The Body Electric: Trans Women Subvert Religious Imagery

Thomas Page McBee
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 *Thanks to the poster who brought up a great point about the symantics of spacing. Changes are reflected throughout.

An HIV prevention group in Spain--the LGBT Collective of Madrid--recently released a calendar that featured trans women posed as the Virgin Mary. Of course, controversy was inevitable. The calendar featured Spanish trans activist Carla Antonelli as a model, and she noted that she considered the likely reaction before agreeing to get involved, and then made this excellent point:

"I posed myself the following scenario: Why is it that a transsexual woman can't represent a religious icon given life by so many other actors and actresses throughout history? To not do it would be akin to internalizing the same discriminatory principles that people want to throw against us."

I have the biggest admiration crush on this fierce group of women.

Whether the women posing are believers are not doesn't even matter. For believers, what--as Antonelli suggests--is wrong with a trans woman playing the role of the Virgin? The fact that it is challenging for some cisgender folks to embrace the inherent beauty and glory of the women involved says way more about their transphobia and closed-mindedness than the reason behind arbitrary definitions of what gender is "supposed" to mean to the church.

And if the people involved are not fans of the church--which has an extremely long history of oppression, violence, political power and corruption, patriarchal rule, etc.--than this is a fantastic, nonviolent subversion of its power. To question righteousness and hatefulness this elegantly is as much a testament to the people involved with the project as to the ignorance of those that would oppose it.

I  am thinking about this calendar and the gorgeousness of the photographs for a lot of reasons, but one of them is because I am often disturbed by the reaction of some cisgender feminist women to trans women. Some of you may be familiar with the situation at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, whose exclusionary practice towards trans women only ended in 2006, after many years of pain and bigotry. The arguments for exclusion were really scary; mostly because they insinuated that trans women weren't "real" women, that it made cisgender women feel "unsafe" to be around so many "men" in a "women-only" space. The obvious implications here are a double-whammy: that men are violent, and that trans folks are not "really" who they say they are.

I recently posted about bros who dress as women in costume for Halloween, and I asked readers to think about what the meaning of that could be. I received many thoughtful, considered responses, but was disheartened by the clear transphobia in one person's message. Though my post was about Halloween-night-only frat boys and their ilk, this poster made sweeping generalizations about drag queens and other genderbending folks as a whole. She referred to them with derogatory terms like "...he/she's" and "chicks-on-a-stick" and noted that she considered drag to be a"mockery of women." I typically don't respond to these sorts of things, but I wondered seriously how anyone who has seen drag could view it as "distasteful" and not subversive and questioning of gender roles, which it clearly is.

This is clearly the view of a single person, but the larger issue of respect for trans/gender-queer/gender transgressive bodies is one that begs mention. As  feminists, we need to remember that trans/queer folks are our allies. The women of this calendar, like feminists everywhere, want equity, respect, and acceptance for the diversity of ways they live in the world. In fact, it has long been stipulated that society's disproportionate targeting of trans women is rooted very deeply in sexism. If that's not reason for concern for all of us, I'm not sure what is.

This calendar may be cheeky and subversive, but it's also powerful in its indictment of the offended viewer: what is so wrong about trans women, anyway? Who decides what bodies are "right?" And what does it mean to be a woman, anyway? Hat's off to these women who, like many before them, force us to examine these sorts of questions anew.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

"Transwomen" vs. trans women

Throughout this article, you refer to trans women as "transwomen". I'm a cis woman and not an expert on trans issues, but based on reading other writers, I think that construction is ungendering. These writers (cited below) suggest using trans as an adjective, with a space between trans and women.

Julia Serano also makes this point. Further reading from someone more eloquent than me:


"As feminists, we need to remember that trans/queer folks are our allies."

I hope that this comment includes that trans women can be feminists too and not just allies.

Come on Bitch...

Well, first of all, what Tash said.

Not to harp too much on what is, after all, a blog post, and a well-meaning one, but frankly I expect more sophistication from Bitch, a magazine which at one time was publishing nuanced and thoughtful articles on trans misogyny from the likes of Julia Serano and others. Yet Page's post sounds like it comes from a gender studies 101 student who is just discovering that trans women exist.

She launches into an almost insultingly naive discussion of transphobia, citing as examples 1) MichFest, which to any feminist that has been paying attention for the last twenty years is old news and barely relevant anymore, and 2) negative reactions to a story on bros who dress up as women for halloween. Finally she concludes with the question "What is so *wrong* about transwomen, anyway?"

The effect is, as a friend of mine put it, 'the literary equivalent of a pat on the head'.

If "what is so wrong with trans women anyway?" is the level of sophistication that we can expect from Bitch, then it's been a long backslide. There are many of us, trans and cis feminists alike, that have been having rich, cutting edge discussions about queerness and transness and feminism that have moved well beyond MichFest and bros dressing up for halloween (see, for example, and ).

RE: Come on Bitch...

Lauren S., I think you are reading Page's blog post very selectively. The Body Electric is supposed to be "an exploration of the body in space and time," more a survey of the myriad ways this analysis could be applied to cultural practices. It is not meant to be an in-depth analysis of transgender, queer, or feminist theory. If you're looking for this type of discussion, perhaps you should seek a blog with that specific theme, rather than insulting others for not fitting this criteria.

Moreover, I have no doubt that discourses surrounding gender, trans and queer identity have advanced a long way in the past few years. But patterns of transphobia and heterosexism are still present in American culture, in disturbingly large amounts. It never hurts to go back to the "trans 101" that you claim is so unsophisticated about Page's blog post. It never hurts to advocate for and disseminate examples in which transgender and genderqueer people protest these hurtful patterns in creative, productive, or thought-provoking ways. To put those examples out into the larger population, so that others can be inspired. What does hurt the movement for gender equality is divisive snobbery amongst its scholars and advocates.

I beg to differ.

Though you may find Page's post to be "almost insultingly naive," it's important to keep in mind that not everyone is in the same place when it comes to discussing trans issues (case in point: Page's examples of anti-trans policies from the MichFest [which changed its policy in 2006, not 20 years ago] and transphobic comments to her post on Halloween costumes [which happened less than one week ago]). Also, Page moves beyond the "What is so *wrong* about transwomen, anyway?" (meant to be rhetorical) to start a discussion about art and the ways in which it helps us to define what it means to be a woman. That, to me, is a valuable discussion for anyone to have and certainly not evidence of a "backslide" on the part of Bitch.

To make the claim that a discussion of these anti-trans sentiments is "the literary equivalent of a pat on the head" is not only dismissive of anyone who disagrees, it also insinuates that it's just not worth it to ask questions about gender and bodies and definitions through art, writing, and discussion (which is what Page is highlighting in her post). Is it not worth it because you feel you have already answered these questions for yourself? Even if that is the case, that does not necessitate the devaluation of others' questioning. In fact, as an expert on the subject, it seems to me that you should be encouraging others to consider these questions, not mocking them for doing so.

Also, when Page wrote, "As feminists, we need to remember that trans/queer folks are our allies" I took it to mean that trans/queer folks (of which Page is one, by the way) are our allies in feminism, not that they aren't feminists themselves.

Of course we are all entitled to our own opinions, but to insult someone who is attempting to further the discussion on trans/queer/feminist issues does not seem like a productive move to this feminist. Instead of divisive comments that put down one another based on perceived levels of expertise when it comes to the trans community, we should direct our energy toward those who do not support a discussion of these issues.

On the Ever so Controversial "Allies"

I read this to mean not that Page was assuming that trans women weren't feminists, but simply that one's politics shouldn't be assumed. To be an ally doesn't imply exclusion, but rather that people can be mutually aligned with varying agendas or goals. Given the turbulent history that feminism has had with the queer community and the trans community, I don't think the statement was such a leap-- especially considering that Page is a queer folk and identifies on the trans spectrum. I know (and at times have been one) many queer people who do not identify as feminists, feeling that feminism does not fall in line with their priorities or ideology.

All of this is irrelevant, however, considering that Page clearly writes as though addressing a specific audience, an audience that is not versed in trans issues, an audience that would benefit from pondering the rhetorical question containing quotes around the word 'wrong--' the quotes hinting sarcastically at a larger sociocultural issue that is very real and very much worth everyone's time to consider.

Choosing piecemeal elements out of context and misread for the sake of divisive condescension only serves to alienate readers who might not be as versed in this subject. What I remember from "gender studies 101," as it's so snidely referred to here, is to bear in mind that everyone comes from a different perspective and with differing levels of awareness and that everyone cross-identifies. Using shame speak to undercut and dismiss others not only serves to end what could be a productive and interesting conversation, it also galvanizes a troubling dynamic of offense and defense-- a paltry trade-in for what might otherwise have had a generative dynamism.

I, for one, have appreciated the variety of ways in which The Body Electric has culled snippets of our vast cultural landscape and reexamined them through a lens of fresh consideration. I find it pleasantly reassuring to think that every day, in intentional and accidental ways, people are turning accepted notions of what is "natural" upside down. Pop culture blooms moments that beg a "wait a minute" brand of dissonance and I've enjoyed having someone point them out. This isn't the ivory tower. This is pop culture. Loosen up and leave room for others.

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