I’ve been fortunate to have practiced Christianity in communities where sexism did not impact me–an unusual experience, I realize. Women priests, religion professors, and Bible study leaders were well-represented even when I was on the conservative side of the spectrum. Growing up in an all-female home, I felt completed and refreshed by the masculine Father-Son-Holy Spirit language that many of my feminist fellow worshippers found oppressive. I didn’t understand their need to see a God who “looked like them”, because a large part of Christianity’s appeal for me was that I didn’t have to be God: not perfect, not the savior of my troubled loved ones.
Now, researching alternatives to my traditional faith, I find myself unsatisfied and unrepresented by so-called women’s spirituality for other reasons. Though traditions like Tarot and Wicca affirm both gender archetypes in a more balanced way than patriarchal Christianity, those archetypes still feel too binary, and in the case of women, too limited by the imagery associated with biological fertility. Not only is fertility not a part of my life story, but it triggers bad memories of the eternal deference and gratitude that my mother demanded because she “gave me life”. I appreciate queer Tarot teachers, like Beth Maiden at the Little Red Tarot blog and the transgender writer Rachel Pollack, because they remix gender archetypes in non-literal ways.
Think of some metaphors and images associated with the Christian God besides “Father”: creator, warrior, rock, lamb, living water, shepherd, healer, teacher, sun, judge, giver of the Word. None of these images are necessarily gendered, nor do they reference the male procreative or sexual functions. They don’t require the worshipper to take the role of a child in relation to a divine parent. For women’s spirituality, though, we get Maiden-Mother-Crone (identity based on virginity and procreation), the Virgin Mary, fertile Mother Earth, sacred menstrual cycles, and so forth. If that works for you, great, but we need to be more creative in our imagery so that non-patriarchal spirituality can be inclusive of all female-identified and nonbinary people. Just a few examples, based on the women I know and the jobs women have held in history: weaver, cook, gardener, singer, warrior, oracle, fighter, teacher, midwife, prophet, counselor… Add your own!
We can acknowledge our great debt to the Second Wave feminist theologians who broke taboos by calling God “Mother”, and still say that for some of us, they didn’t go far enough. Why not also question the holdover from Roman imperial patriarchy that puts one deified parent in charge of the human family, be it Father or Mother? Perhaps that would be a stretch beyond Christianity, since monotheism (the Trinity notwithstanding) is a core doctrine. Personally, I imagine God as a loving and conscious but indescribable omnipresence, who communicates Godself to us through a pantheon of divine archetypes with diverse gendered and non-gendered traits. (So am I a Hindu now??)
I liked this 2014 post from The Chaos Witch’s blog, “Feminism, Gender and Being a Goddess-Loving Witch”, where she talks about challenging binary stereotypes in her neo-Pagan tradition:
When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was admonished by the tutor who was marking my thesis for ‘essentialising the feminine’. I was writing about how inspiring I found fairytales to be, especially those about young girls who go through a transformative journey, and how drawn I was to goddess type figures, and things that had what I saw to have feminine qualities. This was the beginning of my spiritual journey, and I was offended by this comment at the time. What did essentialising even mean? It was annoying, and really, I should have asked about it. I thought the tutor was vindictively applying feminist theory that I didn’t actually understand at the time, to my visual art exegesis and consequently my privileged, straight white ass was disrupted. What I didn’t understand at the time was that while it was okay to be inspired by these narratives and imagery, the way they are used in discourse can narrow our contextualization of them in such a way that paints a small box. I thought I was embracing an alternative point of view, a minority view, and I thought this was part of being feminist. But being a feminist is actually about discarding narrow ideas about what being female should or shouldn’t be. The criteria for something to be regarded as female is for it to define itself as female. And that is about it. Everything else is junk that society has layered on, and while it can’t be discarded, it can be transformed, and this is the work of a feminist…
…I can continue to worship a goddess, to examine narratives and ideas of femininity, but what I should have seen back when I was at university was that I needed to phrase them in a way that didn’t trap them into a system whose long term impacts have been harmful. To call something feminine, and to associate it with a certain idea of beauty, of softness, of passivity, with certain shapes, curves and colours – and to therefore identify masculinity as chiseled, active and so on, is damaging. And similarly, to frame group work under a paradigm of God and Goddess, with a Lord and Lady in charge, and rules that confine initiation by boundaries of gender, with a Wheel of the Year centred around heterosexual reproduction – these things exclude and marginalize anyone who identifies differently on multiple levels. This needs to be examined critically, reflexively and with love and the process is not simple and requires open hearts and minds. There are many expressions of the divine – like viewing something through a kaleidoscope, with one twist of the device, One can become Two, Twenty Three, a Thousand. These are but lenses through which to view the fractals of the universe.
The binary thinking of Second Wave feminism always made me feel inadequate as a woman. Did I have to choose between rights and relationships, as Carol Gilligan famously divided up “male” and “female” ethics? If I chose individuation over maintaining relational ties, was I a traitor to my sex, as well as to my family? My intellect, my ability to analyze patterns of human behavior and make conscious choices, was my ticket out of a family of women driven by unconscious emotional re-enactments, and my alternative to the self-destructive rebellion of my peers. Did that mean I was siding with “masculine values”? I learned to resent both feminism and my own biological gender as prisons that kept me from being fully human.
Laurie Penny’s recent Buzzfeed article, “How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist”, describes how she tries to make space for herself in a feminism that doesn’t always recognize nonbinary identities:
I consider “woman” to be a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth. You could say the same thing about “justice” or “money” or “democracy” — these are made-up ideas, stories we tell ourselves about the shape of our lives, and yet they are ideas with enormous real-world consequences. Saying that gender is fluid doesn’t mean that we have to ignore sexism. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Of course gender norms play into the trans experience. How can they not? But being trans or genderqueer, even for cis-passing people like me, is not about playing into those norms. It’s about about throwing them out. Some “radical” feminists argue that trans and genderqueer people actually shore up the gender binary by seeking to cross or straddle it rather than setting it on fire. To which I’d say: It is also possible to jump over a burning building.
In fact, watch me.
Only when we recognize that “manhood” and “womanhood” are made-up categories, invented to control human beings and violently imposed, can we truly understand the nature of sexism, of misogyny, of the way we are all worked over by gender in the end.
Coming out is an individual journey, but it is a collective weapon. Questioning gender — whether that means straddling the gender binary, crossing it, or breaking down its assumptions wherever you happen to stand — is an essential part of the feminism that has sustained me through two decades of personal and political struggle. In the end, feminists and the LGBT community have this in common: We’re all gender traitors. We have broken the rules of good behavior assigned to us at birth, and we have all suffered for it.
But here’s one big way I differ from a lot of my genderqueer friends: I still identify, politically, as a woman. My identity is more complex than simply female or male, but as long as women’s reproductive freedom is under assault, sex is also a political category, and politically, I’m still on the girls’ team.
I don’t think that everyone who was dumped into the “female” category at birth has a duty to identify as a woman, politically or otherwise. Because identity policing, if you’ll indulge me in a moment of high theoretical language, is fucked up and bullshit. This is just how it happens to work for me.
In a perfect world, perhaps I’d be telling a different story. I’m never going to be able to say for sure whether in that perfect world, that world without sexism and gender oppression, that world without violence or abuse, where kittens dance on rainbows and nobody has ever heard of Donald Trump, I would feel the need to call myself genderqueer. My hunch is that I would; and all I’ve got for you is that hunch, along with a stack of feminist theory books and a pretty nice collection of flat caps.
I am a woman, politically, because that’s how people see me and that’s how the state treats me. And sometimes I’m also a boy. Gender is something I perform, when I put on my binder or paint my nails. When I walk down the street. When I talk to my boss. When I kiss my partner in their makeup and high heels.
I don’t want to see a world without gender. I want to see a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced, where there are as many ways to express and perform and relate to your own identity as there are people on Earth. I want a world where gender is not painful, but joyful.
What about me? In my perfect life, where there were no abusive lesbian moms, absent dads, or internalized sexism, would I be completely at ease with a female identity? I’ll never know, and I think I should stop worrying about it. Being genderqueer doesn’t need to be explained, any more than being gay. As M/M author Heidi Cullinan says, “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.”