theology, transgender, trans theology
Toward the end of Max Strassfeld's groundbreaking "Transing Religious Studies," he refers to the approach to trans theology I am developing in [End Page 53] my manuscript "The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective."1 In this essay, I flesh out the glimpse he offers of my efforts to "[rehearse] classical theological questions from a different vantage point" (52).
My approach to trans theology grows out of my childhood experience of how being trans fostered a sense of intimacy with God. Both my gender identity and my relationship with God were beyond the pale of the middle-class, assimilated, largely secular Jewish world I grew up in. Neither could be spoken of without calling my sanity into question.
To me, God was not an abstraction or a mystical experience but someone who was there, invisible but as real and palpable as cold or warmth or humidity, as much a fact of life as my parents. But I felt closer to God than to my parents. My parents identified me with my male body and social role; unlike them, God knew who and what I was.
Being trans gave me a sense of kinship with God. I had a body that concealed who I was; God had no body at all. Both of us were stranded in the wilderness beyond human categories, invisible and incomprehensible to human beings who mistook bodies for selves.
We were an odd couple, God and I, God existing beyond all that is, will be, and was, I struggling to feel I existed at all. But when it came to relating to human beings, God and I had something in common: neither of us could be seen or understood by those we dwelt among and loved.
It may seem paradoxical to claim that being trans brought me closer to God. Although in some cultures, spiritual roles or powers are ascribed to those who don't fit binary gender categories, in Western industrialized societies, both religious and nonreligious people tend to think of trans identities as expressions of a secular, individualistic modernity which is opposed to premodern religious traditions. As more religious communities accept openly transgender members, however, questions about the relationships among trans identities and experiences and religious traditions become more urgent. Do religious traditions speak to trans experiences as they do to other human experiences? Can trans experiences illuminate religious texts and traditions, or does including trans perspectives in religious life require "transing" traditions, changing them in ways that represent fundamental breaks with tradition?
For me, those questions are answered every Yom Kippur afternoon, when Jews read the Book of Jonah, which tells a story every transgender person knows: the story of someone desperate to avoid living as the person (in Jonah's case, as the prophet) they know themselves to be. [End Page 54]
It is clear from the opening words of the book—when God orders him to "go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me" (1:2)—that Jonah knows he is a prophet. But Jonah is so determined to avoid living as a prophet that he abandons his home and boards a ship to Tarshish, sinking into a sleep so deep that he slumbers through a God-sent storm that threatens to sink the ship. When the captain wakes him and orders him to "call upon your God" for deliverance, Jonah responds not with prayer but by telling the sailors "'cast me into the sea'" (1:12).
Jonah's suicidal response resembles a pattern all too familiar among trans-gender people: flee from who you are as long as you can, and when you can no longer endure the internal and external storms, kill yourself for others' sake. Trans people often tell ourselves that suicide will resolve the crises caused by our conflicting needs to be, and not be, who we are. Our families, our communities, our world, will be better off without us, we think, and we will finally be at peace. In Jonah's case, this suicidal fantasy seems to come true: when Jonah is...