The spirit is elemental: the word translated as “spirit” also means “wind” and “breath”; she is associated with water; he is cloud; they can also be an animal (dove); she is fire!  As you can see, I do not believe so much that the spirit transcends gender, but fluidly glides between genders, or, once we try to encapsulate the spirit in any way (including gender), the spirit eludes our grasp, as does wind, fire, and water.

“Toward that end, key biblical images for the active presence of the Spirit are an important resource. Powerful natural forces like blowing wind, flowing water, and blazing fire expand the notion of divine presence beyond analogy with a human person. None of these forces has a definite, stable shape. They can surround and pervade other things without losing their own character; their presence is known by the changes they bring about.”

Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts, 134.

After this introductory post, I want to begin with two moments in the bible, and then spiral out from there.  While most Pentecostals look to Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 & 14 for their inspiration, I prefer John 3 and Genesis 1.  But let’s take them all into account and not stop there, because the spirit keeps blowing.

Mollenkott & Tanis

It makes sense to talk about Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s Omnigendered and Justin Tanis’s Trans-Gendered together. They are both largely theologically inflected books written about biblical and communal resources for trans people in Christianity. They were published two years apart (2001 and 2003) by the same press (Pilgrim Press in Cleveland).

While they discuss theology and liturgy and communal issues – as well as introducing trans issues to a Christian audience roughly 20 years ago when such issues were not as public as they are now – I would like to focus on their biblical materials.

Mollenkott – though a Bible scholar – spends fairly little time on the Bible and more on how the gender binary does a disservice not only to gender variant people, but also cis people, limiting their expression. She calls for an omnigendered, gender-fluid society.

Mollenkott discusses the following biblical passages or themes in connection with biblical passages:

  1. The “texts of terror” for trans and gender non-conforming people: Genesis 1-2 (88-95), the biblical prohibition against cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5; 95-97); is Deut. 23:1 a prohibition against genital surgery? (118-122).
  2. Positive possibilities: were Abraham and Sarah intersex before God intervened (and brings up Ruth & Naomi as well as David & Jonathan as homoerotic relationships; see 100-103). Jesus as chromosomally female and phenotypically male (105-107); positive portrayal of eunuchs & same-sex couples in NT (108-110) and some generically potentially trans positive imagery in NT (110-114; also perhaps 118-122).

Unfortunately, Genesis 1-2 is often thrown into the faces of those who are not cishet. Mollenkott does a good job here of showing how shallow some of these critiques are and other possibilities. The positive examples of an intersex Abraham & Sarah or the chromosomally female/phenotypically male Jesus are a bit more of a stretch. Of course, eunuchs become an important discussion of gender variant people – and Jesus recognized at least three kinds of “eunuchs” – those from birth, those made eunuchs by others, and those who become eunuchs (voluntarily?) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven!

Justin Tanis, who is a trans man, published his book just two years later, and is in part in conversation with Mollenkott. Tanis’s book is ministerially and liturgically focused, but he also includes extensive discussion of biblical materials. He focuses on the following in canonical order (Protestant Canon):

  1. Genesis 1:26-28a (Humans made male & female in the image of God)
  2. Gen. 2:4b-9, 18-24 (creation of the first humans – with an emphasis on the purpose of creation of a companion to stave off loneliness)
  3. Deut. 22:5 (prohibition against cross-dressing)
  4. Deut. 23:1 (prohibition against crushed testicles or those who have their penis removed to enter the assembly)
  5. Is. 56:1-5 (a passage that includes eunuchs in the community)
  6. Matt. 19:11-12 (those who are born eunuchs, are made eunuchs by others, who become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom)
  7. Acts 8:25-39 (Philip the Ethiopian eunuch as the first convert – inclusion of gender variant people right at the beginning of the Christian movement).
  8. Gal. 3:28 (no male and female – all are one in Christ)

Galatians 3:28 has become an important passage for feminist, queer, and now trans readings of the Bible. It could be read to erase gender roles or even gender altogether.

Both books spend a great deal of time on the “texts of terror” (Genesis 1-2; Deut. 22-23), placing them into context and trying to recover them. There is also a great deal of focus on the gender variant category of the ancient world – eunuchs – who can be excluded (Deut. 23:1) or included (Is. 56:1-5; Matt. 19:11-12; Acts 8:25-39).

I think the image of god materials are important to review and consider the range of interpretations – including ancient ones that assumed the original human was both male and female at the same time that into dialogue with and transphilic usages of the concept.

I also think, though, we need to think beyond the “eunuch” figure for trans-positive images and passages that can resonate for a transgender life.

Queering the Countryside Book Notes

Like most collected volumes, Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies (edited by Mary L. Gray, Colin R. Jonson, and Brian J. Gilley) rises and falls at various points. I think it makes its point that queer theory has largely been “metro-normative” and ignores those of us living in more sparsely populated areas. I live in a “city” of 19000 people and often feel safer here – perhaps for fairly unique reasons – as a trans woman than I do in more densely populated areas. I will point out two chapters:

Lucas Crawford, “Snorting the Powder of Life: Transgender Migration in the Land of Oz,” which is a queer critique of The Marvelous Land of Oz (MLO). If you haven’t read it, MLO has some trans-potential themes that largely get undermined. The main protagonist presents as male, but it turns out that “he” was born female, but turned male as something of a curse, and in the end is restored to female to become the rightful ruler of Oz. Baum is clear that the gender change at the end is a “restoration” of order and not a “transformation,” undermining much of its trans-ing potential.

Here’s the twist for me: I remember this story from when I was a kid. I remember going to a video store – back then we still just had VHS – and I loved the Oz stories after the original one. As a kid who was assigned male at birth and who always felt like I should’ve been a girl, seeing (in the frame of the story) a boy become a girl provided a visual expression of my deepest hopes and desires. While I am undergoing a bodily transformation, it does, at times, feel like I’m restoring something that was lost to me, or, better yet, denied to me. But this story loses its trans-ing in other terms, because it is a return to one’s birth gender.

Secondly, Stina Soderling, “Queer Rurality and the Materiality of Time,” really stood out to me, looking at how queer rural time varies from “Chrononormativity” AND from other queer theories of time based upon queer urban settings, in what rural queer studies folks call “metro normative” queer theory. Looking at the “Gayborhood” in rural Tennessee. Soderling postulates a series of colliding temporalities, but also the anti-capitalist clock-less rhythms and the “stickiness” of time (what I have started to call time dilations in my own work) – how time gets “stuck” and moves slower because there really is no rush for (re-)production, and retemporalization back into seasonal rhythms.

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Book Notes on Melissa M. Wilcox, Queer Religiosities

I must be on a Melissa Wilcox kick lately. I just finished their (Wilcox’s Twitter page indicates they accept all pronouns, so I will alternate throughout) Queer Religiosities: An Introduction to Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion – and at a 2021 publication date, pretty recent! Things move fast in the queer world – and things are moving at such breakneck speeds for trans people, as we gain more public visibility, which is leading to a backlash, especially as laws – mostly negative but some positive – are proposed and passed in several states.

First off, this is not a formal book review, but a random assemblage as thoughts. If Dr. Wilcox reads this – hi! – I am trying to write with the questions and levels of grace if someone were writing about my work (and that’s just a good work ethic in general, no?). If I deviate from that, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

Second note: this book seems most appropriate for an upper level undergraduate course or early master’s course. It could also be used as a supplemental resource for a introduction to religion/s course. It has helpful study questions, further thought, further reading lists at the end of each chapter.

My first major question is the subtitle of the book that then reverberates in its phrasing throughout the whole book. What I am wondering about is the separation out of “transgender” from “queer.” If s/he has addressed this elsewhere, or if I carelessly passed it over here, I’d like my attention addressed to the reasoning. Does this indicate that “transgender” is not really queer? Or that they are two species of the same genus? If so, of what? Or is it that “transgender” is additional to “queer,” takes “queer” to a new level? Or is it that in many queer circles historically transgender people have been (or felt themselves to be) marginal (or marginalized) even among other queer people, and this gives them (and of course I mean us) greater visibility.

I appreciate Wilcox’s historical and intercultural sensitivity that not all gender variant people would use the label “transgender” and not all those who have been attracted to the same gender throughout history and in all cultures have considered themselves “homosexual.” Though trans people have tried to create a very large umbrella to include anyone who rejects their sex assigned at birth, these broader interventions allows for perhaps larger, analytic umbrella. I have to say, it took me a LONG time to come to terms with being “gender variant,” but I have come to embrace my trans-ness.

I also really enjoyed his discussion of not only the ways that religious studies folks can embrace queer theory, but the ways in which queer theorists themselves are already in many ways “religious” in character, including Judith Butler (ritual, performance), and it’s all over Foucault. Her bibliography is extremely helpful, even for a seasoned researcher – I found some important articles I had overlooked in my own searches (S.J. Crasnow’s work among Jewish trans folks in particular, as well as Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath). Or things I have known about for a LONG time, but have for whatever reason put off reading – e.g., Justin Tanis’s Transgendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith.

From there, s/he does not proceed according to religion. S/he deliberately avoids the formula of “here’s religion and just at LBGTQIA+ people into the mix). Instead, s/he structures the book around Stories, Conversations, Practices, Identities, Communities, and Politics and Power, integrating theory and people’s lives in a cross-cultural manner in a readable manner along the way.

The negotiation of sexual orientation and gender identity in Iran is particularly interesting. To be fair, I knew about this case, because I taught a course Gender & Sexuality in Islam, but it was interesting to Wilcox’s discussion of how Iran accepts gender reassignment (all cases I saw, though were MtF – any FtM cases?) but homosexuality is forbidden. What is interesting is Wilcox’s discussion of identity formation and how different cultural concepts and social categories constrain and enable what is possible or thinkable (I know, very Foucauldian here). But it crystallizes very nicely in the case of being trans and/or gay in Iran.

I should finally note the book has a very nice annotated filmography in the back with some tips on how to use in a classroom setting.

Cheers!

Book Notes on Melissa M. Wilcox, Coming Out in Christianity

Melissa M. Wilcox’s Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community, which is a social study on LBGT (the terminology of the time) Christians in the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) is now a bit dated (it came out in 2003 – almost 20 years old); things have moved quite a bit in the LBGTQIA+ community since then! But it has some important frames of reference worth retaining.

  1. Wilcox frames this work on the MCC in terms of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which is my father’s favorite poem. The “road” here is one of being LBGT (again using the terminology from the time of writing) and Christian at the same time, whereas traditionally, symbolically, and perhaps statistically speaking these are thought to be mutually exclusive categories. You can be one or the other. For Christians, being queer is sinful; for LGBT (again, terminology at the time of writing) people, Christianity – or your religion of choice – is the abuser. But here are people threading the needle: religious LBGT people who bring together in various ways their queerness and their Christianness. They have to come out as “gay” or “trans” to their cishet Christian friends; they have to come out as “Christian” to their LBGT friends. As a side note: I was trained to be a Bible scholar – or technically a scholar of the history of religions in late antiquity (defining late antiquity far more broadly than usual). But I do my work in ancient Jewish and Christian materials. When I meet new people who know I’m trans, and I tell them I’m a Bible scholar, I get a double-take. They cannot reconcile the two elements.
  2. I have read that Wilcox received pressure to exclude the information on trans people from this work. Trans people in these churches – only a handful if that – were too statistically insignificant to be of importance. I am happy Wilcox fought to keep trans people included. Wilcox – who according to their Twitter page, accepts and welcomes all pronouns – notes throughout that Bisexual and Transgender people are regularly rendered invisible in the dominant queer discourses. S/he was attentive to those voices. While gender identity issues are not the same as sexual orientation issues, they are entwined and we have similar experiences with the religious communities we came from, are embedded within, or are seeking. We have the same frictions with faith. We are told from some we are sinful. We have Bible verses hurled at us as if they are missiles – not always the same Bible passages as LBG Christians, but some are. And yet here we are.

This Is My Glorified Body: Pauline Trans Models

I will be giving a talk in November at the Society of Biblical Literature called: “This Is My Glorified Body: Pauline Trans Models” for the Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity (MEGA) section. Here’s my abstract:

Ever since I was introduced to ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism, I have always been personally attracted to it. Now that I have started to publicly transition, it is obvious why: transformation.  I love stories of metamorphosis in which people become who they already really were.  While this can be negative (look at Ovid’s story of Lycaon), it can also be a noble spirit’s deification or angelification (as in Augustus or Enoch/Metatron). Beginning and ending with the Pauline concept of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I will trace Pauline “morph” language, which Alan Segal reminds us, abounds in the Pauline corpus in various forms, from what Melissa Harl Sellew has begun to call a “trans-aware” perspective; that is, from the perspective of someone (me) undergoing a social and physical metamorphosis as I lay claim to my glorified female body. 

Notes on Joseph Marchal, Appalling Bodies

Bodies – castrated, gender-ambiguous, trans, intersexed, foreign, female, queer, ancient, and modern – brush against each other as Marchal traces their often faint scent around the edges of Paul’s undisputed letters in his most recent solo-authored book, Appalling Bodies. Inspired methodologically through by many co-present voices, Marchal engages in what Carolyn Dinshaw calls a “touch across time” to bring partial overlaps of marginalized groups then and now (including trans and intersex). He talks about trans issues with regard in chapter 2: “A Close Corinthian Shave: Trans/Androgyne.” Here the focus is on the potentially trans masculine behavior of someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) shaving his/her head in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. If my hair is “all the glory that I bear” (thanks Lady Gaga), how does this fit into ancient views of gender roles, gender hierarchy, and crossing the boundaries of those roles, leading to some expected places of the ancient concept of “androgyny.” Marchal brings in a nice tutorial of modern transgender studies including Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, Jack [Judith] Halberstam, Susan Stryker, etc.

Although I am trans and not – to my knowledge – intersex, I found the chapter on “Uncut Galatians: Intersex/Eunuch” quite fascinating. I have often looked at Paul’s genital obsession through my own transgender lens, in which many – though not all – trans people welcome genital alteration/transformation – and this voluntaristic view might reflect the Corinthian perspective? But Paul’s renouncing of genital alteration in connection with intersex people, who, if they are genitally altered at birth – usually to make their genitals conform more to a statistically idealized female morphology – could side with Paul’s arguments. Marchal marshals evidence from the modern world of the role of intersex people in religious organizations (looking at the Catholic church’s views in particular) and ancient discussions of intersex people and eunuchs. Marchal gets medical here too, discussing the reasons why people are born across a gender spectrum instead of in a binary as well as the criteria by which doctors will alter an infant’s genitals in accordance with cis heterosexist presumptions. I found myself writing “wow!” over and over again in the margins of this chapter, as Marchal brings to the surface some of the medical establishment’s practices and assumptions – that female sexual pleasure, for example, is not as important as male sexual pleasure when re-forming infant genitalia.

These two chapters show an extraordinary sensitivity that some LBGTQIA+ scholars who themselves are not necessarily transgender can have to trans issues and how those issues can inform our readings of the Biblical text. Throughout, you can sense Marchal – and by the end admits to it – trying to write a book based upon the Pauline letters that are NOT about Paul. Does Marchal succeed? Self-admittedly not, but the tension is a productive one, nonetheless.

Notes on Erin Runions, How Hysterical

Erin Runions has a couple chapters in How Hysterical that brings together trans topics and biblical/filmic interpretation: “Zion is Burning: Genderfuck and Hybridity in Micah and Paris Is Burning” and “Why Girls Cry: Gender Melancholia and Sexual Violence in Ezekiel 16 and Boys Don’t Cry.” I have to say I personally find the “Zion is Burning” essay far stronger than the “Why Girls Cry” essay. Let me focus on the “Why Girls Cry” essay. I think Runions is largely sympathetic to the trans experience and upsetting the gender binary (as her Zion is Burning essay illustrates), but I had difficulty reading this essay. I found that Brandon Teena’s trans expression seemed undermined in the essay, reinforcing the words of those who killed him (as a woman who transgressed gender boundaries as a lesbian) rather than his own gender expression: “I am a guy.”

I found this alignment with perpetrators of gender violence in the undermining of Brandon Teena’s own expressions – even in filmic terms – troubling. The film does portray the perpetrators killing Teena for being a lesbian who masqueraded (persuasively) as a man. But for a trans person, the violence includes the forcible de-transition from male to female, killing the soul before killing the body. Nonetheless, both essays include a sympathetic attempt to bring biblical sources into dialogue with trans issues.