The Rev. Alaina Kailyn Cobb – pastor and director of the radical liberationist collective Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee – starts off this last week of Women’s History Month with the history of trans women and how so often their stories are lost under literal mounds of ashes. And as we near the end of Women’s History Month, it is a clarion call that, as much as they have been erased, trans women and femmes have always been among us and will remain. Please read, comment, and share.
Francisco Herrera – PhD student, Interim Blog Editor
The first time I saw a woman like me was on Jerry Springer. There was no poetry in that and no grace, no poetry but the fumbling drunken poetry of a bar brawl and no grace but that of vinegar upon a sponge. Yet somehow, along with the harsh words of disgust and the sideshow antics, I saw hope.
I wonder what it means to me, to my soul, that my first image of hope was an icon offered up for mockery, shame, and derision. My Christ, my sacrificial lamb, was crucified with a thrown chair and a cheap wig. The crowd was surely chanting “crucify her” even though they only needed one word.
Years later, just like her, I took up my cross and set my whole and holy self towards bearing the sins of our society knowing there was no hope but that which I wove together from the tattered edges of my faith. Like our early mystics I set my face to the emptiness of the desert and dared to believe there was a life to be found there, a life more closely tied to the divine.
In those early days I believed that there was no path set before me. No ancestors, no legacy, no saints to guide my way. The narrative of my history, the history of my people, has been buried, burned, stabbed, gutted, and reburied so many times that dredging it from the past is a work of forensics as much as it is archeology.
Often we know more about what killed us than we do about who we were.
Even so, the tidbits that survive swell my heart to the point of bursting. Simple allusions to our existence are enough to set my pulse racing, to sustain me for days.
We are so starved of recognition, not just of our greatness or our accomplishments, but of our mere existence that even the subtlest glimpses of an ancestor reverberate like a thunderclap across the drought stricken plains of our hearts.
When I think of other women, cisgender women, I have a harder time considering them as ancestors. While I can connect with their experience of womanhood, it is with a constant mindfulness that they were often complicit in the erasure of my trans ancestors.
That is not an easy thing to overlook.
When we first come into our selves, our womanhood, we often feel as if we are locked away from it by cisgender gatekeepers. We crave the recognition of our cis sisters, begging crumbs like dogs beneath the master’s table. But the more I live in cisiety the more I wish to lock the gate from my own side. To barricade my femininity against the thieving hands of those I once wished to join. My womanhood is a feast of my own making, the culmination of years spent working the soil out here in this desert, watered with the blood sweat and tears of my sisters. My table bears the names of our dead, and it is in their name that I welcome you to communion.
When I invite you in, bow low, for this is deep hospitality.
It is from that place that I want to speak to you. From within that recognition of our erasure and our resilience.
The only solid stories of my people, fully fleshed out and fully human, date back fifty to a hundred years. Not because we haven’t been a part of this culture. Not because we didn’t exist, persist, and resist. But because we have been erased with precision and brutal efficiency.
I remember talking with a friend of mine who is a scholar of ancient texts, and hearing her lament the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the loss of history, the tragedy of knowledge destroyed that we can never regain.
I was moved by her real grief at this loss so far removed from her time.
The burning has become famous because of a well publicized photo of Nazis destroying books. It became a symbol for the Fascist desire to censor scholarship. I remember seeing that photo countless times in my childhood as my father watched the History channel and I always wondered what those books were. Oddly they never mentioned it, and almost no one can tell you what those books were, their loss overshadowed by the bigger picture.
But trans folk can tell you what those books were.
The Hirschfield Research Library and Institute for the Science of Sexuality performed the first modern gender confirmation surgeries, and was the first place to research and give affirming counsel to those with trans identities.
Those books were our history, our birthright; they were the first scientific texts dealing with trans people. The burning of those books was the beginning of our small fraction of the holocaust. It was the lives and courage of my people, become ash.
So what does this have to do with anything? What is the purpose of this lamentation, this recitation of misdeeds and loss?
The purpose is that I want you to understand. I want you to understand that this is the lens we bring to scripture. This is why we get so angry with those who accuse us of “reading queer people into ancient texts”. This is why I parse the Hebrew with a fine toothed comb as I wash the pages with my tears, my hair, and spikenard. Somewhere in those pages are my ancestors, covered by the ash and soot and sneers of centuries.
Though their bodies, their selves, their identities have been stolen, covered up, put away, and destroyed.
I know they are in there.
Because I exist.
Because I refuse to be erased.
Because my people live.
Erasure is how we keep people oppressed. Erasure is how we keep people powerless. People need a history and a culture to build power, to believe their selves powerful. It’s the very reason my European ancestors destroyed the cultures they invaded. Why they separated people they enslaved from those who spoke their language.
Erasure is evil and insidious. It always is. But it works.
That is why we must fight against it.
We must grasp our history and wrench it free. Loving our hated ancestors is a revolution, it is the kindling on a fire set to burn the empires. But to love them we must first find them, we must suss them out, even if we must snatch them from the wispy fog of myth and rumor.
So when I talk about my history, about the history of women like me, I’m not looking for solidity. I’m not justifying every claim to those who don’t understand the pervasive nature of erasure. Instead I am loud and proud and firm when I rejoice with Rachel at the birth of her beautiful Non-Binary princess Joseph. I converse with joy in the fullness of intersex Ha-Adam. I revel in the feminine hospitality of the Trans Woman who hosted the Lord for his last supper. And I claim these as my birthright.
These are the Women and Trans Folk stolen from my history.
These are who I celebrate, who I cherish, who I have clawed from between the pages of a book used to justify the same erasure I stand against. So yes these belong to me, they are my people, and you can take them from my cold dead exegesis.
Rev. Alaina K. Cobb is the Pastor and Director of Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, Co-Chair of the Leadership Council of the Progressive Christian Alliance, Tri-Chair of the Tennessee Poor People’s Campaign, Founder of the Transgender Crisis Ministry Network, an Activist, Poet, Mystic, and Mom. I once ate a man’s hat just to see if he’d notice his head was cold. See darling I told you no one reads these.