Lacking Incarnation: Transphobia, Erasure, and the Church's Mistakes

[content note: transphobia, misgendering, violence. I am not linking to the articles mentioned here as I do not want to give them traffic. A quick google search will get you there.]

This last weekend has been a tough one with regard to issues related to trans* people. Friday morning, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Dr. Russell Moore published a piece in which he used a story about a “repentant” transwoman as an ethical example of pastoral care. The piece contained deliberate misgendering, dehumanization, and treatment of the hypothetical trans* individual as a flattened dehumanized object.

Later that same day, Caleb Hannan’s piece at Grantland blew up the progressive internet. The piece started out as a simple puff piece about a new type of golf putter, invented by a woman who called herself Dr. V. When Hannan began researching, Dr. V told him that he needed to focus on the science, not the scientist. Ignoring his subject’s request, Hannan went digging, and found out that she was a trans woman who lied about her academic credentials. He then outed her to a business associate, and informed her that he would be essentially outing her in print, against her will.

Dr. V then killed herself. Before she did, she informed Hannan that he was about to commit a hate crime if he published this piece. Grantland published the “strange story turned euology” anyway, which seemingly no compunction about the role their journalist may have played in this woman’s death. The piece referred to Dr. V as a “troubled man” and said that “chills went up [the writer’s] spine” when he found out about Dr. V’s gender identity. Hannan seems to be couching Dr. V’s trans status as part of a long con, simply another in a long line of ways in which Dr. V supposedly conned and faked her way through life.

These two stories are not unrelated. They both are based on a simple, bigoted premise: that trans* people are not human. That they are faking. That they are not actually who they say they are. That they are pulling a long con on all of us.

Because, after all, if trans* people are merely con artists who have made the mistake of believing their own con, then they can be corrected. This is the driving idea behind Moore’s panic over the pastoral care of a trans person and the force behind Hannan’s conviction that Dr. V was a lying liar. They both refuse to recognize a trans identity as legitimate.

What’s sad and frustrating is that their viewpoint is reinforced and held up by a society that refuses to recognize anything outside a binary. Trans panic is often considered a legitimate defense for violent attacks on trans* individuals – that a cisgender hetero man, surprised to find that the woman he was attracted to is not “really” a woman, is somehow justified in his violent reaction because he felt “tricked.”

It is no mistake that Hannan spends a paragraph talking about how beautiful and striking Dr. V is.

When trans* people are cast as people who are essentially lying about themselves and their identities to everyone else in their lives, they are Othered to the point where whatever violence occurs is their fault. Casting trans* people as con artists places upon them the sins of betrayal, of deception and treason. This narrative allows cis people to excuse our complicity because if trans* people are liars, then they are simply not good people.

In the church, this is a failure of incarnational, embodied theology. Because we are taught that our very selves are separated from the bodies we “happen” to inhabit, and that bodies don’t matter, we lack a clear, inclusive theology of the body. This lack of solid incarnational theology leads cisgender ministers to Other trans-ness, to pretend that gender dysphoria and transitions are merely large, long scale cons and sins against God, rather than an understanding creation and what it means to be embodied.

In other words, the unimportance of embodied, incarnational theology in American evangelicalism allows the mainstream church to dismiss trans* people as an aberration, as a con, rather than understanding them as living, breathing people loved by God.

[To clarify, what I mean here is that the Othering of trans* people has robbed them of their voice and contributions to incarnational theology. Combining that Othering with a culture that dismisses the relevance of incarnational theology creates an erasure of important perspectives on incarnation and what living as embodied, incarnated Christians means].

The church in America, even when it identifies as progressive, frankly, sucks at being inclusive when it comes to trans* people. Our very language for how we talk about God is soaked in exclusivity – we talk about how “male and female [God] created them,” never pausing to think about what that means for those who don’t identify along that binary. We talk about gender roles – roles which completely erase those who do not land on either end of the binary. We debate the position of women in the church, equating them with vaginas and uteruses, never once pausing to think that people with vaginas are not necessarily equivalent with women and that it is reductionist to say so.

This isn’t a problem with just rightwing evangelicals or the conservative political party. As it is, trans* people have few allies in any political or theological movement. Cis people, myself included, need to commit to actively fighting the dehumanization of trans* people. It is not enough for people to recognize in their individual lives that trans identity is legitimate, but they must actively advocate against exclusion and against dehumanization. This means checking ourselves, our language, and our worlds. We must not make assumptions about gender; we must not disrespect or misgender people. We must not use other people’s bodies – especially trans bodies – as illustrations for ethical quandaries, for mockery, or for our own personal stories. And we must actively denounce it when we see other people doing it.

Why is this so important? Because it is literally life and death. Around 40% of trans* people have attempted suicide. They are much more likely to end up homeless and the victim of violence. Trans* women are especially vulnerable thanks to transmisogyny, and trans women of color are more vulnerable than that. When they are treated as object lessons for ethical quandaries, as in Dr. Moore’s article, or as con artists who need to be unmasked, trans* people are made vulnerable to violence.

You are not “meeting people where they are” when insist that their very identity means they are in sin. You are contributing, instead, to the dehumanization of an already marginalized group of people. And that should give any person pause.