Rethinking Religious Rhetorics, Gendercide, and HB2 after Orlando (@theTable: Transcending Transphobia)
By Jacqueline M. Hidalgo.
As a student and teacher of religion, I must wrestle with the way that religious discourses and practices have been deeply implicated in settler colonial violence and gendercide, undertaken in the name of “doing good,” of doing what is construed as divinely right and natural.
In late eighteenth century colonial New Spain’s northern frontier, an area we now term Silicon Valley, non-Christian native Californians came together for harvest time at Mission Santa Clara. The Franciscan missionaries who managed this branch of the Spanish settler colonial project understood their task as a benevolent one committed to transforming native Californians into good Christian human beings.
Believing that their god and their tradition was clear on these matters, the Franciscans presumed that the lines between “men” and “women” must be easily defined, but these neat binary divisions were not so readily apparent to local native populations. The mission priest found among the women an individual the Franciscans believed to be a man. I can only imagine how terrified and violated this individual must have been by what happened next. The Spanish dragged this individual to the guardhouse and stripped the person naked, pointing to their genitalia and demanding they behave as a man. The Franciscans also partially justified their strict gender segregation as being necessary for the protection of Native women from rapacious men.
Not surprisingly, the terrorized individual fled the mission and never returned. Nevertheless, missionaries often concluded their discussions of individuals who defied Spanish binaries by praying that the missions would fill the land of California and exterminate this “abominable vice.” Contemporary Esselen/Chumash writer, Deborah A. Miranda, identifies these Spanish missionary colonizing logics as gendercide.
North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB2) reminded me of California missionary gendercide. Both rely on rhetorics of “protecting women and children.” Yet such rhetorics of protection belie practices of domination. Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to require gender-segregated workplace toilets in 1887. Although justified by rhetorics of paternalistic protection of women, segregated restrooms aimed to circumscribe women’s public power as large numbers of women came to work in New England factories. As with Franciscan mission segregations, calls for gender segregated bathrooms often appealed to divine moral authority, the sense that God had created a natural order of gender division and segregation that we should follow. This rhetoric similarly employed a paternalistic call for men to segregate women for their own protection; this collusion of rhetorics about God, nature, and women’s delicacy were often mobilized in order to demand that certain ways of being human, of embodying gender, be eliminated.
Yet, as we know from these histories, it is not cis-gender women and children who need spatially segregated bathrooms in order to be protected from violation. Bathrooms in the contemporary U.S. have been like the Spanish guardhouse at Mission Santa Clara, sites for terrorizing people who do not fit within cis-heteropatriarchal gender and sexual systems. The seemingly mundane spaces of bathrooms are often embedded within larger rhetorics of divinely authorized utopianism, with, at least in North Carolina, a white male governor making claims about desired human futures that depend upon the dehumanization and elimination of certain people. I cannot help but see in these discourses a religiously inflected concern with the control of bodies that deeply intertwines with settler colonial aspirations for controlling space, a logic stretching back to the first centuries of European Christian colonization of this hemisphere.
Students of religion should wrestle with how discourses of the religious and the construction of religious space imbue the justifications for violent acts that explicitly target queer and trans bodies, but we also cannot ignore the ways that discourses of the religious inform and shape spaces of liberation for those who have been dehumanized and terrorized by dominating powers.
While first writing this blog post, the violent massacre in Orlando, the majority of whose victims were queer Latinxs, reminded me of our duty to attend to the diverse ways that the “religious” can be mobilized in public rhetoric. Writing for Fusion and interviewed on Democracy Now!, regular Pulse patron, Daniel Leon-Davis, lamented the loss of both life and of sacred space that follows the Pulse massacre: “There is a home that is gone now … gay and trans people get pushed out of churches all the time. And often times our safe havens become night clubs.”
This sense of “safety” can provide a taste of “liberation,” offering what queer performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz described as a glimpse of the utopian horizon, where other ways of being human are opened and made possible. In the wake of Orlando, writer Justin Torres “want[s] to talk about the sacredness of Latin Night at the Queer Club. Amid all the noise, I want to close my eyes and see you all there, dancing, inviolable, free.” This ascription of liberative sacrality to gay night clubs was echoed also in other reflections, such as Richard Kim’s in The Nation and theologian Vincent Cervantes’ in Religion Dispatches.
Comedian Larry Wilmore and others connected the spaces of gay night clubs to the spaces of black churches, which have also been targets of terrorist violence. As historian of religion Charles Long might recognize, both gay clubs and black churches are spaces for oppressed religiosity where historically dominated communities can seek liberation and experience a fuller humanity in “an-other world” beyond the violently restrictive dominant gaze. Though both Christian imperialist discourses of gender violence and queer discussions of night clubs draw upon shared terms such as sacred, dignity, and safety, Christian imperialist and queer articulations of sacrality are qualitatively different employments of the religious.
Although I generally teach my students to critically deconstruct neat binaristic divisions, here I find the drawing of a binary distinction necessary for understanding the religious difference between Franciscan efforts in eighteenth-century Mission Santa Clara and queer Latinx experiences within the Pulse nightclub before June 12, 2016. One seeks to control space by dehumanizing some and massacring others. The other provides escape from dehumanization and glimpses of liberation predicated on the opening up of other ways of being and becoming human where no one is dehumanized and other worlds are possible.
Reading Resource from this Post
Ettinger, Catherine R. “Spaces of Change: Architecture and the Creation of a New Society in the California Missions.” Boletín: The Journal of the California Mission Studies Association 21, no. 1 (2004): 23-44.
Gutiérrez, Ramón A. and Richard J. Orsi with Anthony Kirk and Marelene Smith-Baranzini, eds. Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush. Berkeley: The California Historical Society with the University of California Press, 1998.
Hurtado, Albert L. Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. The Charles E. Winquist Series in Philosophical and Cultural Studies in Religion. Aurora, Colo.: The Davies Group, Publishers, 1995 [reprint of 1986 Fortress Press edition].
Miranda, Deborah A. “Extermination of the Joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16:1-2 (2010): 253-284.
Molotch, Harvey and Laura Norén, eds. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
Primary Sources on California
Boscana, Gerónimo. “Chinigchinich: A New Original Version of Boscana’s Historical Account of the San Juan Capistrano Indians of Southern California.” Edited and Translated by John P. Harrington. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 92, no. 4 (June 27, 1934).
Fages, Pedro. A Historical, Political, and Natural Description of California by Pedro Fages, Soldier of Spain. Translated by Herbert Priestley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937.
Palóu, Francisco. Life of Fray Junípero Serra. Edited and Translated by Maynard J. Geiger. Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955.
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