- Transing Religious Studies
bathroom bills, Mary Daly, transgender, transmisogyny
When Joy Ladin transitioned in 2008, a media firestorm erupted. Ladin is a tenured professor of English at Yeshiva University, which bills itself as the oldest university in the United States to combine Jewish and secular learning. She was hailed in the media as the first transsexual teaching in an Orthodox yeshiva. The response from the institution was swift: Yeshiva University forced her to fight for her position, a fight in which she was ultimately successful.
In addition to being a poet and professor of English, Ladin is, notably, an expert in trans studies in religion. In Ladin's memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders, she analyzes the press coverage of her transition. One of the most widely circulated news stories was an article that appeared in the New York Post entitled "Ye-SHE-va University is Rattled by Transgender Prof." The New York Post, in general, is not prone to offering thoughtful observations on gender and Judaism, but as Ladin notes in her memoir, she became the punchline of the article.1 The pun [End Page 37] "Ye-SHE-va" (accomplished by changing an i to an e) was congruent with the rest of the newspaper's tone. And yet, in indulging in a pun about a trans-woman, the New York Post unwittingly or not participated in an established genre.2 This formulation of transsexuality offers an easy transphobic and misogynist laugh.
"Ye-SHE-va" becomes something much more than standard transphobia in the article, however; it functions as a pun about the incongruity of transfeminine bodies in Orthodox Jewish space. As Ladin writes:
But even for the Post, the joke of transsexuality is stale. Few New York–area transsexuals make tabloid headlines. What made my story tabloid-worthy was the incongruity of a transsexual, the quintessence of a secular individualism that says we are all free to define our identities, teaching at an institution for which identity, including gender, is defined in terms of divine law. Transsexuals (in tight shirts and flirty skirts no less) and Orthodox Jews—what could be funnier?3
"Ye-SHE-va" renders Orthodox Judaism and trans as mutually exclusive terms. The "SHE" that disruptively breaks up yeshiva relies implicitly on a stereotype of Judaism as misogynistic and by extension, transphobic. The article, which in its entirety displays all the classic hallmarks of both transphobia and transmisogyny, at the same time displaces that transphobia onto religion in a phenomenal sleight of hand. To make the secular coverage in the New York Post trans-positive, Judaism becomes the scapegoat.4 Moreover, the tension between yeshiva and university ("secular" and religious modes) is mapped onto Judaism and transsexuality.5 In this formulation, transsexual becomes secular, modern, neoliberal, and feminized, while Judaism is religious, sexist, legalistic, cisgender, and masculinized. Neither religion nor transsexuals fare well in this comparison. [End Page 38]
In this opening to our roundtable conversation, I ask us to consider the effects of this constructed incongruity between religion and transgender—both the direct impacts on trans people and the legacy within religious studies as an academic pursuit. In my essay, I read closely the language of Mississippi HB 1523 (an example of bathroom bills) in order to think through how the category of religion is being negotiated on the backs of trans people. I then analyze the special scrutiny of transwomen's bodies in particular and argue that the history of religious studies (and feminist scholarship in the field) has colluded with transmisogyny. I end by posing a question: if both religion and religious studies have been positioned as cisgendered, what might it look like to trans religious studies?
A final note: perhaps it is banal but it bears reasserting—the intersection of religion and trans cannot be predetermined. There is neither a singular "religion" nor a singular "trans." The imbrication of trans bodies, trans textualities, trans lives, and trans religions must be understood within the contexts in which they occur. This essay, therefore, cannot be exhaustive; I hope my fellow discussants will take us beyond the limitations of my (US-centered, Jewish, gender nonconforming...