Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Eunuchs for the Kingdom

For there are eunuchs, 
that were so born from their mother's womb: 
and there are eunuchs, 
that were made eunuchs by men: 
and there are eunuchs, 
that made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom 
of heaven's sake.

Gospel of Matthew 19:12

The following is a transcript from the "Hauntings" panel
at the 19th Century Upstate New York Religions and Their Heirs
the Annual Meeting of the Eastern International Region
of the American Academy of Religion
at Syracuse University, May 3-4, 2014


In a key scene in the 1995 film, the Transformation -- documenting Sara, a trans prostitute, who, after contracting AIDs on the streets of New York, converts to Born Again Christianity and adopts the masculine persona "Ricardo" -- when the preacher, Terry, presents a reading of his pupil that brings transgender into the fold of scripture. 

“There is nothing that is in the Bible that isn’t covered. Jesus said in Matthew 19:12… ‘some are born eunuchs, some are made that way men, and some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’… what he is speaking of is that there are people who are born without the desire for the opposite sex, but that doesn’t mean that they are same-sex motived. Satan says you are man, woman or gay. God says that you are man, woman or eunuch.” (Aikin & Aparicio).

Previous trans theory and scholarship on the Transformation has paid little interest in Terry’s Biblical typologies of gender, accepting the preacher's own flat reading of Matthew 19:12. Yet, while Terry’s invocation of eunuchs stresses the idea of sexual repression, performing what Eve Sedgwick calls a "reparative reading" of the preacher’s scriptural citation could cite manifold historical roles of eunuchs as the representative of the departed, as the cauterized embodiments of absence, and as sex slaves. What if we take scripture to mean (and allow) more than one of its readers intends? How might Born Again Christianity better allow for the transformation of trans bodies than neoliberal identity politics? Why stop the queer drive for appropriation, gaping openness and unnatural love at the Church doors? These are not just abstract questions, but a critique generated by Ricardo/Sara as she trans-formed the language and properties of Christianity to allow for a more a livable life.

In this paper I unpack Christ's words in Matthew 19:12, using different readings and translations (e.g. the Latin Vulgate, American Protestantism, Terry's paraphrases), to demonstrate how the Transformation uses the three eunuchs of scripture to offer three different histories for gender change (I. Woman, II. Man, III. Self), that speak with and against three neoliberal modes of codifying transgender in the mid 1990s as an identity (I. Original, II. Progressive, III. Individualistic). By offering manifold images that contradict one another, these eunuch narratives disturb attempts to define and homogenize trans bodies by playing different essentialisms against one another. Through this dialectical approach, the scripture and film moves us towards an orientation to "the Kingdom" that is neither absolutely natural or social, natural or super-natural, but widens the gaps in these delimited discourses to allow for properties to flow between delimited bodies. The Trans-Eunuch uses their place in the threshold, always between and across communities, to sustain the contradictions that bind desire and abjection, presence and absence, life and death.

There remains a pressing need for transformation in contemporary trans studies. “Born This Way” politics and models of transgender as artificial, man-made men, don’t escape Matthew 19:12, and the paranoid imperative in queer culture to cut ourselves off from a Christian past in order to move forward depends on the logic of castration and baptism. However we slice it, the eunuch still stands in the dark, haunting our queer kingdom with uncomfortable trans Christian narratives, demanding a yet more gaping openness and more unnatural love, without promises that we’ll survive such contingent alliances fundamentally unchanged.

I. From the Mother’s Womb

Trans bodies in the Transformation compel desires for origin stories by disturbing the sense of constancy by which neoliberalism makes its promises for coherent identity by embodying mutability. Lacanian psychoanalysis calls this crisis and desire the search for the Mother, a pun with a search for the capital-O "Other" (with God, or the Law of God, as the Other par excellence that promises an objective Real to undergird and generate our slippery subjectivity (Zizek, the Sublime Object of Ideology). The arrival at this metaphysical Womb in a sense promises to bring signifier and signified together, ending the free play of language as a series of specters of meaning, a Tomb, a figure-head that can be understood in religious terms as Apotheosis, the (M)other of a Trans persons essence (Zizek, the Monstrosity of Christ). 
When Terry signals that some eunuchs may be made, “de matris utero sic nati” (born from the mother's womb; Gospel of Matthew 19:12, Latin Vulgate), he gestures to the very desire for “Born this Way” origins that the film, and perhaps himself, desperately wants to assert for Sara, but ultimately denies. He is constructed like the historical eunuch, the dark body standing in the shadows, unnoticed until he is invoked to stand in for the departed Lord. He cauterizes a gap in power and meaning, representing the Law and presence of the absent Other. His manhood at once allows him to take this position, while his castration announces that he holds this position unnaturally, provisionally, partially.

The Transformation (1995) follows-up on Aikin’s and Aparacio’s previous work, the Salt-Mines (1990), documenting a community of “transvestites,” as they prostituted and propagated in warehouses, where New York kept its salt for winter. By the time of the Transformation, the salt mines were cleared out by HIV/AIDs. Into the remnants of this community enters Terry and his church, offering these trans bodies a place in Texas where they will be transformed into Christian men. Terry targets Sara, soon after she contracts HIV, promising housing and care as well as a place in heaven for eternity; if she is willing to be “Born Again” as Ricardo. Here The film meshes footage and interviews from different contradicting points (of view) in Sara / Ricardo’s life without settling on an original.

“Let’s talk about Ricardo,” says Terry at the film’s opening, over a black-screen., and then again “Let’s talk about Ricardo,” he repeats as the film cuts to him sitting in a white room, on a white couch with a photo-album in hand (Aikin & Aparicio). Opening it up, Terry describes and compares two images. On the right, a picture of Sara, and on the left, a picture of Ricardo, one that Terry narrates is from “right after he came off the street.” This repetition, of images and words, makes Sara and Ricardo present in this space, even when he is not there in the flesh. As if acknowledging the irony of power of this absent presence, the scene ends with fading back again from the white room to a black-screen and, and the appearance announcing the film’s title. This movement from white to black plays with notions of origin and finality, death and heavenly light.

When Terry’s narration continues, he is speaking over images of Sara from when she lived in New York, the subtitles “the Salt Mines, New York” printed on the screen 
(Aikin & Aparicio). “Ricardo was there that first night,” says Terry as the video pans onto her Sara sitting around by a fire putting on her make-up. “Sara was there that first night,” Terry corrects as “Sara” appears on the screen to identify her, helping to fix the disturbance of invoking both Ricardo and Sara with the origin position of the “first night.” 

The audio cuts over to Sara’s voice-over, lingering over the is image of her by the fire. “I am from Cuba… my name is Ricardo, my nickname, Sara” she says, speaking, alone, surrounded by white snow and concrete, repeating a physical context that resonates with Terry’s introduction (Aikin & Aparicio). As Terry brought us back to Sara in Sara in New York, Instead of Terry introducing Ricardo through Sara’s past locations, Sara, in a heavenly blank space, narrating Ricardo’s past. In these spaces, the figures take the position of the Womb/Tomb framing as though from without Time, the shifting narrative of a life of transformation.

“I couldn’t wait to come [to the US],” says Sara, “but now I am sorry I came. Because here if you have no money you are nothing” 
(Aikin & Aparicio).

With those haunting words, the screen freezes and the distinct voice of Ricardo (from another scene) , distinct from the tone of Sara, speaks over the image. before In this frozen moment before the change, we see the woman who is supposed to be “nothing” in this place linger as if to affirm that she remains an absent presence throughout the film, even as the documentary moves forward into the space of Ricardo in Texas. The central irony of the eunuch, is that his identity depends on a fertile masculinity that is invoked, only to be dismissed, but which lingers as a haunting presence. Who is Ricardo in Terry’s story, and the film’s story, if not at once the original image that Sara disturbed, and the tomb that Ricardo must constantly reference to narrate his conversion? She is made a “nothing” in order serve as an absent background for Ricardo’s thingness, the abjected image for his assertion of essence.

When the video catches up the audio, the still of Sara is replaced by the actively swaying Ricardo and the subtitle “Ricardo” appears on the bottom of the screen. Then “Dallas, Texas” appears on the screen as it pans over a dark room with dark furniture, where Terry’s church thanks God for bringing Ricardo (into being) there, in a dark room, thanking God for bringing Ricardo (into being) there. Despite the ironic dimness of the room, Terry calls the place (of Sara) where he brought Ricardo out from, “a deep and dark hole.” 
(Aikin & Aparicio).

Robert McRuer has connected this "darkness" to Sara’s  a place of deep interiority, related to her feminine space in New York City, the womb and tomb that gave birth to her transfeminine life and brought it to a close (Crip Theory 119-120). This is where Sara worked the streets at night as a prostitute, injected drugs and hormones; consumed meat cooked over a small fire, and opened herself up to a host of other environmental penetrations. Sara’s location is indeed "deep" as blood, semen, make-up, salt and semi-tangibles like love and community saturated each other’s holes, leaving traces of themselves on the street and in their blood. It is this place, in the form of HIV that Sara carries deep in her body even as she migrates to Texas. The search for the eunuch’s origins, serves to underline the specters of the past alive in the present. In this way, darkness is not negativity, but overflows like shadows in the night. It does not contain, but harbors Sara's radical openness that drives Ricardo to flee to the metaphorical castration and supposed closed ontology of the Church.


II. Made that Way by Men

Antithetical to the matriarchal “Born this Way” model that makes up the first part of the Transformation, based on foundational essence, or origin, that continually withdraws from full presence, the later part of the film concentrates on the trans eunuch as an artificial creature, made in the act of castration that distinguishes the past from the present, the old from the new, via temporal cut, a never ending series of presents. According to cinema theorists, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, film is poised to perform this model of time, replacing conceptions of being with the process of becoming, with a succession of images in film operating in time with a perpetually varied insistence on a new “now.” Film serves as another technology to create transsexuality (clothing, hormones, surgery) to create the new eunuch, “facti sunt ab hominibus” (made by men, 
Gospel of Matthew 19:12, Latin Vulgate). 

The logic of castration in the film becomes bound up in the Christian doctrine of Being covered in water, Bbaptism, where a is said to wash away past acts, allowing for a kind of death from which the person emerge person is submerged in in water, marking the end of the past as one is Born Again. Holding hands in a house, Terry leads thea prayer: “You have stuck him in the devil’s face and you have said, ‘look what I can do’” 
(Aikin & Aparicio). The praise is telling. Ricardo’s body, his new house, his household, and his Church is perpetually being shoved in the face of audiences so that Terry can tell them “look what I can do.” Terry becomes paranoid to constantly mark Sara’s transformation into Ricardo. 

Sick from Aids, Ricardo too appears anxious to exist in the supposed closed systems of the Church. “HIV affected his mind,” accounts one of Sara’s friends, “He grew afraid of dying alone on the streets. The Church was the only way out”(Aikin & Aparicio). Despite the openness of the streets, once HIV had made its circuit through the community, it formed a closed system that Sara/Ricardo wanted to escape. Impending death prompted a desire to be Born Again.

Despite the common affirmation of Baptism across Christian faiths, there are often different understandings and doubts around the power of such events to demarcate an absolute before or after, evidenced by what happens when Ricardo and his bride attempt to get married: “When I went there, the parish secretary said to me: you can’t get married in the church. When I asked her why she said: because of your past. I said: we all have a past. Don’t you guys say that Christ cleanses us of our sins?” 
(Aikin & Aparicio). When Ricardo’s voice-over arrives at the moment where he begins calling out the secretary on her past, the video cuts back to Ricardo in a chair being interviewed, gesturing to the camera and back at himself. Dressed in a hyper-masculine suit and holding an umbrella for his wife as they enter another church, Ricardo admits that this doubt over his change almost sent him back to New York, “to live as a woman, what I most wanted.” Even after being Born Again, Ricardo doubts the power of change in the face of a past that will not wash away.

Queers as well can be suspicious of the possibility of real change supposed by “facti sunt ab hominibus” model of transgender. Neoliberalism comes to essentialize gender and sexuality as much as their Christian counter-parts. The paradox at the heart of change asks for miracles or leaps of faith that many, like Jovanna, another of Sara’s friends, are not willing to affirm. 

“Ricardo’s transformation? If ‘he’ says, and he truly believes, that he is reborn and god made a miracle on ‘him’. But I guess in this day and age, that’s true: a miracle… I don’t know. I can’t accept that. So if you are asking me if I believe? Me? Personally? No. I don’t… How can you be a homosexual, a transvestite … and then you come back and tell me that you are no homosexual anymore?” (Aikin & Aparicio).

However difference marks the body, real change remains regarded as fundamentally beyond the power of man. The medieval adage: God makes and man shapes appears adapted to secular logic.

The Transformation takes on the uncertainty of castration-logic in how it intercuts scenes from the past, over-lapping sound and video from different moments, allowing Sara and Ricardo , to allow them to speak to one another. The effect is disturbing. It is is unsettling exactly when is the scene is we are watching and to whom should we should be listening to more closely? By cutting up the Salt Mines and the new documentary scenes, detaching and stitching together different video and audio tracks, the film-makers are able to demonstrate their own abilities to shape the identity of Sara and Ricardo through there positioning of interviews.

This cinematic surgery is especially. evident and ethically implicating in the final scenes where Ricardo admits that Sara’s past remained present for many years in Ricardo’s present. Driving down the road before his death, Ricardo re-narratesgives the last word of the film.

“I repented for my past life... now when I think about everything I lived I remember some of it as beautiful. Because the real truth is that I enjoyed it. That’s what I would have liked to be: a woman. If I could still have the choice, if I could change my life right now– even now that I have my wife and everything- I would chose to be a woman”   (Aikin & Aparicio).

In this confession, Ricardo does not deny any of the particular moments of his life: all pasts exist together. The scene fades to black as white text announces Ricardo’s death. This name above two dates separate by a line points to the multiplicity of times he existed in, past presences haunt the line in between. In this moment, the film itself reveals itself as a tomb stone, an apparatus summoning up the departed, not only Sara, but Ricardo. Ricardo’s desire for Sara is checked by contingency: “if I could still have a choice.” Overruling change is impossible. In this way, Ricardo joins Sara in the dark absence of the past. Only more changes, more castrations, more cuts, films cuts, and scars that never close. Choices still exist, but shift to the hands of those who shared in the eunuch’s transformative story. We become eunuch-makers, implicating ourselves in crafting what they become and the future of their pasts. 

III. Eunuchs for the Kingdom

From the open womb, to the open wound, we are left with the open grave of Ricardo, one he faces down when he becomes what Terry invokes “sunt eunuchi se ipsos castraverunt propter regnum caelorum” (making one’s self a eunuch for the Kingdom; Gospel of Matthew 19:12, Latin Vulgate). What if repression turns into surrender, as trans-formation moves from the act of a nature, from the act of an external corporation, into an act in which all our selves are implicated? What potential lives and dangers might come of this opening up form to transformation? What vows must we let go to allow an even more gaping unnatural love?

“I thank God that I have AIDs,” says Ricardo, sitting comfortably in a plush chair and warm sweater, “I wouldn’t have come off the street, and I wouldn’t have devoted myself to God. I’m not a fanatic, I just love the way God loves me” 
(Aikin & Aparicio). Ricardo never claims that he does not fully give himself to fully given himself to Christianitythe church, although he participates in it. The Church and God in turn participate in him,him; through thehis disease and the reception of a home and the care he is given. Ricardo connects this exchange as forming a contingent alliance. He does not not even say he loves God, but that he lLoves how God loves him. While a change in location and time has passed, Ricardo remains tied to Sara through the properties (the disease, desire, faith, love) that runs flow between through both of them. The relation between economic “property” and qualitative “property” is no mere accident of words. A being’s claim (or access) to a given mechanism determines the degree to which that thing operates in their life. 

Ricardo testifies how He surrenders his gender, sexuality, location and name for the manifestation of other desires. Once again sitting in his comfortable chair and sweater, Ricardo keeps self-narrating:the exchange of properties literally transforms Sara’s dream into his reality: “To me this is like a dream. I am a poor man. The poorest of the poor. But now I feel rich… rich in love. … When I was a transvestite, people would say to me ‘Sara you are so beautiful.’ But they didn’t know how hurt I was inside; how much I wanted a home” (Aikin & Aparicio).Ricardo is rich now, to which he adds (or corrects), “rich in love.” 

Ricardo’s love is manifest in the riches that brought him off the street, given to him by Terry and by his wife Betty. This alliance operates in the background of the scene, literally, as Ricardo’s men’s clothes and house repeats the same white colorations that originally marked Terry’s first narration. These trappings, if not the exact same objects as Terry possesses, reflect his standards of masculinity, race and sexuality. Ricardo comes into being out of this exchange of properties - bearing the cost of acquisition. 

The contingency of Ricardo’s properties are visible in his closest contacts. As much as Betty, his wife, functions to perpetuate the activities that distinguish Ricardo’s life from Sara’s, she nonetheless becomes an operative between these identities. Opening not only her resources to him but allowing him in to effect her through his experience, love and disease. Following a piece from their wedding video, Ricardo addresses the camera in an interview on how Betty negotiated a relationship with her now husband. “Betty, there can be nothing between us,” Ricardo recounts saying, “Why not? She asked “Because I was a Transvestite for many years. I even have breasts still. And I am HIV positive.” She said, “I know it all, and I don’t care”  
(Aikin & Aparicio). This negotiation emphasizes the unnaturalness of their union and exchange of properties. Betty is not a pre-given part of Ricardo, or a mere tool in his transformation, but an intentional operative in a shared life. 

In becoming Ricardo’s wife, she embraces not just him as a person but also his body. They do not have frequent sex, Betty admits, but when they do, she would contact his breasts and, potentially, HIV+ semen (Aikin & Aparicio). “Are you sure you don’t mind my being HIV+” asks Ricardo before their wedding, stressing to Betty the danger of sharing properties (and fluids) between their bodies. 

B: “I love you & I don’t care about your AIDs…We’ve already talked about this many times, & you know I have great faith in God. But I love you & I want to be with you!” 
R: “Now everything is fine, but if I get sick… I hope you won’t abandon me in the hospital then.” (Aikin & Aparicio).

Ricardo’s uneasiness around the promise Betty makes to him dwells on the instability of properties in the body, (especially the HIV+ body). 

Transformation, if it produces something new, cannot be known in advance. Knowing these dangers, Betty’s “faith” and “love” distinguish from Terry’s biblical predictions. Betty recalls that they have “talked about this many times” and will likely continue to have check-ins. Unpredictability requires promises and love be committed not to eternal forms but to all the possible changes that body might undergo across time. Love, she says, is not once and for all, because like any alliance, it is contingent on work. 

“Love is not just something that just happens in the beginning. Love is something that continues to grow. But love is not just something that’s a feeling either. Love is a commitment…. that means when things aren’t going well you are still going to be there.”  (Aikin & Aparicio).

Love in this sense, is not natural. That Betty will “love” Ricardo even when “things aren’t going well” or if he “get[s] sick” evidences that they constitute an operative alliance, continuing to work at it over time. Every exchange between Betty and Ricardo add a distinct property to their shared being: memories, joys, and promises. This ability to sustain through change constitutes what Betty calls growth, adding things unnaturally together at the point of contact and love. Things do not grow in the one direction forever, but branch off from one another, even as they share roots. Remember Ricardo’s final statement of the film, that he would live as a woman “even now that I have my wife and everything.” The growth of the disease positions Ricardo “on the way out” and leaves him surrendering to all the unnatural and inextricable alliances that pull at his body: time, change, gender, sexuality, life, death.


Works Referenced

Aikin, Susana and Carlos Aparicio. The Salt Mines. PBS. 1990.

Aikin, Susana and Carlos Aparicio. The Transformation. PBS. 1995.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1920.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1907.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: the Movement Image. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press,

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Munoz, Jose. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minnesota: Minnesota Press, 1999.

Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003.

Scholz, Piotr O. Eunuchs and Castrati: a Cultural History. John A Broadwin and Shelley L Frisch, trans. Princeton, UK: Markus Weiner Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Gary. Castration: an Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Tougher, Shuan. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj and John Milbank. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic. Creston Davis, ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009.


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