When I first came out gay in 1999, many gay Christians and queer scholars were asking, “Who is gay/lesbian in the Bible?” Some pointed to Jonathan and David. Others to Ruth and Naomi. There were rumors of a gay Roman Centurion.
I understood why people were on a quest to find gay Bible characters.
After years of being bashed by scripture, people needed affirmation. Many of us wanted to defend ourselves from the many negative attacks from folks hurling Bible verses like poison darts. After spending nearly 20 years receiving harmful conversion therapy, I too needed Biblical recovery.
As I reflected on my long, weary journey in the Ex-Gay Movement, I realized that much of the “treatment” I received had very little to do with gay desire and sex. Instead program leaders obsessed about gender. They dragged the male participants to all-male Promise Keepers stadium events. They taught us how to play football, change the oil in our cars, and cross our legs like “real men” do. The women received Mary Kay Makeovers, lessons on how to bake bread, and instructions on gender appropriate female attire.
This was nothing new though. Long before I dove into conversion therapy, I experienced gender policing as a kid. I was always a bit of a sissy—a sensitive boy. Whenever anyone bullied me at school and called me gay, they weren’t attacking my secret gay sex fantasies.
Instead, they were offended by all the ways I transgressed gender.
In a rural farming village, I wore pink Izod shirts with the collars turned up, argyle socks, and a sweater slung over my shoulder. I was the “fairy” who sang in the choir, performed in the musicals and hung out with the girls. No doubt they would have bullied me about my sexual desires had they known what I thought in private, but they didn’t have to. They picked on the outward signs of gender variance I displayed.
In 1999 after surviving church-sanctioned gender policing, I felt a shock once I openly hung out with other gay men. Sure people seemed free to date folks of the same sex, but I bumped up against a rigid gender code. Personal ads at the time were riddled with gender biases; “Straight-acting, masculine, gay man seeks the same.” The negative violent attitudes gay men expressed towards fem guys, reminded me of the of the stringent gender expectations bullies in school and the church demanded. They all prized a type of rugged masculinity. Anything other was seen as inferior, unappealing, and wrong.
In 2007 I premiered the play, Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible. I based it on Bible scholarship and extensive conservations with transgender and gender non-binary people. I approached the text with questions, “Who transgresses and transcends gender? Who breaks the rules around gender? Who rises above them?”
I discovered many gender transgressors in both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible.
Some were right before my eyes in plain sight. Others hid in the text. Eunuchs were the most obvious: The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter eight and Ebed Melech, another Ethiopian Eunuch in Jeremiah 38. Then there are the 12 named eunuchs in the Book of Esther. These surgically-altered, gender-variant people play key roles in some of the most important Bible stories. While it is not appropriate to label them gay or transgender, they are the most visible gender and sexual minorities in the Bible.
Then there are the other gender transgressors. I considered how gender is performed in the ancient texts based on norms from those times, not our modern ideas of gender. For instance, Deborah in Judges 4 and 5 is a gender transgressor. A poet, prophet, judge, and warrior, she stands out as different from the male judges in the text. She is also contrasted to Jael, another female character in the story.
I could write about many others, but showing is more effective than saying. Many of us come to these texts with preconceived notions and forced interpretations etched into our brains by pastors and Bible teachers. We may also listen with the ears of our oppressors—parents, pastors, friends who have not yet fully opened their arms to us because we are LGBTQ.
Some of us have been looking for the silver bullet point that will drive away all of the rejection and help loved ones see the light.
Some truths have to be experienced. They need to be embodied. That is why performing the stories is as important to my presentation as explaining the scholarship behind it. Yes, the original languages, the historical context, the scholarly work is vital, but to grasp the work, I needed to have the scales and filters fall from my eyes. I had to switch off the inner church-approved Biblical commentary. In fact, some of the power of these stories came to me only when I began to embody the texts and become the characters on stage.
When I use theater to imagine the rich African eunuch sitting on the chariot after a visit to the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 8), the words the eunuch is reading from the scroll take on a whole new light. This eunuch was probably taken from family as a child and then castrated. This one did not develop physically like boys. Having just come from a religious space where everyone seems to have family, where children are so important, this person, not seen as male or female, is non-procreative.
Isaiah’s prophecy becomes personal: “Like a sheep before the shearer is silent, like a lamb before the slaughter, he too opened not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can speak of his offspring, for his life was cut off?”
Seeing the text performed has become necessary for audiences to grasp new meanings.
Seeing the text performed allows good news to break through the defenses. Experiencing the text as I have has served as part of my own recovery.
Photo credit: 2009 LoriDAz