on April 19, 2010
Virginia Mollenkott's "Omnigender: a trans-religious approach" was ground-breaking at the time it was written, virtually creating a new category of scholarship and perception. In the preface she even admits that the main idea of the book, the creation of a new gender paradigm, was one that she had only recently developed, casting her old ideas about gender aside. She states that "This book is my attempt to move beyond the binary gender construct in order to set forth a new gender paradigm, which seeks to include and offer liberation to everyone who has been oppressed by the old model" (Mollenkott vii). In order to do this she must have knowledge of her probable readers and be able to use her evidence and prose to convince them of her thesis. Mollenkott implies that she is trying to connect with two different audiences, a Christian one and a trans-religious one, but in fact alienates them both, leaving her true audience to be those who identify themselves as her "oppressed".
Mollenkott relies on Christianity as a base for her ideology and obviously implies that at least part of her audience is Christian. This can be seen not even 5 pages into the work when she quotes the Intersex Support Group International, a group that "expresses faith in `our Creator and Lord, Jesus Christ'" (Mollenkott 5), as a source on intersex awareness. She does not provide any secular information to help verify the group's reputation, but simply quotes them as saying that "We are His unique creation" (Mollenkott 5) with their only proof of authority being that they are a Christian organization. Clearly she cannot expect someone other than a Christian to see this group as a serious source of information on the topic when the only background she gives is their belief in Jesus Christ. Starting on page 81, she has two entire chapters devoted to how her thesis fits into current Judeo-Christian views on gender and sexuality, as well as those conveyed through church history and scripture. Throughout these chapters she consistently quotes passages from the bible, references relating to Christian church history, and scientific evidence that re-evaluates common ideas about thing such as the Virgin Birth story. Again, if she were not writing to Christians, these sources would be meaningless and a waste of her time. Why bother convincing a secular audience that church history supports cross-dressing? There would be no reason for her to bring any of these topics up unless she were writing with the intention that Christian readers would be her audience.
While she implies that she is writing for a Christian audience, there are many places throughout this book where she undermines the values and authority of Christians, and where she simply talks about topics that are irrelevant to Christian thought. For example, the chapter titles "Precedent for Increased Gender Fluidity" focuses almost entirely on religious communities in the world where gender is viewed in a more open way than our binary perception. She claims that "the existence of centuries of gender fluidity has not meant an end to heterosexual marriages and reproductive activities among Native American tribes, nor among any of the other groups examined" (Mollenkott 160). What she does not anticipate, or at least does not mention, is that the obvious Christian objection to this would be that these other groups of people do not have God's divine word like they do. Therefore the logic that the other society has survived with gender fluidity, so theirs should too, does not apply. They can object that God's divine will is what matters, not what makes sense from a solely biological or sociological standpoint. At an earlier point in the book, Mollenkott outright claims that Christians use doublespeak when discussing issues of gender and sexuality and calls for an end to this type of political rhetoric. While this argument might seem valid and convincing, it will do nothing but alienate a Christian reader. You simply cannot use the header "Avoiding Christian Doublespeak" and expect a Christian person to read that section with enthusiasm. It is because of these reasons that Mollenkott fails to effectively appeal to her Christian audience, and reveals that she must not really be intending them as her readers.
Mollenkott also implies a second audience, that of the secular and trans-religious society. This is where she brings in her subtitle of "a trans-religious approach". Throughout the book she makes an effort to quote scientific research and secular writers in addition to Christian ones. The entire chapter on "Precedents for Increased Gender Fluidity" speaks to this point because she talks about perceptions of gender across many religions and cultures, and quotes religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama. Because these sources and cross-cultural evidence would probably not mean much to a strictly Christian audience, she must mean for them to be accessed by others as well. It is not only the specific writing that implies a broader audience than just Christians, it is the entire purpose of her work that proves this. Mollenkott claims to want a gender revolution that will eventually span the globe. In order to start this, she needs her message to reach a large number of people from all different backgrounds, so that the influence of these ideas can spread around the world. She adds in all of the extra information regarding different backgrounds and cultures in order to capture the interested and trust of a secular, "trans-religious" audience.
What Mollenkott does not plan for, however, is that any non-Christian person reading this book would be extremely upset by her constant references to "where Jesus would stand on this issue" (Mollenkott 82) and her use of Christian sources and writers as her main authorities. One of the last sections of her final chapter is titled "Without Spiritual Vision, Movements Languish" and she provides a quote at the beginning stating that "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Mollenkott 185). The implications of this for the non-believer certainly seem dire, and the obvious thought going through that person's head would be that this grand vision of an omnigendered world will not apply to them unless they practiced Christianity as well. Even the end of her book, her very last statement to all those reading her work, is a quote from scripture saying that "in Christ Jesus...there is no longer Jew or Greek..." (Mollenkott 192). By doing this, she causes her secular and trans-religious audience to feel left out of the group and like they are not really a part of her vision for a new gender paradigm.
Mollenkott's failure to connect with either of her two implied audiences leaves one more for whom she must be writing: the "oppressed" people she mentions in her preface and throughout the book. These people are most likely those with very similar views to her own; they are Christian feminists, transgenders, homosexuals, and others who share her beliefs about gender and feel as if they have been oppressed by the current gender system. These are the people who walk up to a male/female split bathroom and don't know which way to go, and then wonder why God would have made them this way if he didn't intend for them to fit into society's normative gender values. Proof that this is her real audience can be seen at the beginning of chapter 5, when Mollenkott is talking about Jesus being both man and woman. She states in regards to Christian churches, "any church that worships in Christ's name should be willing to let ho of an inaccurate and unjust binary gender construct that does not allow room for a Christ Himself who is also Christ Herself" (Mollenkott 106-7). To a solely Christian reader, this statement would be rather offensive, because it would appear that she is claiming that their underlying beliefs about Christ and worship of him are false and incorrect. To a secular reader, this example would be simply irrelevant, because nobody besides a Christian is going to case about how Christ is worshiped in a church. Obviously this passage must be meant for someone else, and this person is anyone who, like Christ, is unable to fit into the church's present view of gender.
"Omnigender" works with this audience for several reasons, including its use of personal stories and examples and the way it relates these people to Christ, giving them a sense of self-worth they may have never before experienced. In the chapter "Gender Inequities", Mollenkott employs personal stories of "transpeople" to hook readers' emotions and help them feel a connection to the book. A Christian transperson reading these personal examples will feel like their own story is being told and validated. When describing Klinefelter syndrome she gives the example of a friend of hers, Patrick J. Shevlin Jr., who felt "that he lost his youthful years" (Mollenkott 47) because his syndrome was not recognized until late in life. The reader, especially one who may have experienced similar feelings of loss, is drawn in by this example not only out of sympathy but out of empathy because they have held similar emotions.
Mary E. Hunt is an example of a person who is empathetic towards Mollenkott's book, and is extremely moved by its message. According to a description on the website for the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, Hunt is "a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of [WATER] in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns.... She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her partner, Diann L. Neu" (WATER). Hunt is clearly someone who fits perfectly into Mollenkott's ideal for a reader; she is a Christian, lesbian woman who cares about social justice, especially in regards to Christian ethics. In a review of "Omnigender" Hunt writes Mollenkott, "push[es] the theological envelope one more time in her marvelous new book" (Hunt). She continues to say that, "In my view, this book ends one period in the epoch struggle of Christianity with homosexuality and opens another" (Hunt). She then describes the first time she heard Mollenkott speak, which was at a church in Washington D.C. Hunt says that the comment Mollenkott made for her opening, "Grace -- is a lesbian" (Hunt), shocked her and changed her views about gender and Christianity. After reading "Omnigender", she now thinks that the phrase should be furthered to say "Grace -- is a transgender person who loves women and men" (Hunt).
In conclusion, although Mollenkott's implied audience contains both Christians and trans-religious people, she is really writing for a much more specific audience. As I have shown, her book simply does not work for a reader who identifies as either Christian or as her category of trans-religious; she is too radical for her Christian readers and too Christian for her trans-religious readers. This book becomes less of a call for a new gender paradigm across the world then, and more of a validation and comfort for those being oppressed by the current gender perceptions. Where Mollenkott excels is in her appeal to like-minded people; she is able to help Christian transpeople feel welcome and included in a world where they have previously felt isolated and oppressed. For these people the impact of this book will be incredible, making them feel more at home in their own bodies, and recognizing that there are others out there carrying the same burdens. She gives them a vision of the future where they will no longer have to decide which restroom to use or be forced to choose one of two gender categories on their driver's licenses. In this new omnigender paradigm everyone who felt oppressed by the old system will gain a feeling of self-worth and importance because they know that "In Christ Jesus...all of you are one".
Mollenkott, Virginia R. Omnigender: a trans-religious approach. Cleveland, Ohio:
Pilgrim, 2001. Print.
WATER: Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. Web. 17 Mar. 2010.
Hunt, Mary E. "Grace-- Is a Transgender Person Who Loves Women and Men" The
Witness(2001). Web. 17 Mar. 2010.