Despite her efforts to connect with the trans community and to use her celebrity for good, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has sparked contestation among not only the religious right, but perhaps more surprisingly amidst the progressive left.

[God] sovereignly allows you to be male or female, so for you to go against Him is an eternal issue. He created your body, so you don’t have the right to say, ‘I can do with it whatever I want.’ That’s the most prideful thing you can do because it’s an attack on the wisdom of God.—Jackie Hill Perry[1]

While the mainstream media was focused on the goings-on of Ms. Jenner, it completely ignored the enormous spike in murders of trans women of color.—Mari Brighe[2]

In the first quotation, Perry articulates Christian investments in the sexed body as prescribing righteous behavior. For her, it is imperative that Christians ascribe to a stable gender binary as God-ordained. For Brighe, however, Caitlyn fails to represent women for very different reasons. Caitlyn’s wealth and whiteness secure a low-risk transition marked by glamour and privilege. Taken together, these critics suggest how complex it is to answer the question, “Ain’t she a woman?”

For many religious critics, surgery and feminine clothing are the trans woman’s mere fabrication of womanhood. Such actions challenge their belief that divinely created sex-differences are a map for holy living. Consequently, the stakes are high. Trans women face not only condemnation, but also frequent physical assaults and even homicide. What constitutes authentic womanhood, however, is a question that reverberates not only in the lives of trans women, but across all corners of American culture.

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In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered her famous speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” at the Woman’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. In it she challenged the suffragists of her day to include women of color in their definition of what it means to be a woman. Truth accomplished this by interrogating the raced and classed assumptions that were embedded within the suffragists’ notions of womanhood:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have born thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

In her speech, Truth went on to argue against the assertion that Jesus Christ’s male body was an indication of women’s God-ordained subordination. Instead, she asserted that Christ came from “God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Thus, for Truth, the incarnation—God in flesh—honors the unique contribution that Mary made as a woman, and notably without the use of a man.

 

But today “I Ain’t Cait” protesters refuse Caitlyn as an archetype for trans women. This is in part because for over 60 years Caitlyn enjoyed the advantages of being male, wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual.

 

Over one hundred years later Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” in order to broaden the feminist call to advocacy beyond male-female distinctions. In so doing, Walker calls attention to the connection between sexism and racism, ageism, misandry, dualism, and homophobia. In addition, Walker justified her claims with appeals to universalism. She understands what it means to be a woman as a life giving relationship with one’s body, environment, God, and others.

Womanist

  1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
  2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
  3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
  4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.[3]

Certainly contemporary understandings of womanism vary and Walker’s contemporaries independently developed African womanism. Importantly, Walker contributed a great deal to the narrow terms that feminism sometimes misses. For instance, the so-called Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF is a label that has been imposed on this group, which typically self-identifies simply as feminist) actively frustrate attempts to secure trans healthcare, trans equality, trans restroom access, and trans identity. This group does not recognize trans women as women, but rather as a threat to cisgender women’s rights. Interestingly, Christian theology has preserved womanism to a greater extent than the academy, which tends to prioritize black feminism.

For more than a hundred years, then, the question of who belongs in the category of “woman” has been at the heart of American political, racial, and class struggles. And in 2015 when the Los Angeles LGBT Center named Caitlyn Jenner woman of the year, she replied: “Maybe this is why God put me on earth.” But today “I Ain’t Cait” protesters reject Caitlyn as an archetype for trans women. This is in part because for over 60 years Caitlyn enjoyed the advantages of being male, wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual. Brighe writes: “Jenner didn’t face the homelessness, job discrimination, violence, harassment, and abject poverty that most trans people (particularly trans women of color) must consider when they come out as transgender.”

 

The Christian tradition is full of ambiguous transitions and effacements between the sexes.

 

Consequently, some trans activists more readily embrace Laverne Cox as a celebrity spokesperson. The ongoing murders of trans women of color suggest that Laverne’s acting role as an imprisoned trans woman in Orange is the New Black better demonstrates the complexity and challenges of transitioning. In addition to playing the role of a trans women, Laverne speaks publicly about her painful childhood experiences: “Bullied because I didn’t act the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act. And so I was called a sissy, I was called the F-word. I was chased home from school practically every day. There was a kid or group of kids who wanted to beat me up.” Departing from gender scripts brought Laverne under threat. And yet for Laverne, her gender never truly was male. Rather, she explains, “I was assigned male at birth, is the way I like to put it, because we’re born who we are. The gender thing is something that someone imposes on you, and so I was assigned male at birth but always felt like I was a girl.” More recently, Laverne faced Katie Couric’s inquiry into her genitals:

I do feel there is a preoccupation with that. The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice that of the national average; if you are trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

Laverne describes the difficulty of being chastised for acting and dressing in a manner that seemed to contradict her genitals. But she also interestingly understands gender as an identity that one feels, regardless of medical or social labels. In her interview with Couric, she reoriented Couric’s questioning away from the organs between her legs for evidence of genuine womanhood and towards the problem of trans women suffering high rates of violence, discrimination, unemployment, and homicide. Laverne nuanced the point further in her response to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover: “It was about me wanting to acknowledge all those trans folks out there who don’t have access to health care, who don’t embody cisnormative beauty standards, even that cisnormative beauty standards are deeply problematic.” In another interview she celebrated, “Years ago, I wanted really highly invasive surgical procedures to feminise my face. All these years later, I have the money to do it, but I don’t want it. I don’t want it! I’m happy that this is the face that God gave me, and it’s imperfect.” In these ways Laverne questioned locating womanhood in particular facial features and genitals that might only be accessible for wealthy individuals. Moreover, as someone with the means to conform, she articulates and literally embodies an alternative aesthetic. In doing this, Laverne profoundly challenges the notion that womanhood is synonymous with whiteness or a cisgender body. Rather, she celebrates herself as divinely created.

I began by quoting from critics on the religious right who argue that gender is an essential part of God’s divine plan for individual holiness and salvation. Yet the Christian tradition is full of ambiguous transitions and effacements between the sexes. For instance, it is no secret that in the early church, women sought to become “like” men by opting for virginity over marriage and motherhood. In the Biblical origin stories, the first chapter of Genesis described male and female as created by God from the dust of the earth. However, in the second chapter God create the woman from the man’s bone. Later in the Biblical text, in Galatians chapter three, baptism achieves the erasure of sex difference. Thus even within the Biblical tradition the distinction between men and women is remarkably plastic. And with an origin story as strange as Jesus’ (who tradition holds to have been created without the use of a man or semen), Christianity provides queer accounts of reproduction that do not require the pairing of opposite sexes. The Biblical witness suggests that human existence relies upon divine activity and that sex difference is ultimately effaced in baptism.

Both Christian theology and modern medicine thus pose multifarious modes of transitioning, though not without controversy. Womanhood might not necessarily be a matter of identifying female genitals or even feminine presentation. But does the Laverne v. Caitlyn debate suggest that womanhood today is primarily marked by disadvantage? Meaning that Laverne is more authentically a trans woman than Caitlyn precisely because she has suffered significant hardship. If so, trans women might only be included in the definition of “woman” conditionally. That is, trans women’s legitimacy entails suffering in another capacity—poverty, gender-based violence, racism, etc. In other words, is a woman inherently oppressed in some manner? Thus, Sojurner Truth’s question persists today with added complexity: “Ain’t I a woman?”


Michelle Wolff is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Duke University. She studies sexuality and Christian theology. Her dissertation examines the relationship between progressive politics, Christian faith, and sexuality in South Africa from 1970 to the present. 

[1] http://www.christianpost.com/news/bruce-jenners-transition-into-caitlyn-jenner-is-attacking-gods-wisdom-says-former-lesbian-hip-hop-artist-139996/

[2] http://www.bustle.com/articles/111146-why-caitlyn-jenner-may-be-bad-for-the-trans-community

[3] Alice Walker. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jonaovich, 1983.

[4] http://www.salon.com/2014/01/07/laverne_cox_artfully_shuts_down_katie_courics_invasive_questions_about_transgender_people/

Image from Flickr via UMKC

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