Gender Surveillance

In chapter four of her book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, Dr Joy Ladin introduces the term, “gender surveillance.” While I didn’t integrate that section into OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation, it strikes me as a really important concept.

Ladin writes…

Whether or not we are transgender, we are all subjected to what trans people call “gender surveillance,” scrutinized to determine whether we are male or female. As I am reminded every time I enter a woman’s restroom, the more gender matters in a given situation, the more intense gender surveillance is, and the more intensely others react if they decide we do not look or act like the men or women they expect us to be. … Every trans person knows the terror of gender surveillance, the fear that our bodies, clothing, voices, gestures–any aspect of our gender presentation–will fail to meet binary gender expectations, and the even greater fear of how others will react if they see us violating those expectations. … That surveillance happens in stores, on the street, in the workplace. It is conducted by strangers and friends, bosses and employees, police and people who are homeless, doctors and deli workers. … Most gender surveillance is unconscious, an automatic comparison of how others look, talk, and act with our ideas of maleness and femaleness.

Joy Ladin, The Soul of the Stranger, pages 102-103

Ladin notes that this “gender surveillance” becomes a “religious obligation” in some faith traditions, when religious directives dictate requirements based on gender. Each of us even learns to monitor our own gender presentation and expression.

Yet, traditions like Judaism and Christianity also include themes and trajectories which undermine gender surveillance–which transcend and transgress the religious obligations of gender, in favor of celebrating the unique and powerful contributions of OtherWise-gendered folk. Dr Ladin does a wonderful job of highlighting some of these counterpoints in Jewish tradition in her book.

As I wrote OtherWise Christian, it became more and more clear to me that the God of Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob delights in those who are willing to wrestle free of gender surveillance. It has also been a delight to get to know Dr Ladin over these last few months and I look forward to what further insights she will bring in terms of helping us all to understand a “trans hermeneutic”–that is how we can read scripture from a transgender perspective.

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige on August 11, 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.

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