Saturday, July 26, 2014

Boyhood/Girlhood

Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood sounds fantastic, and yet I've been consciously avoiding going to see it. Two years into social transition, one and a half into medical transition, I still feel that little fishhook of pain in my chest when I contemplate boyhood and my lack thereof.

To comply with the popular trans discourse, I suppose I would have to claim that I “always was” a boy, even when I didn't know it. To be sure, there can be both rhetorical and emotional value in the “always was” narrative, but for me that is a conscious rewriting of my history, which doesn't sit quite right with me.

Not that it's not to some degree true. There is a truth in the suggestion that I always was a boy; there is a truth in the admission that I never had a boyhood. These truths are not contradictory so much as complementary. Each alone only tells a fragment of the story.

For me, the value of the “always was” narrative is very limited. I see its use for trans people who were conscious of their gender from an early age; but what does it really mean for me? For a female-assigned child with two cis brothers, who deeply internalized the “(birth) genitals=gender” message of a cissexist society, who could plainly see that I was not a boy in the precise way that my brothers were boys, who did not know that there was any other way to be a boy and who therefore assumed that my desire to be a boy belonged to the same imaginary realm as my desire to go to wizard school? (And later, on discovering feminism, decided my desire to be a boy must be rooted in internalized misogyny?)

I find more use in a negative framing and a paradox: it's not that I “always was” a boy, but that I never was a girl, and that I was not a girl even as I was a girl.

The logic of Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs is helpful here. For Ochs, the dyadic logic of binarism – the notion that not-X is the opposite of X – is properly applicable only to situations of suffering. To the sufferer, actions either help alleviate the suffering (X) or they do not help (not-X), and as such the world can be divided into the binary categories of X and not-X. In all other situations, however, binarism is misapplied, and it is an oversimplification and a logical misstep to assume that not-X is necessarily the opposite or absence of X.

This, I think, is the logic of transition, and it helps to explain why trans people, particularly in the earlier stages of transition, can be so sensitive to seemingly small aspects of the gendered world, such as being called “sir” or “ma'am” at the grocery store. A transitioning person experiences gender from a place of suffering, and as such divides the world into two categories: my-gender and not-my-gender. Anything that reinforces my-gender helps to alleviate the suffering; anything that reinforces not-my-gender does not help.

(Clearly, I am referring to a binary-identified trans person. I have not yet thought through the implications of this logic – or even, if I'm to be perfectly honest, the limited temporality inherent to the concept of “transition” – with respect to non-binary genders.)

However, the binary logic of my-gender and not-my-gender only applies once I am consciously aware of my gender. Accordingly, it would be inaccurate to retroject this binarism onto my childhood. My childhood as I lived it at the time was, as far as I knew, a girlhood. My childhood as I view it from my current perspective as a male adult is not-a-girlhood. Both perspectives are true.

Much as I long for boyhood, driven by losstalgia for a past that was never mine, and much as I could psychoanalyze my childhood gender identity, seeking evidence for the sublimation of my own felt maleness into an abundance of carefully nurtured fictional personae – even so, I have had experiences that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture categorizes under the heading of “girlhood.” I was given dolls and dresses alongside legos and pants. I was permitted, even encouraged, to embrace masculinity as male-assigned children still tend not, even in liberal households, to be encouraged to embrace femininity. I first embraced feminism as an insider, and I know firsthand fears such as that of walking alone among men as a (perceived) woman at night (though I think I am a better feminist now that I am no longer at war with the feminine in me).

My girlhood, as I understand it now, is not a matter of having “been” a girl, but of having experienced much of what is culturally considered to be part of girlhood. It is not an ontological but an epistemological girlhood. Even as I ache for the boyhood I should have had, I recognize that I have learned a great deal from girlhood and that it has been a major contributor to the man I am becoming.

I don't know if I will ever learn to love my girlhood. But I hope to someday be at peace with it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Things I Read: Justin Holcomb's 'Know the Creeds & Councils' and 'Know the Heretics'

This review is based on digital review copies provided by NetGalley.

Justin Holcomb's new books from Zondervan, Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils, make good companion pieces for the lay reader who wants greater familiarity with the history of the Christian faith. Creeds and Councils is the stronger work, but Heretics has a more important goal.

I assumed, from certain tell-tale tics of vocabulary and theological emphasis, that the two volumes were aimed primarily at an evangelical-leaning audience. It surprised me to learn that Holcomb is an Episcopal priest; I rather suspect he went out of his way to be accessible to the popular evangelical subculture of the US. (Of course, he might just be more conservative than me. He did get his PhD from Emory, and I was specifically warned off applying there because I would be too radical for them.) In my experience, evangelical Christianity tries to put the Bible above all else. The trouble is, an awful lot of Christian tradition cannot possibly be derived by the individual from scripture alone – for example, the Trinity. Creeds and Councils would be a valuable book for readers in a position like my own of about five years ago: unclear about the relationship between certain church doctrines and scripture, unsatisfied with the answers provided in an evangelical context, uncertain where to look for a history of doctrine that is not geared too specifically toward a single denomination.

It's a nicely laid out book, first explicating the differences between a creed, a confession, a catechism, and a council, and then going on to examine a number of important examples of all four. Holcomb hits all the biggies, from Nicaea and Chalcedon through the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession down to Vatican II (and, somewhat surprisingly to me, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy). Each chapter provides historical background for the creed (or council, etc.) in question, a summary of its contents, an exploration of its theological relevance, discussion questions, and a list of further reading. It's a solid structure that should have particular appeal for evangelicals, with their love of expository preaching. Throughout, Holcomb tries to stress the importance of knowing this history, critiquing those who “decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct 'real Christianity' with nothing more than a Bible” (10). Holcomb's critique has a particularly evangelical flavor to it, focusing on “being faithful to God” (10) and how “Jesus continues to build his church” (22) – not arguments I would personally have used, but appropriate ones for his audience.

Know the Heretics is a more exciting and potentially more challenging idea for a lay evangelical readership. I can't be the only ex-evangelical who has been told not to even read certain books because of their poisonous theological content, and I think it's still a pervasive attitude in certain strands of Christianity that faith is a fragile thing that must be protected from too strong a challenge lest it crumble. The distinction between heterodoxy and heresy is one of the reasons I left an evangelicalism that seemed narrowly prescriptivist for the broad theological tent of Anglicanism, and Holcomb's solid Episcopalian emphasis on that distinction is a crucial contribution to evangelicalism as I experienced it.

Structurally, Heretics is similar to Creeds and Councils, providing background, content, relevance, discussion questions, and further reading for each heretic – Gnostics, Marcion, Docetists, Arius, Pelagius, and so on. However, I have three major reservations about this volume.

First, at an epistemic level, I find Holcomb's truth-claims unsatisfying. Again, this reflects my viewpoint as both an ex-evangelical and a graduate student in theology and philosophy, but frankly any definitive statement of theological truth or falsehood makes me uncomfortable. I am willing to accept value judgments of a given theological statement as good or bad (referring to its intellectual honesty, its coherence, its fruitfulness or harmfulness, among others), but in general I think that to call theology true or false is to make a category mistake. For example, modalism and partialism are models of understanding the Trinity; a model is not true or false, but is misused when it is taken literally or ontologically, rather than being seen as a way of understanding at least one aspect of something bigger than itself. To me heresy is not a matter of giving the wrong answer to a legitimate question, as Holcomb defines it (12), but of elevating the finite to the level of the infinite. (You could also call this the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Or idolatry.)

Second, I find Holcomb's soteriology inadequate, and borderline disingenuous. Substitutionary atonement is throughout presented as the only orthodox soteriology, and is used to bolster Holcomb's Christology: “Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God's wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. … Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price for redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death” (97). A major reason for my drift from evangelicalism is my no longer finding substitutionary atonement sufficient. Frankly, I think it's an example of the very fallacy I described in the above paragraph: one specific model of atonement has been concretized above all other models. The anthropocentrism of this soteriology is distasteful to me, especially given than John 1:14 states not that the Word became human (anthropos), but that the Word became flesh (sarx). To me, a good soteriology must stress the redemption of all creation, and thus a good Christology must understand Christ not narrowly as a “God-man” but expansively as Creator-creation. Holcomb hedges the possibility of alternate soteriological models, discussing only Socinus' view (“Jesus' death is only an example,” chapter 12) which is set up as an unacceptably extreme alternative to substitution, instead of a different model that demonstrates a different (but still important) aspect of salvation.

Third, the heretics of the first chapter, whose heresy is summarized as “The old rules still apply,” are referred to unreflectively as “Judaizers.” Christianity's history of antisemitism is such that, if you're going to use a term like “Judaizers” and be unrepentantly supersessionist, you had damn well better acknowledge the embedded anti-Jewishness here and actively combat it. That Holcomb doesn't is not a minor point of theological disagreement but a major and unfortunate misstep.

With these reservations taken under advisement, I do think these two books provide a generally sound and accessible introduction to the history of church doctrine, especially for Christians whose denominational background under-emphasizes the role of tradition and history.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Is Masculinity Inherently Toxic?

A while ago, Red Durkin posted something on Facebook celebrating Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, expressing her delight at having two such fantastic people as the highest-profile trans women in the US at the moment.

One trans man's response was a jocular wish that the guys had anyone half as good to represent us. As he pointed out, who do we have? Chaz Bono? Buck Angel?

What I want to know is: why

Why are the high-profile trans women amazing people who speak out with incredible nuance and sophistication about intersectionality, while the high-profile trans men are just swimming in unchecked male privilege and douchebaggery?

Is it because they're men? Is masculinity inherently toxic?

The answer is, I think, more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no." It's a bit of both.

Obviously not all men -- not all trans men, not all cis men, not all non-binary-but-masculine-leaning people -- are privilege-denying (trans-)misogynists. I'm not literally saying that all men are terrible and all masculinity is toxic. But I do think that, as long as we are uncritically beholden to western late capitalism's current construction of maleness and masculinity, we can't help but be misogynistic, for one simple reason:

Masculinity as we know it is primarily about rejecting femininity.

Western late-capitalist masculinity is basically this, with fewer newspaper hats and more violence.
Around eighteen months ago, I was getting really sick of being taken for female. Being pre-T and in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was consistently seen as a butch dyke. In frustration, I took to Facebook to ask my friends for tips to appear more masculine. Every response -- every single one -- was about being a douchebag. I was told to take up more space, to be loud and annoying, to be rude and obnoxious. Farting and misogyny: is that what masculinity is?

I don't think it has to be, but I think we have to try extra hard if we want it not to be. I wish I could say that trans masculinity is a different creature than cis masculinity, but you don't have to spend time in the cesspool that is the FTM Facebook group to know that trans guys are exactly as insecure, juvenile, and misogynistic as cis guys. Just because your gender identity is different from your birth-assigned sex does not mean you have spent a lot of time pondering the nature of gender and trying to challenge cultural sexism (and, of course, vice versa).

One of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my gender was when a friend said I reminded her of her son, because we both manifest a kind of masculinity that is not about constant oneupmanship. Of course, then the danger is that I find myself Doing It For The Cookies, and my God that's a strong temptation. I want to be a good man, a man committed to dismantling the patriarchy, but I want to be doing this for the women and the non-binary people and the gender-non-conforming guys, not for the accolades.
COOKIES FOR ME BECAUSE I AM ONE OF THE GOOD ONES!!!!!
This post has been on the back burner for a while, not least because I was afraid it would turn out as narcissistic cookie-hunting, but in the wake of Elliot Rodger it seemed important to finish it. There's a direct line between a masculinity predicated on rejecting femininity and violence against women (and men judged insufficiently masculine -- the gender-policing of men and boys in our society is appalling). As long as masculinity manifests as misogyny -- objectifying women, a sense of entitlement to women's bodies, controlling and policing gender expression, self-defining in opposition to femininity -- it's going to be toxic. "Misogylinity," as Jenn at Reappropriate calls it, is inextricable from white supremacy. And cis supremacy, and all the other supremacies that constitute the shit stew we call kyriarchy.

I don't really know what non-toxic masculinity is. Maybe we'll only find out once we've dismantled the toxic kind. Maybe non-toxic masculinity is the dismantling of toxic masculinity. I know it's my duty as a man.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Reflections: Depression and Redemption

Spider-Man 3 is not a very good film, but there's a scene that resonates with me on an almost primal level. Peter Parker is struggling to divest himself of the alien symbiote Venom, which takes the form of a black version of his Spider-Man suit. It wraps itself around him, dark and sticky and inescapable, corrupting him as it leaches him of his conscience. He only gets rid of it with the help of church bells: the toll of music, liturgy, call to worship.

I recognize that thing, I said to myself the first time I saw Venom tightening its grip around Peter even as he fought to be free. It's inside me.

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

When I was little, I didn't know depression could happen to me. In my mind, I called it “sticky black sludge”: the inexplicable but overwhelming sense of worthlessness, the despicable inability to do or think or feel anything good. As I grew older, I reconceptualized the sticky black sludge as the sin that dwells within me. Only after a friend suggested that I'd probably been mildly depressed my whole life did it occur to me that there could be another explanation, and maybe I should seek diagnosis.

Sometimes I wonder if depression makes me especially susceptible to a narrative of salvation and redemption. This acute sense of my brokenness, the engulfing and inescapable sin in which I am swallowed, the feeling that I am nothing but ungodly wretchedness – is it, as a powerful strand of Christian thought would have it, a reflection of the objective reality of a fallen world that can only be saved by God's grace? Or is it just the darkness of mental illness, a chemical imbalance in my brain that has to be treated with medications and therapy?

Can it be both?

“Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.” (Psalm 69:1-2)

The part of prep school Easter services that stays with me is the Good Friday portion. The hymn “O Sacred Head” and the Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” are two pieces that gave me chills and tears even as a theologically unsophisticated child. Something about the death of Jesus, his torture and agony on the cross, always called to me, powerfully and awfully. But can a theology that centers on Christ's death ever be other than morbid, scapegoating, cosmic child abuse?

I'm taking a theology class on new materialism this semester, and some of my classmates have been pretty resistant to theory that moves agency and subjectivity away from the human individual. It makes good sense to me, though. I am so used to feeling powerless, to feeling shaped and buffeted by forces far beyond my control, to a feeling of absolute dependence straight out of Schleiermacher, that I honestly find it a little relieving to surrender some agency. Maybe that makes me pathetic.

“I am a worm and no man … I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.” (Psalm 22:6, 14)

In my academic work, I do everything right. I deconstruct foundations and resist absolutism. I challenge orthodoxy and interrogate the taken-for-granted. I am well-versed in the theological and ethical problems with satisfaction atonement theory, and I know and espouse the alternatives.

And yet, in my lowest moments, when I am in the grip of agony, crushed and breathless from the total unbearableness of being me – that's when I return to satisfaction atonement. That's when I cling to the blood of Christ. It's all I can do.

I recoil from the death of Jesus. But I need it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Little Lower Than The Laity

The best ordination I ever went to was the one when the ordinand started breastfeeding her baby during the sermon. Gene Robinson was preaching, and he was a little taken aback. He stopped in the middle of his sermon and jestingly invited the congregation to discuss to the finer point of the Trinity until little Alice was full.

Even without that incident (and I adore unexpected eventualities in church: little mishaps that disrupt the high-church events of Episcopalianism with a congregational giggle are extremely theologically important to me), it was still a kick-ass sermon. Bishop Robinson's description of the role of the clergy has stayed with me and has become incorporated into my ecclesiology. Clergy, he said, are not closer to God or holier or better than any other Christian; if anything, they are beneath the laity, because they are servants of both God and the Church.

(This is why I think of Church hierarchy as lowerarchy.)

The ordination I attended today has given my ecclesiology another dimension of theological thought, which I think is a necessary supplement to the piece Bish Robinson gave me.

Because I now live in a wealthy 'burb town in the tri-state area, and because Anglo-Catholicism is really gay, today's preacher used an analogy from Broadway. Just as, when the famous actor you came to see is taking a break, your Broadway playbill has a slip of paper in it stating that "The part of Scarlett Johanssen will be played by [unheard-of actress]" (yes, that is actually the example he used), so -- metaphorically, theologically -- ordination is a slip of paper stating that "The part of Jesus will be played by [ordinand]."

My hackles shot up. This sounded suspiciously like elevating clergy over the laity. If this means that clergy are -- inherently, ontologically, by virtue of being clergy -- more Christ-like than the laity, then my most Reformation instincts respond with incoherent yelling about the priesthood of all believers.

When I think about it a little more, though, it's much more interesting than that.

Clergy are the religious establishment par excellence. The Pharisees, if you like. Jesus was frequently at loggerheads with the religious establishment; so how are clergy to be both the religious establishment and playing the part of Jesus? How do you "play Jesus" within the Church?

I believe the logical answer is that clergy (and, modestycough, theologians) have a duty of dissent and challenge toward the institution they (we) are a part of. By definition. Our inherently contradictory position has built into it the necessity of protesting the very institution that gives us the power to speak our protest.

That is how we are to act as good citizens of the Kingdom. It's not about submitting unilaterally to monarchical power. It never was.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Surprised By Love

It seems ridiculous now, but before my godchild was born, I was genuinely worried that I would hate him.

He wasn't my godchild then, of course. He was the imminent spawn of two of my best friends, and while I was legitimately excited for them, I also had a lot of concerns. I'd never been around babies much before, and what I knew about them didn't sound promising. They cried a lot. They pooped a lot. They consumed their parents' time, thoughts, and lives. One time when I was nine I held my neighbor's newborn and accidentally hit her head against the edge of the dining room table, and I was terrified of ever holding a baby again in case I broke it. My friends would be obsessed with their youngling, and I would be unable to participate. Was this tiny human going to ruin two of the best friendships I've ever had?

A week or two before the baby's birth, I was a jerk to my friends. It wasn't premeditated jerkiness – it was just thoughtlessly being a shitty friend – but it's the last thing you need when you're freaking out about your first child's impending entrance to the world. Subconsciously, I think it was a preemptive strike against the baby: you're going to ruin my friendship? Screw you, I'll ruin it on my terms. I'd also had more than enough of being around pregnant people, which is a massive dysphoria trigger for me. Regardless of my reasons, it was a lousy thing to do.

So I was doubly nervous as I made my way to the hospital on December 11th. Not only was I going to meet a day-old newborn who, as far as I could tell from the Facebook pictures, looked and smelled and sounded exactly as bad as any other day-old newborn, but there was also the lingering tension of my as-yet-unatoned-for shitty behavior.

I was lucky. I got two reconciliations that day. The first was apology and forgiveness over lunch with the baby's father. The second was the moment I took that tiny, sleeping person in my arms.

I hate to be such a cliché, but meeting the person who would be my godchild really did change everything. Leaving the hospital, I felt as though the whole world was a little sparklier, a little more special, a little more awe-inspiring. Before long, I was doing all the things I swore I'd never do: changing diapers, shrugging off spit-up, talking incessantly about the wondrousness of the baby. The most amazing thing to me is just how much I love him.

I've spent much of the past year contemplating this love. It's incredible, and it's frightening. I would throw myself under a bus for my godchild in a heartbeat. I would wrestle spiders for him. I would forgive him if he murdered my whole family in front of my eyes. My love for him is vast, and it is unconditional, and it makes no sense. Why do I love him so? What has he done to merit such love? The answer: nothing, and because he has done nothing to earn my love, there is nothing in all of creation that can separate him from it.

I believe strongly that, in the words of Les Mis, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” I believe that anyone who teaches you a new way to love is revealing to you another glimpse, another facet, of the divine. My godchild has taught me something I didn't know about grace: love that is unearned, unconditional, yet in no way cheap.

I had no idea I was capable of a love like this, and I believe that it is the work of God within me. My love for my godchild has opened me to new loves I had thought beyond me, manifest most recently in romantic love and in the first steps of self-reconciliation. If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have denied that I had the capacity for godparental love, romantic love, or self-reconciliation, but all of these loves are or will be part of the ever-expanding, dizzyingly vast cosmic Love I have only just begun to explore.

Happy birthday, Jay. I love you with all the love God has graced me to give.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

CONTEXT: Postmodernism's Material Benefit to Society

When I tell people I'm a doctoral student in theology, with a particular interest in poststructuralism and queer theory, they have an inevitable follow-up question.

"What are you going to do with that?"

Sometimes it's asked with a detectable sneer, an undisguised contempt for the waste of a good brain in such an arcane discipline. Sometimes it's asked quizzically, with genuine puzzlement on the part of my interlocutor. Never is it something I want to be asked.

I mean, there are only three possible answers, right?
  1. Ordination (and that one is clearly out, if you've known me for five minutes).
  2. Academia.
  3. "No idea. HAHA oh god you're right, I'm wasting my life, let me switch to STEM despite not having studied any science since the age of 15."
It's the people who seem to be hoping for answer 3 who really bug me. There's a broad cultural trend here in the US toward the devaluing of humanities and especially of anything with a postmodern bent. I think it's part of a depressing economism undergirding US society (even more so than UK society, in my experience): if something doesn't have an immediately apparent material benefit, people genuinely can't comprehend why you would do it.

But the fact is, postmodernism does have a material benefit, if we would only apply it. The primary lesson of postmodernism is still what it was in 1967: il n'y a pas de hors-texte. Detractors use Derrida's words to dismiss deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the whole project of postmodernism as sophistry, caricaturing our work as immaterial language games; but the point is not "there is nothing outside the text," but "there is nothing outside context."

(Yes, there's a not inconsiderable irony in the fact that a statement about the supreme importance of context is so often taken out of context.)

The lesson of postmodernism is: Everything we do, say, and think is historically and contextually contingent -- profoundly, radically so. Is that the same thing modernism was trying to say? Kind of yes; but we're trying to say it in ever new ways, because clearly the lesson hasn't stuck.

For example, I woke up yesterday to this infuriating story: "Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" The BBC, of all things, recites a new iteration of the same tired neurosexist hogwash that was so comprehensively debunked in Cordelia Fine's wonderful book Delusions of Gender. It's terrible science and terrible reporting on science. It's cissexist, it's reductionist, and it's just utter BS.

My criticisms are ideological, of course. That's a term lobbed at postmodernists by detractors who like to think of themselves as unbiased viewing subjects who coolly take in all the scientific evidence before forming a judgment based on the facts. What these small-o objectivists don't realize is that this is an ideology too. It's more insidious, because it's an ideology that disguises itself as an objective view-from-nowhere. Feminists have long been aware that there is no view-from-nowhere, and to claim otherwise is an at best disingenuous, at worst nakedly malicious perpetuation of oppression.

The gift of postmodernism is epistemological self-awareness. Everything we think we know as an objective, timeless truth is radically contextual, and postmodernism is the practice of constant vigilance, of consistent suspicion of truth-claims.

"Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" There are so many profoundly contextual assumptions packed into that short headline: that "men" and "women" are clearly definable, discrete categories; that there is meaningful difference between men and women, rather than wide variation among all people; that the wiring of the brain tells us anything useful about human personalities; that brain wiring is predetermined and perhaps immutable; that there's a "right" way to be a man or a woman; etc. etc.

And there are so many real-world injustices that are perpetuated by the uncritical parroting of this ideology. The murder of trans women, the wage gap, the war on reproductive freedom -- none of this takes place in a void. It's all a part of the context within which it's seen as acceptable to report cognitive bias as scientific fact.

Postmodernism is not a disconnected, immaterial, ivory-tower discipline that's all about proving how clever you are. It's a tool for justice, and it matters.