Gender Reality and “Ideological Colonialism”

Today is “Transgender Day of Remembrance”, a day when in particular, we remember those who have lost their lives to transphobic violence. (New Ways Ministry notes in their post, that around the world, there have been 350 such murders recorded in the last year alone. That’s almost one a day – and does not include those unrecorded, or not recognised as transphobic).

St Joan of Arc, cross-dressing martyr

In addition to the human tragedy inherent in each and every one of these deaths, for the Christian churches, and the Catholic churches in particular, there’s a particular religious tragedy, which erases the transgender elements in church history, and distorts the understanding of gender in theology, and in the world.

The most notable example from church history is obviously St Joan of Arc, condemned  by the church authorities as a heretic  and executed in part for her practice of dressing and behaving as a man, in contravention of standard gender roles. Later, the church re-evaluated her, and recognised her as a saint and martyr. It is notable that Pope Benedict once discussed this, as an illustration of the distorting tradition in church history, and how there have been times when the theologians and cardinals of the church, can be wrong.

Earlier in church history, there were many examples of cross-dressing monks – people who were biologically female, but who chose to dress and live as males, in order to be accepted as monks in men’s monasteries. In the early church, some of these were revered as saints, but today they have been largely erased from history.

At the other end of church history, in modern times there have been the sad example of Sally/Selwyn Gross, which illustrates how the Catholic church’s restricted, strictly binary  view of gender and an exclusively male priesthood forced an intersex Dominican professor of moral theology out of the priesthood (and in consequence, out of the Catholic Church), after transitioning to be in greater accordance with her internal genitals.

Theologically, the modern strictly binary understanding of gender makes no sense. We know from Galatians  3:28 that “In God, there is neither …..male nor female”.  Although Jesus as human was undoubtedly male, “God” is more accurately seen as beyond gender, omnigender.  This is beautifully illustrated in a second century queer hymn of praise, “The Father who was milked

A regrettable feature of the Catholic Church today, is that just as Pope Francis and many leading cardinals and bishops are embracing a more sensitive and more inclusive approach to gay and lesbian people in the church, rhetoric against transgender issues has been increasing.  This hit the headlines during the 2014 and 2015 family synods, with complaints about so-called “gender ideology” as an example of ideological neo-colonialism. This not only badly misrepresents gender theory, academic idea worthy of discussion, as an ideology, it also turns on its head the actual history of ideological colonialism. As extensive historical research has shown, it was not colonialism that introduced homosexuality and transgender ideas to Africa and other colonies, but the reverse. In each of Africa, Asia and the Americas before the arrival of European missionaries and colonists, what we would call transgender people were not only accepted, but recognised in many societies as having special spiritual gifts. The newly arrived Europeans used their military might to impose their restricted, rigidly binary ideas of gender and sexuality on the conquered peoples, executing those who refused to conform.

The true “ideological colonialism” is not the recognition and respect for the reality of non-binary gender, but the earlier cruel imposition by force of European ideas on those with a more flexible approach – one that is found by modern research to be more in keeping with the scientific facts.

For Transgender Day of Remembrance, let us recall those who have been murdered in transphobic hate, in modern times – and in more distant church history. Let us pray, then, that the church may come to recognise that its current hostility to transgender people is not justified. It is both an example of what Pope Benedict identified as part of the distorting tradition in church history – and of ideological colonialism. It must be overcome, and set aside.

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