- Transing and Gendering Religious Studies
bathrooms, methodology, transfeminist
Max Strassfeld's important and provocative comments on both transphobia in religious studies and transforming the field from a trans perspective might be taken in a number of directions. Three issues he raised in the lead jumped out at me: first, the methodological parallels between the development of feminist and trans studies in religion; second, the centrality of bathrooms to efforts to control and marginalize transgender people; and third, the complicated substantive relationship between feminist and trans work in religious studies. [End Page 75]
As I see it, feminist studies in religion developed in three phases that were initially consecutive but then became overlapping and mutually constitutive: critical, historical, and re/constructive. The earliest feminist work in religious studies examined the long history of androcentrism and misogyny in the field, critiquing both canonical texts and the scholarship that overlooked and rein-scribed the sexism in those texts. In the second phase, feminists mined many of the same sources, not for information about male attitudes toward women but for the history of women and their activities and contributions. The distinction between Rosemary Ruether's Religion and Sexism, which focused on attitudes toward women in key religious texts, and Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin's Women of Spirit, which looked at many of the same sources from the perspective of women's labor and leadership, provides an excellent example of this transition.1 In the third phase, feminists began to ask: what would this tradition/movement/concept/doctrine look like if reconceived from a feminist perspective? A huge body of work emerged reimagining every aspect of religious life and thought. While in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a definite development from one moment to the next, once articulated, they began to feed and deepen one another in a continuing spiral so that the notion of stages is now relevant only as a matter of historical record. One could argue that there has been a similar development in lesbian and gay and then queer studies: that just as feminist theology is a "critical theology of liberation," to use Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's phrase,2 so gay, lesbian, and queer studies necessarily started with critique and then moved on to reclaim the hidden presence of gays in various traditions and to creatively reimagine tradition.
I see Max delineating a similar trajectory in trans studies, certainly in terms of phases one and three. An important contribution of his lead is the way he illuminates the workings of transphobia both in public discourse and in feminist work in religion itself. The end of his piece is then a clarion call for the "transing of religious studies"—for doing the constructive work of rethinking the field from a trans perspective. Interestingly, although Max does not mention this, some of the historical work of recovering a trans presence and trans contributions to various traditions already has a fairly long history as part gay, lesbian, and queer studies. I'm thinking of discussions of such phenomena as two-spirited people in Native traditions or the existence of three sexes in certain [End Page 76] strands of Hinduism. Max himself has done extensive work on the figure of the androgyne in rabbinic Judaism.
The existence of these methodological parallels between feminist and trans studies is by no means a matter of happenstance, for, as Max points out, transphobia and sexism are thoroughly co-constructed. Thus, in the New York Post article on Joy Ladin that Max discusses, it is impossible to separate out the sexualization of women and the focus on their bodies and clothing—both pervasive sexist themes in the culture—from the ridicule of and skepticism about Ladin's trans femininity. Ladin's presence at "Ye-SHE-va University" is the subject of a joke both because she is a woman and a transwoman teaching at an Orthodox institution. Similarly, "bathroom bills" such as Mississippi HB 1523 seek to control bathroom access for trans people within the context of a culture in which public toilets presuppose and help construct the gender binary. The bills would make no sense were it not for the...