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.



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