In this post, Shiloh co-lead Caroline Blyth talks about her current research on symbolic violence and conservative Christian responses to the “transgender debate.”
Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? Critical theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek and Pierre Bourdieu,have long highlighted the fallacy of this well-worn phrase, contending that language (written, oral, and visual) can be a source of symbolic violence, which has the capacity to inflict profound injury. In my current research, I am exploring the transphobic violence embedded in conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible, which high-profile conservative Christian pastors and theologians disseminate to sizable audiences via blog posts, websites, videos, online sermons, popular books and articles, social media postings, and official church statutes. Appealing to specific biblical texts, they repeatedly insist that transgender (trans) identities are the result of a “fallen” world; that trans individuals are “sinners” whose very identities are a “rebellion” against God’s design; and that trans people therefore pose grave danger to Christian “family values.”They advise fellow Christians to evangelize trans people through “love” and compassion, urging them to “repent” and renounce their “disordered” and “confused” gender identities.
These discussions have been particularly prevalent over the past few years, as conservative Christian pastors, theologians, lobby groups, and churches clamour to participate in (what they refer to as) the “transgender debate.” While this “debate” by no means explicitly advocates for or defends the use of physical violence against trans people, it does nevertheless represent a dangerous form of symbolic violence, which sanctions and justifies the intolerance and marginalization—the othering—of trans people. In other words, the transphobic language and ideas expressed in this “transgender debate” (even when couched in the language of Christian “love”) have the potential to shape particular understandings of and responses to trans identities, and toperpetuate and validate the daily injustices and acts of violence experienced by trans people the world over. This language is violent – words can indeed “break bones.”
Conservative Christian groups (and religious communities more broadly) are not the only participants to enter into this “transgender debate”; it is something we hear spoken about repeatedly within wider secular culture. If you do a quick Google search of “transgender debate,” you will get literally millions of hits—so many people (most of them cisgender) seem intent on spreading their outrage and intolerance about issues as diverse as gender-neutral bathrooms, trans women in sport, and the appropriate care of trans children. All of these engagements in the “transgender debate” serve to question the authenticity and validity of transgender identities and to challenge the very right of trans people to exist. And if you look closely, there is actually very little “debate” going on here—minds have already been made up, and dissenting voices are ignored or shouted down. At the same time, participants in the “transgender debate” rarely if ever seek to include the voices of trans people in their discussions. Trans people are spoken about, but rarely spoken with.
Why should we be concerned about the “transgender debate”? Well, despite this significant increase in the visibility and awareness of trans people in public life and the media, transphobic violence remains ubiquitous. As trans rights advocate, Masen Davis, notes:
Right now we’re experiencing a Dickensian time, where it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times at once … We’re seeing a marked increase in the public awareness about transgender people and really incredible progress for trans rights, especially from a legal perspective. At the same time, we still represent and are part of a community that experiences incredibly high rates of unemployment, poverty and violence. (quoted in Steinmetz 2015)
Transphobia can impact all areas of trans peoples’ lives, including those everyday things that people often take for granted.A US survey carried out by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2015 interviewed 27,715 trans people nationwide, who reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence, including physical and sexual violence, verbal bullying, and workplace discrimination (NCTE 2016). Similarly, a study carried out by civil rights group Transgender Europe (2016) documented over 2,000 murders of trans people within sixty-five countries between 2008 and 2015. In the United States alone, twenty-seven trans people were murdered in 2016, the majority of whom were women of colour—members of a community who are particularly likely to exist at the perilous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization (NCTE 2016). And, in the United Kingdom, the number of transphobic hate crimes reported to the police has nearly trebled in the past five years (Yeung 2016). Trans people are also far more susceptible to sexual violence, perpetrated by either intimate partners or strangers (Stotzer 2009).
Moreover, intersecting forms of structural violence can prevent trans people from full access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare, rendering many members of the community even more vulnerable to violence (Grant et al. 2011; Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color 2015; Human Rights Campaign 2017; Movement Advancement Project, Transgender Law Center, NCTE, and GLAAD 2015). Unemployment, lack of access to decent housing, and poverty can marginalize trans people even further, pushing them into dangerous contexts, including sex work and homelessness.
The aim of my current research is therefore to expose the symbolic violence of conservative Christian voices within the “transgender debate” and to trace the ways that these voices contribute to multiple forms of transphobia experienced so ubiquitously by trans people the world over. I am particularly keen to explore the ways that these Christian communities use the Bible to grant authority to transphobic discourses, citing specific biblical texts (e.g. Deut. 22:5; Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) that they claim speak directly to the “transgender debate.” The Bible—a text that is thousands of years old—actually says nothingexplicit about trans identities, yet this does not stop Christian pastors and theologians plucking out certain biblical verses from their original context and misinterpreting them in ways that sustain a transphobic agenda. In other words, the Bible becomes a “cultural prop” (Baden 2014), (ab)used to “prop up” and perpetuate existing transphobic ideologies and behaviours.
While conservative Christian pastors and theologians speak (in the main) to their own congregations, the impact of their engagement in the “transgender debate” extends well beyond their immediate faith communities. My research also traces the capacity of transphobic biblical interpretations to influence public and political opinion about trans identities and undermine trans rights. The recent rash of “bathroom debates” offers an example: appealing to biblical teachings, conservative Christian lobby groups (particularly in the US, but also elsewhere) exert significant pressure on businesses (such as retailer Target) and lawmakers to prohibit trans people from using the public bathroom of their choice. Safe and accessible bathrooms are a fundamental need for all people; legislation that denies trans people this basic need ultimately impedes their ability to work, go to school, and exist in public spaces. Laverne Cox makes this point really powerfully:
When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities—it’s about us existing in public space … And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing—about erasing trans people. (cited in Landsbaum 2017)
The authenticity and legitimacy of trans people continue to be hotly debated in legal, political, and public forums around the world. I hope that my research can contribute to the voices who are already raising the problematics of this “debate,” by showing how conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible are complicit in perpetuating and justifying the relentless systemic injustices experienced by already vulnerable trans communities. These injustices can seriously impact the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing of trans people, and I hope that my research will both highlight the insidious nature of the “transgender debate” and offer ways to begin dismantling its harmful rhetoric.
*Featured image courtesy of Nick Thompson. used with permission.
Baden, Joel. 2014. “What Use is the Bible?” Nantucket Project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIXfDyoYK8Q.
Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling.Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.
Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017.
Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. 2015. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policymakers and Community Advocates. http://assets.hrc.org//files/assets/resources/HRC-AntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf?_ga=2.255354443.256696965.1496936140-1591189054.1496256759.
Landsbaum, Claire. 2017. “Laverne Cox Explains Why Anti-Trans Bathroom Legislation Isn’t Actually About Bathrooms.” The Cut, 24 February. https://www.thecut.com/2017/02/laverne-cox-explains-what-bathroom-laws-are-really-about.html.
Movement Advancement Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Law Center, and GLAAD. 2015. “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans.” http://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/understanding-issues-facing-transgender-americans.pdf.
National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” http://www.ustranssurvey.org/reports.
Steinmetz, Katie. 2015. “Why Transgender People are Being Murdered at a Historic Rate” Time, 17 August. http://time.com/3999348/transgender-murders-2015/.
Stotzer, R. L. 2009. “Violence against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 14 (3): 170−9.
Yeung, Peter. 2016. Transphobic Hate Crimes in “Sickening” 170% Rise as Low Prosecution Rates Create “Lack of Trust” in Police. The Independent, 28 July. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/transphobic-hate-crime-statistics-violence-transgender-uk-police-a7159026.html.