- Notes on Trans Relationality
The muscles in my shoulders tense when I see Mike Pence. My stomach turns. Each time I think of him a lifetime of evangelical hellfire reigns on my psyche. Now, to be clear, I’m not scared of him. I’m disgusted. See, I used to believe my transness and queerness were pathological. Moreover, that they could be cured with a prayer. Or, rather, with more than a few prayers, a lot of self-surveillance and secrecy, and unfettered optimism, I, too, could embody normative gender and sexuality; what conversion therapy proponent Andrew Comiskey refers to as “sexual and relational wholeness.”1 Now, please allow me to offer a vague yet specific plot device that helps frame my larger orientation to the intersection of religion and nonnormative gender and sexuality: I was raised in and around ex-gayness where Southern Baptist and evangelical-informed conversion “therapy” was assumed, through lived experience, to be effective and expected.2 The result has been a life of unlearning some rather deep-seated beliefs and self-harming behaviors.
Now, to be clear, conversion serves as but a stepping off point—well, more precisely, a philosophical anchor that signifies much of our current moment. Conversion helps me trace and articulate an ephemeral moment in which numerous, disparate communities and cultures are finding it hard to catch our collective and individual breathe as the newly minted “Alt-Right” administration materializes its racist, cisheterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic assault [End Page 84] on the publics. The fact persists: conversion therapy sites affirm persons whose religious convictions conflict with and supersede their nonnormative sexual and gender experiences. As a result, the means by which these spaces enact relational bonds that “work” in a changing culture matters. In fact, recent conversion discourses less explicitly name sexual orientation as the primary point of focus. The attempt to resignify particular cultural meanings (e.g., conversion therapy as “inclusive” to a number of nonnormative sexualities and/or genders) is further exacerbated by an Administration that promotes so-called “alternative facts.” Thus, we must be vigilant to the resignification of meaning in relation to oppressive power structures.
Conversion sites, and the faith-based philosophies informing their approach, use coded language like “sexual and relational brokenness” to name “the problem,” effectively masking their intent to convert queerness by broadening their evangelical grasp to include more “broken” folks (e.g., porn “addiction,” masturbation, polyamory, nonnormative gender, etc.).3 In essence, the message appears more encompassing though the focus remains on sexual and gender nonnormativity. Further, it is in this broader sense that transness and queerness are conflated as enactments of “sexual and relational brokenness.” It is in this vein that I resist the impulse to erroneously attribute conversion to sexuality alone. Absolutely, conversion is an intersectionally derived structure performatively constituting cishetero subjectivities informed through what Audre Lorde terms the “mythical norm”: “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure” as well as cisgender and able-bodied with citizenship status.4
In its heyday, Exodus International (EI) served as an umbrella organization supporting a number of conversion sites, practitioners, and congregants since its founding in 1976. EI described itself on its now defunct website as “promoting the message of Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” In 2013, EI closed its doors after then president Alan Chambers admitted conversion therapy does not work.5 Nevertheless, the impact and practice of conversion therapy persists. For instance, the 2016 Republican National Convention’s political platform included unequivocal support for “faith-based” counseling including conversion therapy for minors.6 And now, the Alt-Right administration’s platform weaves conversion therapy, through Mike Pence and his cisheterosexist agenda, back into the popular imagination. In addition, EI’s influence persists in local ministries throughout the United States through publication and distribution of literature as well as through the Exodus Global Alliance, which continues to fund conversion sites worldwide. Although defunct, EI’s effect continues to motivate religious leaders who promote “sexual and relational healing” and “wholeness” through Jesus Christ on local and global scales. To state what should be redundant: conversion “therapies” are unfounded, doing [End Page 85] more harm than good...