Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

“You and I have bodies that make people pray”: Queer Bodies and Religion

In her memoir, intersex activist Thea Hillman describes an encounter in a bathroom. The scene takes place at a conference, where Hillman works together with another activist to support a disabled woman’s access to the restroom. She describes their inelegant struggle to undress this relative stranger. Afterwards, Hillman addresses them both: “You and I have bodies that make people pray.”[1] This is an allusion to Hillman’s mother’s prayers, and more broadly her mother’s desire that she be “fixed.” These prayers enlist divine aid in (re-)creating queer bodies. The pairing of queerphobia and religion is a familiar specter. And yet the intimacy of this scene in the restroom—a charged space in queer, trans, and disabled communities—enables both the violence (of potential re-creation) and a rebellious intimacy.

My research is shaped by the uneasy imbrication of queer bodies and religion. My work centers gender variant bodies in Late Ancient Jewish legal literatures; eunuchs and androgynes are found throughout the rabbinic corpus, and are invoked in connection with diverse legal issues. The rabbis define eunuchs as people who lack procreative capabilities, but are legally male or female. They can be born eunuchs (which is a category we would probably call intersex), or can become eunuchs later in life. Androgynes, in contrast, trouble the legal boundaries of male and female. Depending on the legal context and the interpretation of the reader, these categories can be understood as disabled, as transgender, as intersex, or as all three at one and the same moment. In consequence, eunuchs and androgynes force us to contextualize our contemporary schema for organizing “distinct” types of queer bodies. Their grouping also calls into being the category of queer bodies in Jewish texts, albeit in very different terms than Hillman’s.

Texts about eunuchs and androgynes appear in canonical Jewish literatures, and these categories are therefore not easily dismissed or relegated to the past. Rabbinic traditions have a long and diverse afterlife, and texts about eunuchs and androgynes continue to shape gender in Jewish communities today. Much of the contemporary interest in these categories must be contextualized within current struggles over queer bodies. In the contemporary U.S. the costs of both the gender binary and its subversion can be dire. These costs are evident in the imperative to perform cosmetic surgeries on intersex infants and the on-going epidemic of murders of trans women of color; bodies that are rendered unintelligible through gender deviance, race, and disability are subject to extreme violence. It is in this context that contemporary trans and intersex activists and rabbis turn to a system that allows for the possibility of bodies in-between. Texts about eunuchs and androgynes offer up the potential to denaturalize our current taxonomies of sex and gender.

The rabbis do not dictate the use of disambiguation surgeries for queer-bodied infants, despite the fact that there is evidence that they have knowledge of such procedures. And yet, careful study of the texts demonstrates that the place of eunuchs and androgynes in rabbinic law is neither comfortable nor idyllic. For instance, the rabbis create distinctions between those who are born a eunuch or an androgyne, and those who become a eunuch later in life. Within rabbinic thinking, this distinction between born or made is theological—being born a eunuch is equivalent to being created a eunuch by God. This has the effect of making certain kinds of queer bodies “natural” in effect. However, it also establishes a hierarchy between those individuals who are born with their queer body and those who acquire queerness later in life.

Fragile alliances between across queer bodies in the contemporary political scene can also be disrupted by subtle hierarchical distinctions. On May 13, 2013, Advocates for Informed Choice (AIC), in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), filed the first intersex medical malpractice lawsuit in the United States. The case focuses on M.C., an intersex child who was in the care of the state of South Carolina when he was diagnosed as a “true hermaphrodite.” Whilst a ward of the state, doctors decided to assign M.C. as female and advocated cosmetic genital surgery, without mentioning either the risks or that the procedure was not medically necessary. In 2006, ironically the same year new medical standards of care were released for the treatment of intersex, M.C.’s penis was removed.[2] Now at age ten, M.C. identifies as a boy, and Mark and Pam Crawford, his adoptive parents, initiated a suit at both the state and federal levels.

At the moment when the case was announced, a press release was jointly put out by AIC and SPLC:

God made M.C. the way he is, but with one unnecessary surgery, the state of South Carolina irreparably injured him,” said Alesdair H. Ittelson, SPLC staff attorney. “The state made a decision that robbed him of his freedom to decide what should happen to his own body. Sadly, no one advocated for M.C.’s rights when this decision was made. It is time the state and all those involved be held accountable.[3]

The attorney questions the decision to perform surgery in M.C.’s case, but also more broadly the right of the state to arbitrarily shape bodies. This critique draws on rhetoric that verges on the critique of bio-politics, albeit through a reference to autonomous bodies. Ittelson positions M.C.’s body as God-given, using theology to drive home the point that the state’s involvement was hubristic. In this formulation, the state was playing god.

The constitution of an intersex body as natural/divinely gifted is a powerful and bold rhetorical move, but it is also one that has consequences for a larger category of queer bodies. If intersex and disabled bodies are natural, and stand as instantiations of the diversity of God’s creation, then they are naturalized by being “born queer.” A subtle hierarchy is enacted, between queer bodies that are born queer and those that acquire queerness later in life. Within that setting, what happens to the surgically constructed transsexual body? Does this framing require trans activists to position their narrative in terms of being “born trans” in order to fit into naturalizing emphasis on birth? And what happens to those disabled people who acquire disabilities later in life—are they less representative of the diversity of God’s creation? I support any rhetorical strategy that ends brutal and unnecessary cosmetic surgeries on intersex infants, and I personally support AIC. At the same time, we must understand the complex ways religion rhetoric both constitutes and privileges certain kinds of queer bodies.

Unlike the naturalizing invocation of God in the example above, when Thea Hillman parrots normalizing prayer, a sense of alienation is doubled. There is the literal absence of Hillman’s mother, in a scene where relative strangers interact intimately. And there is the distance implied in Hillman viewing her body through the eyes of another’s judgment. Themes of either ambivalence or alienation (from community, body, etc.) can be characteristic of transgender, intersex, and disabled memoirs,[4] although the process of viewing queer bodies through the lens of homophobic prayer creates a sense of cognitive dissonance in the reader. In that bathroom, Hillman temporarily embodies religious hetero-, body-, and gender-normativity by offering up its judgments. In turn, this normative perspective obliquely defines queer bodies: queer bodies are those that invoke and incite prayer. Put another way, prayer can create the category of queer bodies. Even while calling on God to “fix” queer bodies, prayer sends tendrils of fragile alliance between trans, disabled, and intersex bodies. The rich, intense, and complexly political imbrication of religion, sexuality, gender, normativity, and the regulation of bodies will require our continued and sustained attention if we are to understand both the potential and the stakes of having bodies that make people pray.

  1. Thea Hillman, Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word) (San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2008), 19. [Return to text]
  2. For the new standards of care, which represent the benefits of surgery more conservatively, see: Peter Lee, Christopher Houk, S. Faisal Ahmed, et al., “Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex Disorders,” Pediatrics 118, no 2. (August 2006): 488-500. [Return to text]
  3. “Groundbreaking Lawsuit Accuses South Carolina, Doctors and Hospitals of Performing Unnecessary Surgery on Infant” (PDF). AIC Press Release, May 14, 2013. [Return to text]
  4. David Mitchell, “Body Solitaire: The Singular Subject of Disability Autobiography,” American Quarterly 52:2 (June 2000): 311-315; Iain Morland, “Postmodern Intersex,” in Ethics and Intersex, ed. Sharon E. Sytsma (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), 319-332; Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). [Return to text]