In her book Indecent Theology: Theological perversions in sex, gender and politics, Argentinian theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid writes:
“I have seen the [cross-dressing] Jesuses, surrounded by their Drag Queen versions of the Veronica and the Magdalena (this last one, the object of veneration in many transgender communities of the poor). Jesuses with false eyelashes surrounding big, sad gay eyes and Magdalenes with wigs, penises and breasts, marching at night in the illuminated city and provoking the admiration from the public by the finery of their clothes and presentation. Why do the poor, on the only annual occasion where anyone can publicly represent herself as she pleases, present shows with [trans] Jesuses? Why this sexual and gender confusion in a popular festival where songs assume politically critical tones and entire poor communities live and work just for that annual celebration?”
She asks these questions rhetorically, answering that it is because in Jesus the poor find a comrade. Because in Jesus, queer and trans people find a sibling.
I’ll try to flesh that out in a moment, but what you might’ve noticed in the passage is the looming absence of the so-called “Virgin” Mary. Why is she not included in these queer reveries?
Althaus-Reid says that the poor working women of Buenos Aires call Mary the Mother of Jesus, “a white woman who does not walk,” — she is not embodied by the queer and trans lives of the poor; she is embodied by their oppressors. She’s the fulfillment of cisheteropatriarchal expectations of women. Mary is somehow both sexual and virginal at the same time, and perfectly obedient. She lives a charmed life and is weaponized in her docility and purity to coerce subjects into gender and sexual norms that serve white supremacy and capitalism. She represents a paradigm of holy chastity, submission, and white imagination.
While this is manifestly true insofar as it characterizes dominant appropriations and deployments of Mary by church-colonial bodies, it’s only representative of a bad reading of Mary.
We’ve been reading the Christmas stories in confirmation class, and the students pointed out the sexual politics of Matthew 1:17-18: “[Jesus’s] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
According to the norms that regulate sexual and gender expression in her day, Mary—who has had a filial relationship with the Holy Spirit—is now pregnant through entirely non-normative means, and as her community apprehends her situation, they would be obligated to reinforce those norms through violence in the form of execution by stoning.
But Mary sings a protest song:
“God has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
She has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
She has helped her servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever,
just as she promised our ancestors.”
She sings her song of liberation with a pathos we cannot imagine. She recites this litany with an urgency most of us cannot understand. Mary is not an empty vessel into which an author has dumped lofty words; she’s a young Jewish Palestinian girl who is strong enough, brave enough, to bring hope into the world by a means that may result in her death.
What is queerness but the refusal of conventional gender and sexual expression, particularly when those refusals are met with violence? How perfectly queer it is for a woman to conceive of Love-made-Flesh, without respect for the rules of men? And so she is rendered peripheral, disposable, and even killable because of her refusal of sexual normativity.
Mary is not an empty vessel into which an author has dumped lofty words; she’s a young Jewish Palestinian girl who is strong enough, brave enough, to bring hope into the world by a means that may result in her death.
Her song, then, is a mode of celebration and resistance that queer people can recognize. It’s a joyfully militant ballad of hope. It’s her embodied knowledge that in spite of what the world might say about her place within regimes of sexual power, God is on her side. She in fact knows God in a way they could never imagine. She has risked an intimacy with God that they could never know.
So she sings—even if no one else hears—a song to the queer children of the world, reminding them that God is with them, purposefully disrupting the violence of conventional sexuality alongside them, and expanding our sense of the beauty and complexity and divinity of queer desire. She sings under duress, but with a quiet knowledge and assurance of her purpose that we receive as an inheritance.
Which brings us to her child.
We know how Jesus was gendered by other people. We don’t know what Jesus’s own experience of gender was. Masculine presentation isn’t manhood, and interpreting outward presentation is not a trustworthy method of identifying gender.
But this God-person, the one who was trans-figured more deeply into himself on that mountaintop, was transformed so that others might better understand who he was. This physical change was not a revelation to himself, but to those who knew him. He carries the marks of his transformed body—the scar on his side, the points in his hands and feet—whenever we see him. It’s not hard to see the parallels between his scars the trans bodies that bear the traces of their own (trans-)formations, the marks of hormone needles or surgical knives, similarly beautiful in a way no one else can fully understand.
There is a beautifully queer illegibility to Christ’s gender, just as there is a wonderful trans-ness to his body, as it refuses reduction to convention.
You might look up artistic depictions of the wound in Jesus’s side: the artists of our tradition have depicted that wound in mandorla shape, to look like a vulva, implying that the only thing we know of Christ’s naked, crucified body, is this anatomical suggestion. What was not true of his body before, but signified the reality of his identity as Christ, is now kept for eternity on his body, as he shows the signs of this transformation into his resurrected self to his loved ones. What does this mean about Jesus’s gender or how we should gender Jesus? I’m not here to make any final determination, but to suggest that there is a beautifully queer illegibility to his gender, there is a wonderful trans-ness to his body, as it refuses reduction to convention.
This Christ is the Christ of queer and trans people, too. He is not the embodiment of the cisheteronormative dream, as some divine and eternal legitimation of that paradigm. He is queer, he is trans, he is a disruptor of all our attempts to contain sexual and gender identity with binaries and anatomical stipulations.
A sermon alluding to the queerness and transness of Jesus was preached in the chapel at the University of Cambridge last year. Transphobes walked out in tears, bewildered and terrified and angry that their Christ could be spoken of in these terms. They pretended they were concerned with what they thought was an “undressing” of Christ (as if he weren’t already undressed) and undressed by a traditional assumption that we would know precisely what an undressed Christ would look like. They were comfortable with their assumption, and didn’t want it to be disturbed or problematized. They were comfortable thinking of Christ as straightforwardly male, which is its own kind of undressing, its own gendering. And further, the discomfort that they felt at connecting sexuality and Jesus stems from the blasphemous belief that sexuality is somehow evil or wrong, when God created it and called it good.
To recoil at the suggestion that Jesus or Mary had a sexuality is to dehumanize them—which is heresy—and to call good “evil”, which is the mark of the anti-Christ.
We are not here to worship a cisgender, heterosexual male god. We are here to encounter the expansive mystery of the true and living God who defies all category and convention. We are here not to concretize labels, but to open ourselves to the flow of the Spirit who might inspire us to radically new ways of understanding ourselves and one another. Remember Mary’s queer anthem, meditate on Christ’s trans body. Let’s go deeper into these mysteries with one another, loving each other with all the fullness available to us through the Spirit so that we might together overcome the world with our commitment to real, material, apocalyptic, and revolutionary love. ♦