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Episcopal Divinity School Embraces “Gender Continuum”Seminary Event Seeks to Upend Traditional Views of SexJeff WaltonOctober 26, 2010
The binary concept of sex as either male or female is an illusion, according to an event at an Episcopal Church seminary. The workshop and panel discussion, “The Gender Continuum,” was held October 15-16 at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Facilitated by the Miami-based YES Institute, the workshop aimed to deconstruct “the illusion of binary gender.”
The Gender Continuum
In explaining sex and gender, YES Institute’s Joseph Zolobczuk contrasted a traditional understanding of the two as male/female and masculine/feminine with a radically revised model.
“The binary illusion throws us into complicity with many detrimental consequences,” Zolobczuk asserted. The institute’s education staffer explained that the traditional understanding assigned persons a male or female body, assumed that their gender was accordingly masculine or feminine, and expected them to be sexually attracted towards the opposite gender. All three of these criteria collapsed into the “illusion” of sex, according to Zolobczuk.
In contrast, the YES Institute proposed thinking of gender as a continuum – a continuous whole, no part of which can be distinguished from other parts except by arbitrary division.
“Every single human characteristic that we know about exists in a continuum,” Zolobczuk asserted, citing weight, height, hair color and IQ score. “The only two we have as binary are sex and gender.” Zolobczuk did not acknowledge other biological binaries, such as blood antigens that are either positive or negative, or the binary concept of a gene being switched “on” or “off”.
“Cultural meaning is attached to everything and we live into a binary illusion,” Zolobczuk said, explaining how masculine cultural dress has changed since George Washington’s time, when wigs, tights, powdered faces and lace cuffs were associated with men.
“The binary is so insidious that it not only prevents us from seeing things – that once people have a perception of what gender is, it chases us,” Zolobczuk said.
But what about the seemingly obvious characteristics that make people male or female – starting with the appearance of genitalia?
“What if you lost them in an accident, would you still be male?” counters YES Institute co-founder Martha Fugate, attempting to disassociate the presence of genitalia from gender. The chromosomes which determine sex? Fugate references Spanish Olympic athlete Maria José Martínez Patino, disqualified in the 1980s when it was discovered that she was born with a Y chromosome.
Genitalia, chromosomes, physical attributes, societal roles, even the possibility of carrying a child – all are indeterminate of “gender” in Fugate’s view. It is not that male or female do not exist, Fugate argues, rather that they are poles at the end of a wide spectrum – and where many people fall in between.
Life and Death?
A reoccurring theme in the YES Institute workshop was the seriousness of gender issues.
“People kill themselves because of the arbitrary roles we’ve put on gender,” said Fugate. “Gender is a life or death issue.”
Workshop participants who were themselves transgender affirmed the Institute’s position.
“I got to the point where transitioning wasn’t an option for me,” voiced one transgender participant. “If I didn’t transition [to being male] I’d kill myself.”
The institute’s presentation cited a statistic claiming a 31 percent suicide rate among people who identify as transgender. Fugate noted that youth who identified as gay or lesbian were more than two times more likely to commit suicide.
“We don’t know – but suspect – a lot of that is transgender,” Fugate said of the homosexual suicide number. Brandishing the statistics, the institute co-founder pushed for presenting the institute’s view to even the youngest of students. Fugate did not entertain the possibility that these tragic inner conflicts could be resolved in ways other than affirming an individual’s self-chosen gender identity and sexual desires.
Showing clips of Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey interviews with families who had children they claimed were transgender, the workshop leaders argued for school programs redefining gender. The Oprah interview featured a 10-year-old girl living as a boy, while Walters spoke with a six-year-old boy who insisted he was a girl.
Fugate said the Miami-Dade County school system, which had already agreed to YES Institute presentations for high school students, was now requesting that the group extend its work by creating a “gender transition guide” for elementary schools to support children changing their gender identity.
“In my experience, there are many children that age saying ‘no mommy, no daddy, I’m a boy or a girl,’” said Dr. Sidney Trantham, an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences at Lesley University, the institution immediately adjacent to EDS. Trantham described a 12-year-old patient who was on hormone therapy in order to delay puberty, as she insisted she was male. The psychologist lamented that the hormone therapy had been unsuccessful, as the girl had experienced her first period that week.
“That’s causing him a great deal of distress,” Trantham assessed, using the girl’s preferred male pronoun.
While most of the workshop was secular in nature, a panel discussion on the second day provided participants with a revisionist religious view of transgenderism.
“From the [traditional] religious perspective, it is seen as an evil spirit that must be beat out of them,” Fugate alleged of the response to transgenderism among some faith communities.
Patrick Cheng, an ordained minister in the majority-homosexual Metropolitan Community Churches and an openly homosexual faculty member at EDS, attempted to claim biblical characters such as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 as examples of transgenderism.
“That’s the first queer person of color in the Bible,” Cheng said of the Ethiopian eunuch. Cheng also named Joan of Arc, Saint Perpetua, and early church theologian Origen as people who defied traditional gender expectations: Joan for her use of male clothing, Perpetua for her visions of gladiatorial combat, and Origen for reportedly castrating himself.
“There’s a lot of work being done on the transgendered Christ,” Cheng revealed, producing several different books that either focused upon or addressed the notion of Christ as transgendered.
“There’s a lot in our standard church history and Bible that deals with trans issues,” Cheng proposed. During his panel discussion, Cheng did not reference a biblical basis for gender as male and female, such as in Genesis 1:27 later cited by Christ in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
Christ, Cheng said, defied gender norms of the time by washing feet and associating with women.
“Jesus has the experience of being excluded from the family,” Cheng noted, listing another perceived commonality with transsexuals, along with a sense of homelessness.
“[Author] Virginia Mollenkott says that if Jesus was truly born of a virgin – a truly parthenogenetic birth with no male to contribute a Y chromosome, Jesus would have had XX chromosomes,” Cheng explained. “Mollenkott said that if he is said to have a male body but with XX chromosomes, that’s sort of a trans Jesus.”
Cheng also noted how author Justin Tanis wrote that resurrection can be an important metaphor for transsexuals – Jesus was still the same person, but in a different body.
“Justin even talks about communion as taking hormones, sort of sacramental theology as hormones,” Cheng said. “I think it shows the exciting and interesting work that is out there.”
“I think Christian theology is queer at its heart,” Cheng said. “Jesus is challenging the binary between the human and the divine, Jesus is challenging the binary between life and death, between the center and the margins, between body and spirit, heaven and Earth, alpha and the omega,” Cheng said. “Jesus is that transitional figure. That’s what queer theology is about – you’ve got these poles, but reality is actually more spectrum."
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