Category Archives: Gender

Bathroom Bills and the Panopticon

One of the most prescient elements of George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ubiquity of surveillance—rather, of the possibility of surveillance. No one in Orwell’s novel is certain whether they are being observed through telescreens at any given moment, and thus they conform themselves to social expectations even in their private lives.[1] Indeed, the constant possibility of surveillance leads citizens to constantly surveil one another, effectively doing the authority’s job for them and internalizing the authority’s values. This is ultimate ideological victory. Permanent visibility becomes a form of power and control, what Foucault called “panopticism;” telescreens functioning as the panopticon.[2]

The recent passing of the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” more broadly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” in North Carolina is intended by its supporters to protect the safety and privacy of users of public restrooms. The law

directs all public schools, government agencies and public college campuses to require that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities, such as locker rooms, be designated for use only by people based on their “biological sex” stated on their birth certificate. Transgender people can use the bathrooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity only if they get the biological sex on their birth certificate changed.[3]

This is only one example of such laws, which are appearing in increasing number in recent months. Supporters of the law see this is a commonsense protection, for young girls in particular. Many clarify that they are not worried about transgender women attacking cisgender women,[4] but about cis men taking advantage of trans-inclusive policies to gain access to bathrooms or changing rooms for the purposes of viewing or assaulting women. While I find this scenario implausible,[5] my primary objections to this law pertain rather to enforcement and surveillance.

If someone suspects that I am a trans man (many trans men indeed appear more masculine than I do), and thus that I am in the “wrong” bathroom, what is their recourse? Presumably to contact management of the establishment who will contact either police or their own security. What is my recourse? Even if I have state-issued ID on me, this does not settle the matter legally, as the law explicitly refers to birth certificates. I do not carry my birth certificate with me, and of course many trans people have ID that does not match their birth certificates. (In any event, a law that requires a person to have identification in order to use the bathroom is inherently classist and draconian.) Indeed, video emerged on Facebook in December 2015 of a biologically female woman being physically ejected from a restaurant bathroom because she didn’t seem feminine enough to security, despite a small crowd of women attesting to their mistake. In this absurd encounter, male security forces attempt to protect the privacy and security of a woman’s space but are themselves the ones violating it.[6]

And this is one of the central problems with these kinds of laws. Supporters wish to make spaces safer, but in fact establish a virtual panopticon, as the public surveils and polices each individual of the public to ensure that they are performing their gender well enough. Moreover, this applies to both cis and trans individuals. Trans people who “pass”—that is, are not generally perceived to be transgender—are effectively immune to such laws. (See, for example, the top submissions to the “Transpassing” subreddit, many of whom are likely to remain unaffected by these laws one way or the other.)[7] Trans people who do not pass, as well as cis people whose appearance or behavior calls attention, are at the mercy of public scrutiny.

These laws thus reinforce strict gender roles—not only the gender essentialism that believes a person’s chromosomes (or genitals, or internal reproductive organs, etc.) dictate their gender, but also the expectations that society has for men as such and women as such. These laws contribute to the social atmosphere in which all people, whether gay, bisexual, straight, cis or trans, are constantly having their gender performance observed and judged, and add a penalty for failure to conform. Bathrooms—one of the most common and necessary public utilities—thus function precisely as Orwell’s telescreens: sites of surveillance, mechanisms that discipline us through daily scrutiny into internalizing a particular account of what it means to be man or woman.

                [1] “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live…in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

                [2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.

                [3] Avianne Tan, “North Carolina’s Controversial  ‘Anti-LGBT’ Bill Explained,” ABC News, 24 March, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/US/north-carolinas-controversial-anti-lgbt-bill-explained/story?id=37898153.

                [4] The term “cisgender” was recently added  to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. For definition, see http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cisgender-meaning.

                [5] Most sexual assault is not perpetuated by strangers, but by relatives and acquaintances. Those few who do assault strangers in public rely on stealth and moments of isolation and opportunity—in which law becomes irrelevant—rather than drawing attention to themselves, as any masculine-presenting person entering a women’s bathroom or changing room does, whether they wish to or not. As many detractors of these laws have already pointed out, trans people (and I suppose this would include cis men imitating trans people?) are far more at risk in public spaces as it is.

                [6] Matthew Tharrett, “Aggressive Cop Forces Gay Woman Out Of Ladies Room For Not Having ID,” New Now Next, 20 April, 2016, http://www.newnownext.com/aggressive-cop-forces-gay-woman-out-of-womens-bathroom-for-not-having-id/04/2016/.

                [7] The issue of “passing” and its desirability or not in the trans community is highly individual and politically charged. For discussion, see Chris Godfrey, “Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of ‘Passing,’” Vice, 25 March, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/ passing-when-youre-transgender as well as Princess Harmony Rodriguez, “5 Ways to Support Trans People who Don’t ‘Pass’ for Cis,” Black Girl Dangerous, 6 August, 2015, http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/08/5-ways-to-support-trans-people-who-dont-pass-for-cis/.

Pope Benedict on Respecting Gender

Before Cardinal Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI, he began a series of interviews with Peter Seewald.  Since assuming the Papacy, he has continued this series, with the most recent talk being published as Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.  I have begun reading through his older interviews, and came across this passage in God and the World.

In discussion the creation account, Peter Seewald asked whether men and women are fundamentally different kinds of beings.  The heart of Benedict’s response warned against two errors society falls into concerning gender roles.

I think we  should be equally concerned with false theories of equality and false theories of difference… It is false when people want men and women to be cut to the same measure and say that this tiny biological difference has absolutely no significance.  That tendency is dominant nowadays.   Personally, it still horrifies me when people want women to be soldiers just like men, when they, who have have always been keepers of the peace and in whom we have always seen a counter-impulse working against the male impulse to stand up and fight, now likewise run around with submachine guns, showing that they can be just as warlike as the men.  Or that women now have the “right” to work as garbage collectors or miners, to do all those things that, out of respect for their status, for the different nature, their own dignity, we ought not to inflict on them and that are now imposed on them in the name of equality…  Basically this ideology of equality is a kind of “spiritualism,” a way of despising the body that refuses to recognize that the body itself is the person.  Because of this, it seems  to me, this kind of egalitarianism does not exalt women but diminishes their status. By being treated as male, they are dragged down to being undistinguished and ordinary.

But there is also of course a false ideology of difference.  Through that it became customary to regard women as lower beings, who are only there to do the cooking and the cleaning, while the lords of creation talk and make war and regard themselves as a superior caste with a superior field of activities.  From that standpoint, women are regarded as being [merely] physical, sensual, not open to spiritual things, not creative… thus the ideology of difference developed into a caste system.

Taking seriously Christian doctrine would lead us to walk between these two equal but opposite errors.

Ads urging for the ordination of women met the Pope during his August, 2010 visit to London

But the difficult part is envisioning that in practice.  I, for my part, do not find egalitarian marriage (that is, marriages of mutual submission and no particularly male leadership) to fall into the first category.  But some Christians do.  For that matter, my reading of the New Testament would allow for women to engage in church leadership roles (and require them to when they are called by God to do so), but B16 would certainly disagree with me there.

What do you think?  What does a Christian perspective that takes gender seriously look like in practice?

The Trouble with Gay Marriage

There are two levels on which the gay marriage debate typically takes place.  The first is an in-house Christian discussion about whether and to what degree a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with Christian discipleship.  (In the Christian view, marriage is an aspect of discipleship.)  The second is a broader cultural discussion about the place of same-sex couples in American society and jurisprudence.  We can call the first the Christian discussion and the second the gay rights discussion, even though same-sex marriage is only one aspect of the gay rights movement.

The trouble emerges when these two discussions are not sufficiently distinguished from one another.

The church, I am afraid to say, is much more confused than the world on this matter.  This is for a couple of reasons.  First, many in the church feel that the results from their discussion will have a significant impact on the results of the broader cultural discussion.  It is assumed that if Christians conclude that the Bible forbids homosexual practice, it follows that America must outlaw same-sex marriage.  For this reason, many in the church (such as Bishop John Shelby Spong) argue that even if the Bible does condemn it, the loving thing to do is to ignore what the Bible says.  Others won’t go so far as to overturn scripture, but instead refuse to provide an answer at all (Brian McLaren recently urged the Christian community to commit to a five-year moratorium on pronouncements about homosexuality).

But the church is even more confused than this, I am afraid.  The church has largely lost track of its own understanding of marriage and adopted the world’s instead.  Everyone knows the world’s understanding: two people fall in love, and enter into an egalitarian relationship, which either party can dissolve at will, provided they fall out of love first.  Children complicate this understanding of marriage, but only barely.  Christians have by and large taken this notion of marriage (a relatively recent development in western culture) and run with it, making it “Christian” simply by adding, “You’re not allowed to fall out of love.”  This has given rise to an entire cottage industry of tools and resources (Five Love Languages, The Love Dare, the books of John and Stasi Eldredge, Promise-Keepers) to prevent Christians from falling out of love.  But the traditional Christian understanding of marriage has nothing to do with falling in love.  “Love” for the church only names what a lifelong marriage in the end amounted to and contained within it.  Marriage for Christians has traditionally been understood as an aspect of Christian discipleship, a gift from God that enables us to more ably follow Jesus.  (Celibacy and ministry are also understood as such gifts.)

With its worldly understanding of marriage firmly in grasp, and its fear of ruining the lives of its homosexual neighbors, the church has largely come to a place where it makes no sense to deny marriage to same-sex couples, who, after all, can feel just as “in love” as any Christian, and often seem to do much better at it.

What the conversation needs if it is going to become intelligible is a divorce.  Once we disentangle the Christian discussion from worldly rights-speak and worldly understandings of marriage, we can get on to the actual business at hand.  For my part, I understand the Bible as teaching that a homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with Christian discipleship, which means that same-sex marriage has no place in the church.  Those with same-sex attraction, along with many heterosexuals, will be called to live in the church as single and celibate, which means that the church as a whole is called to be a people whose friendship, hospitality and love can overcome the loneliness that can mark such lives.

But whatever my answer in the Christian discussion (and it is a complex discussion, whatever anyone says), it has no direct bearing on the gay rights debate.  From my perspective, I would critique the entire notion of marriage as a civil institution.  The state cannot marry anyone, gay or straight, and if it feels that it should recognize certain civil unions for tax purposes or allow individuals to name others as insurance beneficiaries or legal custodians, I don’t see what the church’s ethic has to do with anything.

Rereading Scripture: Feminist Biblical Criticism

According to Phyllis Trible, one of North America’s most respected feminist biblical scholars, feminist attempts to glean insights and perspectives on the biblical text that have traditionally been overlooked or suppressed in the past are are prophetic in nature, challenging assumptions and calling the church to repentence.  Trible observes that the Bible was “born and bred in a land of patriarchy,” and “abounds in male images and language.”

In Trible’s overview of feminist biblical criticism, she identifies three primary trajectories or approaches to the study of the subject of women in scripture.

“When feminists first examined the Bible,” Trible states, “emphasis fell upon documenting the [apparent] case against women.”  In this wave of study, attention was focused on the status of women in the biblical culture, primarily as it is reflected in the language and law of scripture.  Two examples suffice.

  1. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, exegetical attention has often been paid to the actions of the townspeople, attempting to rape the visitors.  Is this primarily a text against homosexual behavior, students of scripture have asked, or against inhospitality?  But with a feminist perspective in mind, attention has come to be focused on the behavior of Lot himself, who offers his daughters to be raped in place of his male guests, and goes uncriticized in the narrative for his mindset.  Similar deconstructions are made of the story of Jephthah sacrificing his virgin daughter to uphold a foolishly worded vow in Judges 11.
  2. The deuteronomic law, while in some places showing great concern to the care of the defenseless in society, continually regards women under the protection of a man as being also the property of the man.  This patriarchal assumption leads to some bizarre ethical standards, such as a “you break it, you buy it” policy in regards to raping a woman: the punishment for raping a virgin was requirement to marry her without option of divorce.

Trible observes that this line of study is generally the first exposure to feminist criticism an individual gets, and that it often leads to an abandonment of biblical faith as hopelessly misogynistic, “although this judgment usually fails to evaluate the evidence in terms of Israelite culture.”

So Trible notes a second approach, which she claims grows out of the first, while simultaneously modifying it.  “Discerning within Scripture a critique of patriarchy, certain feminists concentrate upon discovering and recovering traditions that challenge the culture.  This task involves highlighting neglected texts and reinterpreting familiar ones.”  Here, three primary examples bear the point.

  1. A clearly present but often neglected aspect of the Hebrew scriptures is the portrayal of deity as female.  Psalm 22:9-10 states, “Yet thou art the one who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breast,” while Deuteronomy 32:18 is much more explicit: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  Feminist criticism attempts to draw attention to these and similar passages, which some translations seem to intentionally gloss over, as the JB, which translates the latter passage, “You forgot the God who fathered you.”
  2. More prominently, feminist critics attempt to give new life to the importance of women in scripture.  Take the Exodus story.  “So quick are scholars to get Moses born,” Trible writes, “that they pass quickly over the stories that lead to his advent.”  It is in the interest of this sort of feminist rereading of scripture to point out that in fact it was two female slaves who were the first to oppose the Pharoah, when they refuse to kill newborn sons.
  3. Finally, this feminist aim also seeks to reinterpret familiar women of scripture, who are perhaps unfairly characterized in patriarchal ways.  The strongest example of this is Eve’s role in the fall, which feminist critics argue deviates from patriarchal norms in several ways.  The serpent talks to Eve in plural verb forms, making her the spokesperson for the human couple.  When Eve speaks, she discusses theology intelligently, “stating the case for obedience even more strongly than God did.”  Because whereas God said simply not to eat the fruit of the tree, Eve explained that they were not even to touch the tree.  Whereas Christians might understand this as legalism exemplified, a more Hebrew understanding could perceive Eve as building “a fence around the Torah,”a procedure the rabbis developed to protect the divine law and ensure obedience.

Trible describes this strain of scripture, which feminists have set about identifying and reclaiming, as a “remnant theology” and a “counter-liturgy” to the dominant male bias identified by the first set of studies.  She then goes on to identify the third approach of feminist criticism, which “retells biblical stories of terror in memoriam, offering sympathetic readings of abused women.  If the first perspective documents misogyny historically and sociologically, this one appropriates such evidence poetically and theologically.  At the same time, it continues to look for the remnant in unlikely places.”

Again, stories such as the rape, murder and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges 19 are analysed.  In this case, the narrator of Judges suggests that the Davidic kingship is the answer to such violence.  But the feminist critic calls attention to Amnon’s rape of Tamar, which occurred under King David’s rule, calling into question claims that another patriarch is the answer.

Ultimately, in this approach, such a story must be interpreted “on behalf of the concubine, as it calls to remembrance her suffering and death.”  We as readers can move beyond mere indictment of the attacker and enter into solidarity with the victim, which Trible claims is its own way of challenging the patriarchy implicit in the scriptures.

Trible understands that these three methods are not all-encompassing, and that feminist rereading of scripture must incorporate other perspectives.  In particular, she observes, there is “the problem of sexist translations.”  But her intention in describing these ways is to demonstrate that feminist criticism is making concrete progress in challenging old interpretations of the biblical text.  Her hope is that in time such strategies will yield a biblical theology of womanhood, which roots in the goodness of creation, both male and female.