Thursday, May 06, 2010

Transgressing gender in the Bible

Cover art for “Transfigurations” designed by Mila and Jayna Pavlin of Full Draw Studios

“Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible” is an LGBT-positive play that is now being made into a graphic novel.

“Transfigurations” was created by Peterson Toscano, a gay activist, actor and playwright who has performed in North America, Europe and Africa. His play wakes people up with transgender Bible characters who do not fit the gender binary. By transgressing and transcending gender, they find themselves at the center of some of the Bible’s most important stories. “Transfigurations” covers many Bible characters, including the Ethiopian eunuch who became the first non-Hebrew Christian.

Toscano drew inspiration for “Transfigurations” from his own life as well as interviews with transsexual, genderqueer and gender-variant individuals. He weaves their stories with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures..

Based in Pennsylvania, Toscano describes himself as “a queer quirky Quaker trying to make the world a better place.” He spent 17 years in ex-gay treatment as a conservative evangelical Christian trying to suppress his same-sex orientation and gender differences. Now Toscano sees ex-gay therapy as “a Biblically induced coma.”

Since coming out as a gay man in 1998, he has presented a GLBT-affirming message through talks, online projects and theater events such as “Transfigurations.” The one-person, multi-character play premiered in 2007 and has won praise from Bible scholars

Michael Willett Newheart, professor of New Testament language and literature at Howard University School of Divinity, states, “I attended a workshop with Peterson in which he announced that he was doing a show on the transgender people in the Bible. I thought to myself, Hey, I’m a biblical scholar, and I don’t know any transgender folks in the Bible! Now I know! I applaud Peterson for bringing to the fore in this play a new way of looking at the Bible! Bravo! No, bravissimo! I had to look at my own sexual stereotypes and how I bring them to biblical interpretation!”

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, professor emeritus of English at William Paterson University of New Jersey, says, “His biblical exegesis is insightful and accurate, and you will glean a whole new perspective painlessly because of his charming performance.”

Full Draw Studios recently announced that it will turn “Transfigurations” into a graphic novel. “I am working with Jayna and Mila Pavlin, two amazing comic artists, podcasters and transgender activists,” Toscano says. “They are adapting my script for the page bringing it to life in a whole new way,” Toscano says.

In addition to the graphic novel portion of the project, the final book will include various scholars sharing insights from existing scholarship and their original research. Both scholars and public intellectuals in the fields of sacred text and in gender studies will contribute, resulting in a unique blend of art and academics.

Toscano is seeking scholars to contribute to the “Transgressions” book. Full Draw Studios issued this call for contributors:

“Peterson is currently connecting with scholars who are interested in taking part in the project. You may be an established published professor, just beginning your career, or a public intellectual engaging through speaking or on-line. Peterson will share sections of his script with you, share the scholarship he has done on the work and give you a chance to add to it. At this time we cannot offer financial compensation, but for each contributor, we will provide a full biography. And if we get a nice book contract, who knows? :-) If you are interested or simply wish to know more, please contact Peterson at”

Toscano talks about “Transfigurations” and transgender characters in the Bible in the following video. It captures his lively and sensible approach to being queer and Christian. For more info, visit

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pennyjane said...

well, i have quit so if you'd like you can have this character. her name is aisha, she is a transwoman from ashkala...and notable only in that she was uriah's first love.

for those who aren't aware, uriah was a camel driver on the babylon-gaza route back in the day. a couple of his stops were in jersalem and ashkala. he met aisha on one of his stops in ashkala and fell in love. the relationship bloomed until he found out she was a transwoman and of course grs...the sex change operation... wasn't available at that, hearbroken he went on the rebound and into the waiting arms of bathsheeba, who, at the time, was a working girl in jerusalem.

the rest is history....but if someone wanted to go on and finish up the story of aisha's life and times....she is yours.

much love and hope. pj

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, PJ, for suggesting another transgender Bible character. The story of Aisha is fascinating… but I’m a little confused. Is she actually named in the Bible? The story of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba is well known, so I like the way you are exploring the “backstory” of what happened before that, and including the trans people who undoubtedly were present.

When you say “I have quit,” do you mean you quit working on the story of Aisha? At first I thought you meant you quit your job.

I’m really glad that you commented on this post. I love the quality and creativity of Peterson’s work, and I was surprised that this post didn’t generate more comments. Some of the Bible characters that Peterson calls “transgender” have been considered “gay” in the LGBT Christian community until now. Maybe the “gay” label attracts more interest than “transgender”?

pennyjane said...

hi kitt. oh, my no! i would never quit my job. i love working in the church way too much for that. but, yes...i gave up on the story. i loved the character, aisha, but just couldn't make the rest of the story coherent.

she is not mentioned in the bible, she is just a free spirit who emerged from my own imagination. i thought mr peterson might think her intersting enough to run with her.

the story was born of the lack of anything about uriah...i had to imagine his background and this is what was coming of it....but i seem to have moved on. when this particular story found iself imagining that the arabian desert was the result of time travelling ice-9 from one of vonnegut's works i thought it time to pull the plug.

i'm sure that there are plenty of "trangender" and transsexual people in the bible, i think they are just not identified as such. personally i don't use the term "transgender" to describe transsexual people. the word is so convoluted it can mean virtually anything the user wants it to mean and therefore is not very useful. you can ask any two random people what "transgender" means and you will likely get two different answers.

i am transsexual. i use the term as coined by dr harry benjamin to describe his patient, christine jorgensen. dr benjamin pioneered the delivery of cross sex hormones and is something of a hero in the ts vanacular...the godfather of us all.

we dcn't get much in the way of legitimacy from the world at large and even less than that from the lesbian community. in your larger paradigm we are pretty much seen as pretending we are women and spreading the evil male patriarichal virus wherever we go.

the "womyn born womyn" movement is speifically directed at keeping us at bay. we aren't legitimate among a great many lesbians and are an insult to many gay men as well...turncoats, if you will, our legitimacy, it seems, somehow degrades theirs. we are considered by so many in the mainstream as gay men...which demeans their reality....plays into the negative stereotype of them as sissies, or effeminate. if i were a gay man i might feel much the same...assuming i didn't understand the true nature of transsexualism.

nope, we are taken no more seriously in the gay community than in the straight one. but, life is what it's up to us to prove our legitimacy and we are still taking our first baby steps in that direction.

thank you for allowing my least this is one forum where one of us can be seen.

much love and hope. pj

Trudie said...

Pennyjane and Kitt, I'd love to see a story like this. Of course, the "transgender" of that day was simply the eunuch. I happen to think Mary Renault's "The Persian Boy" is a marvelous novel, which I've read about four times. I'm not a novelist myself, but I think a biblically-set novel like this would be excellent. Go for it!

Kittredge Cherry said...

The story of Aisha as envisioned by PJ is fascinating, so I hope that it does find its way into a book or play somehow.

My (limited) understanding is that “transgender” is a more general term while “transsexual” is more specific and medical, relating only to those involved in gender reassignment surgery. PJ, you wrote that the word transgender “is so convoluted it can mean virtually anything the user wants it to mean and therefore is not very useful.” I actually find it useful to have a vague word so that nobody feels excluded. However, it sounds like you did feel excluded because you consider yourself transsexual, not transgender. Sorry! I thought that transsexual was one kind of transgender. It seems to me that BOTH words have different meanings to different people. Anyway, on this blog I’m generally using the terminology as used by the person I’m writing about.

I know that some lesbians have resistance to transgenders, but I just don’t feel that way. All my experiences with transgenders have been positive or neutral. The “LGBT” alliance is hard to maintain because each alphabet stands for a unique group. I’m sorry to hear you say that “We are taken no more seriously in the gay community than in the straight one.” I think that some in the LGB community are really trying to embrace the “T.”

Trudie, you do a great job of supporting authors and other creative types. Mary Renault's "The Persian Boy" is on my list of novels to read “someday.’ Maybe I should move it up on the to-do list.

Trudie said...

I love all of Renault's books -- in fact, they combine my love of historical fiction and the more recent genre of gay-positive literature. While Patricia Nell Warren's books are quite different, they also were extremely valuable early on in contributing to my feeling of joy in being part of the GLBT community.

Although "The Persian Boy" is part of the Alexander Trilogy, it definitely stands alone, and in my opinion is the best of the three. "Fire From Heaven" is much more of an adventure story with a strong male-gay theme, and "Funeral Games" is way too filled with dark intrigue to suit my taste, though all are, of course, extremely well-written.

pennyjane said...

i'm not whining or wallowing in self-pity....heaven knows i'm anything but a victim of anything. i'm just stating reality as i see it.

i believe, and in my life it has been is the truth that makes us free. the unfettered and unconvoluted truth.

because i exclude myself from the "transgender" paradigm says only that i care enough about the truth to tell it, clearly and that it can be seen and understood.

just the way i see it...and, if aisha should find her way into a story with an ending...i hope she stays transsexual and isn't converted to transgender.

much love and hope. pj

pennyjane said...

hi kitt. yes, the term "transgender" is often called an "umbrella" term. many transsexuals do use it...i don't, and i don't for a specific reason.

first: transsexuals may or may not seek medical intervention. that does not describe or define us. there are three niches for transsexuals:

post-op transsexuals...those who have had surgery to reconfigure our genitalia to fit our inner gender identity.

pre-op transsexuals: those who plan to one day have surgery.

non-op transsexuals...transsexuals who for whatever reason cannot have the surgery.

the non-op's are as transsexual as the rest of us. there are many reasons why medical intervention is not indicated...but that has no affect on the gender identity of those individuals.

i was born transsexual. i knew, although i was in a perfectly normal and healthy male body, that i was a girl as soon as i learned there was a about age 3.

transsexualism isn't defined by what one does, how one thinks, how masculine or feminine the person is simply having been born in the body generally accepted as one gender while the inner gender identity is the opposite.

that and nothing more.

transsexualism isn't about anything is about gender identity and that alone.

the vast majority of self-defined "transgender" people are those with a sexual fetish such as transvestism...or as they like to be called, "cross dressers". the vast majority of them are men. they may find dressing as women erotic...and sometimes they become quite obsessive about it, but they are still men...they identify as men and prefer to live there lives as men...transvestism is a sexual fetish, not gender identity.

so...i prefer to be specific. i do not want my transsexualism to be lumped in with sexual fetishes...not any more than any woman would accept her gender identity to be about sex. there's a whole lot more to it than that.

there are many more minorities that can be found under that huge "umbrella." there are gender fluid people...those who do not have a permanent address on the gender scale...they can wander about. there are those who fall pretty much in the middle...andrognynes...they don't identify as either gender. and many, many more...that's why i say that the term "transgender" is so convoluted as to be pretty much useless in conversation.

when i'm talking about my transsexualism i definitely want to leave out all the rest of those who fit under the "transgender" umbrella....i'm not talking about them, i'm talking about transsexuals.

when you are talking about lesbians in particular you don't say....all are talking about a specific group of's the same thing. all lesbians are women but not nearly all women are lesbians.

this matters to me because i'm dedicated to bringing transsexuals into the mainstream of society...understanding us is the first step. using a purposely convoluted term such as "transgender" to talk about us is counter-productive...rather than promote undestanding it further convolutes understanding.

as an open, out, unconvoluted transsexual who moves in many different circles...i can state wtih some confidence that there is as much ignorance about us in the gay community as there is in straight or mixed groups.

we do have some friends in the gay community and we do have some friends in the straight community...but as we saw in the recent enda debacle in congress...when the rubber meets the road....we're the ugly and quite expendable step sisters to all.

pennyjane said...

no...turtle still don't get it. when you are talking about a dyke and a lesbian you are talking about the same thing....a dyke is a lesbian...nothing more, nothing less. the words are interchangable and therefore your idea of language belonging to the peson is appropriate.

a man who has a fetish for wearing women's clothing and a transsexual are entirly different things....yet they are lumped together in the same "transgender" vanacular. when you call someone "transgender" you don't know whether you are speaking to a transsexual or a transvestite. you don't know whether you are speaking of a man with a panty fetish or an androgyne...the term itself is convoluted to the point of absolute corruption. as a tool for communication it is now an obstruction.

language is primarily a tool for can go too far in the "for the person" direction. if "for the person" denies the language as a tool for communication than it becomes fundamentally corrupted.

and i agree, many transsexuals do use the term "transgender" has become the standard word. but it isn't useful for describing anything...only a convoluted conglamoration of already misunderstood people.

it isn't that pj wants to be called transsexual, it's that pj wants transsexuals to be called transsexuals....because it's what we are...minus the male influence that created the "transgender" term to begin with.

i want people to understand what a transsexual is...what understanding of transsexual is promoted by lumping us in with men who have a panty fetish? what good comes from us being thought of as gender fluid or genderless, or two spirited, or transvestic...or any of those other things that we are not?

more and more women of transsexual birth are getting away from the transgender see most of the "out" transsexuals now using transsexual and staying away from transgender. it's a matter of truth and understanding to us.

my gender identity is no more a fetish than is yours...and i'm sure you would resent very much your whole identity being reduced to a sexual fetish. it demeans and devalues denies our true denies our legitimacy as women.

clearity has it's place, and it is above p.c.

much love and hope. pj

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for expressing yourselves, PJ and Turtle Woman. It seems that we all agree that the term “transgender” is in common use, for better or worse. PJ, I can understand that you don’t like being lumped together with transvestites etc, and you have raised my consciousness. Turtle Woman, I share your experience of knowing many “transsexuals” who prefer to call themselves “transgender.” As a writer, I see a need for both specific words and general words.

I’ve also noticed some people just say they’re “trans” or “transwoman” or “transman” these days.

In the interests of clarity, I have to say that a “dyke” is not exactly the same as a “lesbian” or a “gay woman.” Each term has a different nuance. For example, a “gay woman” is less politically correct than a “lesbian,” and a “dyke” implies a tough, butch type.

Getting back to the original post about Peterson Toscano’s vision of “transgressing gender in the Bible,” he himself uses the phrase “transgender Bible characters” to describe the subject of his play/book, and I honor that. He also described them as “Bible characters who do not fit the gender binary,” so that is pretty broad, encompassing more than only the “transsexual.” As I said in the post, “Toscano drew inspiration for ‘Transfigurations’ from his own life as well as interviews with transsexual, genderqueer and gender-variant individuals.” So trannsexuals are named specifically in this post, but it is about others, too.

pennyjane said...

hi kitt. i stand corrected. dyke and lesbian do have a nuanced difference and i note you saw fit to correct my innacurate definition of the terms.

the difference between a transvestite or a drag queen and a transsexual isn't subtle, it isn't nuanced....they are entirely different is a man with a sexual fetish, one is a woman. why is it considered just fine to describe us both with the same word?

i felt the swat so i will shut up with that.

much love and hope. pj

Turtle Woman said...

Thanks PJ and KittKatt for your explanations. I'll honor what you are trying to explain PJ, even though it is hard to understand.

Also, I really get how fetish and cross dressing men are not at all the same as transexual. Drag queens aren't either. I get the insult of this for you PJ.

Dyke is not a generic term for lesbians, since a Dyke is an out and proud butch. "She's very Dykey" would be a description of a butch womon, not a feminine fashion model. Although the thought of that cracks me up with laughter.

In a time when most lesbians were fearful and closeted, the Dyke was the warrior womon out in the world who would not hide or conform. It was a heroic act of our lesbian feminist sisters, but this world may be lost on the next generation.

Gay women are slightly homophobic about themselves, not out and proud. People use the word "gay" as generic because they are afraid of using the word "lesbian." Even Oprah struggled with this, because it signaled her inner discomfort with lesbians.

Lesbian is my favorite word because it gives me direct access to our ancient lineage on the Isle of Lesbos, and a connection to our great poet Sappho. So being the devoted neo-classicist that I am, I want to be with my sister Sappho, and not be lumped in with "gay" men. I don't want to be made invisible while the male term predominates.

And I am Dykey and proud of it, that means I'm a very visible and VERY poltical lesbian. It means I don't assimilate to straight female norms. Some people would actually call THAT transgender, but again, that would negate my female existence, another issue for another time.

pennyjane said...

thank you for sharing your respect and your views turtle womon. and i do very much understand how difficult transsexualism is to understand.

i will say out loud that it's the "dykey" types of lesbians that i seem to understand the best. to me, i am more comfortable with people who are out, unashamed and unafraid.

i am not ashamed or afraid of my history, but it is different. when i listen to the "dykey" tpyes i get a better perspective of just where i fit in.

i am reluctant to call myself "lesbian". to me it indicates far more than a sexual orientation or love's a part of the history of women i have missed out on to a very high degree...that growing up in this society thing.

although i have always personally considered myself female, that is not the perception i grew up with. i have had all the priveleges of the male dominated world we have created for ourselves...whether i wanted them or not.

i have never had a period or faced childbirth. i have never known the power body image has on young women of our day...many things i have missed. it doesn't make me less of a woman...just a woman with a very different origin.

"same sex lover" or "gay" i feel very comfortable with...lesbian? i'm not sure i rate that's a matter or respect.

kind of like, i knew Jesus before i knew God. that might sound strange, but it's the way it happened with me. i got so close to Jesus so quickly that coming to understand God, the Creator, came as almost an afterthought.

people are weird and i'm a people.

much love and hope. pj

pennyjane said...

hi turtle womon. you point out exactly my point about the word "transgender" can mean anything anyone wants it to mean so therefore as a tool of communication it is suprefluous at best and more likely the user may mean one thing and have it interpreted as something entirely different by the listener.

for many of us here, we write as a form of our ministry...i think we should hold ourseves to a higher standard in understanding the value and power of language.

kitt: you point out a beauty of our Lord and Savior....He comes to us where we are. it doesn't matter where one is, He is there and He holds out His outstretched hand to all who will but take it.

the power of the Holy Spirit, in harmony with the gifts He has given us as mortals, teaches us that the one-size-fits-all answers of the past are no longer valid. those two forces elevate us to discerning creatures...we listen with an open heart when the Spirit speaks and apply our own intelligence to bring that voice to fruition in our lives.

When God spoke to His chosen people, He wasn't speaking to the whole world...He was speaking to that culture He knew had to be created for those people to survive the challenges to come.

when Jesus spoke, He was not speaking to the whole world but to those who "could understand". for if we don't strive to understand His teachings as more than the words, we will inevitably misunderstand and mis-apply his teachings....corrupt them for use against others instead of for the uplifting gifts they are.

the outstretched hand...the fountain metaphore of john calvin...this is the message, this is the light.

thank you for sharing it with us all here in this forum.

much love and hope. pj

Kittredge Cherry said...

PJ, thanks for what you wrote about my spiritual journey. I like how you put this: “for many of us here, we write as a form of our ministry.” That’s certainly true for me.