When I was working on my master’s degree in the humanities in 2013, I took a course on Chaucer, and my paper was on the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales. He’s the unsavory seller of pardons who embodies the corruption and excesses of the Catholic Church that led to the Reformation, but as a character he is most well known for Chaucer’s depiction of his gender ambiguity. Scholarly debate has long centered on whether or not Chaucer is describing an actual castrated man (the Pardoner is referred to as a “gelding”), or just a very effeminate one — perhaps it is even the backdoor way a medieval author might get away with depicting a “homosexual” in a story (centuries before the concept of “gay” as we understand it existed.) My own analysis made note of the fact that that Chaucer himself was steeped in the Bible — as all of the writers of the era were — and I researched what references therein to alternative gender expression one might find. From my paper:
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus is in a dialogue with the disciples on marriage, divorce, and adultery. He then describes three reasons men might be celibate:
“For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (New American Standard Bible)
I also researched what the passage might have read like in the original Greek — which is the closest version one could hope to find to the actual opinions of Jesus, written down decades after he said them in Aramaic. The word Matthew used was eunuchoi. The etymology is dense, complicated by the layers of meaning that get added and subtracted by subsequent translations and interpretations. Certainly, however, the three-fold definition offered by Jesus/ Matthew speaks to what I found in my research; the term eunuchoi was used to describe more than just a man who’d had his testicles removed. Jesus says eunuchs may be divided into three categories: Born that way, made that way by other men (castrated), or that way by choice (i.e. the intentionally celibate — a common choice of members of many religious sects in the time of Christ. )
It is the first category that struck me: “…born so from the mother’s womb.” To cite another religious scholar/major diva, Lady Gaga: Some people are just born that way.
One can assume he was certainly referring to the biologically intersexed (previously known as hermaphrodites). But it is not remotely a stretch to conclude that he cast a much wider net. After all, the transgendered have always been with us — treated differently according to local culture, for sure, in the same way that boys who liked boys (and girls who liked girls) raised eyebrows in some places, and caused no one to blink in others.
However they get there, Jesus clearly has the same suggestion in how to treat them.
“He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”
The “Nashville Statement” issued by evangelicals this week is the same old bullshit appropriation of the Bible to justify modern tribal prejudices. Normally, I reject the very notion of using this sweeping work of historical fiction to justify anything — but in this case, I’m gladly raising their Leviticus with a Matthew — and from the mouth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself, no less. There it is in black and white. People who don’t fit into traditional categories of anatomy and gender expression are simply people who don’t fit into traditional categories of anatomy and gender expression.
No need for panic. No need for demonization. No need, really, to make a fuss.
In other words, to paraphrase Jesus: