Their Eyes Were Watching Goddess

“Three years after graduation, in an apple orchard in Sonoma, a friend of mine (who comes from an Italian working class family) says to me “Cherrie, no wonder you felt like such a nut in school. Most of the people there were white and rich.” It was true. All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words “class” and “colour” to the experience, did my feelings make any sense. For years, I had berated myself for not being as “free” as my classmates. I completely bought that they simply had more guts than I did- to rebel against their parents and run around the country hitchhiking, reading books, and studying “art.” They had enough privilege to be atheists, for chrissake.”

~Cherrie Moraga, from ‘La Guera’

I have often said that transition changes far more than you expect. In my own life I certainly expected to change gender presentation in a very noticeable way, yes, but I never expected my politics to change, my relationship with my mother to change, and my career goals to crystallise so quickly, to name just a few significant things that shifted with the tectonic plate of my gender. But there is one more area of great significance here and I touched on it a bit yesterday. Faith.

When I was younger I was very close to being a radical atheist. I thought Richard Dawkins was the greatest thing to happen to Western intellectual life since Voltaire, I gleefully joined in the intellectually squalid mockery of the religious as “irrational” and otherwise “weak minded” (when I was being nice), and I joined Christopher Hitchens in saying that religion poisons everything. I had, after all, grown up in a Catholic household headed by a traditionalist patriarch who took inspiration from his faith to be misogynist and homophobic, as well as bigoted against various other religions, like Islam and Hinduism. As I grew older I would find myself recoiling against it, and not just because of him. I saw in the news, time after time, the Church shafting women, helping AIDS spread in non-Western countries, bilking the impoverished, spreading hatred of the queer and gender variant among us; indeed when I first tepidly came out, just a few days later the Pope would compare transgender and other variant people to the threat of deforestation around the world. I’ve memorialised my reaction to that in the form of this blog’s very title.

In all of this, how could I not have had a very negative reaction to faith as I got older? But when I transitioned something finally gave way. Even during my heavy flirtation with atheism I did not quite come right out and claim that I was because there was, ironically, a bit of logic gnawing at my mind. Would the world really be uniformly better off without religion when we settle the most petty of secular disputes with equal verve and hatred? Are virtuous people of faith really straw men, or are they people I ought to include in my assessment of religion? Is it right to mock and dismiss the religious out of hand because of their beliefs? On and on those questions worked upon my mind quietly. So what changed when I came out? The woman who helped me find myself was in the midst of another transition: coming out as a woman of faith.

But what made me sit up and take notice was that it was not just any faith, it was a pagan one culled from centuries past. The worship of the Goddess Cybele was often executed by priestesses that we would, today, consider transsexual women. Far from being a stigmatised group, shunned by faith as a threat to the world, they were considered the highest and holiest manifestations of the goddess herself. As my dear friend excitedly explained all of this to me and I did some research of my own I sat back pensively and felt my sociological imagination kick in. If that were possible- trans people being holy instead of utterly sinful- what else could faith do? And I began to realise that even though I knew religion was socially constructed, I had never taken that idea to its logical conclusion: that it could be socially reconstructed, that its meaning was not fixed and that its present form was not its inevitable one. The mythology of her deeply felt faith is profoundly beautiful, and my friend- Jade- found in me a willing counsellor. I couldn’t believe that I had stepped into this role, of interpreting her faith for her and providing her with guidance on how to believe. But it felt so right, and I knew that I was helping her. In her own words Jade describes her faith best: Here she is on sacred sexuality, here on the main myth of Cybelline faith which rendered trans women holy, and here is her beautiful recounting of SRS as a spiritual experience.

To return to my own journey… The hammer fell hardest on my self-flattering delusions about secularism and atheism. I had wanted to believe that those who had no faith would be inherently more tolerant, more reasonable, and more accepting. Yet as I was coming out and looked around I saw any number of things that told me this wasn’t true. Several atheists (YouTube’s infamous AmazingAtheist being a prime example of this) were flagrantly misogynist in the most boorish and typical way possible. Indeed, AA would give my Catholic father a run for his money in the woman-bashing department. In numerous discussions, comment threads, and writings I’ve found I have also discovered that many atheists can be just as callously transphobic as their “theist” counterparts, and oftentimes for the same reasons. It does not matter to me if you tell me that it is God or Allah who holds me as less than human, or if it is your bowdlerised reading of neuroscience and psychology that informs this. It’s all the same bullshit to me. That realisation was actually a liberating one. Christopher Hitchens’ atheism also did not leave him with the wisdom to oppose the war in Iraq or to not heartlessly rationalise neo-imperialism, nor did it leave him with the compassion to avoid Islamophobia, nor the reason to skirt asinine evolutionary-psychological theories about women’s separate sphere.

All of this made me realise that religion was less operative on human sin than I had thought. Atheists were just as capable of bigotry and rank stupidity as the religious were, and people of faith could be possessed of immense kindness and love. All was possible, but religion did not predispose us to one thing or another.

The fault, dear reader, lies not with the stars but with ourselves. What we mould faith into is what matters, but faith itself is merely a tool. The dominant patriarchal faiths of the world have done immeasurable harm, but not expressly because they are religions. We as humans lust after purpose and meaning. Religion furnishes us with this, but it is not the only avenue to those universally sought-after goals. Secular philosophies, political ideologies, and various other beliefs can inspire the same passion, the same fervour, the same devout blindness that religion can. The sacred canopy of faith, that great nomos that binds together the meaning structure of society, is easily replaced with secular strictures that perform the same functions- and will be prone to exactly the same flaws. The problem is neither faith, nor government, nor science, it is us.

When I came out as trans and began to research the history of this group I suddenly found I belonged to I realised that the great antagonists in our lives were not only the patriarchal men of God who pronounced hatred upon us from on high, but also men in white coats who hearkened to the higher power of rationality. Men who would pathologise us as diseased and in need of their shepherding, who would seek to control us. Who would tell trans men that they could not love or marry other men, who would tell trans women that we could not wear trousers, and who would constantly exploit us to enforce their vision of gender and sexuality. The same men who, for a very long time, had pathologised homosexuality. Their descendants, even now, in the forms of J. Michael Bailey and Kenneth Zucker, use rationalism to oppress. They exploit us for no reason other than a desire to increase the volume of their citeable writing and to make names for themselves with esoteric pet theories.

The Catholic Church could hardly have done any worse.

There were other things I came to notice as well as the scales finally fell from my eyes. Atheism’s overwhelming whiteness was one. In their insipid denunciations of the “irrational” among us they completely ignored the different cultural meanings and centralities of faith for people of colour. The Cherrie Moraga quote above epitomises a perspective that, even though I had grown up in a Latino family as well, I had become somewhat blinkered to. I had the privilege of going to the best schools in New York, which pushed me shoulder to shoulder with many who were white, upper class, and rebelling. I gained little to no appreciation for how faith built community in my own neighbourhood and wrote off the role of faith in opposing slavery and segregation.

When Sojourner Truth told a sceptical audience of white suffragettes and men of how only Jesus heard her when she wept a mother’s tears at how slavemasters stole away her children, that meant something. That was not incidental or flavouring. Faith sustained her through her greatest trials, faith helped her to become the powerful presence that stood at that podium to issue an injunction that echoes loudly and proudly to this very hour: Ain’t I a woman?

How could I have ever, ever deigned to spit on that as merely irrational weak mindedness? How drunk on privilege does one have to be in order to make such a judgement?

What Cherrie Moraga said was jarring because I had interpreted my own struggle to free myself from Catholicism as something rather the opposite of privilege. But in truth it was because I inhabited upper class milieux that I even had the breathing room to express myself in that way, where participation in a community of faith was optional. This Color Lines article is rather instructive on the subject from the unique perspective of trans people of colour.

[Monica] Roberts grew up in Houston, Texas, and in the Black church. Her mother is a teacher, and she was surrounded by women who were historians and leaders in the community. She understood the influence of Black women. “You might have a minister up here pontificating on the pulpit on Sunday,” she says, “but the real power behind the throne is the women’s auxiliary that’s meeting on Tuesday.”

Her father, a local radio commentator, tried to groom Roberts for leadership as his eldest child. Yet, it was only after transitioning that Roberts felt able to take on such a leadership role. Perhaps it was due to the toll that living in the “tranny closet” had taken on her self-esteem. But Roberts also noticed a difference in the responses she received from other people to her leadership as a Black woman. She got positive reactions, she says, “because I was basically doing the traditional work of Black women in the community in terms of uplifting the race.”

This is neither small nor incidental, it is something that commands respect and understanding. Not arrogant derision. I learned fast that what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham calls “the metalanguage of race” bears profoundly on how we have constructed atheist opposition to religion. I had never thought of atheism as a privilege. In some ways, it assuredly isn’t. It opens you up to discrimination and other forms of opprobrium. But on the same level as what people of colour have experienced? Absolutely not. What’s more it is also used as a weapon against people of colour, directly and indirectly, as a tool to castigate them for being insufficiently enlightened or intellectual or modern- how ironic that one form of cultural colonialism is being steadily replaced with another. The truth is, I found more enlightenment in a church nestled in the heart of a working class and immigrant community of colour than I ever saw in many so-called rationalists.

I’ll close with a recollection of that church, one the most wonderful memories I have of early transition. Another figure in my own spiritual transition was my Cybelline friend’s mother, Anne;  a minister in the United Church of Canada and herself a lesbian, married to another woman quite happily. She took me one drizzly Sunday morning to her church to speak to her congregation for a service dedicated to Pride Week. By itself that was amazing. The sight of a rainbow flag on the altar beside the sacred ornaments and instruments of Christian faith felt at once natural and exciting. But I would be asked to speak specifically about being a trans woman.

It was something I never expected to do, and yet somehow it happened, and as I spoke movingly of my joys and my fears, I also had to spare them a thank you. They’d prayed for me. Not to “cure” me or what have you, but prayed that my father would come to love and accept his daughter. When Anne had told me this, it was like a brick through a plate glass window that finally shattered my militant resistance to faith. I thanked the congregation for their thoughts and their prayers and told my story, which was very well received by them all. As I sang with them and moved to the sounds of their gospel I felt something I had never felt before. At home in a church.

I am not a Christian now, no, nor will I ever be. The faith does not speak to my soul the way it does for some others. The difference now, however, is that I respect that for what it is. I learned the seemingly simple and even obvious lesson that faith is what you make of it, and that invidious mockery of it merely serves to reinforce the bigotry that atheism is supposed to be the antidote to. For my own part, I will admit for the first time here publicly that I consider myself a woman of faith, and probably betrayed what that faith was in my prior article. I do not speak much of it in this space simply because faith is private for me, it’s my own little sanctuary against the world in the embrace of Goddess and God. I do not believe in skyhook deities, however; for me faith is a beautiful metaphor that orders my thoughts and grants me peace.

I came to realise that was enough.

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