Our decision to publish the present article does not imply our endorsement of the church referenced therein or its episcopate. Orthodoxy in Dialogue reiterates its commitment to the canonical Orthodox Church as currently represented in the diptychs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The author and her conference co-presenter are known to our readers through On Being Orthodox & Genderqueer: An Interview with “Lindsey”.
I first learned about the Queer & Transgender Studies in Religion Conference at UC Riverside thanks to Orthodoxy in Dialogue. I’m so glad I attended. I co-presented some preliminary research with Lindsey about Mother Maeve Leroux, a transgendered nun, bishop, and founder of the Universalist Orthodox Church.
As a cisgendered, heterosexual woman myself, I came to this conference primarily to learn about the theories and literature that other folks were using in the burgeoning fields of Queer Theory and Transgender Studies. I was surprised to meet people from a wide range of fields, including biblical studies, theology, anthropology, sociology, Jewish studies, Buddhist studies, Catholic studies, Islamic studies, and art history, to name a few. Also in attendance were clergy from a variety of faith traditions. I met people all along the spectrum of gender expression.
In general, this conference was a deeply joyful experience (not something I would say of all academic conferences).
I learned that Queer & Transgender Studies in Religion is its own up-and-coming academic subfield. For those of you outside of academia, you may wonder why subfields are necessary, or why someone would invent a new field of study. I’d like to offer a few observations I made at this conference and why I think both religious studies and queer & transgender studies are complementary to one another.
As I learned from both observing and listening to fellow conference attendees, gender is nearly infinite in expression, not unlike God. Perhaps being made in God’s image is more about this infinite spectrum that we create together, as a mosaic of humanity, than it is about how individuals alone reflect a divine creator.
Gender is not always something that is immediately visible, also like God. I’d like to specify here that sex is the physical body with which one is born, and gender is what one does with that: performance, in the sense of anthropologist Emile Durkheim, linguist Irving Goffman, and others.* Gender can be the source of enormous creativity, and often—for individuals who do not fit into the binary cultural models with which they are presented—it is a highly personal, creative act.
When I say that gender is something which is not always visible, I mean that when we behold one another in life, there is so much we cannot see about what lies within. Looking at someone else, we may not be able to discern whether someone is gay or straight, feels at home in their bodies, or how one perceives their identity. Gender can be ephemeral in this way, though no less real—just like God. Gender may defy our linguistic capabilities, just like God. We would never shake a fist at an icon and condemn God for failing to conform to our limited models of reality; yet, this is so often the experience for our queer and non-binary kindred.
Lindsey is a doctoral student in theology. They and I presented our research in the very last panel, in the very last time slot of the conference. We were tired (in that happy way one feels at the end of summer camp), but so grateful that people stuck around for our talk.
As a social scientist, I offered an analysis of Mother Maeve’s visual messages about gender through her vestments. Lindsey’s half of the presentation was about Mother Maeve’s theology. (Her church is outside of the mainstream, but this is a separate topic).
Lindsey prefaced their portion of the presentation with an anecdote about being outed to their family about their non-binary gender identity and threatened with excommunication by their Orthodox parish priest. They asked me to read their portion of the presentation, as this was still a very emotional time for them.
After the presentation, there was such an incredible outpouring of love toward Lindsey from those in attendance. Many had their own stories of being excommunicated or otherwise rejected from their families or faith communities. Rather than being driven toward atheism, however, so many of these individuals continued to find meaning, self-expression, and strength in their religious traditions.
Mother Maeve, our research collaborator, continues to find this strength, but has been forced to go outside the mainstream Orthodox Church to simply be allowed to exist as a valid category of person, let alone to be a woman and a bishop, among other theologoumena.
Would that the canonical Orthodox Church truly embodied tradition as a living, breathing thing, which celebrates all the marvels of God’s creation.
*Editor’s note: See also Judith Butler’s extensive body of writings on the performativity of gender.
See the extensive Sexuality and Gender section in our Archives by Author.
Lydia Bringerud is a PhD student in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. She holds an MA in folklore from Indiana University in Bloomington. Her research focuses primarily on American converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as well as attitudes toward authority, obedience, cultural conflict, and the position of women.