Since I came out, I have reached out to scholars before me and, in turn, scholars have been starting to reach out to me for resources on reading biblical – and related – materials while being transgender. I am starting a list here. If you have resources you would like to add, please message me and I’ll look it over – if I haven’t already – and find an appropriate place to put it. This page will be always in transition! I hope to start a separate page regarding trans readings (mine) of specific biblical passages.
There are so precious few sources that directly broach trans issues and the biblical traditions, but the tributaries to those few sources are also important. Trans (here including trans women, trans feminine, non-binary, trans masculine, trans men, etc.) people have inherited resources from feminist movements, queer movements since Stonewall, and many other liberation projects.
Queer Theory & Trans Embodiment
Trans people – whether trans men or trans women or non-binary or other – have inherited a wealth of material from feminists, women’s rights activists, and feminist approaches to the ancient evidence. Trans women, in particular, love to quote Simone de Beauvoir’s famous phrase, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Second Sex). More directly with regard to biblical interpretation, trans people find inspiration in the same path-clearing scholars that cis women look to, such as Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality and Texts of Terror or Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza from In Memory of Her to her many books that clarify issues of ethics of interpretation within patriarchal and colonial structures. And it is not just the subject matter, but it is the methods used, looking at passages that can spark hope and inspiration for trans folks, the texts used to keep trans people down, and looking at the historical erasures and reconstructions of gender and sexuality in antiquity and how it relates to our power structures today in the very act of interpretation.
The most direct lineage, however, runs through Queer theory and LBGTQIA+ activism. This activism finds a foundational memory in Stonewall. Yet Queer readings of the Bible derive more from the streams of thought from Michel Foucault (History of Sexuality, now 4 volumes), the works of Judith Butler, and the works of Eve Sedgwick (Love Between Men; Epistemology of the Closet). While Foucault’s work has been most famous and influential; for the line of thought that passes through queer theory to trans embodiment, perhaps Judith Butler has been the most significant.
Judith Butler (Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, and Undoing Gender), argues that gender is a constrained performance. Gender is a copy with no original – when we “do” gender, we are citing others’ practices of gender. How we dress, how we walk, how we talk, and what we eat are all gendered and performed. There are broad cultural stereotypes of “male/masculinity” and “female/femininity” that we aspire to emulate, but never fully do – no one is fully masculine or fully feminine. This performance reveals itself as performance in certain circumstances: when one does it “badly”: that is, when those designated “male” are also “feminine” and those designated “female” are also “masculine” (see further on Female Masculinity by Jack [Judith] Halberstam).
Many trans people have found inspiration from Butler’s works, but also much to resist, and that resistance, I hope, has been and continues to be a creative one. Obviously – at least, once it is pointed out! – our gender expression is performed. What needs to be reiterated, however, is that our gender expression was always performed, even or especially when performing our gender assigned at birth – our sense of self, gender identity, or “subconscious sex” (Julia Serano, Whipping Girl), rubs against this constrained performance. Trans people feel instinctively the performative aspects of gender, because we are expected since birth to perform a gender we do not identify with. We, therefore, often carefully observe what is expected of us and emulate it (before we come out as trans) as well as observe what performance is more aligned with our gender identity.
But here is the difficulty with (the early) Butler for trans folks: we did not learn our gender identity. In fact, the entire world seems to be oriented to us in such a way to force us into our birth sex and away from our gender identity. Where did this gendered persistence come from? Is it biological? Does it reside in the structures of our brain – as especially endocrinologists who study this think? If one is more religiously oriented, perhaps it is in our soul or spirit? Does it reside somewhere else? In the latter two works – Bodies that Matter and Undoing Gender – Butler becomes more sensitive to the trans and intersex experience. A major critique of Butler from a trans perspective is Jay Prosser (Second Skins), who analyzes transgender memoirs. Butler, in her later works, is critical of Prosser. Her own student, Gayle Salomon (Assuming a Body), also provides a nuanced and fascinating analysis of trans embodiment that builds upon Butler and largely argues that the dysphoria trans people experience is different in degree rather than kind from the various everyday dissociations cis – non-trans people – experience. I am not sure most trans people would agree. If one argues that gender dysphoria in all its elements is of the same kind as body dysmorphia, I would have to disagree. While the desire to remold one’s body is definitely a part of many trans people’s experience, it is not equal to it. Trans embodiment exceeds dysmorphia – and even does not have to be dysphoric.
Histories, Politics, and Activism
Queer theory itself could not exist without activism. Trans activism is additionally entwined with the recovery of trans histories. I should give mention to other important scholars here. Susan Stryker is a historian and activist of trans histories (see her introduction to the history of trans issues, with a focus on trans politics and trans entwinements with feminist and queer movements in Transgender History, and her famous essay, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix”). I should also mention a couple essays: Judith Shapiro, “Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability odf Sex” and Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” both in Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub, Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Both have been influential. I am particularly fascinated by Stone’s debt to Donna Haraway – one of the thinkers I often return to in my recent research on animals/animality in the gospels! Julian Gill-Peterson has done the important archival work of recovering the histories of trans children, demonstrating unequivocally that trans children are nothing “new” in Histories of the Transgender Child. I should also mention Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity as an important read for any trans person or trans ally. Serano notes that oddly the place where patriarchy defenders and many feminists in the past have agreed is the devaluing of femininity and a concomitant valuing of masculinity. One does not have to be “masculine,” to be equal! Coining the term “transmisogyny,” Serano also offers a robust defense of femininity itself – whether expressed by those who are male-bodied, female-bodied, intersex, trans women or even trans men.
From Queer to Trans Reading of the Bible
Queer readings of the Bible have been going on since the 90s. Some people simply identify as one of the alphabet soup letters of LBGTQIA+ and happen to have the same methodology as others who are cis and heteronormative. Others are inspired by the queer/trans readings discussed above and wish to draw connections between biblical passages and contemporary issues. There is a general intro to queer readings of the Bible in a collection called Bible Trouble. There’s the work by Stephen D. Moore – especially in the 90s and early 00s – such as God’s Gym or God’s Beauty Parlor. There’s Dale Martin’s Sex & the Single Savior which offers a queer reading of several passages as well as focusing on the “clobber passages” Christians use against queer people. Most people focus, however, on Paul. There’s Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women (on Romans 1), Davina Lopez (on Galatians), or Joseph Marchal’s work on Philippians and his most recent, Appalling Bodies. I think I should also mention the works by Erin Runions, who brings together filmic interpretation and biblical interpretation in ways clearly inspired by queer approaches (How Hysterical; Babylon Complex).
There is precious little that focuses on trans issues and the Bible from a transgender perspective. Perhaps the earliest works are by Virginia Mollenkott and Justin Tanis from primarily a Christian theological perspective. Joy Ladin’s Soul of a Stranger provides a transgender Jewish perspective on Torah. There is a newish book by SBL press by Teresa Hornsby and Deryn Guest called Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation. Hornsby is queer, an ally for trans people, but not trans. Deryn Guest does seem to occupy some sort of transgender positionally. Her two essays on Genesis & Them as well as the Transgender gaze in 2 Kings are really helpful.
Melissa Harl Sellew is a trans woman scholar who works in early Christianity, predominantly the Gospel of Thomas, who is currently developing a “trans-aware” hermeneutic, which she will unfold in series of current and upcoming projects.
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.
Joseph Marchal – according to bio welcomes all pronouns (is that omni gender? or pan gender?) – has a book, Appalling Bodies, which focuses on Paul’s letters as a whole, where he interacts with – among other things – intersex and trans embodiment in interesting ways.
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.
I would add Esther Brownsmith, a postdoc in Oslo – has produced some readings of the Hebrew Bible (specifically Mordecai in Esther) with non-binary gender identities, and look forward to her upcoming publications.
I realize I have missed many people – and hope to make this page more complete – or set up several pages if necessary. I obviously deliberately overlooked some figures – like I mention but do not discuss Foucault. I am not – for now – focused on cis histories of trans people. I love trans memoirs – I love to hear people’s stories – but am not including those for now, even if some have historically been very popular. I may create separate pages for these things if people would like. Nonetheless, I hope you all have enjoyed my brief bibliographic essay.
There is, finally, a series of interventions, interconnections, with the biblical traditions that I – as a newly-out trans woman – would like to chat about. These are in very preliminary form, but I hope to start posting on them soon. 🙂
I am writing this in the form of a bibliographic essay. I am also compiling a working bibliography for quick reference that includes these sources as well as others as I develop my own research.