Feminism, Trans Visibility, and Gender Politics in Theology

Just yesterday Women in Theology announced a cohort of new contributors to their blog. Reading through the biographies I was very excited to see women from a variety of disciplines speaking into theology, including a colleague of mine! When Women in Theology started a number of years ago, I was still active in the theo-blogging world, and it was like a breath of fresh air in a virtual space that tended to extend the old-boys-club atmosphere of theology rather than make space for other voices.  Over the years, the exceptional thinkers at Women in Theology have addressed concerns of racism, violence against women, Islamophobia, and many other forms of oppression that continue to operate both explicitly and covertly in theologies, church institutions/schools, and worshiping communities. I commend them for this.

When the call for contributors was posted a few months ago, I considered sending in an application and encouraged friends to apply. The first person I thought would be a perfect contributor on the blog was a friend and fellow academic in theology. The call specified the following: “In order to qualify, you must be a woman with experience in the academic study of Christian theology-either as a graduate student or as a professor-and committed to the liberation of human persons, particularly women, from all forms of oppression. […] Women of color, international scholars, non-Catholic Christian women, and those who do comparative theology are especially encouraged to apply.” Unfortunately, my colleague did not qualify as a contributor – because my colleague, while they would identify as many of the above, does not identify as a woman. My colleague identifies as genderqueer.

Now, I could have contacted Women in Theology and asked about this, but I decided not to, because it wasn’t an issue of inclusion. What would it mean for a genderqueer, nonbinary, or transgender person to be a contributor of Women in Theology? Even feminism and womanism that casts the net widely to include genderqueer, nonbinary, or transgender people do so within a framework in which the gender binary is still the primary organizing concept for identities. Structured like this, liberation and anti-oppression work can at best offer inclusion to those who have been marginalized. My initial question of whether or not a genderqueer person could be a contributor of Women in Theology is moot. The problem is not at the border, the site of inclusion, but at the site of the structure, the center.

Today is Trans Day of Visibility. Numerous activists online have noted the problem with this title. Some have argued that the problem with discrimination against transgender people is not visibility – in fact their visibility is often exploited, their visibly non-conforming bodies becoming the site of xenophobic violence against trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer people.  (For an excellent blog post on the discourse of visibility and cis gender anxieties read this). The problem with discrimination against transgender people is the accepted notion that their bodies are violable because they do not conform to the cis gender binary. Reflecting on this today, I’m left thinking, what would it mean for a woman like myself in theology, white, cis gender, feminist, to work not for the inclusion of my transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer friends and colleagues in theology, but to work for justice – changing the structure of theological discourse to center not just the voices but the bodies at the margins, instead of simply widening or opening the borders?

DarkMatter describes themselves as “a non-binary trans south asian performance duo comprised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian.” Today they posted the following critique of feminism on Instagram:

DarkMatter on transvisibilityday

Based on my comments above, I would not have used the language of inclusion, but I think the rest of the statement calls for precisely the kind of decentering, restructuring work that is needed so that trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer bodies are no longer seen as violable.  This, I think, is what feminists and women in theology must work on if we’re committed to justice and the liberation of human persons from all forms of oppression.

 

Disclaimer: This is not at all meant as a shot at Women in Theology. This is not a calling-out piece. This is not public shaming.  This is about starting the work of decentering the gender binary in theology

4 Responses to “Feminism, Trans Visibility, and Gender Politics in Theology”

  1. Katie Grimes Says:

    Katie from Women In Theology here. Thanks for calling this to our attention. We are currently discussing ways to better avoid any form of transphobia or gender policing, and we particularly welcome advice from those who identify as genderqueer or transgender on how to do this.

    For myself personally, I would consider trans women to be women full stop. I sincerely regret not realizing the exclusionary character of the language we chose and take full responsibility for it.

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Please clarify: *Catholic* Christian women, who meet the other criteria, *need not apply*?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Presumably Catholics are already overrepresented and so they are especially eager to get non-Catholic contributors. This is a case where taking the trouble to familiarize yourself with the blog in question may have prevented you from jumping to conclusions.

  4. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I asked; I didn’t accuse or assume.


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