Reading Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender may seem a strange Lenten study, but there is no denying the accidentally powerful connections forged between the season and the study.
Last week I read “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” in which Butler writes about selves and sexuality and autonomy, yes, but also about being a self for and in the context of community with others, and how we shape ourselves and are shaped by the communities in which we live – or are prevented from living.
This week I worked on liturgies for our church’s Holy Week worship services, and found myself thinking about how we reject and sometimes kill outright people whose gender expressions don’t fit the norm, even as I was handling texts describing how Jesus was rejected and killed, for expressions of being human – infused with too much of the power of love? too much passion? – that violated the norms of his day.
Let’s start with this correlation: Butler says, “The critique of gender norms must be situated within the context of lives as they are lived and must be guided by the question of what maximizes the possibilities for a livable life, what minimizes the possibility of unbearable life or, indeed, social or literal death.”
Compare that to Jesus’ rationale for his own life and ministry, a rationale clearly informed by what Jesus knew of God’s intent for humanity: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSV)
Here’s an implication: if our existing sense of gender as a binary construct linked to a binary biology – i.e., there is only a masculine and a feminine gender, and only biological males should evidence masculine gender traits and only biological females should evidence feminine gender traits (never mind how those traits were determined to be masculine or feminine, for the moment) – limits the possibilities for a livable life, or indeed leads to social or literal death, then our binary gender construct obstructs the will of God that all may have life, and have it abundantly.
Of course, there is no “if” involved. It is a fact that our society does indeed police its gender norms through various means, from psychological evaluations to unwanted surgical interventions, from state-sanctioned identity constructs to street-level violence and vigilante-ism. (See Steve Sprinkle’s blog, “Unfinished Lives,” for too many such stories. And be outraged.)
Speaking about her service on the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Butler notes being astonished at “how often the organization was asked to respond to immediate acts of violence against sexual minorities, especially when that violence was not redressed in any way by local police or government in various places in the globe. I had to reflect on what sort of anxiety is prompted by the public appearance of someone who is openly gay, or presumed to be gay, someone whose gender does not conform to norms, someone whose sexuality defies public prohibitions, someone whose body does not conform with certain morphological ideals. What motivates those who are driven to kill someone for being gay, to threaten to kill someone for being intersexed, or would be driven to kill because of the public appearance of someone who is transgendered?”
What does this have to do with Jesus? Aside from the apparently all-too-easy-to-toss-out proscription against violence and murder, and that little “love your neighbor” thing? One might ask, what does the murder of genderqueer people have to do with the murder of Jesus?
It has to do with the underlying driver of the violence.
Hear Butler again: “The negation, through violence, of that body is a vain and violent effort to restore order, to renew the social world on the basis of intelligible gender, and to refuse the challenge to rethink that world as something other than natural or necessary.”
This is exactly the mindset that crucified Jesus: a mindset willing to engage in a vain and violent effort to restore order in the religious-political world of Roman-dominated Israel, by controlling what particular bodies were doing, and by refusing to rethink what was natural or necessary.
What were the particular bodies doing? Jesus, for one, a Jewish rabbi, was putting care for people ahead of obeying religious laws, feeding people that didn’t need to be eating together, offering a healing touch to the ritually impure, not just touching but raising the dead, and otherwise publicly violating necessary and natural religious, political and cultural mores and laws.
And then there were all those people hanging around Jesus, starting to do what he was doing. It was an embodied revolution: and to stop it meant stopping those bodies, by excommunication, expulsion or execution.
People died, for love. For loving. People are still dying. Because they – we – are being killed for how we look, or who we love, or who the perpetrators think we are. Which is sad enough.
But here’s where the knife turns a bit deeper. Just as in Jesus’ day, the killers have something they – and the rest of us – need to learn from those they are killing. We are killing the messengers, the witnesses, to a truth that could save us.
It’s a truth many of us have known since childhood, but it gets drilled out of us, with a multitude of falsehoods drummed into us in place of that truth.
What is that truth? That each of us is a mix of instincts and aptitudes and desires, some innate and some enculturated. There is no tabula rasa; but there is in each of us a unique creation, for whom possibilities must be open if we are to live into a full and abundant life.
We grow up in a society that enculturates us to think of ourselves and our instincts, aptitudes and desires in binary gendered terms, with a tilt to the binary, so that traits characterized as masculine also receive societal approval and tend to garner societal privilege – for men. Woe betide the person who evidences instincts and aptitudes and desires that run contrary to one’s assumed gender. These gender-variant people — from gay men to butch women to transgender or genderqueer folks — are described in dehumanizing and derogatory terms, and/or subjected to ostracism or violence or even death.
But when the gender binary is one of the tools we are handed to think with, then that’s what we use.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I began to develop the habit of writing to think, a habit I still have. I remember writing to myself – fairly objectively, as though I were writing out an explanation – that even though men were male, they had some female characteristics, and even though women were female, they had some male characteristics. Proud of the logic I had worked out, complete with some implications – that we should all accept all of each other – I showed the writing to my mom, with some pride of authorship, looking for affirmation. She asked me where I had copied it from … well, there was some affirmation in that, somewhere. She thought it was good enough that someone else had written it.
At this stage of my life, there’s more to that story than the childhood sting of not being believed or taken seriously; I can see now how it was probably my mother’s own gender subversion that inspired the work, in part. I can see how that little piece of writing was itself still stuck in the gender binary, even as I was trying to blur the boundaries usefully. Butler presents the question most poignantly: “What if new forms of gender are possible? How does this affect the ways that we live and the concrete needs of the human community?”
New forms of gender are possible: they are being carved out and lived out right before our very eyes. Butler, again, in undeniably prophetic words: “Those deemed illegible, unrecognizable, or impossible nevertheless speak in the terms of the ‘human,’ opening the term to a history not fully constrained by the existing differentials of power.”
“Illegible.” The person store clerks call “sir,” female biologically and dressed in masculine appearance … we are still making up language for who and what this person is. Undoubtedly, though, this is a Human Being. (Yes, I am deliberately recalling Walter Wink’s assertion that in modern-day parlance Human Being is another translation for what English readers usually encounter as a title for Jesus: Son of Man.)
“Unrecognizable.” The person – one among many – who attempts the “real-life test” of living in a gendered presentation that counters biology but fits the soul. Paul Oberjuerge, then a sports columnist for the San Bernardino Sun, had this reaction to Christine Daniels: “I hate to be judgmental about these things, but Christine is not an attractive woman.” Describing Daniels as having a prominent Adam’s apple and standing more than 6 feet tall in wobbly heels, he said, “It seemed almost as if we’re all going along with someone’s dress-up role playing.”
Excuse me? Not everyone finds me attractive; does that make me unrecognizable as a woman? I wobble on high heels; does that make me unrecognizable as a woman? I feel like I am playing dress-up – and I sometimes joke about being in full drag – when I load up on all the accoutrements of feminine dress and makeup, because it doesn’t feel natural or necessary; what does that make me? I feel just as natural and necessary with a chainsaw in my hands after a storm as I do with a Bible in my hands at prayer …
Who do you say that I am?
“Impossible.” In refusing gender variance as an impossibility, mainstream society wants to make genderqueer people the problem, and render them invisible or dead. But genderqueer people are not the problem: the world’s false ideas about humanity and its shapes and presentations are the problem. The world takes its problems and loads them onto a scapegoat, to be chased away or killed. But scapegoating never works, because the problem coinheres the society itself. (In the same way, society made me out to be a bad mother when I had trouble finding adequate child care for my babies; this kept a masculinist, sexist society from having to shoulder its own task of questioning what was natural and necessary and being open to changing how we think about and plan for the arrival of new generations. And so, another generation of parents is struggling with the balance of family formation and its balance with work and providence, because of constructed “norms” that maintain male privileges and capitalist economies.)
Refusing the labels of illegible, unrecognizable, and impossible is a necessary part of claiming to be human: in Christian parlance, children of God, made in the image of God, a part of God’s good creation.
Jesus surely went through similar struggles: what did it feel like, to have both divinity and humanity roiling around in his embodied soul? Did he wonder which reality to live into? Did he feel right in his skin? Or … strange? Multiple? Various? Variant? Queer?
Were these internal struggles evidenced in Jesus’ temptations in the desert? One way to understand them is as temptations to embrace divinity to the exclusion of humanity. “Conform,” Satan said. “Conform to this normative idea of what the Messiah will be, the Anointed One, the Son of God.”
“No,” Jesus said. “Things are going to be messy. That’s just how it is, when you are human. Even when your humanity walks as close to God as mine does.”
Church councils in the early history of Christianity recapitulated this struggle to understand Jesus’ true nature: was he human? was he divine? There were reasons for thinking he had to be either/or, compelling arguments in both directions. Finally, the churchmen (and it was just men, by then) agreed: it was both. For once, the binary was undone. Jesus was fully human, fully divine. A new reality that was – frankly – illegible, unrecognizable, impossible.
This is one of those instances when, as Butler puts it, something happened that opened “the term [human] to a history not fully constrained by the existing differentials of power.” In other words, there is more to the human story than those confronted with Jesus could imagine. These is more to our human stories than can be imagined by those perpetrating violence against gender-variant folks, against women, against people of marginalized ethniticies and religions, against poorer people and older people and differently-abled people.
Our genderqueer neighbors are messengers bringing good news to us: that all of us can live into all of who we are; that none of us are constrained from any part of our humanity because of false gender binary constructs and societal expectations about gender performance; that love and doing love and being love is what matters. We can keep killing the messengers. Or we can listen … and begin to live into a new life.
Isn’t that what the resurrection is all about?
We are headed toward Good Friday, the recollection and remembrance of a day when we killed The Messenger. But friends, Easter is coming. And I will sing the alleluia on that day. Because the message has been received: love, and loving, is the call and the response.