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The Shiloh Project Visits Legabibo

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Today, Shiloh Project co-directors Katie and Johanna, returned to Legabibo headquarters in Gaborone to meet with Bradley and Lebo, two members of the committed team at this fabulous organization working towards full human rights and inclusion for LGBTQ+ persons in Botswana.

Since the last time they met up, in December of last year, much has happened. Most excitingly, last month saw Botswana’s High Court unanimously rejecting section 164, the law that imposed up to seven years in prison for same-sex relationships.

Homosexuality is now decriminalized – for the first time since 1965 when the law was brought in by the colonial British government of the protectorate of Bechuanaland.

Bradley and Lebo reported that this legal victory was still hard to take in. They have been fighting so long and so hard and now there is a real prospect that LGBTQ+ persons of Botswana can finally access rights – not just the right to free expression of their orientation but also to legal protection from discrimination in the workplace and health care sector.

Of course this is not the end of the road. Legabibo will be busy for a long time to come. An appeal to the court decision from the Government is in progress and there has been a backlash from a number of quarters, in particular from factions of the media (including social media) and from the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana. This has included threats and incitement to violence against gays and lesbians.

But Bradley also reported that many influential religious communities, notably the Botswana Council of Churches, have been supportive of Legabibo. Support has also come from neighbouring South Africa in the form of the Interfaith Network, which has provided valuable training to LGBTQ+ individuals of faith.

The court case has been a tremendous boost but it also reminds the team at Legabibo how much more is left to do. There is still no legal same-sex marriage in Botswana and same-sex marriage formalized in countries where it is legal is not recognized here. Moreover, the rights of the Trans community, including the right to change gender markers, have a long way to go.

Legabibo is planning a range of campaigns aimed at consciousness raising and disseminating information about the impact of the ruling. These include workshops with religious leaders, traditional leaders, educators, health workers, the police, and with miners.

After a wonderful morning at Legabibo and feeling thoroughly impressed by all the work being done, Katie and Johanna joined Legabibo as members. We look forward to many years of collaboration to come. Given their organized, upbeat, collaborative and holistic approach, we have much to learn from Legabibo.

 

Legabibo

Legabibo stands for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana and is an LGBTQ+ non-governmental membership organization, registered in 2016 after winning a freedom of association case at the Botswana Court of Appeal.

Legabibo promotes the value of botho. Botho is a Setswana term for a concept better known by the isiZulu term ubuntu. Botho and ubuntu refer to humanity and inclusiveness and are associated with the expression ‘I am because we are’.

Legabibo also promotes and practises integrity, transparency and accountability.

For more information and to become members and receive regular updates on their mailing list, see: www.legabibo.org. For press articles on Legabibo, see: www.legabibo.wordpress.com  

 

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“Male and Female He Created Them” – A Response to the Vatican Report on Gender Education

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington, DC USA

On 10 June 2019 the Vatican released a 30-page document entitled Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender in education.The document is intended for Catholic schools and purports to guide educators’ responses on the topics of gender theory, third sex, transgender identities, and gender fluidity.

In the UK this comes at a time of protests against the school PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum (including Relationship Education in primary and secondary schools), for allegedly  ‘promoting gay and transgender lifestyles’. This is also a time when homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are surging in England and Wales.

As posted on the Shiloh Project previously, religious discourse plays its part in fanning transphobicand homophobic discrimination and violence. While the evidence suggests that LGBT persons are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, negative stereotyping and misinformation persist.

The Vatican document has been met with much anger from LGBT rights groups – not least, because it reflects a poor understanding of both gender theory and transgender identities. To provide an expert response, here is a reflection on the document from Dr. Susannah Cornwall.

Susannah is Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, where she also directs EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. In one of her current research projects she is working in partnership with the West of England National Health Service (NHS) Specialist Gender Identity Clinic on spiritual care for people transitioning gender.(You can read here an interview she contributed to the Shiloh Project’s 16 Days of Activism last year.) On 15 June 2019 Susannah was one of several contributors to Radio 4’s Beyond Beliefwhich focused on religion and transgender issues.

What follows is a version of Susannah’s response to the publication of Male and Female He Created Them. This response was first published on Facebook on 13 June 2019.

Please look out for a forthcoming special issue of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS) on The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives, guest-edited by Caroline Blyth.

The Vatican’s Male and Female He Created Them – A Response

Susannah Cornwall

“The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education’s new document on “gender theory” in education[1] starts with an appeal to crisis in its very first sentence, repeating and reinforcing the notion that somethingis going on in the world and, specifically, in schools and other educational establishments, about which it is appropriate to be defensive and afraid.

From the beginning, the document is replete with language of ‘disorientation’, ‘destabilizing’, and ‘opposition’, which is understood as conveying threat. Disorientation, destabilization and opposition are, of course, familiar territory for the “gender ideologists” the document seems to have in mind. There is no specific appeal here to the paranoid-suspicious tradition associated with theorists such as Judith Butler, but it haunts the authors nonetheless. We learn later in the document that “queer” implies “dimensions of sexuality that are extremely fluid, flexible and … nomadic”: this is, let the reader understand, a bad thing.

In this short response I will suggest that gender theory does pose the kind of disruption to social and familial norms that some queer theorists would like, but not exactly the same one or for exactly the same reasons that the Vatican authors fear.

The document, at least in its English version, often fails to distinguish between sex, sexuality and gender (though it is worth acknowledging that in several other languages, the same nuances do not necessarily exist as in English, and vocabulary such as sexe must do broader work). So, in English, the document thereby finds itself hoist by its own petard: we are told, “The Christian vision of anthropology sees sexuality as a fundamental component of one’s personhood. It is one of its modes of being, of manifesting itself, communicating with others, and of feeling, expressing and living human love”. If, as in common usage, “sexuality” is basically synonymous with “sexual orientation”, here we have the Vatican seeming to maintain that such orientation is ontological, irreducible, and inextricable from the concept of the self: not, in fact, something easily relegated as disordered, or indeed separable from the psyche all told. Of course, this is probably not what the authors intended, since it becomes clear from the document (implicitly at the start, and explicitly later on) that sex and sexuality are to be considered inextricable and basically identical. In fact, for the authors, it is (biological) sex that is the irreducible thing, not orientation – and it is biological sex on which orientation and gender expression must supervene.

That is, of course, unless one is someone whose sex is “not clearly defined”. (You or I might refer to this as “intersex”, but the document seems to understand intersex, rather, as a synonym for transgender.) In that case, we are told, it is quite appropriate for medical intervention to take place. Here, biological sex is not understood as irreducible and fundamental at all, but rather as something that can and does go wrong and must therefore be altered: “In cases where a person’s sex is not clearly defined, it is medical professionals who can make a therapeutic intervention. In such situations, parents cannot make an arbitrary choice on the issue, let alone society. Instead, medical science should act with purely therapeutic ends, and intervene in the least invasive fashion, on the basis of objective parameters and with a view to establishing the person’s constitutive identity.”

In other words, everyone has a true sex as male or female – it is just not always immediately obvious what it is. “Constitutive identity” – which the document makes clear again and again means biological sex – must be established: that is, uncovered. There is no acknowledgement that, in medical paradigms for the treatment of variant sex characteristics, “establishment” of sex is, frequently, exactly that: a well-intentioned but nonetheless experimental, risky and sometimes arbitrary process of hacks, best guesses and pragmatic assignments, something far more akin to founding than finding. That the document appeals to intervention “in the least invasive fashion” is a dim light in the darkness, and suggests some awareness of critiques of the early corrective surgery paradigm which left many sex-variant adults in permanent pain, incontinent, or unable to experience any sexual sensation as a result of genital surgeries. Yet on the basis of the remainder of the document I am not confident that any such engagement has actually taken place.

Indeed, I suspect appeals to minimal invasion are actually of a piece with Roman Catholic denunciations of gender confirmation surgery for trans people lest these threaten the organic integrity of the individual, with particular regard to the possibility of procreation. Where the document does speak of “intersex” by name it is to denounce it as something that intends to undermine the reality of masculinity and femininity, and to negate or supersede sexual difference. That the document contrasts(what it calls) “intersex” with “those who have to live situations of sexual indeterminacy” is pure muddle-headedness and suggests a critical failure to engage with the now extensive literature (scientific, sociological and theological) in this area.

That intersex and transgender are not the same thing is hardly esoteric, obscure information. The document, then, seems wilfully to conflate intersex and trans people, and repeats the outmoded claim that where intersex arises in infants, early corrective surgery is not only legitimate but actually necessary. If the sex binary is so vulnerable that the bodies of unusually-sexed infants must be operated on in order to shore it up lest the whole edifice crumble, that tells us something important about how secure and stable the concept was (or, rather, wasn’t) in the first place.

The family as an institution is also rendered peculiarly vulnerable here. The document refers back to a 2012 address of Pope Benedict XVI in which he said that “if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him”. But if the family (subtext: somekinds of families) were as incontrovertibly and self-evidently good as all that, surely it would be something human societies went out of their way to protect and reinforce regardlessof whether it could be traced back to the orders of creation. Humans are cultured and technological creatures: we can and do construct all kinds of norms and institutions on the basis that we have come to a common agreement that they are good and desirable things – and frequently without having to appeal to orders of creation in order to justify them. If the institution of the family is going to crumble just because we acknowledge that maleness and femaleness are (at a biological level) less stable and binary than we once thought, then what kind of institution is it really? Why insist, anyway, on maintaining an institution which apparently relies on something less than the full truth to bolster it, when we could, instead, choose actively together to build something better? And why assume that we would not do that if the insights of natural law were and are so universally compelling?

The document cites the importance of listening, but immediately tempers this by delineating in advance which voices should and should not be listened to. It is appropriate, we learn, to listen to anthropological work on sex difference (and, presumably, gender difference, since, as we have established, no proper distinction is made between them) across cultures – but not to listen to “gender ideology” (for the Vatican’s own position is, of course, we are led to believe, completely ideologically immaculate). It is appropriate to learn from “the whole field of research on gender that the human sciences have undertaken” – except, of course, where that would mean acknowledging the reality of variant sex in cases such as intersex, not just within humans but across animal species. It is striking that there is no engagement in the text with any actual trans or intersex individuals or communities, but perhaps unsurprising when we see that there is practically no engagement with anything(or anyone) at all other than previous Roman Catholic teachings (mostly from the current Pope and his two immediate predecessors). The term “echo chamber” is overused in current parlance, but one does wonder exactly what new intervention they believe they are offering here.

Adjectives are important. Let us believe what the document is telling us about itself. The document sets itself up as being against unjust discrimination. (Subtext: some forms of discrimination are just.) With specific reference to disability, race, religion, and “sexual tendencies”, it appeals to welcoming and respecting all legitimateexpressions of human personhood. (Subtext: some expressions of personhood are not legitimate – or, perhaps, not even human. Which disabilities, races, religions and “tendencies” – orientations? – are less than human, one wonders?) This kind of couching begins to feel somewhat “no true Scotsman”: of course equality is important, as long as it’s the right kind of equality! Of course listening matters, as long as we listen to the right arguments and don’t allow them to disrupt or undermine what we already know to be true! Of coursesubsidiarity, and the fundamental right of parents to educate and make decisions on behalf of their own children, matter – as long as the parents cede to medical authority to make sex assignments for their children in cases of atypical sex (for if they do not then they are, we learn, doing nothing more than making an arbitrary choice influenced by “society”).

In order to shore up its insistence that “gender ideology” is undermining marriage, the family, and the very orders of creation, the document makes the kinds of essentialist appeals that have become commonplace in a certain kind of theological argument (conservative evangelical as well as conservative Catholic) but are no less inadequate for that. Women – allwomen, we assume – have “a more realistic and mature reading of evolving situations” (more than what?). Women “have a unique understanding of reality”: so unique that it is common to all of them! As we have seen in other Roman Catholic documents, identity and character are made to rest in sex and sex alone, as though no other trait mattered when it came to the grand muddle of difference and affinity that go to make up human social relationships.

Many critics of the document will, of course, and not without justification, say something like, “Trans people are just like anyone else; they/we are nothing to be afraid of, and this document and its appeals to gender ideology are pure scaremongering”. But the document is correct in its assessment that trans people do pose a threat: not because gender transition in itselfis necessarily peculiarly or particularly subversive, but because the paucity of the Vatican’s responseto it – or, rather, to a straw man of “gender ideology” made to rest on it – shows up the inadequacy and thinness of its accounts of sex and gender all told.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr

The authors could have offered something of the richness of what it has been (and still is) possible for the theological tradition to say about how sexuality, sex and gender as aspects of human being and experience intertwine and allow us to know and communicate complex, troubling and beautiful truths about ourselves as creatures, creators and curators. Rather, the document retreats to a reactionary project of wallpapering over not only cracks but huge great missing sections of theological wall – a wall whose bricks have been quietly carried away one by one to be used in new and more edifying ways by the very queer, trans, intersex and otherwise “destabilizing” people who dare to see their lives, bodies and identities as sites of God’s grace. This is a document sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting “la la la la la” to avoid having actually to listen to and engage with those whose beliefs and insights it has decided ahead of time are too dangerous to entertain. It is an argument which, precisely via its intention to protect and nurture young people, actually risks perpetuating damage to many of them. And it is an enormous missed opportunity to pour oil on the troubled waters of the current toxic debates about trans rights in church and society.”

[1]Signed by Giuseppe Cardinal Versaldi (Prefect) and Abp Angelo Vincenzo Zani (Secretary).

Feature image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr.

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Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

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Today’s post is by two Shiloh Project members, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan, who talk about some of the challenges they have faced and the pedagogies they have adopted when teaching biblical texts of terror in the  classroom, focusing in particular on their own cultural location in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan

The Bible is a violent book, its pages crammed with “texts of terror” that attest to the ubiquity of gendered violence in biblical Israel. Its narratives confirm the commonality of wartime rape (e.g., Judges 21), forced marriage (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10–14), and sex slavery (e.g., Genesis 16). We read stories of stranger rape (e.g., Genesis 34), acquaintance rape (e.g., 2 Samuel 13), and gang rape (both threatened and actualized; e.g., Genesis 19; Judges 19). Turn to the prophetic texts and we are offered numerous metaphorical renditions of spousal abuse and intimate partner violence, perpetrated (or at least sanctioned) by Israel’s jealous deity (e.g. Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16, 23). Meanwhile, biblical laws uphold the structural violence of patriarchal power, which grants divine mandate to the rigidly prescriptive and proscriptive control of women’s (and sometimes vulnerable men’s) bodies, while normalizing their social, sexual, and religious subjugation (e.g. Leviticus 20:13, 18; 21:9; Numbers 5:11–31; Deuteronomy 22:23-29). Other laws and teachings have been and continue to be (mis)used by theologians, biblical interpreters, and other interested readers to validate homophobic and transphobic intolerance, as well as the delegitimation of queer and transgender identities (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Matthew 19:4; Romans 1:24-28).

As biblical scholars who wrestle with these texts of terror, we are all too familiar with the emotional toll that this work can take. But are also aware that our engagement typically takes place in the relatively safe confines of academic publications and our own research environments. It is quite another matter, however, to take this conversation into more public spaces, particularly those that lie at the heart of our roles as educators: the classroom. Within such spaces, we need to watch where we tread, for we enter a minefield scattered with contesting perspectives, resistant voices, and the potential to engage with others in ways that can be either healing or harmful. In this blog post, we offer a personal reflection about our attempts to navigate these spaces, specifically in our own context of Aotearoa New Zealand.[1]

First, though, a few details about us. We are both practitioners employed in the New Zealand tertiary education system. Caroline works in a religious studies department at a secular university, while Emily teaches in a theological college. Both of these institutions are located in Auckland, the largest and most multicultural city in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is reflected in our student cohorts, who identify as Māori, Pākehā (understood here as inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand of European descent), Pasifika, and Asian; we also host a significant number of international exchange students (predominantly from the United States and Europe). In terms of religious affiliation, Caroline’s university students typically come from a range of faith backgrounds or none, while Emily’s students are Christian.

Regardless of our different teaching locations, we both share a common pedagogical goal: to encourage our students to engage critically with the biblical texts, whatever their faith background. Neither of us approach biblical studies from a faith perspective; rather, we come to the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, keenly aware of the role the Bible plays in shaping contemporary discourses, both locally and globally. While we both respect the fact that this ancient book holds sacred authority for many of our students, we are committed to teaching biblical interpretation that is rooted in a framework of critical thinking. Nevertheless, as we will discuss below, this teaching pedagogy comes with its own challenges.

In a number of our courses, we introduce students to biblical texts that depict various forms of gender violence. We don’t include these texts to shock or antagonize our students, or to provide them with the classroom equivalent of clickbait. We do it because, like it or not, these “texts of terror” are in the Bible. For some Christian students, this may come as a surprise, as the biblical texts we talk about are rarely the focus of church sermons or Bible study groups. For non-Christian students, there is often a sense of disbelief that a book which carries huge religious and cultural weight contains such problematic portrayals of gendered violence. But to exclude these texts from our course syllabi and lecture schedules would be doing our students a huge disservice; for, to properly understand the Bible, we must have the integrity to confront it in its entirety, regardless of how tough the ensuing conversations might prove.

With this in mind, how do we teach our students about biblical texts of terror? Particularly, how does our location of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country with one of the highest rates of gender violence among developed countries in the OECD—inform the ways we approach these troubling texts? As biblical scholars and educators, we are not claiming that the Bible (or Christianity more broadly) is the sole source of the incredibly high rates of gender violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (or elsewhere in the world); we do contend, however, that it must be interrogated as a text that both supports and perpetuates such violence, particularly given the Bible’s colonial legacy within this country. We cannot afford to ignore the potential for biblical traditions to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims of gender violence who live with us upon this land. This conviction has informed our scholarly engagement with biblical texts of terror in three ways.

First, when talking to people about biblical texts of terror, we must always be sensitive to the very real possibility that some of our audience may be affected personally by gender violence. With this in mind, we always ensure some basic steps are taken to minimize our own potential to further the harm they may already have experienced. We take time at the beginning of lectures to remind our students that we will be talking about gender violence, acknowledging that we are aware some people might find this topic especially confronting. We also invite anyone who does feel distressed by the content of our discussion to talk to us directly, or to contact appropriate support services (the details of which we provide at the start of our presentation). Equally important, we remind everyone how important it is that the space we are in remains a safe space for everyone; discussions must therefore be carried out with a sensitivity to others’ diverse perspectives and experiences, and a commitment to hold each other’s words and testimonies in confidence. What we share in the lecture room stays in the lecture room.

Second, we acknowledge that among our audiences, there may also be those who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence. This can be incredibly challenging, particularly when class members voice rape-supportive, homophobic, or transphobic opinions, or try to downplay the seriousness of gender violence in both the biblical texts and their own contemporary cultures. We have had students tell us that the Bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, or that biblical rape victims must have “deserved” their assault, or that the perpetrator of gender violence was somehow “justified” in their actions. This is particularly common when the perpetrator is a biblical “hero” (like David) or even the biblical God themselves.

Of course, this kind of response doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We have both sat in a biblical studies conference here in Aotearoa New Zealand when the mere mention of “same-sex marriage” in the context of biblical theology provoked an outburst of disdainful laughter. At a similar conference, we listened as a colleague began his presentation with a joke about physically assaulting his wife, much to the amusement of many attendees. Trying to retain a level of professionalism while maintaining the safety of our discussion spaces is a fine line to walk. We are committed to calling out cisheteropatriarchal[2] discourses expressed by members of our audience, be they students or colleagues. This is surely our responsibility as academic role models and, let’s face it, as decent human beings. These conversations can be difficult, but they are also a learning opportunity, where we remind ourselves and others that the gendered violence evoked in the biblical texts can still have consequences in our own contemporary contexts and communities.

Third, the practices we outlined in our last two points reflect our commitment to our role as critic and conscience in wider society. We need to stress to our students (and to some of our colleagues) that the issue of biblical gender violence matters, particularly because ancient sacred texts continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain discourses of violence and intolerance. Some of our students will take what they learn from our discussions back to others—Bible study groups, youth groups, or simply family and friends. We remind them that their own engagement with biblical texts of terror have the potential to impact other people’s views of gender and gender violence. As Linda Day notes, the students in our classrooms “will be responsible to a wider public, and hence must learn to be aware of how they are either serving or harming others through their methods and results when interpreting the Bible”.[3]

Yet, within our classrooms, conversations about the Bible and gender violence are not always easy to negotiate. We engage with biblical scholarship in a bicultural country, and, situated in Auckland, we are located in one of the most ethnically diverse cities within that country. Our classrooms reflect this diversity. Some of our students belong to cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and hierarchies, which normalize and sustain various forms of gender violence. How do we critique such violence when, for some of these students, it is so closely woven together with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy, misogyny, and all forms of intolerance to LGBT communities, while still being sensitive to others’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite our students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures? These are incredibly thorny questions, which highlight that issues of colonization and marginalization constantly intersect with discourses of gender violence. We are conscious of the fact that, as educators who self-identify as Pākehā, we always run the risk of “colonizing” our students’ own cultural contexts, of prioritizing our western value systems and ideologies over their own diverse worldviews. At the same time, however, we must always invite them to join us in our quest to each scrutinize our own cultural traditions with integrity, and to acknowledge that all of our cultures and communities are, to some extent at least, complicit in sustaining the discourses that enable gender violence to flourish.

Another thorny issue we are often confronted with is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, but is encountered by biblical scholars teaching biblical texts of terror throughout the world. For many of our students, the Bible is not only their course “textbook”; it is also their sacred scripture. When we invite them to interrogate its texts and identify the problematic ideologies around gender violence voiced therein, we often encounter resistance, or even a refusal to do so. Some find it too threatening to engage with any reading of a text that (in their eyes) challenges its authority, or appears to undermine its message of “Good News.” They may refuse to discuss, or even consider, the potential for biblical texts of terror to convey “Bad News” to people who have themselves been impacted by gender violence. Instead, they suspend their critical faculties, unwilling to recognize the violence within the text, even though they’d likely acknowledge and condemn the same violence were it to appear in other non-biblical writings.[4]

Moreover, Christian readers of the Bible (be they students, academics, or otherwise) often resort to performing an impressive display of interpretive gymnastics to sanitize the text and preserve its sacred reputation in which they are so heavily invested. Prophetic re-enactments of spousal abuse are dismissed as “harmless metaphors”; biblical laws that sanction wartime rape are justified as “relatively humanitarian” compared to other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; and biblical heroes such as Abraham and David, who perpetrate unequivocal acts of gendered violence, are excused because they are “doing God’s work,” playing a vital role in Israel’s (and ultimately Christianity’s) wider redemptive narrative. Meanwhile, biblical texts that offer a potentially subversive alternative to cisheteronormative discourses—such as the David and Jonathan narratives (1 Sam 19–20; 2 Sam 1), the book of Ruth, the Samson and Delilah saga (Judg 16), the Judas kiss (Mark 14:43–45), and the eunuch traditions (Isa 56:3–5; Acts 8:27–39)—are typically given very “straight” readings, with their queer potentialities either ignored, ridiculed, or denied.

Yet such exegetical contortions only serve to sustain a vicious cycle of interpretation and affirmation that protects the destructive power of biblical texts of terror. As critic and conscience both in and beyond the biblical studies academy, we therefore have to equip our students to consider the capacity of the text to perpetuate gender violence in all its forms. While affirming our respect for everyone’s faith traditions, we nevertheless reiterate to them the responsibility we all have to ask searching questions about biblical texts.  We remind them of the power that language—particularly sacred language—has to impact the lives of real people and their experiences of violence. And, most importantly, we offer them a safe and non-judgmental space within which they can interrogate and explore their sacred scriptures.

In all honesty, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of our students have told us that they truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender violence, which remains such a taboo topic in their own cultures and communities. When they encounter such violence in the biblical narrative, they feel empowered to talk openly about these issues in church and family contexts. As sacred scripture, the Bible can mitigate strict cultural taboos, offering a point of entry for discussions around contemporary instances of gender violence. The Bible ceases to be an “otherworldly” text that has little relevance to everyday life, and becomes instead a means by which social praxis is fostered and enacted.

Yet at other times, our attempts to talk to students about biblical gender violence are far less well received. We still encounter those who disengage, or become frustrated with the subject matter. Some even project their frustrations against us—the bearers of “Bad News”—articulating their hostility in discussions, emails, and their written work (not to mention on social media). We have been accused of “misreading” the biblical texts, of having a “feminist agenda,” or being “biased towards LGBT concerns” in our research and teaching, and of being “anti-Christian” in our approach to scriptural traditions. Such encounters can be demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting—both for ourselves and for those students who feel as passionately as we do about our responsibilities as critic and conscience. At the end of the day, though, these criticisms only serve to reinforce for us the importance of persisting—and persisting and persisting—with these tough conversations in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.

Notes

[1]Aotearoa is the most widely-used Māori name for New Zealand, and often precedes its English counterpart when the country is written or spoken about. The precise origins and meaning of Aotearoa are uncertain, but it is often translated as “land of the long white cloud.”

[2]This rather wordy word sums up quite neatly the dominant discourses within western cultures that normalize cisgendered, heterosexual, and hegemonic masculine identities while simultaneously othering or delegitimizing anyone who does not fit into these categories, be they transgender or gender diverse, other-than-heterosexual, female, and/or non-compliant with traditional masculine ideals.

[3]Linda Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” Teaching Theology and Religion2, no. 3 (1999): 173–9 (citation p.174).

[4]Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” p.176.

 

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Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

sticks and stones pic

In this post, Shiloh co-lead Caroline Blyth talks about her current research on symbolic violence and conservative Christian responses to the “transgender debate.” 

Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? Critical theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek and Pierre Bourdieu,have long highlighted the fallacy of this well-worn phrase, contending that language (written, oral, and visual) can be a source of symbolic violence, which has the capacity to inflict profound injury. In my current research, I am exploring the transphobic violence embedded in conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible, which high-profile conservative Christian pastors and theologians disseminate to sizable audiences via blog posts, websites, videos, online sermons, popular books and articles, social media postings, and official church statutes. Appealing to specific biblical texts, they repeatedly insist that transgender (trans) identities are the result of a “fallen” world; that trans individuals are “sinners” whose very identities are a “rebellion” against God’s design; and that trans people therefore pose grave danger to Christian “family values.”They advise fellow Christians to evangelize trans people through “love” and compassion, urging them to “repent” and renounce their “disordered” and “confused” gender identities.

These discussions have been particularly prevalent over the past few years, as conservative Christian pastors, theologians, lobby groups, and churches clamour to participate in (what they refer to as) the “transgender debate.” While this “debate” by no means explicitly advocates for or defends the use of physical violence against trans people, it does nevertheless represent a dangerous form of symbolic violence, which sanctions and justifies the intolerance and marginalization—the othering—of trans people. In other words, the transphobic language and ideas expressed in this “transgender debate” (even when couched in the language of Christian “love”) have the potential to shape particular understandings of and responses to trans identities, and toperpetuate and validate the daily injustices and acts of violence experienced by trans people the world over. This language is violent – words can indeed “break bones.”

Conservative Christian groups (and religious communities more broadly) are not the only participants to enter into this “transgender debate”; it is something we hear spoken about repeatedly within wider secular culture. If you do a quick Google search of “transgender debate,” you will get literally millions of hits—so many people (most of them cisgender) seem intent on spreading their outrage and intolerance about issues as diverse as gender-neutral bathrooms, trans women in sport, and the appropriate care of trans children. All of these engagements in the “transgender debate” serve to question the authenticity and validity of transgender identities and to challenge the very right of trans people to exist. And if you look closely, there is actually very little “debate” going on here—minds have already been made up, and dissenting voices are ignored or shouted down. At the same time, participants in the “transgender debate” rarely if ever seek to include the voices of trans people in their discussions. Trans people are spoken about, but rarely spoken with.

Why should we be concerned about the “transgender debate”? Well, despite this significant increase in the visibility and awareness of trans people in public life and the media, transphobic violence remains ubiquitous. As trans rights advocate, Masen Davis, notes:

Right now we’re experiencing a Dickensian time, where it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times at once … We’re seeing a marked increase in the public awareness about transgender people and really incredible progress for trans rights, especially from a legal perspective. At the same time, we still represent and are part of a community that experiences incredibly high rates of unemployment, poverty and violence. (quoted in Steinmetz 2015)

Transphobia can impact all areas of trans peoples’ lives, including those everyday things that people often take for granted.A US survey carried out by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2015 interviewed 27,715 trans people nationwide, who reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence, including physical and sexual violence, verbal bullying, and workplace discrimination (NCTE 2016). Similarly, a study carried out by civil rights group Transgender Europe (2016) documented over 2,000 murders of trans people within sixty-five countries between 2008 and 2015. In the United States alone, twenty-seven trans people were murdered in 2016, the majority of whom were women of colour—members of a community who are particularly likely to exist at the perilous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization (NCTE 2016). And, in the United Kingdom, the number of transphobic hate crimes reported to the police has nearly trebled in the past five years (Yeung 2016). Trans people are also far more susceptible to sexual violence, perpetrated by either intimate partners or strangers (Stotzer 2009).

Moreover, intersecting forms of structural violence can prevent trans people from full access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare, rendering many members of the community even more vulnerable to violence (Grant et al. 2011; Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color 2015; Human Rights Campaign 2017; Movement Advancement Project, Transgender Law Center, NCTE, and GLAAD 2015). Unemployment, lack of access to decent housing, and poverty can marginalize trans people even further, pushing them into dangerous contexts, including sex work and homelessness.

The aim of my current research is therefore to expose the symbolic violence of conservative Christian voices within the “transgender debate” and to trace the ways that these voices contribute to multiple forms of transphobia experienced so ubiquitously by trans people the world over. I am particularly keen to explore the ways that these Christian communities use the Bible to grant authority to transphobic discourses, citing specific biblical texts (e.g. Deut. 22:5; Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) that they claim speak directly to the “transgender debate.” The Bible—a text that is thousands of years old—actually says nothingexplicit about trans identities, yet this does not stop Christian pastors and theologians plucking out certain biblical verses from their original context and misinterpreting them in ways that sustain a transphobic agenda. In other words, the Bible becomes a “cultural prop” (Baden 2014), (ab)used to “prop up” and perpetuate existing transphobic ideologies and behaviours.

Ken Ham tweeting about Target’s inclusive bathroom policy

While conservative Christian pastors and theologians speak (in the main) to their own congregations, the impact of their engagement in the “transgender debate” extends well beyond their immediate faith communities. My research also traces the capacity of transphobic biblical interpretations to influence public and political opinion about trans identities and undermine trans rights. The recent rash of “bathroom debates” offers an example: appealing to biblical teachings, conservative Christian lobby groups (particularly in the US, but also elsewhere) exert significant pressure on businesses (such as retailer Target) and lawmakers to prohibit trans people from using the public bathroom of their choice. Safe and accessible bathrooms are a fundamental need for all people; legislation that denies trans people this basic need ultimately impedes their ability to work, go to school, and exist in public spaces. Laverne Cox makes this point really powerfully:

When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities—it’s about us existing in public space … And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing—about erasing trans people. (cited in Landsbaum 2017)

The authenticity and legitimacy of trans people continue to be hotly debated in legal, political, and public forums around the world. I hope that my research can contribute to the voices who are already raising the problematics of this “debate,” by showing how conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible are complicit in perpetuating and justifying the relentless systemic injustices experienced by already vulnerable trans communities. These injustices can seriously impact the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing of trans people, and I hope that my research will both highlight the insidious nature of the “transgender debate” and offer ways to begin dismantling its harmful rhetoric.

*Featured image courtesy of Nick Thompson. used with permission.

References

Baden, Joel. 2014. “What Use is the Bible?” Nantucket Project. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIXfDyoYK8Q.

Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling.Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011. http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf.

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017.

Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. 2015. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policymakers and Community Advocates. http://assets.hrc.org//files/assets/resources/HRC-AntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf?_ga=2.255354443.256696965.1496936140-1591189054.1496256759.

Landsbaum, Claire. 2017. “Laverne Cox Explains Why Anti-Trans Bathroom Legislation Isn’t Actually About Bathrooms.” The Cut, 24 February. https://www.thecut.com/2017/02/laverne-cox-explains-what-bathroom-laws-are-really-about.html.

Movement Advancement Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Law Center, and GLAAD. 2015. “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans.” http://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/understanding-issues-facing-transgender-americans.pdf.

National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” http://www.ustranssurvey.org/reports.

Steinmetz, Katie. 2015. “Why Transgender People are Being Murdered at a Historic Rate” Time, 17 August. http://time.com/3999348/transgender-murders-2015/.

Stotzer, R. L. 2009. “Violence against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 14 (3): 170−9.

Yeung, Peter. 2016. Transphobic Hate Crimes in “Sickening” 170% Rise as Low Prosecution Rates Create “Lack of Trust” in Police. The Independent, 28 July. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/transphobic-hate-crime-statistics-violence-transgender-uk-police-a7159026.html.

 

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Shiloh Project Research Day Report

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Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is a womanist biblical scholar and project partner for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant entitled ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice ThroughActivism with Bible Texts and Images’.

Her recent research visit brought her to Yorkshire, where both the project’s principal investigator (Johanna Stiebert, University of Leeds) and co-investigator (Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield) are based. All three, together with co-lead of the Shiloh Project Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), who is spending part of her sabbatical at the University of Leeds, organized a research day at the University of Leeds.

The aim of the day was to bring together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners who all engage with some aspect of confronting, understanding and reducing the prevalence of gender-based and/or sexual violence. All share experience of working on or with victims and survivors of gender-based violence; all share a commitment to and drive for facilitating information, practical help or healing; all are open to opportunities for effective collaboration and networking between academic and public sectors.

The Shiloh Project is a collaboration of scholars and activists and was launched in early 2017. It seeks to explore and promote ways for better understanding the dynamics and intersections between religion, the Bible, gender-based violence and rape culture. This is in acknowledgement that matters of religion and faith have diverse and profound impact on human interactions the world over – including when it comes to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Such impact was amply borne out by all participants in the research day on 25 March 2019, which was attended by 20 active participants. The research day was co-sponsored by the AHRC and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. It represents one of several Shiloh Project initiatives.

Here is a quick summary of participants and organizations. Each participant, or participant pair, gave a summary and introduction to their work and expertise.

Angela Connor and Esther Nield represented the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) team of the Hazlehurst Centre in West Yorkshire. Angela is the Hazlehurst Centre manager and Esther works in the Centre as a crisis worker. SARC provides acute service (for up to seven days post incident). The SARC is commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS) and Police to provide forensic healthcare, alongside free support and practical help to anyone in West Yorkshire who has experienced sexual violence or abuse. The majority of victims (around 80%) are referred by the Police. The majority are white women under the age of forty but the service is available to anyone, for no charge, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or immigration status. The Centre strives to become more accessible to diverse demographics and nurses take pride in providing sensitive expert care.

Misbah Ali (Legal Assistance and Senior Development Worker) and Michelle O’Neill (Senior Capacity Builder and Recovery Worker) together represented Staying Put, a charity providing gender-sensitive services for men and women in the wider Bradford area of Yorkshire who experience abuse from a family member or intimate partner in a domestic setting. The charity attends to about 1200 to 1400 users per year. They work with situations in the area of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and forced marriage and assist in reducing victimization, preventing domestic homicide and facilitating domestic safety and security. The organization fulfills diverse services – including providing information about female genital mutilation (FGM), conducting family interventions, issuing legal advice, evidence gathering, support for attending court, as well as practical and emotional support. Their Freedom Programme operates in several languages (Urdu, English and Polish). Misbah and Michelle reported on the relative frequency of ‘spiritual abuse’ – that is, abuse attributed to possession, witchcraft and djinns, for instance. The told the group that they come across such matters more and more often but do not always feel adequately trained to address some religious justifications of violence.

Ziona Handler is the Manchester keyworker for Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA), working for and with victims of abuse in Jewish communities across all of the North of England. JWA is a registered charity and Ziona is emphatic that Jewish communities are as affected as other communities when it comes to the spectrum of domestic violence, which encompasses physical, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual and cultural abuse. In terms of recognizing and addressing such abuse and supporting victims, many of the strategies detailed by representatives of Staying Put resonated with Ziona. But she also pointed out that some matters are bespoke to Jewish communities and best supported by a Jewish practitioner. (The SARC representatives mentioned that they had never, knowingly, assisted a Jewish victim of sexual assault, in spite of West Yorkshire having a sizable Jewish community. This might indicate that Jewish women have preference for groups such as JWA.) Ziona reported that the average period of suffering prior to reporting is a shocking 11.5 years in Jewish communities. JWA offers a variety of core services – including a helpline, client support, counseling, therapy, the Dina Project (a response to #MeToo), children’s therapy and an educational outreach programme that visits schools, synagogues and universities. JWA has launched a Safer Dating campaign in universities and training to address Lad Culture. The charity also has a toilet door campaign (placing stickers bearing information about accessing help from JWA on toilet doors) and provides input and training for non-Jewish groups working with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris is a former congregational rabbi and university chaplain and is now Principal of Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical seminary and centre for training of teachers in Jewish education. Leo Baeck College represents primarily members of Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism and the institution also trains and ordains women and members of the Jewish LGBT+community. Deborah facilitates training from JWA and stresses that even in progressive communities – where the expectation might be that topics such as ‘consent’ are widely discussed and understood – such training remains essential. Deborah pointed out that low-level microagressions persist – often very publicly – and that biblical and rabbinic texts, which continue to be plumbed and interpreted, have the potential to propel abusive ideas and actions. In a tradition with ancient roots, where ancient texts continue to be given authority, the possibility of internalizing damaging attitudes is considerable. But, as Deborah pointed out, Jewish tradition also offers tremendous scope for critical thinking, debate and resistance. In response to a question from Angela Connor about Jewish attitudes to emergency contraception, Deborah was able to demonstrate this versatility, with recourse to a range of Jewish texts reflecting multiple viewpoints.

Sam Ross is a WRoCAH (White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities) funded PhD candidate in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (University of Leeds). His provisional thesis title is ‘Queering the Ketuvim: Queer Readings of Representations of Pain and Trauma in Biblical Hebrew Poetry’. Sam has particular interest in trauma research – not least, because the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and prejudice. Sam is using the Bible both because of its persistent influence in faith and secular contexts and because it offers stories that address pain and trauma head-on. His plan is to fuse biblical criticism and autoethnography to explore queer individual suffering (through the book of Job), and queer communal suffering (through the book of Lamentations). Sam also highlighted the particular vulnerability of the trans community and the abusiveness of the so-called ‘trans debate’ in targeting trans persons as aggressors and predators when they are, in actuality, far more often victims of violence, including sexual violence. Representatives from Staying Put confirmed Sam’s point by stating that even professionals are sometimes abusive towards trans persons, citing instances where trans women have been denied access to women’s refuges, with no offer of any alternative help, even when they were at acute risk.

David Smith is Victims Services Commissioning and Third Sector Adviser at the West Yorkshire’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. David has worked in third sector and local government for several decades and has expertise in the area of strategy, planning and policy development. That is, he has expertise in making actions effective. David’s role is to commission support services around domestic abuse and sexual violence. These are usually funded at (increasingly cash-strapped) local and regional levels. David’s work is focused on policy and he has an informed interest also in the language of his subject – such as the language of the victim’s code and witness charter. He agrees that the terminology around sexual violence – of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’ and ‘complainants’ –is problematic. He is supportive of the position statement being more inclusive now in its language of violence against men. Male victims, he stresses, are a significant part of the agenda – something which should not take away from the very serious issues facing women and girls. David’s policy-focused perspective was a fascinating one.

Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) is Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and an academic working in the areas of religion and public life, gender and sexuality, especially in contemporary Christian contexts of countries in southern and eastern Africa (predominantly, Zambia and Kenya). He is about to embark on a project working closely and collaboratively with Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya through using story telling and life stories as a tool for creative and liberating self-expression as well as a research strategy. As Adriaan points out, violence is central in the lives of LGBT people, as well as in the lives of refugees. This violence, moreover, is multi-dimensional and can include religious violence, political violence and police violence.

Sarah-Jane Page (Aston University) is a sociologist of religion. She researches, among other topics, attitudes and practices around sexuality and how these are negotiated in relation to religious tradition. She spoke about two current projects. The first – in the very early stages – examines the Church of England inquiry into child sex abuse. She is focused especially on how organizational and institutional structures serve to enable abuse, as well as in the hierarchies and class dimensions at work in this. Her second project is ethnographic and partly funded by the British Academy. This project looks at varieties of activism, ranging from silent prayer to displays of graphic imagery, outside of abortion clinics. She is especially interested in the reactions and responses to these forms of activism, both from religious and secular sources.

Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) has conducted long-term research and public engagement activities on the history of UK child migration programmes. These programmes, responsible for sending some 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, resulted in extensive and sustained abuse, which only came to light much later. He has also served as expert witness under instruction to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Gordon’s work has served to raisepublic awareness about historic abuse. He has, for instance,contributed to and organized museum exhibitions, musical performances, and TrueTube films, alongside his many academic publications. Gordon highlighted the dysfunctional relationships between government offices and organizations, including the competing interests, fragmentations and difficulties in terms of challenging groups involved in the networks facilitating migration at the various stages. All of these enabled the abuse to go on for very many years. Moreover, regarding organizations overseen by the Catholic Church, monitoring was minimal,due to assumed ‘bonds of trust’. Gordon asked what it is about religious organizations that exempted them from scrutiny. What permitted the religious exceptionalism that saw the suspension of so many otherwise widely adopted recommendations? When the usual recommendation was to advise that children be adopted, fostered, or raised in small-scale residential units, why were exceptions made by national policy makers to permit religious institutions to run large, understaffed orphanages where abuse was able to thrive?

Sema Khan represented Barnardos, a long-established charity that protects and supports above all vulnerable children and young people, as well as parents and carers. She is based in Bradford where Barnardo’s has a family support and a child sexual exploitation (CSE) team. Semareports that more children on the autistic spectrum and more boys and young men are seeking help to address emotional needs, including the help of recovery groups following sexual exploitation. Sema explained, too, that Barnardo’s is less pronouncedly Christian in focus than it has been historically. It has a diverse staff and works for a diverse community, including many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Saima Afzal has worked in all of research, consultancy, local government and community development, particularly in matters to do with religion, gender and South Asian communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. She is an elected councillor for Blackburn. Saima has conducted research on child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities of the UK, on sexuality in Islam, and on police stop and search powers against minority ethnic communities. Saima has founded her own community interest group called SASRIGHTS CIC (see also Saima Afzal Solutions). She works as a freelance criminologist and has served as expert witness for cases involving domestic abuse, forced marriage and so-called “honour”-based killing. She has received an MBE for her services to policing and community relations.

Bob Balfour is founder of Survivors West Yorkshire(SWY), formerly called One In Four (North). SWY is action-oriented and works in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Prominently included in this support are male survivors of sexual abuse. Bob was also instrumental in the creation of Ben’s Place, a West Yorkshire support service for male survivors of sexual abuse, named after Ben, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who took his own life soon after his twenty-third birthday. The mission of Ben’s Place is to deliver specialist support and advice to adult male survivors (i.e. aged 16+) who are ready to disclose experiences of sexual crimes committed against them and who want to access support to explore options for understanding and integrating what was done to them. SWY and Ben’s Place work in partnership with Rape Crisis and challenge the silencing and alienation of survivors. One of Bob’s campaigns is ‘Challenge the Silence’ and he has written for ‘A View From Inside the Box’. Bob has been vigorous in his resistance to denial. He has not only founded support groups and actions, he has published on the topic, devised practical strategies for post-traumatic growth, collaborated with universities as ‘expert by experience’ and in the role of Teacher at Liverpool (paid for by the NHS), and is currently supervising four Clinical Psychology students.

Jo Sadgrove has considerable expertise in the area of faith-based international development – both as an academic researcher and a practitioner. She works part-time as research and learning advisor to the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG), an Anglican mission agency engaging in community development and theological education around the world. Jo discussed the imperialist echoes and tendencies of some of the work of USPG but also the ways that being part of such an organization can give access to networks and opportunities for making a difference. Jo’s particular interests are in intersections of religion and health and in Christianity and sexuality in cross-cultural perspectives. Jo talked about workshops she has conducted with perpetrators of gender-based violence, which bring men together to talk about being men and about violence in their lives. She sees great value in working with perpetrators as well as victims of gender-based violence.

Jo has direct experience of We Will Speak Out, a global coalition of churches and Christian NGO’s challenging prevailing patterns of violence.

After presentations from all participants, we had an open discussion to begin to explore ways of collaboration and support. During the coffee and lunch breaks already, representatives from different institutions and organizations had begun to chat in small groups and exchange information, advice, and ask questions.

 

The following arose in discussion:

There is little available in the way of accessible, succinct and helpful information on the topic of spiritual abuse. More discussion and more research on the topic are required. This would be invaluable for a range of practitioners encountering perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence. (Representatives of Staying Put reported that a defense of spiritual abuse – blaming demons, possession, djinns, or witchcraft for inciting violence, including sexual abuse – comes out with some regularity in one-on-one conversations with both perpetrators and victims.)

More emphasis on prevention is necessary. Often crisis support is the preserve of highly trained effective individuals. But more expertise needs to be invested in recognizing the signs before the tipping point.

Not infrequently – and this is sometimes due to the sheer strain on service providers (something that received repeated mention) – professionals become part of the problem for already vulnerable groups. Sometimes, for instance, there will be insistence (by social welfare or by NGO or charity staff) that service users take a particular training course, with the threat that otherwise their children will be removed. The effect of this can be to alienate already vulnerable people and to deter them from continuing to seek professional help.

Practitioners welcomed the opportunity to meet others working in related areas. They would very much like more work between groups. SARC, for instance, would appreciate information about JWA, to make bespoke help available in their networks targeting vulnerable people in the community at risk of sexual violence.

There was acknowledgement that communities are diverse and that multi-faceted expertise is needed (e.g. from all of police, social services, consultants, charities, etc.) to address gender-based and sexual violence. Again, better communication between different groups is recognized as important.

There was an expression of need for more religious and cultural literacy – and for academics who could providethis in accessible ways.

Practical micro-level and macro-level strategies are required to address the structural problems that facilitate much of the violence on the ground.

David Smith mentioned that he is often looking for research pieces towards capacity building. He recommends that we all register with and join Blue Light Services, to let emergency services know what we can provide.

There was widespread acknowledgement that religious leaders are often obstructive when it comes to addressing domestic situations of violence and abuse. More needs to be done to train religious leaders in gender-sensitive strategies, as well as in encouraging them to facilitate professional advice for their community members – as opposed to attempting to handle delicate and complex matters themselves when they lack the necessary training and expertise.

The Sex and Relationships Education curriculum, to be rolled out September 2020, is likely to lead to a deluge of referrals. Help will be needed urgently to manage these.

Some practitioners predict a backlash to the extent of safeguarding training – a backlash that will include alsotheological and ethical questions. Again, collaboration between practitioners and researchers will be important in addressing these.

All in all, it was a stimulating, thought-provoking and fruitful day. We will take the conversations forward in our ongoing work in Project Shiloh. This was just the start of the conversation, and we hope to sustain it through ongoing collaborations.

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Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees

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Congratulations to Adriaan van Klinken and Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) on their latest grant success!

Adriaan van Klinken and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) have secured a research grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, for a project entitled “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”. The project uses community-based participatory research methodology to undertake life story research among Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya.

The project engages established methodologies in feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies that emphasise the political and epistemological importance of autobiographical storytelling in research with marginalised groups. Expanding this existing scholarship, the project develops an innovative approach that explores the potential of biblical stories to signify the queer lives of the Ugandan refugees. Foregrounding the popularity of the Bible in contemporary Africa, and conceptualising biblical appropriation as a decolonising and queer process, the project reclaims the Bible as part of African queer archives.

We’re looking forward to hearing more about the project later this year!

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LGBTI History Month: Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

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February is LGBT History Month, and this year, the central theme has been peace, activism, and reconciliation. To mark this, Project Shiloh is delighted to offer a blog post from Harriet Winn, who writes about the need and potential for reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the Christian Church. Harriet is an Honours student at the University of Auckland, whose research interests include queer theology and gendered histories within Christianity. Harriet is also an active member of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, a student-led group campaigning to end campus rape, and Hidden Perspectives NZ, a student community that works to heighten LGBTIQ awareness and acceptance in the Faculty of Arts.

Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

Harriet Winn

‘Theological ideas are powerful.’[1]

The queer community can understand the potent power of theology more acutely than many other groups. Historically, the church has contributed to the societal subjugation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people, appealing to destructive theologies that designated them “disordered” beings.[2] Yet, in recent years, some church denominations have begun to engage with queer communities in ways that hint at the possibility of reconciliation.[3] The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, has been considered or even embraced by a number of churches.

However, whilst theological engagement with issues such as marriage equality have value, true reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ people will not come from tokenistic gestures but needs to be deeply rooted in an embrace of queer theology. Queer theology presents a challenge to traditional methods of theology from the margins.[4] Through its rejection of essentialism, queer theology demands that the church dismantles and rebuilds its conceptualization of human relationships both with each other and with God, thereby articulating a theology of reconciliation which works both horizontally and vertically.

In this blog post, I will argue that for reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ communities to take place, there must be a process of unlearning normative theologies, followed by a reclamation of queer identity rooted in faith, and finally the finding of common ground between both groups.

Stained-glass window at Church of Our Savior MCC (Metropolitan Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The discord between queer communities and the institution of the church has a long and varied history. The conflict between these two groups does not necessarily follow a monolithic path, as there are certainly Christian communities who welcome LGBTIQ people into their fold unconditionally. Moreover, the approach taken by churches to queer people varies between denominations.[5] Overwhelmingly, however, the Christian faith has expressed hostility towards the queer community which has served to rob LGBTIQ people of their ‘fullness of human expression.’[6]

This pervasive hostility has manifested itself in diverse ways. At a scriptural level, verses of the Bible such as the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Gen. 19) have been torn from their original context to elicit condemnation over queer sexuality.[7] Legalistically, conservative forces who seek to discriminate against the queer community have used the rhetoric of church leaders to bolster their political arguments.[8] In their denial of marriage to LGBTIQ people, various denominations of church – most prominently Anglicanism and Catholicism – deny the queer community a fundamental human right on the basis that same-sex marriage disturbs the sanctity and stability of the heterosexual family unit.[9]

All of these objections to queer humanity contribute to a rhetoric of violence which has taken root in the institution of the church and led to the exclusion of queer people from its varying communities. And while this may not involve the total exclusion of LGBTIQ people, this rhetoric has certainly made participating in Christian faith a less-accessible, and oftentimes hostile, experience for them. The question of how to reconcile the queer community with an institution that has historically pushed them to the margins is, therefore, a loaded one.

In tackling the daunting topic of reconciliation, Gregory Baum recognizes that in order to be truly effective, the process must elicit a ‘change of mind and heart’ within its participants.[10] As confronting as it may be, this radical change of position will not take place without a period dedicated to the practices of listening and dialogue between queer people and proponents of theology that oppose their sexuality. It is in these spaces that the unlearning of normative theology and a reorientation of faith towards the inclusion of LGBTIQ people will occur.

Gay Christian Jeff Chu believes that if people simply stop and listen to the stories of queer marginalization, their minds will be ‘positively transformed.’[11] Here Chu gives voice to the immense value of the role of witness within queer theology. Baum adds nuance to Chu’s assertion when he states that the participants of the dialogue must ‘be willing to examine their own history critically’ and ‘recognise the distortions of their self-understanding.’[12] Therefore, passive acceptance of the other party’s position is not sufficient – each group must embark on a process of deep self-reflection. For those who oppose queerness, this will involve maintaining an openness to queer theology’s criticism of binaries. Queer theologians proclaim that these binaries – whether related to gender (man/woman) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) – are arbitrary forms of socially constructed categorization which generate discrimination through the process of othering.[13] Recognition and acceptance of the fluidity of identity embodied by queer people is a crucial part of their reconciliation to the church – they cannot and will not be subject to restrictive classification.

Capital Pride Parade, DC, 2016, image courtesy of S Pakhrin, Wikimedia Commons

This may be an unsettling prospect for Christians who hold theologies which support the idea of gender complementarianism, but as Gerard Loughlin proclaims – faith should be unsettling.[14] Furthermore, this part of the process will challenge many Christians to acknowledge how sin manifests itself in ‘conformity with the status quo’; that collusion with homophobic theology is displeasing to God.[15] The commitment to listening and dialogue allows the process of reconciliation between queer people and their theological opponents to begin on the foundations of truth.

The next crucial stage of reconciliation sees LGBTIQ people reclaiming their identities rooted in faith. Liberation theology, arguably the predecessor of queer theology, presents the need for victims of oppression to find a ‘new self-understanding’ due to the internalization of hatred which can infiltrate their mindsets in an insidiously destructive way.[16] Reconciliation, therefore, implicates forgiveness of oneself as well as of others.[17] For queer Christians, the most profound affirmation of their identity can be found in the conceptualization of God as queer. Furthering the tradition of apophatic theology, which professes God’s transcendence of human understanding as being ‘above all essence’, Patrick Cheng argues that God is an ‘identity without essence’ much like, in its fluidity, queerness.[18] Queer theologians go beyond conceptualizing God as standing in solidarity on the side of the marginalized to contend that God actually becomes one with them; Loughlin believes that queer can be ‘offered as a name for God.’[19] This remarkable notion affirms LGBTIQ people’s sense of self in the most radical of ways as it expresses an unequivocal divine support for queerness.

A rainbow flag on Union Congregational Church in Hacksensack, Minnesota. Courtesy of Tony Webster, on Wikimedia Commons.

On a more pragmatic line of thought, reclamation of queer identity also occurs through the embrace of historic queerness. Lara Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan illuminate how both homosexuality, and same-sex unions, date back as far as heterosexuality.[20] They recognize the unproblematic, historic existence of same-sex unions in China, Egypt, within certain tribes of Native America, and in Māori culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.[21] Delving into the historical place of queerness illuminates how contemporary societal understandings of marriage and sexuality are entirely contextual and not ubiquitous across cultures.[22] Recognizing this offers the potential for liberation from the position of restrictive normativity which has often been the church’s default response to queerness. The reclamation of a queer identity rooted in faith is necessary for the establishment of justice within this process of reconciliation: it puts LGBTIQ people on equal grounding with their non-queer sisters and brothers in faith.

The restoration of justice for queer communities through their reclamation of identity is not the end of the reconciliation process. The next stage involves the growth of mercy between the two groups through the finding of common ground; as Baum has found, the ‘need for a common story’ is one of the most fundamental aspects of reconciliation.[23] In the same way that ecclesiastical endorsement of same-sex marriage will not instantaneously lead to the rooting out of all theological homophobia, simply existing on an equal platform within the Christian faith does not immediately bring about unconditional acceptance of queerness within the church. Therefore, it is vital that LGBTIQ people are able to show a sense of mercy, and patience, towards their theological opponents as they gradually embark upon the path of understanding and accepting queerness.

And conversely, theological opponents of queerness must root their discernment process of trying to understand queerness in the attribute of mercy. Reconciliation is a time-consuming process – not a one-off event; this sentiment is aptly summed up by Leah Robinson who conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘an inspired lifestyle.’[24] Due to its ongoing nature, mercy must undergird the process as it entails a certain sense of compassion which is ultimately conducive to the establishment of peace: the ultimate goal of reconciliation. The finding of common ground between both parties is a practical method of helping establish merciful attitudes and can be done within this context through illuminating the intersection of queerness and theology. By demonstrating the queerness inherent to both theology and Christian faith, queer theology could gently show its opponents that queerness is not a terrifyingly ambiguous and threatening concept, but something which has a long-standing place in the Christian tradition.

Chicago Pride, 2013. Image courtesy of Richie Diesterheft, https://flic.kr/p/eZv88z

The queerness of Christianity is widespread. It finds itself in defiance of the status-quo, and its seeking of the strange – ‘the unknowable in Christ’, just as the desire to deconstruct ‘traditional boundaries’ and binaries within queer theology demonstrates a commitment to uncertainty.[25] Moreover, the destruction of binaries is not a practice exclusive to queer theology. By existing as both human and divine, Jesus epitomized Christianity’s flagrant disregard for binaries.[26] If traditional modes of theology find the blurring of boundaries between humanity and divinity unproblematic, they should be able to conceptualize, and thus show mercy towards, the blurring of binaries within the human realm.[27] Mercy for the other can take root between the queer community and their theological opponents through the finding of common ground; the queering of Christian faith.

Reconciliation between the queer community and the church will only occur when queer theology is fully embraced by normative theology as a legitimate and life-giving source of faith. The road to peace between these two communities will certainly not be a smooth or swift process, as the hurt that has been wrought by homophobic theologies is deeply entrenched in the psyche of LGBTIQ people. However, through the practical steps outlined earlier – the establishment of truth through listening and dialogue, assertion of justice engendered by reclamation of identity, and the nurturing of mercy by finding common ground, peace becomes an exhilarating possibility. Amidst all the incongruous debate taking place about same-sex marriage and the place of queer people in the highest echelons of the church, queer theology presents the most hopeful way forward.

Image courtesy of Theoroditsis, ‘Jesus Loves You All’, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/h4tsB1

Queer theology transcends the bounds of theory to become praxis – it precipitates, and requires ‘authentic Christian discipleship.’[28]  Therefore, it requires sustained commitment, which is a crucial component to reconciliation and will aid the long-term inclusion of queerness. In order to avoid the disconnect between itself and society being further widened, all Christian theology must be undergirded by the declaration made by eminent archbishop and theologian Desmond Tutu that ‘he would rather choose hell than worship a homophobic God.’[29] Patrick Cheng proclaims the church as an ‘external community of radical love’,[30]  and now is the time for the church to fully embrace this role.

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, Lara Aasem, and J. Michael Ryan. “Same-Sex Marriage.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples, 1-2. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.

Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007): 302-314.

Aspin, Clive, and Jessica Hutchings. “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007): 415-427

Baum, Gregory. “A Theological Afterward.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 183-192. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

Cheng, Patrick S. “Contributions from Queer Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury Books, 2011.

Dickinson, Colby, and Meghan Toomey. “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field.” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017): 1-16.

Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Kirby, Andrew, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper, and Shoba Nayar. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy.” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017): 901-918.

Loughlin, Gerard. “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity.” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008): 143-152.

Robinson, Leah. Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015.

Shaw, Jane. “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wells, Harold. “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 1-14. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

[1] Harold Wells, “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 1.

[2] Gerard Loughlin, “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity,” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008), 144.

[3] Jane Shaw, “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11-12.

[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory”, Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007), 304.

[5] Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, 9-12.

[6] Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field,” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017), 10.

[7] Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 12-3.

[8] Dag Ølstein Endsjø, Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 165.

[9] Andrew Kirby, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper and Shoba Nayar, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy,” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017), 908;

Lara Aasem Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan, “Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 1.

[10] Gregory Baum, “A Theological Afterward,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 198.

[11] Dickinson and Toomey, 6.

[12] Baum, 190

[13] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[14] Loughlin, 143.

[15] Patrick Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.

[16] Baum, 189.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[19] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[20] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[21] Ibid;

Clive Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality,” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007), 417-8.

[22] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[23] Baum, 190.

[24] Leah Robinson, Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 35-6.

[25] Loughlin, 143;

Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 9.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 11.

[28] Dickinson and Toomey, 4.

[29] Shaw, 18;

Ibid, 12.

[30] Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, 106.

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ANNOUNCEMENT: Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’

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We are delighted to announce our new Routledge Focus book series ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’, edited by The Shiloh Project co-directors Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert.

Titles are peer-reviewed, short form publications between 20,000-50,000 words, published within 12 weeks of submission.

If you would like to discuss a potential proposal, contact the series editors at shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

Look out for exciting titles coming later this year!

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CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives

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Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives

Television shows, news articles, and social media sites are currently crammed with conflicting discourses about transgender (trans) and genderqueer identities. Some of these discourses affirm the authenticity of trans and genderqueer people, while many others attempt to undermine or deny this authenticity. Biblical scholars have begun to explore these conversations, asking how Bible traditions might be read and interpreted in light of trans and genderqueer lives. In this special issue of JIBS, we invite contributors to join this important conversation, focusing specifically on the Bible and biblical scholarship as potential sites of resistance against transphobia and genderqueer intolerance. Topics can include (but are not limited to):

Trans and/or genderqueer hermeneutics: interpreting the Bible through a transgender and/or genderqueer reading lens;

Transfeminism and biblical interpretation;

Biblical interpretation as a source of (or source of resistance against) transphobia and genderqueer intolerance;

Biblical interpretation at the intersection: how biblical traditions can speak to trans and genderqueer identities alongside class, race, ability, and sexuality.

Biblical engagements with indigenous trans and genderqueer identities, including takatāpui, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, fakafifine, akava’ine, vakasalewalewa, palopa, aikāne, faafatama, fakaleiti, māhū, palopa, tangata iratāne, whakawahine, hijra, and Two-Spirit.

Submissions should be between 4000 to 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Caroline Blyth (c.blyth@auckland.ac.nz) by 28 February 2019. Deadline for completed submissions 30 June 2019.

We will not accept submissions that are complicit in any form of transphobia or genderqueer intolerance. The senior editorial team of JIBS strongly affirm the full authenticity and humanity of all trans and genderqueer people.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 16: Susannah Cornwall

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Today’s activist is Susannah Cornwall.

Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, UK, where I also direct EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. In my current research project I’m working in partnership with the West of England National Health Service (NHS) Specialist Gender Identity Clinic on spiritual care for people transitioning gender.

Lots of people who transition find faith is a source of support for them, but others might face opposition from religiously-conservative family and friends, or worry that God will be angry with them for ‘rejecting’ their bodies. Trans and non-binary people frequently experience physical, emotional, spiritual and conceptual violence, including erasure in religious traditions that find it hard to conceive of gender as fluid.

My theological work on variant sex and gender also extends to intersex (variant sex characteristics), and I recently contributed to and hosted the first UK screening of a new documentary film, Stories of Intersex and Faith, produced by Megan DeFranza, Lianne Simon and Paul Van Ness, which follows intersex people of faith in the USA as they negotiate living in and educating their communities. This formed part of a series of events bringing together faith practitioners, academics, advocates and activists from groups such as Intersex UK, Liberal Judaism,  the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) Sibyls, and OneBodyOneFaith to network and make new plans for co-created research on sex, gender, sexuality and religion.

I’m also currently contributing to the Church of England’s major new project on sexuality, Living in Love and Faith, which is due to publish its findings in 2020. I regularly provide teaching and training on gender, sex and faith in schools, churches, and activist conferences, and through professional training for groups such as teachers, clergy and medics.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

In the coming year I will be doing further work on religion and transphobia, exploring how religious communities might interrogate their own traditions and recognize the diversities of accounts of human sex and gender that are within them. I’ll be working on a new book project on trans and Christian ethics and continuing to work with activist and advocacy groups. I’ll also be speaking on the importance of spiritual care for people going through transition at the forthcoming conference of EPATH, the European Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Religious traditions have enormous resources for overcoming homophobia, transphobia and gender-based violence, but need to get their own houses in order and recognize that they have often been part of the problem.

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