A Buddhist Trans Man, a Christian Trans Woman and a cisgender academic sit down to discuss religious attitudes to gender – this is a great programme, but it takes us just so far then fails to bring the revelatory potential of this debate to its fulfilment. I’d like to offer a couple of observations on what was missing here….
We hear about the Biblical references to gender – with the Genesis verse stating that God made humans ‘male and female’ trotted out as the line used by some to deny the validity of trans people. But this verse does not say God made two separate genders – it says, that like God, humans are male and female. God, according to monotheists, is a singular entity, so therefore is him/herself a Trans being, and human nature is formed out of the interplay of masculine and feminine traits within one person. Jung spoke of the anima and animus, we all have male and female aspects, why is this not obvious????. Somehow a modern myth has emerged that male and female are separate – but this is not so, each contains, includes and embraces the other, as ancient cultures across the planet once understood intrinsically (eg the yin-yang symbol of China, Shiva Ardhanishvara in Hinduism).
The programme features the Hijra community of India, and tells the story of how this trans section of society was said to gain their sacred status. While Hijras today often have no other options than sexwork or begging to earn a living, their sacred function is still respected in society, including by Muslims. What is missing from the story here is that also in ancient Europe and the Middle East individuals who embodied both male and female traits were seen as having sacred function and purpose. The Great Goddess Ishtar was served by trans and gay priest/esses for thousands of years (and we know their mythological origin stories too), as were other forms of the Great Mother, such as Cybele, who was adopted by the Roman Empire as their chief deity, opening the way for her Transgendered Gallae priest/esses to spread their ecstatic, erotic and sometimes bloody, worship all around the Meditteranean and as far north as Britain.
Looking for ancient references to Trans people (but completely missing the Goddess servants), Dr Susan Cornwall speaks about the presence of eunuchs in the Bible stories, and mentions that they could hold respected positions in elite households. She quotes an Old Testament reference that suggests God has a special destiny for eunuchs and speaks about the fascinating comment from Jesus in Matthew, where he says that some are born eunuchs (we might see these as intersex people today), some are made that way by others (here Dr Cornwall mysteriously draws comparison to modern trans people, even though nobody is making them have surgery and even though she was just a moment earlier speaking about the widespread practice of castrating slaves, which it clearly refers to), and those who choose to become eunuchs ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ – our academic fails to even consider why Jesus says this. It is clearly a reference to the Gallae, and others holy servants who chose to self-castrate to become closer to the Goddess and better able to serve her in the world.
The contributions in the programme from Buddhist trans man Kamalanandi and Christian Trans woman Philippa Whittaker are fascinating and optimistic, suggesting positive developments in religious quarters, but also highlighting the distance to go. For example, Kamalanandi points out that an aim of Buddhism is to transcend gender to achieve enlightenment – yet the cultural manifestation of the faith is one of separating the genders. Ordained as a woman, Kamalanandi’s wish to join the men’s worship is challenging the Buddhists to expand their thinking.
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas Jesus lists transcending gender as one of the requirements for entering the kingdom of heaven. This didn’t get a mention in the programme, nor did the Qedesha, the gay/trans priests of the Goddess Asherah, mentioned several times in the OT: known as the ‘Holy Ones’ at the time, the word Qedesha was translated as sodomites in the King James Bible and generally as ‘male shrine prostitutes’ today. The possibility that the existence of gay people and trans people has a spiritual root, and that we play a spiritual role in society, is still a step too far for most, yet this programme, despite its limitations, is a sign of a gradual evolution in understanding.
I was pleasantly surprised by this programme, and feel it does a lot of good, and not really so surprised that it did not bring home the mystical potential that it opened up. But it is a good sign that human understanding of spirit and consciousness is growing, and that the much needed shift in our global spiritual story (from division and mind control to unity and liberation) will come, and will, almost certainly, be a gender-bending, sex-positive, trans-led revelation when it does.