A Christian Transgender Perspective: Virginia Ramey Mollenkott 

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (1932-2020) was an evangelical feminist and the English professor emeritus at William Paterson University of New Jersey. She authored thirteen books and published numerous essays on literary topics across various scholarly journals. She delivered many speeches during her lifetime, served as a manuscript evaluator for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and helped create An Inclusive Language Lectionary. Mollenkott also lectured widely on lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights. She wants to acknowledge, especially for LGBTQ Christians, that “in all our uniqueness we are embodiments of a Creator who likes diversity so much that She created all sorts of spotted, freckled, in-between, counter-expectation, original, unusual, and strange landscapes and creatures” (1).

Mollenkot’s work in Christianity and religion draw impetus from experiences during her early life and marriage. When she was just eleven, her mother discovered that she was involved in a lesbian relationship and so sent her to a strict Southern Presbyterian boarding school (2). There the staff was informed of her “sinful” proclivities and the administration cautioned the students. Mollenkott felt intense guilt as a result of her sin and attempted suicide. Later she would marry a man, Fred Mollenkott, a fellow student, on the advice of teachers that marriage would eliminate her homosexual feelings. But this was an unhappy marriage and she later married Judith Suzannah Tilton. Mollenkott came to identify as a lesbian and masculine woman, and would call herself a “spiritual hermaphrodite,”

“I now think of myself as a psychic androgyne or a spiritual hermaphrodite, with a woman’s body but a spirit that is male as well as female, neither or both. At the senior continuing-care center where I now live, sometimes people identify me as male, even when I am wearing a name tag with “Virginia” prominently displayed. So I catch glimpses of how men speak to other men, and I enjoy the times when a woman flirts with me. I make no corrections” (3).

She sees how her spiritual hermaphrodite disposition draws on the richness of Greek mythology in which Hermaphroditus was the offspring of Hermes (the god of communication) and Aphrodite (the goddess of love). Accordingly, Hermaphroditus stood for the healing of the imagination. Mollenkott objects to the gender binary. She believes that society needs healing from its illusion that there are only two opposite sexes, male and female. This binary is “the enemy” of people as it has produced in millions of people the fear of disobeying gender roles. It also tells,

“transsexuals that they cannot transition to the other sex, telling transgenderists we cannot engage in our gender in-betweenness, and telling intersexuals as little as possible in order to conceal what their bodies reveal—that humankind exists on an ever-changing continuum, with varying degrees of masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness” (4).

Mollenkott maintains that the evidence from transgender lives and testimonies undermines the illusion of the gender binary. It is thus, in Mollenkott’s view, the work of Christian feminists to transform society into a more inclusive, humane, mutually affirming gender landscape. This Mollenkott refers to as “omnigender,” a central concept in her book Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach (2001). In Omnigender, Mollenkott contends for the adoption of the full continuum of sexual orientations and gender assignments in an omnigender universe. It is to argue against the view that God only made two sexes who are meant to be solely heterosexual and whose gender traits are fixed. She wants Christians to abandon essentialist notions of an eternal male-female, masculine-feminine polarization as either God’s will or nature’s norm.

Mollenkott hopes that in the future people will no longer be required to choose a binary-gendered lavatory or declare themselves male or female on government forms. But she also wants to exercise sensitivity to a range of decisions that can be made by transsexuals, transgenderists, and intersexuals that might not agree with her terminology and strategies. Many transsexuals, for example, still prefer to conform to the gender binary so that they feel they belong. Intersexuals might not want to be forced into conformity through surgeries and medicines. These persons should have the freedom to choose and not have to contend with social pressures and circumstances in making their decisions. She hopes that “trans-formed feminist Christianity will support everyone’s right to wholeness, whether that wholeness is interior (subjective) or exterior (social).”

There is also a feminist thrust to Mollenkott’s work. In Omnigender, she notes how gender roles can end up forcing women into social, physical, psychological, legal, and economic subjugation. This will resonate with speak deeply to Christian women, and perhaps women in general, who feel victims of subjugation based on their gender, especially within the Church. 

Mollenkott wants to challenge traditional Christian attitudes, especially since “Certain evangelicals of the center and right have repudiated my sex and gender identities, inclusive God-language, faith in universal redemption, and confidence that God really is “above all, and through all, and in [us] all” (Eph. 4:6)” (5). But Mollenkott is adamant that she will not be cut off at her roots. Despite resistance from her fellow Christians, she will not give up her love for Jesus Christ, her passion as an evangelical, and her respect for ancient mystical traditions. She hopes that society will one day learn to recognize Christian “conservatives” as political ideologues, instead of the holders of a self-evident universal perspective. She points out conservative Christian groups that object to sex-change surgeries as being incompatible with God’s will. Such views, Mollenkott argues, can only be held in the facing of “mountains of evidence to the contrary,” including,

“the lives of thousands of sincere Christian transsexuals and the fact that God created not only human bodies, but also human souls and spirits, as well as the hormones, doctors, gender clinics, and technologies necessary for their laying claim to their own wholeness” (6).

She argues that in the realm of biblical interpretation, queer scholars have accumulated evidence affirming that Christians can let go of their homophobia and transphobia without disrespecting their Christian faith. Mollenkott points to the “irrefutable evidence” provided by Theodore Jennings Jr. that Christian homophobia and transphobia are based on the late writings of Plato and certain Hellenistic writers who followed (7). It was only much later in the sixth century CE that Christianity adopted Plato’s phobias into the Justinian Code, a compilation of imperial laws codified by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (ruled CE 527-65). She then claims that it was not until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE that Christians began to view homophobia and transphobia as essential to Christianity’s self-understanding. Mollenkott wants a transformed Christian feminism to produce a more humane and egalitarian Christianity. Her theorizing in favor of an egalitarian Christianity clearly has an inbuilt moral imperative. It is Mollenkott’s attempt and purpose to expose the gender binary and how it is resulting in massive damage to human lives.

Regarding biblical Scripture, Mollenkott maintains that transgender Christian scholarship has shown how Scripture is significantly more LGBTQ-friendly than previously thought (8). It is because of such scholarship that we now know Jesus subverted gender expectations by doing women’s work such as cooking and washing the disciples’ feet. We also now appreciate how the New Testament letters teach “feminine” virtues such as meekness and gentleness to men and call men “the bride of Christ.” They also teach women “masculine” virtues such as courage and self-control and calling women “the sons of God.”

Despite, in Mollenkott’s view, this avalanche of scholarship, conservative Christians continue to ignore the evidence. But she predicts that Christianity will eventually be forced to capitulate to “the mountains of evidence that progressives will continue to uncover.” She hopes attitudes will change by the 2040s and 2050s when people, especially those who are “counter, original, spare, [and] strange,” will express their gratitude to God for the way they were created. Mollenkott wants Christians to expand their understanding of God. She quotes Reverend B. K. Hipsher who states that,

“We need a trans-God… one that transgresses all our ideas about who and what God is and can be, one that transports us to new possibilities of how God can incarnate in the multiplicity of human embodiments, one that transfigures our mental images from limitations, one that transforms our ideas about our fellow humans and ourselves, one that transcends all we know or think we know about God and about humanity [as made in the image of God].”

References

1. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. “Trans-forming Feminist Christianity.” In New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, edited by Mary Hunt and Diann Neu. p. 183.

2. LGBTQ Religious Archives Network. n.d. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Ph.D. | Profile. Available.

3. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 183.

4. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 184. 

5. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 186.

6. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 186. 

7. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 188. 

8. Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. 2010. p. 189.

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