Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Intersex and Transgender Theology

The Episcopal Church took the courageous step to approve same-sex blessing service at the General Convention last July. At the same time, the Church voted to amend church laws to include that no one would be discriminated based on “gender identity and expression.” The church affirms “gender identity (one’s inner sense of being male or female) and expression (the way in which one manifests that gender identity in the world) should not be bases for exclusion, in and of themselves, from consideration for participation in the ministries of the Church.” 

The Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, an Episcopal priest and chaplain at Boston University, has worked with others for a number of years for the passage of the amendment. He was one of the panelists to speak about intersex and transgender theology at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) on September 7. Other panelists include Dr. Susannah Cornwall from University of Manchester, Dr. Megan K. DeFranza of Gordon College, and Iain Stanford, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School.

Professor Patrick S. Cheng of EDS moderated the panel and said in his opening remarks that the Christian community has talked more about lesbian and gay issues than transgender and intersex concerns. He welcomed Dr. Cornwall, an expert on intersex theology and ministry from England, to EDS to have a dialogue with other scholars in Boston.

Intersex people are those persons whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female, because they have combinations of physical features of both. Intersex people have also been called “hermaphrodite” or people with “disorder of sex development” (DSD), although these terms are contested.

Cornwall’s book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology, is the first full-length examination of the theological implications pf intersex conditions and their medical treatment. Currently she is interviewing intersex Christians to deepen her study. She said that the Church of England has begun to discuss ministry to intersex and transgender persons, which is a step forward.

Cornwall emphasized that intersex persons challenge a binary construction of gender, which has dominated Christian theology for centuries. The acceptance of a non-pathological understanding of the intersexed necessitates the re-examination of some of the Christian images and teachings, such as the church as a feminine bride to a masculine god, the maleness of Christ, body and perfection, and marriage based on complementarities of the male and the female sexes.

In her intriguing remarks, DeFranza pointed out that the Bible offers material to discuss intersex issues. As someone who has grown up in a fundamentalist church in which women were not allowed to even pass the offering plate, she was surprised to find discussion of “atypical” bodies in the Bible. For example, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus refers to different types of eunuchs, including those who have been so from birth (as different from those who have been castrated). DeFranza argues that intersex persons would have been included in this group. In Isaiah 56:3-5, the eunuchs who hold fast to God’s covenant are blessed. DeFranza said that instead of “an icon of shame,” the eunuch is raised up as “a model of discipleship.” The Bible also refers numerous times to barren women and some among them might have been intersex.

Just as intersex persons disrupt our ways of constructing gender, transgender people challenge us to see gender identity and expression not as fixed, but in a continuum. Partridge and Stanford reminded us that transgender theology concerns the whole church, because it affects how we see theological anthropology, the nature of creation, and the Body of Christ.

Partridge said that the feast he liked most is the Feast of Transfiguration. It marks the liminal space that life is not static and Christians are called to grow to be like God, as in the doctrine of theosis in the Eastern Church. He invited us to see creation as variegated and always changing and to have an expansive notion of the collective embodiment of the Body of Christ. With such an inclusive understanding of creation and the church, each person will be free to discern who God has called him or her to be and to embody the vocation that God has given.

Stanford was at the General Convention when the Episcopal Church passed the amendment not to discriminate transgender people. He noted that in church politics, the blessing of same-sex union is considered a “sexuality” issue, while the inclusion of transgender persons is seen as a “gender” issue. But the two are much related and often overlap with each other. He reminded us that homosexuals were called “inverts” by nineteenth-century sexologists such as Havelock Ellis. For them, the problem had more to do with gender non-conformity than what these people did in their bedrooms. He, too, exhorted the church to transform its understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality in its theology and ministry.

The panel provides much food for thought at the beginning of the semester. To continue the conversation, Professor Cheng is organizing a group to further discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer issues and theology. The video of the panel will be available later at the Episcopal Divinity School website.

This post first appeared at the 99 Brattle blog of the Episcopal Divinity School.