The Language of Transcendence (@theTable: Transcending Transphobia)
Earlier this month, in a quiet, upper middle-class neighborhood in Istanbul, the body of Hande Kader, a trans*woman activist for LGBTQ justice in Turkey, was found mutilated and burned after she had been reported as missing for a couple of weeks. Kader’s murder is another in a country where the highest number of trans*persons are murdered in all of Europe. But from the perspective of the United States, one need not look so far to see that violence against trans*persons and trans*women of color especially, is continuing to rise. While these acts of horrific violence in the U.S. show no signs of decreasing, they have been met with apathy, or worse, endorsement by law makers. Violence against trans*persons will only increase in the wake of the so-called bathroom laws (HB2) passed recently in North Carolina.
That Republican politicians (who have supported the bill) in North Carolina have embraced religious leaders in support of the law, while distancing themselves from those in opposition of it, is neither remarkable nor difficult to understand. Still, it is telling that religious leaders have claimed stakes in the debate. And as Kent Brintnall has indicated, it is not the case that proclaimers of divine discrimination are relying on familiar tropes of religion and faith in order to diminish the lives of LGBTQ persons as they have in prior cultural debates regarding the lives of LBGTQ persons. Instead, religious conservatives have argued for the safety and privacy of women (ostensibly protecting them from trans*women with nefarious agendas—also rooted in patriarchal religious ideals, as Brintnall demonstrates), and the autonomy of private businesses. This shift is one in which religious conservatives are remapping the terrain of their discourses of religious freedom, or at the very least attempting to disguise religious sentiments and motives with different ones about space, privacy, and danger. What this means then, is that much of the religious discourse regarding HB2, that uses the familiar language of faith and religious understanding, is coming from religious progressives seeking to protect the rights and lives of LGBTQ persons. And this language of faith, or “morality,” as in the case of the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s Moral Mondays, puts Democrats in precarious positions of supporting and then distancing themselves from the outspoken and dynamic preacher and others like him.
All this movement and shifting of the terrain has left many in the awkward position of having to rethink the deployment of religious language in the service of LGBTQ justice. This is not a concern for William Barber who has argued time and again that morality and justice are not just religious imperatives, but rather social necessities (therefore he continually positions himself as bipartisan and not tied to one particular political party).
The scholars and thinkers in this @theTable conversation on “Transcending Transphobia” have weighed in on the histories, roles, problems, possibilities, and futures for scholars of religion, religious leaders, and LGBTQ activists in moving past transphobic discourses that continue to harm the lives of trans*persons. None of us believes that our brief ruminations will get us to “transcend transphobia.” But our hope is that this will be a continuation of a conversation started by other religious leaders, scholars, and activists, regarding the just treatment and protection of all LGBTQ persons but in particular those living trans* and gender nonconforming lives. And by continuing this conversation we want to open up spaces for further conversations to this end.
On Monday Dr. Jacqueline Hidalgo honed in on the long history of religious oppressors using the mechanisms of religious authority backed by scriptural authority in order to validate the intersecting violence of eighteenth-century colonization that not only subjugated indigenous peoples along the lines of spiritual oppression and loss of land, but also imposed their European Catholic Christian ideals of gender upon a culture that did not share these ideals. Her detailed discussion of this history is one that articulated a line between eighteenth-century Christian colonialists and their use of religion to promote gendercide on indigenous cultures and the same mechanisms that are in place today by contemporary Christians and politicians alike in the wake of HB2.
Siobhan Kelly detailed the history of trans* phobia that undergirded popular and respected feminist discourses of previous generations. Some of this important feminist work has been held up as important for the readers, contributors, and creators of Feminist Studies in Religion. Kelly calls attention to the latent and overt trans* phobia in some of these lauded works. Their blog post is instrumental in dismantling and deconstructing even the most respected and utilized feminist scholarship in the study of religion and therefore they shine a light on the tensions between feminist politics and issues of trans* justice in which the former was articulated at the expense of the latter.
Finally, yesterday Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza introduced readers to the idea of nepantla. They rely on language from indigenous cultures of the Americas, and activated by Chicana feminists in order to dismantle some of the issues found in trans* logic that might reify the stasis of two genders. The term nepantla, used frequently in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, suggests an in-betweeness and ambiguity. And while this in-betweeness by proxy seemingly sets up a binary in which nepantla resides in-between two opposing poles, Henderson-Espinoza dismantles this problematic. They suggest that nepantla is about movement, not simply between the two opposing poles of gender—with women at one end and men at the opposite end—but rather movement outside of that linear construction. Movement, as nepantla connotes, is instrumental to the trans in trans* humanity and the movement and fluid understanding of human expression. Similarly, the transcendence of trans* phobic logic, bespeaks of another movement—a movement beyond the logic of trans* oppression and violence.
Each of these brilliant blog posts has contributed to our learnings of the ongoing discussions about trans* humanity and trans* justice. Furthermore, each of these scholars has brought to my mind the importance of language. They have asked us to consider and reconcile the religious language of prior generations with the use of religious and spiritual language today that can be activated in the service of trans* justice. Language, like in so many other cultural arenas, continues to be the most prominent artifact that has the capacity to be oriented toward justice or the diminishing of human life. As Henderson-Espinoza introduces us to nepantla, we are given language for an idea that is not traditionally articulated in Euro-U.S. parlance and that might get us to think of fluidity and movement and therefore not stuck in binaristic logic. Similarly, Kelly reminds us of the harm to trans* and gender nonconforming humanity done via the politics of feminism of yesteryear. Kelly invites us to consider newer language that is inclusive and necessarily implemented in the blog’s website, but also necessary in other institutionalized ways to combat the harm inflicted by the binary. Hidalgo poignantly reminds us all of what is at stake for all of us in the battle of over language, safety, and space. It is not cisgendered women and children who are at risk of harm in the wake of laws like HB2. It is of course, another step in the continuing war on trans*persons and other LGBTQ people. Pulse night club and Hande Kader are only recent examples of a long growing list of the gendercide enacted against LGBTQ persons and we must all continue to consider the way religion has and can affect human dignity and life.