Content warning: transphobia and suicidal ideation
This piece is an invitation to remember people have always been transgressing gender. This is a practice of stretching what it means to queer a text beyond static or surface identifiers of queer and trans characteristics.This is a suggestion that any biblical character, no less than any neighboring human, might be what some of us call trans, perceivable or not to those who read us.
When, exactly, did he relocate in their minds from one-of-them to one-unlike-them?
Was it before or after his home became that cave on the edge of town?
What made them first try to control him and did anyone dissent?
Was it when he first refused to answer to that old name? Or when he cut off his hair?
Did they say it was for his own good? Or that he was a threat to others?
Did they believe it when they said it?
To answer, they will point to his demons. This will be partially true.
“Hatred is always self-hatred,” wrote James Baldwin.
Among the many challenges of 2021 and 2022, anti-trans bills, proposed and passed, have soared across the United States. From the harshest in Alabama making gender affirming care for anyone under 19 a felony, to the many states that have passed laws prohibiting trans girls from playing sports with their gender peers, to the Texas governor declaring the support of trans youth “abuse,” the mission is abundantly clear. For the last 30 years, Adam Serwer wrote of the GOP last year, this has been a successful political strategy: “Find a misunderstood or marginalized group, convince voters that the members of that group pose an existential threat to society, and then ride to victory on the promise of using state power to crush them.” Meanwhile, the lobbying groups behind the bills and messaging campaigns like Alliance Defending Freedom and Focus on the Family make bank (more than 70 million each in 2020). Money and power, as it always has in this country, fuels the fire behind such cruelty.
While demon possession rhetoric may be too passé for even theologically conservative political platforms, the work of demonizing is solidly on trend. Trans women and girls as threat to cis women and girls. Trans activists as threat to children. Trans people as threat to cis LGB people and movements. Wherever they can put a wedge to isolate, they are trying. The ill intentions of these political and profiting groups prey on the good intentions of parents, communities, teachers, and other people striving to be faithful with the information they have. Turning them against their own.
Of course he would get angry when they bound him. And when he was angry, he was strong. Strong with rage, rage that covers grief, grief that looks like madness. In these criminalizing moments, what story did they tell themselves? And which did they tell him? That he was broken? Sick? Sinful? Just misled? That if he would just go back to [pretending to] being her, everything could be ok?
Their narratives, his demons. What a human thing, this being permeable to others’ stories about who we are. This need for love. This need for belonging.
In his isolation, the stories begin to stick. With time, they multiply. Becoming legion. Becoming his whole world. His only company, severing him from his deep sense of truth.
For many years now, 52% has been the number. The percentage of trans and/or nonbinary people who have seriously considered suicide at some point. This will rise in the face of the latest legislation. Demonizing produces the demons that taunt from within. It is not the fact of being trans, nonbinary, intersex, or gender nonconforming that calls the flourishing of life into question. Discrimination does that. Apathy does. Isolation and violence do. Turning us against ourselves.
What was it that morning, that drew him so pointedly toward Jesus? Did he sense something queer? Something gentle? Was he so tired that a simple passing smile brought him to his knees?
Jesus immediately recognizes the evil that has been done to him. He speaks directly to the demons, “Get out of this man.” This man. These two words, seemingly impossible for all else around him, flow out of Jesus’ mouth with such ease. “This man.” An invitation back into the holy realm in which his gender is not a question.
By way of speaking to the demons, Jesus reminds him, “These narratives against you, these lies, this evil has no place in you.”
What is the power of God if not one person’s love strengthening another?
It is important to note that this is no privileged pronouncement from on high. This is not love handed out like charity nor pity. This is solidarity from one who knows how hard it can be to navigate all the stories alone. From one who knows what it is to be hated both for who he is and who he isn’t. From one who knows what it is to channel everything one has in the direction of bearing honest flesh. This is kin affirming kin, love in struggles, shared and different.
The demons promptly recognize their time is over. As this man rises to his feet, what power do they hold? In touch again, anew, in community with his truth. Some will be more afraid than ever, but their fear won’t rule his mind anymore.
Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry notes, “Research demonstrates that gender-affirming care—a medical and psychosocial health care designed to affirm individuals’ gender identities—greatly improves the mental health and overall well-being of gender diverse, transgender, and nonbinary children and adolescents.”
Gender affirming care saves lives.
Gender affirming care includes spiritual belonging, religious proclamation and protection, and creatively engaging sacred texts for the flourishing of life.
Gender affirming care means cis people unlearning their gender (which is to also say, race, class, and disability) demons, too.
Gender affirming care is solidarity across interconnected struggles.
Is it any wonder that in their fear, the community wants Jesus to leave after they see this man so free from their control, so grounded in his truth?
Is it any wonder this man wants to leave with Jesus?
To our wonder, he stays to claim his space among his hometown. Which isn’t necessarily to say with the ones who chained him. And that’s important. But it might be to say with the ones like him. Or the ones who are not entirely like him, but who have known similar struggles. Or the ones who know nothing much of that kind of burden, but crave something of what they see in him. Becoming aware of their own demons.
He will not be the first to tell this sort of story. But through it, he will find his kin. And on the edges of town, they will love each other. Wildly. Queerly. A legion of their own.
This is not a story meant to minimize the systemic barriers that keep life from flourishing no matter how much we learn to love ourselves. Nor is it intended to gloss over the magnitude of grief we feel over the ones we lose.
This is just a story about demons and to whom they do and don’t belong.
[It is noteworthy that Jesus is compassionate toward the demons. Misplaced fear and pain of others. Ghosts of others’ trauma that move through bodies and generations. It is possible to meet pain with compassion, but first its power over others must be disrupted. To that end, it is noteworthy also, that Jesus’ permission to re-direct this human pain toward the pigs acts as an unfortunate truth about what humans sometimes find a palatable destruction of life.]
Rev. M Jade Barclay (they/them) is the co-founder and Director of enfleshed, a collaborative effort to create and facilitate resources of spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For over a decade, M has worked and wondered at the intersections of activism and spirituality, including a decade of experience collaborating for trans and queer justice within and beyond the church. They are delighted to currently be involved with Faith and Harm Reduction, SURJ’s Word is Resistance, and Cherryhill Seminary’s spiritual director certificate program.