One thing is clear: 2003 was without a doubt the Year of the Queer. In a mere twelve months, the United States Supreme Court cast aside antisodomy laws in Texas, the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage, and Democratic presidential candidates from Dean to Kerry endorsed the idea of civil unions. On the pop culture front, a fashion- forward quintet captivated the country, metrosexualizing hopeless breeders on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Britney Spears briefly reanimated her career when she tongued that queen of reinvention, Madonna. Even our paragon of hetero hottieness J. Lo veered toward the Sapphic in Gigli. Bride magazine offered up its first story on same-sex weddings. Family-friendly Wal-Mart expanded its antidiscrimination policies to protect homosexuals. Even army generals came out of the closet.
But the gay parade didn’t stop there. The year’s crowning moment came on November 2, when the Episcopal Church ordained Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop. Of course, Robinson’s ordination has come at quite a price. Both at home and abroad, there are calls for Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to step down. The conservative American Anglican Council is hoping to capitalize on the controversy, and is vying to replace the Episcopal Church of the United States as North America’s main representative body within the Anglican Communion. Several African provinces have denounced Robinson’s ordination, and the Anglican Church in Uganda formally severed its relationship with the US Episcopal Church, writing, “You officially … installed as candidate for bishop someone the Bible clearly shows to be in an unsuitable lifestyle.”
For years the Episcopal, Catholic, and Methodist churches have tolerated a sort of ecclesial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And to hear conservative members of the Episcopal Church tell it, everything was fine until Griswold, Robinson, and their supporters decided to pull what amounted to an ecumenical fast one. “What we’ve got is a small group of intellectual elites … that have decided to do something the rest of the convention won’t support,” said Donald Armstrong, executive director of the Anglican Communion Institute, a conservative think tank. “Here is a group that’s saying we want to normalize our sin, and say it’s okay. You can’t do that. It’s sin. It’s one of many sins, and nobody was paying much attention to it until [they] brought it up.”
But this religious crisis didn’t appear out of thin air. Its intellectual and physical roots have been growing just beneath the surface for years. In seminaries across the country, at both the parish level and within whole dioceses, homosexuals have been preaching, studying, and remaining sexually active as they worship Christ. “What’s the difference between a Jesuit rec room and a gay bar?” asked former Jesuit Robert Goss, who said his sexual experiences at bathhouses mirrored his early days at Harvard Divinity School. “Only the location.”
It’s not what usually comes to mind when you think of Christianity — but Christianity is changing. And nowhere is this change more apparent than at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. In 1996 one of the union’s member seminaries, the multidenominational Pacific School of Religion, established the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. The center’s mission is to advance the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in communities of faith. It offers a certificate in sexuality and religion, and has recently launched a book series devoted to the issue. “There were three places where it could have happened,” said Mary Tolbert, the center’s executive director. “Berkeley was one; Cambridge, Massachusetts, was another; and Chicago was the third.” But the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies remains unique in the country, and since its inception it has become a focal point for a renegade band of self-described “queer theologians.”
Far from the apologetics many gay theologians engaged in during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, these new theologians aren’t asking for the church’s acceptance. They’re neither asking to be integrated into its social life, nor to have their “sin” overlooked. Rather, they’re engaging the church where it matters most: using the Bible to argue that not only is Scripture neutral toward homosexuality, but that it is actually a sort of queer genealogical tree.
“Christianity in its roots is a very queer religion,” said Jay Johnson, programming and development director for the center and a rising star among queer theologians. “We’re talking about an itinerant preacher who was unmarried in a society that was built on family relations, who hung out with all the weirdos and the freaks, who said they have a much better chance of getting into the kingdom of God than the religious leaders do, who was tortured and killed by the state, and whose resurrection was reported by a bunch of hysterical women. This is really queer stuff. Right?”
Still, to call this disparate and intellectually combative group of queer Christians an intellectual bloc suggests a unity of purpose that does not exist. Some are questioning the church’s bedrock assumptions about marriage and monogamous commitment. Others are trying to reinfuse the church with an erotic understanding of spirituality. Still others are questioning the traditional meanings behind some of our best-known Bible stories. On the outer fringe lies a small group of transgender people arguing that they, too, have a place in the church. And some are taking their cues from the gay rights movement, using their position to effectively out the likes of David, Jonathan, Lazarus — and maybe even Jesus himself.
“What some of the queer theologians are starting to do has the potential to radically transform what we mean by practicing Christian faith,” said Johnson, who is cochair of the American Academy of Religion’s gay men’s task force. “Straight people are right to worry about what queer people are going to do to the church.”
The case for allowing homosexuals to worship has raged for decades. But for queer Christians like Johnson, a tall, amiable man with an open face, blue wire-rimmed glasses, and only the slightest dusting of a goatee, the dispute was settled long ago. “For people who have done some thinking about this and done some reflection on it and have had some intelligent, careful education on biblical matters … the question about openly gay and lesbian clergy is just a no-brainer,” he said. “Of course, our critics haven’t gotten past that. … It’s the arguments we’ve heard ad nauseam for decades and decades and decades — as if none of those arguments had before been refuted.”
He’d just stepped into a rough-hewn stone building off the Pacific School of Religion’s rectangular quad. Pine trees can be seen through the seminary’s paned windows, and the building’s somber wood doors, crucifixes, and stone-tiled hallways confer a certain gravitas on the pronouncements of anyone so august as to have an office there.
Still, the Bible is pretty straightforward about homosexuality, isn’t it? Take Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” That always seemed pretty clear.
“You know, this ‘unchanging’ bullshit.” Johnson said, rubbing his eyes as if going over simple math with some lumpen pupil. “You’ll be in church study with a bunch of clergy talking about what the Bible supposedly says about homoeroticism, and they’re standing there in clergy shirts that are cotton-polyester blends. And Leviticus is very clear about blended fabric: It is forbidden. Yet there they stand. Clergy! People of God! Religious leaders breaking the Levitical law by wearing blended-fabric shirts, brazenly! I cannot believe in the 21st century that intelligent people still have these arguments.”
His point was well-taken. Leviticus, which contains two of the passages often used by Scripture-quoting Christians to clobber homosexuals, was originally written as a holiness code for priests. While some ultraorthodox Jews still try to live by the Levitical code, most Christians have seen their way past the book’s cryptic prohibitions against planting different seeds in the same field, touching menstruating women, or wearing blended-fabric clothing. So why is it, theologians such as Johnson ask, that the church arbitrarily chooses to follow the code when it comes to sex?
It was a question worth putting to Donald Armstrong of the Anglican Communion Institute. “It’s not really a matter of academic debate; it’s a matter of revealed truth,” said Armstrong, who also is rector at Grace & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “The church represents the tradition. … If all of a sudden you come up with an interpretation that’s contrary to two thousand previous years’ worth of interpretation, then you’ve got to question whether you’re right or not.”
No doubt Armstrong has Johnson on one point: The institutional church does and always has looked askance at homosexuality. But it’s Armstrong’s theory about how that “revealed truth” has been interpreted by the church that is at issue. For years now, gay Christians have been attending Bible self-defense classes where they learn to parry the handful of passages that speak explicitly about homosexuality. The Sodom and Gomorrah story? It’s not about anal sex; it’s about gross inhospitality, xenophobia, and humiliation. Leviticus? Arbitrary and antiquated. And anyhow, what we moderns think of as homosexuality is not at all what the authors of the Good Book had in mind.
Any queer thinker worth his salt will tell you that the term “homosexual” is a 19th-century European invention. Prior to that, people who had gay sex were not identified as a distinct class. In the ancient world, queer theologians argue, sexuality was not only much more fluid than it is today, but sex itself was highly political: It involved power, class, and social rank. It was not necessarily tied to love; rather, it was a way of codifying the social order.
Even so, the bulk of biblical references to same-gender sex occur in the Old Testament. Homosexuality is mentioned explicitly only a few times in the New Testament. And even then, it is Paul, not Jesus, who weighs in on the matter. While inveighing against the Gentile idolaters in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” Later, in his letters to both Timothy and the Corinthians, Paul mentions the people of Sodom while rattling off a list of miscreants who won’t be attending the afterlife.
Paul’s meaning may be fairly clear to conservative members of the church, but queer theologians argue that he had something else in mind. “One of the problems that those people run into and that they try to ignore is the very first part of the verse, where it says: And they ‘exchanged natural relations for unnatural,'” said Tolbert of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, describing an argument commonly put forth by queer Christians. “The ‘exchanged’ indicates that they had some other options. … The only people Paul was talking about were heterosexuals who became involved in homosexual relationships.”
Sound like a stretch? It certainly does to mainstream theologians and pastors such as Armstrong. “Most of these people have been widely discredited,” he said, referring to Tolbert and her peers. “There’s really nobody credible.”
But ultimately, mounting defenses against conservatives is not a burning priority for many queer theologians. Rather, they are interested in creating a new theology that will speak directly to queer congregants — and anyone else who cares to listen. In their view, the Bible is not a rulebook. It is laden with contradictions, atavistic practices, and obscure rituals rendered meaningless in the modern era.
“It’s very disingenuous to say that the Bible is clear on these issues,” said Tolbert, who was raised Baptist but now attends the gay-friendly United Church of Christ. “I’d like to think that two thousand years of Christianity might have led us to a slightly better moral sense about the world than the authors of the Bible had. I think that’s the case. Just like I think slavery is absolutely barbarous and Paul didn’t think so. I think I’m right, and he’s wrong.”
The Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley is a quaint little building. Its many windows are ornamented with simple stained glass. A damp, woody smell permeates the place, and a tiny pipe organ in need of some $60,000 in repairs occupies the rear. At the head of the careworn pews sit two Lilliputian tables outfitted with crayons and crepe paper. Throughout the service, children scamper about, grapple their way into their parents’ laps, and ask questions of the clergy. Outside, the church is all pastel greens, browns, and yellows. It has a peaked bell tower, and a small flower garden that blooms with rosemary and lilies. As an ordained Episcopal priest, Jay Johnson is a member of Good Shepherd’s clergy. It is a progressive, ever-so-Berkeley congregation.
On a recent Sunday, the church celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord — January 11, the first Sunday after Epiphany — when the congregation puts up new members for baptism and renews its own baptismal vows. There’s something distinctly campy, even sensual, about Episcopal ritual: the robes, the incense, the scepters, the music. As the service progressed, Johnson moved toward the church’s rear. It was late morning, and a white and yellow light refracted through the window and onto the marble baptismal basin. Dressed in a white frock trimmed with thin rectangles of purple, teal, green, and blue, Johnson raised a plastic beer pitcher full of holy water above his head. He let the water splash down in a streaming arc into the basin. He then took a sprig of rosemary and walked down the aisle, anointing members of the parish as they renewed their baptismal vows.
It was a nice ceremony: traditional enough, and at least on the face of it, free of the eroticism many queer theologians argue is sublimated within Christian tradition. Not all of them are concerned about eroticizing their faith. But for those who are, the issue lies at the heart of revitalizing not only Christian faith, but also the life of the church. At the outer edge of these erotic thinkers stands Robert Goss, a former Jesuit who now teaches theology at Webster University in St. Louis. Goss is the author of Jesus Acted Up and, most recently, Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up, the latter of which contains such arcane sections as “Spiritual Dimensions to Barebacking?” (unprotected sex) and “Expanding Christ’s Wardrobe of Dresses.”
“Part of the problem of Christianity is that it separated out sexuality as something shameful and awful,” Goss said in an interview from his St. Louis office. “If in the Christian perspective God is love, then … can you make love without making love to God? From my perspective, no: God is right in the middle of that. If God is love, then the lovemaking itself is an act of prayer.”
But surely it can’t be that simple. What about Paul’s letters? What about the line that reads “It is well for a man not to touch a woman”? Or how about when Paul urges the Corinthians “not to associate with anyone who … is sexually immoral or greedy”? One moment Paul is telling the Romans that a mind “set on the flesh is hostile to God,” the next he’s browbeating the Corinthians, breathlessly telling them to “Shun fornication!” To borrow a line from Jay Johnson, for Paul, sin was the ultimate STD.
“Paul was hung up about sex,” Goss said. “He had a problem with male figures, and yet he had all these young men like Timothy hanging around him. Paul’s experience was erotic. … He said: ‘It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ That’s an experience of communion. He took all his erotic energy, and probably fears about male sexuality, and channeled it into an erotic relationship with Christ.”
If Paul did have sexual feelings toward Christ, it has for centuries escaped the notice of mainline theologians. But in the Christology of Goss, Paul was not alone when it came to lusting after Jesus. Goss wants to out Christ’s intimate relations not only with Mary Magdalene but also with Lazarus — whom Goss believes is the mysterious “beloved disciple” often alluded to in the New Testament.
Of course, you won’t find any of this in the Gospels. To ground his claims, Goss looks to extrabiblical sources such as the controversial Secret Gospel of Mark, which is referred to in a letter found in 1958 by biblical scholar Morton Smith in a monastery just outside Jerusalem. The letter, which many biblical scholars contend is a fake, has been attributed to the third-century theologian Clement of Alexandria. It quotes a portion of the purported Secret Gospel, in which Jesus raises a youth from the dead.
“The youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him,” the fragment of the letter reads. “And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”
If Jesus were in the habit of showing his disciples the mystery of the kingdom, he wouldn’t necessarily have been alone. There is an entire school of historians that claims our Western pedagogical system is based on a steamy foundation of pederasty. Just think of Socrates and his students.
But does it ultimately matter whether the historical Jesus was gay or straight, a prude or a rake? “This business about trying to make Jesus this fully sexual being who … had sex with those around him and so forth, you know, we’re never going to know,” Jay Johnson argued. “You can eroticize Jesus without wanting to have sex with him. … The truth of the story is not about its historicity or its facticity. What’s more important is what the Gospel writers want us to see about the nature of the divine.”
To Goss, Tolbert, Johnson, and their small raft of queer Christian thinkers, that divine nature is profoundly erotic. To their way of thinking, the goal and purpose of Christian faith is not to escape the physical world for one of pure disembodied spirit — quite the opposite. Rather, Christian faith is about becoming fully embodied, fully human. It is only then, they argue, that we can truly know the divine — both physically and spiritually.
“The idea that Christianity and Christian faith is sex-negative and body-negative and erotophobic is in some ways a superficial caricature of the traditions,” Johnson said. “This notion that our assumption of Christian faith is the means by which we escape our bodily existence for a so-called superior spiritual realm is really a demonic distortion of the good news of the Gospel. It’s the opposite. It’s to become fully incarnate, fully embodied, and the story of Jesus tells us that this is a process that continues beyond death. … There’s something very important about the fleshiness of Jesus.”
Take communion. Symbolically, is there any more erotic act than taking in the flesh and blood of Christ? Or, as Johnson puts it: “‘This is my body: Eat it.’ I mean, come on!”
From the early Gnostic cults to the mystics, erotic relations to the divine have existed on the margins of Christian experience for centuries. And today’s queer theologians look to these early Christians as their spiritual ancestors. They consider themselves firmly in the tradition of an embodied faith, in which Christian love, erotic or otherwise, is manifest through the body.
But while queer Christians may have an uphill battle convincing us the New Testament is an erotically rich document, the Old Testament is another matter. Sex and death, love and plague, avarice and vice: The books of the Old Testament at times read like a gussied-up Anne Rice thriller. But even there, queer thinkers argue, the church is blind to the Old Testament’s homoeroticism — and its impact on how we view commitment and marriage.
Take Jonathan and David. Fresh from decapitating Goliath, David enters into a covenant with Jonathan, son of Saul. “Jonathan loved him as his own soul,” is how the author of the first Book of Samuel describes it. David, you see, has been chosen by God to replace Saul as the king of Israel. In an effort to kill David, the increasingly jealous Saul puts a host of military challenges before him. But whether it’s killing Philistines, cutting off their foreskins, or dodging spears, David handily meets each of the challenges. Meanwhile, Saul tries to bring his son Jonathan in on his murderous schemes. But Jonathan refuses.
“Basically, Jonathan is choosing David over his father and mother,” said Tolbert, who, like Johnson, is a professor at the Pacific School of Religion. “There’s a reference Saul makes about Jonathan dishonoring his mother, which sounds like an accusation of some kind of sexual misbehavior.”
The actual line reads: “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” As the story unfolds, Jonathan and David spend a lot of quality time together in a field. At one point, the passage from Samuel reads, “they kissed each other and wept with each other.”
“There’s really some erotic language hidden in that text that actually makes you think it’s more than just a friendship,” said Tolbert, noting how the passage mirrors the story of Adam and Eve. “Isn’t that what the Genesis text says? That man will leave his father and mother and be bound with his wife? So you have that really strong sense of love, of loyalty, and that loyalty is not to your family where it should be, but this loyalty is to this man you love.”
Queer thinkers such as Tolbert and Johnson argue that the implications of such stories are tremendous. Not only do they dislodge many of the heterosexual assumptions about the Bible, but they force us to rethink some of the church’s bedrock beliefs regarding monogamy and marriage.
“What does the … modern institution of marriage have to do with Christ theology and faith?” Johnson asked. “Historically, hardly anything! Not a thing, in fact. What the institutional church decided to get involved with was not any kind of biblical model of the family. It was this other thing that evolved in Western society called marriage, that had mostly to do with ensuring that property got passed on to one’s rightful — I should say father’s — rightful heirs.”
So what does the Bible really say about marriage? Well, if we look to the Old Testament, the basic model is polygamy. With only a handful of exceptions, the men of the Old Testament placed little value on the sanctity of monogamous unions. Marital rites don’t fare much better in the New Testament. Jesus was unmarried and childless. Paul, the other main figure of the New Testament, views marriage as a sort of stopgap against carnal lust. For Paul, the life of the flesh distracts from God. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried,” he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians. “But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
“This is not a ringing endorsement from the pages of Christian scripture,” Johnson said. “What some of these queer Christian thinkers are saying is pay attention to your own orthodoxy. … We don’t have to depart from traditional Christian theologies to be really queer and radical.”
The Mudd building at the Pacific School of Religion looks desperately out of place. Its sterile, modernist lines distinctly call to mind bureaucracy, not theology. Nevertheless, this is where many of tomorrow’s queer ministers receive their training.
It was here that Johnson, who earned his own doctorate at the school, recently led his students in a sort of if-then intellectual exercise: If queers were fully accepted in the church, what would Christian faith then look like? Could we still call it Christianity? Or are Christian traditions so shot through with homophobia and misogyny as to be irredeemable for queers?
The class was populated by an assortment of ordained ministers, seminarians, and laypersons. And while all of them are deeply involved with matters of Christian faith, many of them are almost unrecognizable as Christians. This is Berkeley, after all. There was plenty of postmodern speechifying about subverting binary gender paradigms and the “heterotextuality” of Christ — stuff to really make the blood race.
“I would like to consider myself sort of an atheist,” one student said outside of class. “God’s a social construct.” Like many students in the class who are ordained but closeted ministers, this student, “David,” would speak only under a pseudonym. Born and raised in the Philippines, David is a Methodist minister. His family doesn’t know he is gay, and he is convinced he’d be defrocked if he came out.
“I even had a fuckbuddy in seminary,” he said. “I knew that it was sinful. I was hoping that it would change if I got married.”
David is a big man. His thick black hair is cut short, and his brow holds a permanent horizontal crease. He never did marry. But though he no longer believes his homosexuality is a sin, he has decided to remain in the Methodist Church; its message is too good to give up to the conservatives, he said. “We’re caught in the middle of gay people who are suspicious because we’re Christians and Christians who abhor you because you’re gay,” he said. “So one question is, why even stick with being Christian?
“The motto of the United Methodist Church is ‘Open hearts, open minds, open doors,'” he continued. “But it’s a big lie, because while you’re saying all our doors are open, there’s a small sign there, and it says ‘Gays, get out of this place.’ … It’s like the fine print in the contract.”
Another student, “Mary,” traveled all the way from Pennsylvania to take the class. Although she is a minister in the gay-friendly United Church of Christ, her congregation is extremely conservative, and she remains in the closet.
“They can’t even touch this as a topic; when I talk about being inclusive, they still think I’m talking about racial inclusion,” Mary said one day after class. “Most of the folks on a Sunday morning are there to have their own biblical understanding told back to them. … ‘Make it somehow speak to going to the grocery store on Thursday afternoon, and I will be very happy.’ That’s what ‘connecting it to my life’ means. … They don’t want to be transformed. They want a faith that tells them they are okay.”
But even Mary is put off by the eroticism so central to many queer Christian thinkers. By concentrating so heavily on the erotic dimensions of faith, she argues, queer theologians make themselves an easy target for critics. Look, the argument goes: Not only do the sexual deviants want to screw each other, they want to add Christ to the mix too.
“If queer theology can’t get past sexualizing all these issues, then I don’t think it’s reached relevancy beyond its constituency,” she said. “Why link sexuality with spirituality? … Has the entire heterosexual world for all this time been failing to commune with God?”
It’s a good question, one that none of these theologians was really able to answer. Each insisted that queer theology offered much more than a vision of erotically charged faith. It’s a theology of radical inclusion and liberation, they promised. But so far it remains preoccupied with sex. Still, it makes sense that a queer theology would be tied to sex. Not only are many queer Christians largely defined by the sexual aspects of their lives, but for many, coming out is in itself a religious experience. By their very presence in the church, queers force the issue of sexuality. Think about it: Homophobia is not rooted in the fear of two women lunching together after nine holes of golf, but in what those women do later in the bedroom. It’s almost as though queers are unwitting agents of sexuality. Without trying, queers force their hetero counterparts to think about them — and by extension themselves — engaging in same-gender sex. As such, queer theologians are uniquely positioned, even compelled, to talk about the erotic.
“We are the identified sex people,” is how Justin Tanis explained it. “We stand for the principle that you have the right to define your erotic life in ways that are pleasing and meaningful to you. There’s a principle of sexual freedom there that’s embodied by gay people. It’s not limited to ‘You should have the right to have same-sex sex,’ but that you should have the right to craft your sex life in a way that’s fulfilling to you.”
Tanis is a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, a congregation created in 1968 by and for queers. Tanis truly practices what he preaches: Until 1997, he was a woman. Seven years later, he has almost fully transitioned to male.
As the author of Transgendered: Theology, Ministry, and Communities of Faith, Tanis now stands at the forefront of a small but growing community of transgender people who are entering the ministry. The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley is home to several such seminarians. There is also a UCC congregation in San Francisco that has not only a large number of transgenderists, but even its own transgender choir. And if conservative members of the Episcopal Church couldn’t abide the ordination as a bishop of Gene Robinson, a white man in a long-term relationship, one can only imagine their response to transgender candidates for the priesthood. “They’ll have a little stroke and fall over and die,” was how Johnson imagined it.
Although Tanis lives in Los Angeles, he often speaks in the Bay Area. Like many queer Christian thinkers, he has little patience for justifying his place in the church. But, then, transgender folk have a few more hurdles to clear than the typical queer Christian, if indeed such a person exists.
First off, there’s this whole business of being somewhere between male and female. Genesis doesn’t leave much wiggle room: God created Adam and Eve, right?
“God actually didn’t originally create Adam and Eve,” Tanis argued. “God created one being that became two beings, so you could argue that God’s original plan was for one gender, and we messed it up.”
In his book, Tanis writes that the original Hebrew meaning of Adam is the genderless earth creature. “It wasn’t intended to mean a biological male,” Tanis said. “Adam is too lonely to live on his/her/its own and required God to make another being to keep Adam company. So the root of our genderedness arises in our need for companionship. But that’s not the same as saying God only intended for there to be two genders.”
And if one reads the Bible closely, Tanis argues, Christians should be the first to embrace people who are neither male nor female, but exist somewhere else along the gender continuum. Consider the eunuchs, whom many transgenderists look to as their biblical forerunners. Without working genitals, eunuchs were certainly not men, but they weren’t women either.
“There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said in the Gospel according to Matthew. “Let anyone accept this who can.”
As with queers who view their own coming-out as a religious experience, Tanis’ transition from female to male served only to reinforce his own faith. “Perhaps God created me as trans because I was spiritually intended to grow up as a girl child and experience what that means and then experience life as a man,” he said. “What if that is my spiritual path? Jesus’ level of acceptance models for us how we might deal with people who have gender differences.”
But the idea of transgenderists in the church meets resistance even within the small community of queer theologians. With gay rights activists stressing the emerging evidence that suggests a fixed biological basis for sexual orientation, the idea of people sliding up and down the gender scale seems to contradict that very idea.
“There’s a lot about it that really does short-circuit my brain and scramble my thinking,” Johnson admitted when asked about the subject. “I think that it’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes. But I do have a hard time wrapping my head around some of this stuff.”
Even within the transgender religious community, there are those who don’t believe transgenderists belong in the church. One of them is Gabriel Hermelin, who came to Starr King, the Unitarian Universalist seminary within the Graduate Theological Union. Hermelin entered the seminary to grapple with Christian faith. Eighteen months later, Hermelin is now a self-professed “nontheist.”
“It doesn’t matter to me whether … there’s proof that the eunuch of yesterday is the transsexual, or transgender of today,” Hermelin said during an interview in the school’s wood-lined cafeteria. “I think that we’ll find whatever we want to find. Each marginalized group tries to bolster or justify their position using the same thing that’s used against them.”
Hermelin was born female and looks like a woman today. She wears her brown hair short, and dresses casually in leather sandals, shorts, and flannel shirts. But it’s her eyes that one remembers. Clear blue, the irises ringed by golden flecks, they bear all the intensity of a mystic. Hermelin has never undergone surgery and has no plans to; nonetheless she considers herself transgender, somewhere outside traditional distinctions of male and female.
“There’s no merit in it for me,” she said of queer attempts to reclaim the Bible. “You have to start from scratch. … But I know also that there are people who are suffering. … They’re just so damaged. Emotionally. Psychologically. Physically. Gosh, they’re just so damaged. Their families said ‘I don’t want you.’ Their church said ‘I don’t want you,’ and now they think God says ‘I don’t want you.’ … I hope they find a way out of that — you know, the people who are like, ‘Maybe it is a sin. What if I am an abomination?’ … I’m sure Justin Tanis’ book has saved lives.”
Tanis’ book may have saved lives, but will it change any minds? No matter how adamantly queer theologians insist that a queer reading of the Bible is for everyone, the fact remains that those who stand to be most influenced by their theology are queers both in and out of the church. And maybe that’s enough. Not only are homosexuals beginning to return to the church, but more and more gay couples are having their unions consecrated.
Still, by renouncing apologetics, today’s queer theologians are no longer extending the olive branch to their conservative rivals. They are no longer asking to be tolerated. They are moving on, and sowing division in their wake.
“‘Tolerance’ is a horribly weak word,” Johnson said. “We tolerate a cold sore.”
So what would a queer reading of the Bible look like? Where is this radical inclusion we keep hearing about? Are we only talking about sex? And can it apply to breeders too? As with any good story, the answers are found at the beginning.
Take the story of Adam and Eve. The only prohibition God placed upon them was to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Alas, they broke that rule. Once apprised of the tree’s knowledge, they hastily stitched together fig leaves to cover their nakedness. “Now of course, being naked has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they should have eaten the fruit from that tree,” Johnson said. “Nothing. But their very first impulse is for them to distance themselves from each other, to cover up these paths of intimacy.”
Adam and Eve knew they’d unsealed the mystery of creation, and therefore hid themselves from God. Now, any Bible class will tell you that the story of Adam and Eve is about free will. It is here, the interpretation goes, that the first couple realized they could act against God’s wishes. But generations of Christian thinkers also have interpreted it as one of sexual shame. Why else would they become embarrassed of their nudity and cover themselves?
Johnson sees the story very differently. In his reading, the assumption of sexual shame has been superimposed by abstemious prudes, and is nowhere in the story itself.
“The story says they heard God walking in the Garden,” Johnson continued. “This is a really interesting little detail. … The story seems to indicate that this was not at all unusual. Maybe it was even a divine habit, and God even looked forward to these times of spending time in the Garden and invited Adam and Eve to join in on these strolls.”
This time there was something missing because Adam and Eve had hidden themselves from God,” he added, “at which point God calls out: ‘Where are you?'”
But if God is omnipotent, his question is surely rhetorical. Not only does God already know where they are, he already knows they’ve broken the one rule he placed before them. So what is he asking?
“That’s got to be one of the most poignant moments in all of Scripture, when the creator of the heaven and the earth … is calling out from this depth of desire for the beloved. ‘Where are you?'” Johnson said. “It’s not just about Adam and Eve hiding from each other, and therefore the source of intimacy for themselves, but hiding themselves from their creator, who also was yearning for intimacy with them.”
When Adam finally cops to eating the fruit, he steps out from behind a tree and tells God he was afraid because he was naked. And God then asks, as only God can, “Who told you you were naked?”
“What God is asking at that point is ‘Who told you to be ashamed of who you are?'” Johnson said. “‘Why are you hiding yourselves? Why are you covering up the way I created you? I created you for intimacy. I created you for delight in each other and with me. ‘”
To follow Johnson’s reading, this rupture of divine intimacy in Genesis is played out again and again throughout the Bible, even though all God wants is communion with his beloved. Until finally God is forced to take decisive action, healing that rift by making his desire incarnate in the body of Jesus Christ.
After retelling the creation story, Johnson had to rush off. The previous evening, President Bush had all but endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. Johnson had a meeting to attend and a press release to get out. Obviously, he had his work cut out for him.