What Denny Burk and Eve Ensler Have In Common

CN: Transphobia, anti-trans violence

When I first began writing Damaged Goods, one thing I said to myself was that I absolutely, fundamentally, have to include transgender people in my analysis of purity culture. There would be no compromise on that matter, because trans people are a vital part of our discussion of gender in the church – and my trans friends have been a vital part of my life for so long.

In a recent article in The New Republic, writer Monica Potts challenges the presence of trans women at traditionally women’s colleges, stating that it’s important to prioritize the marginalization of those who are “born women” and experience oppression based on their uteruses.

Within the last year, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the Southern Baptist Convention has ramped up its anti-trans stance. Denny Burk has been at the forefront of this discussion, becoming the apparent resident trans expert for the conservative sect. Unfortunately, Burk’s arguments are based on the idea of trans people being a different kind of sexual orientation, and therefore condemned with their gay and bisexual and asexual brethren. Trans people, according to Burk, evidently are mistaken about their identities as a result of the confusion of culture, and therefore must be called back to their “true” gender and to repent.

Both of these incidences of transphobia, from the conservative right and the liberal left, evince not only a misunderstanding of the performance of gender, but also inflict violence on the most marginalized of our population. We cannot have a discussion about gendered, state violence without also talking about the violence perpetrated upon trans persons in myriad ways.

It is February 17, 2015, as I write this. So far, in the United States this year, seven trans people have died at the hands of bigots. One was stabbed to death by her own father, who accused her of being in a cult.  The majority of those killed were trans women of color, a particularly vulnerable portion of the populace. This is without including all the unnamed and unknown trans people who have succeeded in taking their own lives within the last year, including a friend of mine.

What both parts of the political spectrum fail to recognize is the contribution transphobic language has to this toxic climate. Potts’ essay reads as a cis woman lecturing trans people to “take a seat” and “wait their turn,” arguing that cisgender women – those with uteruses – must be prioritized because of the marginalization of anti-abortion laws. But anti-abortion laws also affect the health care access for transgender people – Planned Parenthood, in particular, is a vital source of low-income hormone and transition therapy for transgender people and attacks on that organization are about far more than abortion.

Within the churchified purity culture that Denny Burk espouses, transgender people function as a boggart, a fearful fulfillment of the anti-feminist prophecy that feminism merely wants to turn men into women. Because purity culture is built so fundamentally on the goals of heterosexual, cisgender marriage and procreation, transgender people do not function within their equation. Trans people, by the very fact of their existence, challenge the idea that God created each of us to go after the middle-class goals of marriage and family. And that is terrifying to the purity advocates, which is why we must never stop being completely inclusive in our discussions.

Misogyny and hate don’t exist on a linear scale. They intersect with all kinds of identities and lives. A black woman’s experience of misogyny is different from my experience of misogyny which is different from a trans woman of color’s experience of misogyny. Each of these differing experiences highlights the need for comprehensive, complicated approaches to reforming systems, instead of the simplistic “one oppression at a time” approach. Marriage equality is a trans issue and purity culture is a trans issue and reproductive rights are a trans issue. All these things are also black and Native issues and gay issues and bisexual issues and disability issues and mental health issues.

We are people, complex, complicated, and unable to be pinned down into particular categories. Why, then, should our approach to oppression neglect to examine all angles of a discussion and all angles of oppression? Making the world better for our trans friends makes the world a better place, period. And that is worth striving for.