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Transgressing gender in the Bible

Commentary: Trans Progressive

I was raised in Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions where I wasn’t taught to see my transgender self in the Bible. With socially conservative Christian dogma being that transgender people are not of God, it’s important to note there are gender variant people in the Bible where God worked through them.

Bible scholar and actor Peterson Toscano, in his film Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible, explores through performance and lecture, five figures in the Bible who didn’t fit stereotypical gender norms of their time, and many not even ours. Transfigurations – Transgressing Gender in the Bible was just released on DVD.

Toscano asks the question few ask when reading the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: “Who in the text is transgressing and transcending gender? Who breaks the rules of gender? Who rises above them?

“And I was shocked to discover,” Toscano continued, “that some of the most important people in the most important Bible stories are gender nonconforming.”

The performance tells the stories of the Judge Deborah, Hegai of King Xerxes’ court, Jacob’s son Joseph, the Ethiopian eunuch that the Apostle Philip converted to Christianity, and a man carrying the pitcher of water that Christ said would have a room available for Christ and the apostles for Passover from the perspective of the New Testament figure Mary Magdala.

One of the interpretations of the Bible stories that really spoke to me from his performance was the one of Deborah, a judge of the 12 Tribes of Israel. In Judges 4 and 5, Deborah is revealed as a wife, prophet, poet and judge of the 12 Tribes at a time before Israel had kings. She is the only female judge mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and at a time and in a culture where women didn’t lead men, she did.

Deborah joined Barak in battle against an oppressing nation, prophesying in the scripture that a woman would receive the glory for dispatching the leader of the enemy’s army, and that woman was a very feminine woman named Jael.

Toscano portrayed Deborah as a strong, powerful, perhaps on a spectrum what many would call a “masculine” woman. But, as Toscano showed in his performance, Deborah transgressed the gender norms of the society of her – and even our – day, and perhaps even transcended it.

Another story Toscano weaves from a very gender nonconforming perspective is the story of Joseph, son of Jacob (later called Israel). Many know a version story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, but Toscano uses a Hebrew definition of the phrase translated as “coat” in English (“Ketonet Passim”) to another possible meaning, as described in 2 Samuel 13:,18-19 about the daughters of King David: the garments worn by the virgin daughters of the king. If the meanings for both garments were the same, then Joseph’s garment would be a princess dress.

If Joseph’s garment was a princess dress, then it would truly put the story of his brothers beating and bloodying him, ripping the garment from his body, selling him into slavery, then his brothers taking the ripped and bloody pieces of his clothing to his father and telling his father he was killed by a wild beast into a new light. It would fit into a model of antitransgender violence.

One of the most interesting stories that Toscano expands upon is the story of an overlooked character in the Last Supper: the man carrying a pitcher of water. In the time of Christ, carrying water was gendered behavior among adults in families: women carried water from the wells while men did not. In the scriptures, Jesus sent his disciples to look for a place to celebrate Passover, and told them a man carrying water would have a room. To find a man carrying water would have broken gender norms. Toscano filled out the story by having the “man” be a transgender woman on her first trip out as herself.

What Peterson Toscano has done is take scripture to create portrayals of Bible characters that mainstream theologians have taken seriously as credible interpretations of scripture. He’s also made these accessible to non-theologians like me.

If you want to see what gender nonconformity can look like in the Bible, this DVD shows exactly that.


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Posted by on May 25, 2017. Filed under Bottom Highlights, Latest Issue, Trans Progressive. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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