An Ethic of Embodiment


Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Paul goes on to imagine parts of the body in comparison with one another, the foot in relationship to the hand, the ear in relationship to the eye, and concludes that all of the members of the human body -- and therefore all members of the body of Christ -- are essential: If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?

Setting aside for a moment that the use in this way of eyes and hearing as metaphors assumes and prefers able-bodiedness, within our movements we have similarly endorsed the importance of all God's children, including the trans and genderqueer members of our communities. It is not clear, however, that merely imagining us to be -- or even insisting that we are -- equal members in the body of Christ sufficiently brings us to an actual spiritual and community practice of full inclusion and empowerment. And it is possible that the root of the issue lies with the importance of embodiment. There are ways, even within trans communities and from allies, that trans bodies are made out to be either broken, unwell and dysphoric or absent, abstract and nonessential.

To help put this into context, I am borrowing from Disability Studies to illustrate the dilemma: In that field, the medical model holds that disabled bodies are broken, that disadvantages are the direct result of disability, and that curing or managing disability -- healing it or fixing it -- is central to normalcy, well-being and quality of life. By contrast, the social model rightly identifies systems and attitudes as problems to be fixed and frames disability as a social construct 1) with definitions of disability that change with time and technological advancement, 2) by creating the world in ways that assume that everyone is healthy, able-bodied, slim and often male, thereby limiting the full participation of all bodies and 3) by failing to provide accommodations that able-bodied people take for granted and think of as entitlements, if at all.

But Disability scholars and Crip theorists have argued that both models insufficiently address the realities of disabled bodies. While the medical model blames and shames bodies with disabilities and locates marginalization and disenfranchisement within the individual body, the social model often disembodies them, separates the experience from the body and renders disability as a metaphor or an abstraction. These scholars and theorists call for such solutions as a "complex embodiment" that will navigate and mediate the realities of both the medical and social models and will insist not only that environments and interpretations are socially constructed and disabling, but also that disabled people live in and act from bodies.

Trans bodies are similarly pathologized and "repaired" by the medical model with diagnoses, gender dysphoria, speech therapy, hormones, gender affirming surgeries, victim-blaming and otherwise treating trans bodies as insufficient and abnormal. And from the social model standpoint, gender is similarly framed as a social construct that is mutable and contrived and that in many ways disconnects trans identity from trans bodies. Even those of us, including me, whose goal is to emphasize gender self-determination can contribute to this dramatic separation of gender from anatomical and biological primacy, and therefore, if unintentionally, from bodies. Laverne Cox and others have rightly lectured on the ways that society's fixation with genitals and surgery only serves to undermine trans identity and camouflage anti-trans violence. And, still, any solution that doesn't affirm trans physicality also disembodies trans selves.

We live in and from bodies. Even the Galatians baptismal formula that states so beautifully that we are all the same in Christ -- no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female -- even this spiritualizes and abstracts bodies: we are Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, genderqueer. Our bodies are the points at which we make contact with the world and with ourselves. Our bodies are our home. Our bodies are what make love to our partners and carry home the groceries. Our bodies are what are abandoned in Baltimore dumpsters and repeatedly run over in Kansas City parking lots; are 5-11 times more at risk for suicide and four times more likely to live in poverty; are refused health care and violently assaulted in doctor's offices; are feared and hated in shelters, loathed and litigated in toilets and locker rooms, sexually assaulted and misgendered and mishoused in prisons and detention centers.

Simply recognizing, or even celebrating, that trans people are equal and essential members of the body of Christ may not adequately overcome a world of anti-trans violence and loathing. Trans bodies need to be fully embodied in the body of Christ, radically taken in and rendered not just essential but essence. And so rather than Paul's ethic of equal body membership, what may be called for is John's ethic of radical body ingestion. John's Jesus insists, Unless you eat, devour, munch on my flesh you have no life in you. The genderqueer body must also be taken in completely and radically in all of our beauty, our incongruity, our absurdity. Not cured or fixed, not abstracted or spiritualized. And not assimilated or appropriated!

This likely means fully apprehending trans and genderqueer bodies as biological and anatomical and understanding that our bodies don't conform, that like most bodies we can't possibly conform, that we do not necessarily value conformity. We are trans-binary and non-binary, often identifiably genderqueer, trans-femme and -butch and -high femme, neutrois, genderflexing, genderfucking. Fixating on our genitals and surgeries does undermine trans identity and does camouflage anti-trans violence, and the cure for your fixation is not to desexualize and disembody us but to thoroughly center what you call incongruity or anomaly into the spectrum of what is fully human and fully divine.

Applying John's ethic of radical body ingestion to trans bodies likely means that all bodies must become genderqueer, insofar as our bodies and experiences must also become your flesh memories. It means to reject the privileges of inhabiting a body that is not perceived as grotesque or threatening (terms that I acknowledge are weapons used against us and that I use here as descriptive neutral and positive language). It means to interrogate and undermine the systems and structures that reward some gender identities and expressions over others, including restrooms that reward congruous identity and anatomy and punish Others, law enforcement and screening protocols that reward congruous identity and anatomy and punish Others, constant repeated and relentless human social interactions that reward congruous identity and anatomy and punish Others. It means to maintain that #transisbeautiful, to dismantle expectations that trans bodies must pick a side, and stay on it, and express it convincingly enough to become invisible, undetectable. It means to take the danger of embodying the Gender Other into your own body, to gender no one without consent, to think to some extent about gender in every setting, with every observation, through every intercourse.

Our responsibility to radically ingest the body of Christ of course doesn't stop at trans bodies but is an intersectional call -- because of the inherent humanity and divinity of all bodies, and because trans bodies are also black and Latinx and South Asian, also disabled, also fat, elderly, working class and poor. Across the spectrum and crosshatches of human bodies, the radical ingestion of Christ's body as it is invoked by John's Jesus calls us to enthusiastically inhabit one another's bodies. It may be only then that we will truly be one body in Christ.