The boundary between physical and nonphysical is very imprecise for us. — Donna J. Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs, Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
A friend tells me psychics can provide direction, so I find a cheap one. This particular psychic pauses over a pattern of cards. “You’re struggling with – sexual orientation, right?” “Uhm.” I hadn’t meant to say anything and hoped the psychic would deduct my ‘problem.’ Please tell me it’s my mother, it’s my penis envy. “It’s Gender identity, actually.”
I’m folding my arms across my chest in the way I learn means discomfort and boredom. “So, you’re a man in a woman’s body?” she asks. “I’m not” – starting to confess; she knows what’s up:
“Well, the cards indicate a wealthy, older man coming into your life between now and summer. This will develop into a long-term romance – most cards I see are for flings and this is, well, this is a long term relationship, could be for life. And through this relationship, you will rediscover your womanhood. But you must be a gay man trapped in a woman’s body (GMTIWB), because these cards indicate that you will be falling in love with a man and if you’re a GMTIWB, you would have to be gay, too.”
“But what if I don’t want to rediscover my womanhood?” I ask. “And there are lots of different kinds of men. And I’m trans, I’m not a woman. And I’m not gay, I’m queer.”
“Well, these cards indicate a straight, biological man.” My arms tighten.
* * *
Margery Kempe confessed all except one thing. She fasted and gave to charity, but wouldn’t confess that one sin. After she gave birth to her first child and thought she might die, she sent for her confessor because she thought she was condemned to Hell. When she began to talk about this great sin, her confessor chastised her. Caught in between eternal “damnation on the one hand and his sharp reprove of her on the other, [Margery] went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits.”
I had been cutting on my arms this past winter. It was pouring and Arkady’s mentor Bazarov as captured in Fathers and Sons had that line I’m paraphrasing about Arkady being so young and dumb. I hadn’t told people I was male until winter – maybe dropped a few hints, pulled a couple Judith Butler lines out of my pocket – but felt it was shameful in some way to break silence. Unlike many transmen I have met, however, I relish the friend who signed a book, “to my sister poet, with delight.” I cannot give up my connection to womanhood, does that make me genderqueer or bigender or feminist? Does that make me an ‘it’, am I even a woman? I started telling folks I was transgender and as I started confessing, I got a lot of oh, yes, do what’s right. But I also got mired in questions about authentic identity from all kinds of people. “I’m taking this gender thing slowly,” I said. “A man won’t have breasts,” some replied. “You don’t have the right to claim this label; you’re acting out of a place of privilege.” “What do you mean you don’t want to give up your gender?” “What do you mean you aren’t going to change your pronouns! Now is the time to change and rebel!” “Are you going to have surgery yet?” “You aren’t a real transperson.” “Don’t rule out the possibility that you are a lesbian and are just doing this to be cool.” “What does the trans community think about this?” “Make up your mind already!” “This is not what I’d choose if I could,” I thought.
After Margery thought about killing herself and was “tied up and forcibly restrained,” Christ came to her and said she was forgiven of her sin for life. She didn’t have to say anything aloud. I know this may feel like a Rexella Van Impe book, but would Rexella write about Jesus in such terms that sound erotic? Take this passage that Kempe dictated as from Christ:
…I must be intimate with you, and lie in your bed with you. You greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband, as your dear darling. Therefore you can boldly take me in the arms of your soul and kiss my mouth, my head, and my feet as sweetly as you want.
I know labels are dicey. I use transgender and trans here interchangeably as an umbrella term for anyone who feels they don’t fit the sex they were assigned at birth. I refer to myself as transgender because I am a man who is still a helluva lotta woman. I promise not to refer to you as transgender unless you tell me you wish for it. I also hope to acknowledge the incredible folks who said oh, yes, do what’s right – and then moved on.
Later medieval writings about gender convey the misogyny of the period. Men were “spiritual and rational,” while women were “fleshly and irrational.” There is a clear understanding that women were not created in God’s image. But later medieval Catholic writings portray Jesus as male and female. There are references to Christ as a nurturing mother along with him as a bridegroom. Men and women described Christ’s breasts along with his foreskin. In the earlier medieval period, Christ’s death on the cross was associated with labor. Jesus’ “love for the soul” transferred into the love a mother has for a child. And Jesus feeding people with himself in the Eucharist was analogous to a woman nursing her baby.
In the 12th to the 15th century, male writers tended to assert themselves as women in their writing – i.e., they were one-upping themselves in a sense by making themselves weak – ha! God loves weakness (typical patriarchal stuff). But the women, the women weren’t allowed to assert themselves as men, or women, really, they asserted themselves with God’s humanity. The Word Made Flesh, the spirit blown into Mary. In fact, Mechtild of Magdeburg and Catherine of Sienna said that the Virgin Mary was the source of Jesus’ femaleness, because his flesh came from a woman. But God’s humanity, like Jesus, is not male or female, it is genderless, it encompasses all of us.
Though this was not meant to be titillating and should not be read as Medieval people were genderqueer, it is freeing. The scientific notion that a woman was simply a man turned inside out, but much more leaky, although sexist in tone, fostered the attitude that people were both men and women. This led to a kind of gender fluidity that could be hard for us to imagine. Of course, this means that women were less than men and there was a helluva lotta misogyny, but stick with me for a second.
When women lifted themselves to God, performing what we would call ‘mutilations’ or ‘self-sacrifice,’ they asserted what they had left; their bodies – physicality being a way to connect themselves to the Word Made Flesh. Their religious experiences explicitly involved the body via physical markup or corporal ecstasy. Because what is worthless will be given the greatest glory at the end of time, these women’s’ encounters with God, which to our minds might be sexual, or masochistic, was a way to salvation. Hildegard of Bingen stated, “man signifies the divinity of the son of God and woman his humanity.” By receiving God in ecstasy, they have also received the Breath of God and become both divine and human, thereby recognizing that they are also the offspring of God. And because of this meeting of breath and angels, many seem to be able to recognize their womanhood. These women mimicked the humanity of Christ on and in their bodies, because it was a way to associate with God that no one could take from them. They believed that through suffering we gain new life – therefore what may have been patriarchal teachings about women’s bodies and meekness became, for the women, a way to power. A worthless body became unique, jazzed, and powerful.
Hadewijch, a beguine living in the 13th Century, writes:
…so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must die . . . I can say this: I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste him in the full. . . . After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported.
But I didn’t know Hadewijch that winter. And although I had the theory regarding gender binaries, I didn’t find much framework on how to implement my outsides and my insides realistically. After a lot of theory and discussion, I still felt inadequate. Would it be better if I just changed my pronoun and asserted masculinity? I had a friend who told me that on days when I packed, bound, and dressed in men’s clothing, I put forth a different energy – a stronger, deeper, male energy, she said than when I dressed in a skirt – I go to a hippie college so it is all about energy. “Some of us have bad hair days. You have masculine and feminine days.” When transexuality is still repellent in many circles, do I even have a right to take up space? And why didn’t I feel more like a rebellious, sexy, gender anarchist instead of a gender defeatist?
Because of my superstitions, I analyzed every man I meet between late March and the end of summer for a potential match. Would I have to pick a gender for him? What does my current gender presentation say about the men I attract? Was I just pretending to be interested in this dating business because a psychic said something? Psychics pertain to the soul and so do those in conversation with God, and I was emotionally lonely, which leads us to body – therefore I looked for men and God.
I go to my Catholic social justice group after being away from the church for a few years. God enters my body after we pray. It is like a reverse anxiety attack, a presence wrapping around my stomach, arms, and calves, twisting me inside and out, making me lose my train of thought. The Spirit is in the back of my mind, boring fiery holes into my brain. It is hard to breathe and I am clenching my body. God doesn’t say anything, mostly just pours exuberance and love into my heart. While my underwear gets wetter and wetter and I sit there on my chair, everyone is yapping about how poor people are happier than rich people because they have nothing, so we should all emulate them. These ‘erotic ticklings,’ which spring from prayer, remind me of my humanity, connected to the breath of God.
The image of the religious cyborg is freeing for someone playing the gender game in the 21st century. The cyborg – literally a border crossing involving either humans and other organisms or humans (or other animals) and electricity – can be used to describe the bodies of those who surrender. A bodily surrender to technology, a “branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of…[electronic] means and their interrelation with life,” defies normative bodily discourse. This religious boundary crossing could be of the cyberpunk genre, which grasps at how identity changes with technology. As Bruce Sterling writes, “technology is visceral; [ . . . ] it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.”
Like women in the Later Middle Ages, we who swoon in ecstasy at God’s arms around us, or presence in our breasts, mark this technological power on and in our bodies. This eroticism is electric. Because Jesus was both divine and human, he creates living technology. Those who encounter God in their bodies become God’s presence on Earth, crossing prescribed boundaries of human and non-human. We also become both human and divine. If Jesus Christ is male and female, we are undergoing our own submission to something beyond a gender binary. My transgender body is a bionic body in every sense of the word – what may seem like having sex with God is actually a kind of blissful suffering relating to salvation, a boundary transgression.
The line between humility for pleasurable purposes and humility because one feels worthless is blurry, but it can result in the same ‘headspace.’ The framework of the religious cyborg gives me a way to be masochistic in a healthy way. The submission I underwent when I tried to find my place among trannies lacked my investment in my own freedom and pain. Somehow, I was between Heaven and Hell, hanging on the edge, a sinner. I needed submission with a safe word – a body to return to after the ecstatic moment was over.
* * *
Electricity is empowering and disempowering. According to Donna Haraway, the cyborg is “the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end.” There is no creation story for cyborgs and since they “[are] not made of mud and [do] not dream of returning to dust,” cyborgs seem like ideal transgender bodies.
Do not let anyone tell you there is not an ideal transgender body. Although transgender bodies have been read for some time as cyborg bodies in academic circles, there is a specific kind of tranny, a body that passes as trans, that is seen as cyborgial (ooh! I coined a word!) But how can we account for this liberation of the ‘hybrid subject’ when cyborgs simply reflect a corrupted history with the word ‘hybrid’ to begin with?
In cyborg theory, there remains a tiny sliver of agency, and that is the hope that we rise up against the machine and slay binaries. But if we did not come from dust, are not made from clay, and do not have the spirit of life breathed into us, we are not real. Many footholds of support regarding gender identity I might reach for in a time of distress are based in theory. This means that even in queer space, I can never become something real. And since gender is imaginary, I have no creation story, no Garden of Eden to explain my gender. Since gender deconstruction is based in logic – oh, o.k., it’s chaotic, but it’s still logic in a postmodern way, it becomes o.k. to tell people that you don’t belong because you do or don’t fit and pass in non-trans culture. It is cool to be logical, reasonable, and postmodern; machine sex is in as a model, Eden is out. The cyborg “represents what otherwise cannot be represented” and God doesn’t understand that.[ ] Still, do cyborgs have reoccurring dreams like this?:
boys with bombs, women just trying to stay women. me in between everything – if I am really a boy, should I pick up a bomb when all I want to do is stay with the women who are hugging and touching – you know, women comfort things. There is a long, spiky chain dividing the boys and the girls. I had a dildo for packing that I bought and it was bright blue – except I didn’t have anywhere to attach it but outside my body. so i was a boy with a bright blue dildo hanging down and everyone pointed and laughed and said – no girl would have that and no boy would either, you’re just a freak. they laughed at me when I wondered if I was a boy or a girl…they shouted things at me. The boys were preparing to blow up a lot of things and I shouted that I could not be a boy and blow things up. so the women let me cross the fence, but I can’t join their circle where they are singing Dar Williams, because I wasn’t really a woman.
Where do theoretical cyborgs go when they have dreams like this? Haven’t we fucked the binary already? It is Good Friday. In order to move forward into the sun, I need to give myself up, make myself vulnerable and I know I haven’t been the only tranny to do this.
I visit Benedictine nuns at the priory. I come after closing hours, but stand at the gate, sobbing. I listen to the water flowing from the statue. The sister looks through the crack of open door. “I just, I just, want to pray with someone, can I sit in silence, I just want to talk to someone who is…..who is…..on this day…..?”
“We’re closed,” she snaps, but I keep crying and asking over and over if I could just sit in the chapel. “No one can pray with you now, we’re closed,” she says, but God doesn’t mind if I use the bathroom, I guess. A few minutes later, she pokes in her head; someone is willing to break silence and talk to me.
“Bless us on this day,” says Sister Therese. She looks at me – “There was some sort of spirit that possessed you to come this way and stand in front of our door, sobbing. I don’t even know if you’ll know what this is for a while.”
* * *
So what if Cyborgs dream of some sort of beginning? Where your humanity comes from dust, and your divinity from God’s breath, and to the Earth you shall return? What if dreaming about dust and breath makes me more transgender than I was when I started thinking about cyborgs?
If we use a religious framework to look at gender, these cyborg maps the split and unity of Heaven and Hell. In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Ivan has inner conflict because his rationality says that God does not inform the world; that God deserves to be burned as a heretic for not giving everyone enough bread, for giving us free will. This could easily be me, attempting to define my gender in a secular queer (so they say) context. In his heart, Ivan desires to reach beyond nihilism and rationalism. The Devil appearing to Ivan is a part of him. He says, “I am the Devil, so nothing is alien to me.” Ivan is also a piece of God, which not only means that God and Satan are human, but that they are of the same material. And if God and Satan are both part humanity, let’s hear it for the in-between place!
Like those Medieval women, I understand the flexibility of this boundary when I resign myself to the structure. Through this resignation, I am able to understand all of the ways it can break. This is part of the electric unity of Heaven and Hell, meaning Paradise regained through Pandemonium. This is a new (but old) cyborg body. This is cyborg agency and gives us much more than a sliver of hope – not a rising up, but a surrendering. When I surrender to higher technology, I gain an autonomy no one can take from me. (Okay, if you’re not religious and thinking I’m trying to stifle activism, PLEASE stand up against horrible things, but remember to surrender, too.)
From my (Catholic) point of view, riding the edge of this boundary is about grit, eroticism, death, and rebirth. The grain of wheat did not die, but was transformed. We all suffer in our lives because of terrible things – some more than others, hell, most more than me. Pieces of me die like Jesus. It’d be easy to say I walked back from the priory that Good Friday a new person and rose symbolically to attend Mass on Easter Sunday. Instead, I almost ended it Saturday night, but on Sunday, I slept in and woke to work on my writing.
My struggles with gender identity are a kind of crucifixion. On a personal scale, I had to kill my idea that I would ever understand what gender I am. I had to kill the notion that I was not “trans enough.” On a larger scale, one could say that anyone who questions their gender is undergoing crucifixion. As an older friend who has ran this loop before told me, “Theodora, give it up and go. You’ll step into yourself naturally along the way.”
Baring a cross, I accept defeat to electricity and technology. This is a kind of resurrection. The hope of resurrection comes from a deeper, serious disruption and discomfort with our current state. While the cyborg succeeds as a metaphor, the only way this identity can make utopian status is through a lot of hard work, farther beyond why can’t we all just get along. Because being visited by God in my mouth and in my arms is technologically stunning, cyborgs give us a description, but not a solution. As a family priest said, there are no mangers and no angels now. If we are going to recognize that this boundary crossing is divine, we have to remember that all people are divine, too. No one else is going to do it for us. So the cyborgs remain a map. My salvation lies not in claiming Christianity as the only way, but in taking social norms and reinscribing them on my body like those medieval women, using my humanity to get closer to technology. Because like Margery Kempe:
“the devil said in her mind that she should be damned…and in this time she saw…devils opening their mouths all alight with burning flames of fire, as if they would have swallowed her in, sometimes pawing at her, sometimes pulling her, and hauling her about both day and night.”
And like Margery Kempe, the torment was cooled a bit by a kind, penetrating touch of something wild, untranslatable, but hopeful. This act of death and rebirth is agency – it is both working inside the boundary and transgressing it all together. As I cross the space between human and non-human through religiosity, I can help create a new framework that forces us to go beyond easy answers. Divine agency – the power to believe there is freedom from suffering – is a radical act, too often dismissed in these (post)modern times. Of course, since I’m still a product of my culture, I have an electric vibrator – you know, for those moments when not visited by something otherworldly.
Author and activist Theodora Ranelli wrote this essay while practicing Roman Catholicism as a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. A chapbook of her poems was published by Wheelhouse Magazine in July 2008. Her work has also appeared in Kritya, 400 Words, and make/shift.