Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Christian ‘Transgender Debate’

Dr Caroline Blyth is a Senior Lecturer in Theological and Religious Studies at the University of Auckland. They are currently a visiting Research Fellow for the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds. In this piece, they explore their current research on transphobic violence that is embedded in conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible. 

‘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 journal 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, and that trans individuals are ‘sinners’ whose very identities are a ‘rebellion’ against God’s design, and who therefore pose grave danger to Christian family values. They advise fellow Christians to evangelise 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 marginalisation—the othering—of trans people. In other words, the transphobic language and ideas expressed in this ‘transgender debate’ 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 by other religious communities and within wider secular culture. If you do a quick Google search of ‘transgender debate’, you will get thousands of hits – so many people (most of them cisgendered) 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. 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 bothered about this ‘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. And the conservative Christian community is, I would argue, complicit in sustaining this violence. 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 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. I am particularly keen to explore the ways that these Christian communities use the Bible to grant authority to transphobic discourses, citing biblical texts 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’—a text that is (ab)used to justify and perpetuate transphobic ideologies and behaviours.

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 shape public and political debates 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 and lawmakers to prohibit trans people from using the public bathroom of their choice. Safe and accessible bathrooms are a fundamental need for allpeople; legislation that denies trans people this basic need ultimately impedes their ability to work, go to school, and exist in public spaces.

The reality 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 turn a fresh critical eye on these debates, showing how conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible are complicit in them, thereby serving to perpetuate and justify 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 dismantle its harmful rhetoric.

Written By: Dr Caroline Blyth

Image Credit: Alex Askew @Flickr

References

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.

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.

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. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/transphobic-hate- crime-statistics-violence-transgender-uk-policea7159026.html.

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