Genderfuck and Maundy Thursday are two nouns not often encountered in the same sentence. The former is a gender-subversive strategy from the identity politics of the 1970’s with older roots – which some would argue stretch back at least as far as the Passover meal (not a Seder service) celebrated by Jesus and his disciples sometime around 30 AD and commemorated by the latter Christian festival.
Yesterday I got into a bit of a tiff on Twitter which I dislike especially when it’s with someone I respect. In this case someone I know personally who does the most admirable (and often least admired) job in theatre – so there is absolutely nothing I could teach him about performance. Of gender or of anything else.
Yet I realised that despite our mutual respect and many shared values, and despite my very amateur and academic acquaintance with his professional practice, I simply wasn’t communicating my theoretical and political problem with the very recently fashionable claims and demands made about transgender. This is my attempt to provide a clearer and fuller explanation for those disinclined to read all about it at length HERE.
Maundy Thursday marks the institution of the Eucharist. [If you’ve just fallen asleep, wake up! I’ll be talking about genderfuck next.] In the Gospels [no, seriously!] Jesus takes bread and says: This is my body. Christians argue about the many ways this presence and change should be understood and articulated (transubstantiation is only one of these ways). Semantically, these words are a speech act – they do something. Like saying I do and you’re married. Charms, curses, spells, blessings, judicial sentences, some traditions of divorce, coming out of the closet and self-declaration of gender are all also (usually) speech acts.
Although my book Trans/Substantiation (which I was quite rightly accused of plugging) also puts forward a new and more ecumenical interpretation of presence and change in the Eucharist, I am not concerned with that here. [Thank God! You say – or words to that effect.] I’m interested in the limits of a speech act which, although it has the magical quality of changing reality, is normally understood to take effect in the present and have a bearing on the future. Speech acts (usually) have no power over the past.
I mentioned performance because the diva of Queer Theory, Prof. Judith Butler FBA, stresses the performativity of gender. [No wake up, honestly!] In other words it’s all an act, being a man or a woman is just playing a role. I have no problems with that understanding of gender. I don’t believe it to be an adequate description of the phenomena (it’s very lazy ontology) but there is a coherent concept, however shallow.
Putting together these thoughts on speech acts and performativity, let me state that I have no problem with a self-declaration of gender which is understood as: I’ve been playing the role of a man and I now want to play the role of a woman and I undertake to do so for the rest of my life – while respecting the right of people with a vagina to be protected from forced invasion of their safe space by people with a penis (especially if they have been raped by one).
It’s not the only form of genderfuck [told you!] and some would argue that it’s one of the least subversive of the patriarchy because it leaves these binary gender roles intact. There is also the problem of gender nonconforming political strategies (such as gay drag and butch lesbianism) being hoovered up by transgender ideology – with people feeling the pressure to tidily transition to ‘the other’ gender rather than subvert their own or the whole binary system.
Let’s go back to the Eucharist [deal with it!]. The words of consecration/ institution are not: this is not bread and never has been – and anyone who thinks differently is anathema, believer or not.
We are now under immense social pressure to believe that not only can people change their gender, and retroactively, by speech act, assert a permanent underlying essence of masculinity or femininity irrespective of psychology, physiology, or even performance, an assertion for which Queer Theory provides no theoretical support; we are required to not blink an eye if a future assertion, or a series of such assertions, should permanently and retroactively reverse this gender; we are told that women who have suffered penile rape are being selfish and callous when they ask for safe space; and that parents who wish to prevent teen pregnancy are being reactionary and middle-class when they complain about the lack of prudence (let alone Duty to Care) which allows an adolescent with a penis and an adolescent with a vagina to use the same toilets unsupervised while at school.
I am fascinated by magic. Being a Roman Catholic with great sympathy for the Pagan roots of Celtic Christianity and other syncretic spiritualities, especially those of the various locations in the Americas where I’ve studied and worked, my novels are full of the uncanny. However every novelist knows that even when you create a fantastic world, you have to establish and keep to rules of internal narrative logic.
Speech acts are powerful assertions and they have limits. Identity is not something that depends solely on individual assertion. The suffering of marginalisation (especially when ignoring or attempting to trump that of others) is, of itself, neither sufficient nor necessary to establish either one’s identity or the ethics of one’s cause. There is a great deal of difference between an assertion and an imposition. Emotional blackmail and bullying, online or in person, by an individual, a group or an interested institution, do not prove the validity of an ideology – especially one which is presently encouraging many young people to consider life-changing and irrevocable decisions leading to their bodies ending up scarred and sterile for the rest of their lives.
Young people experiment with identities. Anyone who denies this has forgotten their own youth. Let them experiment. But let their youthful enthusiasm, angst, playfulness, posturing, politics, peer networks and constant surveillance of internet information not lead them to a form of genderfuck which subverts their fertility as well as their happiness.
One lesson from Maundy Thursday is that interested institutions (such as imperial dynasties and pharmaceutical companies) could not care less about the individuals whose bodies they consider expedient to maim and destroy in their lust for power.
Jesus subverted cultural notions of power. He questioned authority. He even reprimanded his own disciples, for the sake of a woman who was reverencing his body, even when they had a care for the marginalised.
Ethics isn’t simple, neither is gender. Think about that. Consider genderfuck. Especially on Maundy Thursday.
Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his photo Bread in Hand into the Public Domain.