Several weeks ago, I posted a reflection on the question, “what is queer theology?” In this post, we will go a little deeper, examining how theology can be informed by the queer experience — and vice versa.
But before we get into the theology, a little bit of social theory: The anthropologist Mary Douglas examined the laws of Leviticus in her studies of purity and cleanliness. She developed a theory of impurity as disorder — something out of its right place is unclean. To take a modern example, imagine a coffee cup. If that cup is on a table, or in a cup-holder, it is in the right place and considered “clean.” If, instead, the cup is on the floor, it is considered trash. But, circumstances can make a formerly “right” place “wrong.” If the coffee cup has been sitting with dregs in it for a week, its proper place is now in the dishwasher. On the table, it’s unclean.
Our ideas of “right place” and “wrong place” create a borderlands, a space between. The coffee cup falls through the air from table to floor, transitioning from “clean” to “trash.” Culturally, it is often dangerous to cross boundaries. Rites of passage are designed to facilitate these border-crossings, to help people smoothly transition: from child to adult, from non-believer to convert, and so on. In Manuel Villalobos’ article “Bodies Del Otro Lado Finding Life and Hope in the Borderland: Gloria Anzaldua, the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:26-40, Y Yo,” he examines the ideas of borderlands and boundary-crossing. It was this article that inspired the following reflection.
[God,] You created my inmost being and stitched me together in my mother’s womb. For all these mysteries I thank you — for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works — my soul knows it well. My frame was not hidden from you while I was made in that secret place, knitted together in the depths of the earth; your eyes saw my body even there.Psalm 139:13-16, Inclusive Bible
My name is Mac, and I am non-binary transgender. I am not a man or a woman, but a little of both, somewhere in between.
I’ve started a number of talks and a couple of sermons this way over the past five years. The talks usually go on to cover my coming-out process to myself and others: first as a lesbian, then later as genderqueer and finally transgender. If coming-out is a border crossing, my passport is getting a little worn. Through each of these comings-out, I have experienced a new understanding of how God created me. Every time has felt like stepping into a fuller version of myself, more like the person I was created to be. My own lived experience is contrary to the voices of conservative Christianity which argue that homosexuality or gender transgression is an abomination. For me, it is a flourishing. The words of the psalmist rang true when I first heard them as a teenager, and I keep returning to them. God created my inmost being — my queer and trans self.
Mary Douglas’ theories on cleanliness and abomination align with what I have seen in peoples’ responses to queerness and trans-ness. I intentionally start my talks with Psalm 139 because it shakes up the paradigm. So often, the popular narrative is that a transgender person was “born into the wrong body,” and that narrative gets countered with the argument, “well, God doesn’t make mistakes.” To which I respond, explicitly: “You’re right. God doesn’t make mistakes. God made me trans.” Putting things in the “wrong place” creates cognitive dissonance and stress. It’s difficult for cisgender [non-transgender] people to conceive of a transgender narrative that doesn’t involved “wrongness” somehow. Hence, “born into the wrong body.”
If boundary-crossing is dangerous, then living in the borderlands is even more so. Neither male nor female, my body and my being commit gender transgression in every space. This means that I can rarely settle into a feeling of security; it also means that I have the power of an outsider. The poet Gloria Anzaldua expressed this way of being with the word nepantlero, taken from the Nahuatl word Nepantla, meaning “place in the middle.” Manuel Villalobos explains: “People who become nepantlero/a/e have the ability to turn the chaos into order, the right into the left. In Nepantla anything can happen — even the absurdity of dreaming.”
My body, my being, tears the veil between male and female. I keep coming back to Christianity principally because border crossings and outside places are so central to the narrative. The Nepantla is home to much dreaming in our sacred stories. After all, the Trinity is inherently non-binary.
There is such power in the borderlands.
That will be our salvation.