The Body Electric: Trans Women Subvert Religious Imagery – Be Still My Heart!
*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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