“Reading the Bible from Low and Outside” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott – Take Back the Word (3 of 23)

Take Back the Word book cover

Goss, Robert E., and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000).
AZ | BN | WC

This post is part of a series of posts on the anthology Take Back the Word.


Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s “Reading the Bible from Low and Outside: Lesbitransgay People as God’s Tricksters” provides a brief model for reading the Bible from the margins. When people are oppressed and marginalized—be they people of non-normative sexual orientations, genders, races, what have you—they must develop strategies to make it in society. Mollenkott grew up in a fundamentalist tradition and subsequently spent many years married to a man, but in time she left those behind and embraced her identity as a lesbian. Because of her long time in the closet, she knows the necessity of keeping secrets and playing the part, and she aims to create a space where those still in the closet are not looked down on:

it is time for queer people and all other oppressed people to openly espouse an ethical system that honors necessary subversion and ceases to shame those who practice it. (15)

She quotes Butler to show that outness is not the only way to be queer, nor is it the best way (if there even is one), nor is it even possible for some. Perhaps outness is privilege. The privilege of being out is revealed in the reaction she has received to her argument from affluent gay white males, who, besides being gay, are already located in the dominant populations of Western society. Other queers, like those of other ethnicities, genders, and economic situations, may lack the means or ability to be out in the same way as their white brethren. Thus, according to Mollenkott, we need a strategy that works with and honors those who are out and those who aren’t:

I am arguing for a realistically complex “underground” or “resistance” code of ethics, which is this: I will do what is necessary to preserve the loving values I believe in, and at the same time, I will try to survive in order to work yet another day. Such a code honors the integrity on both sides of the closet door. (19)

She uses two primary biblical examples to provide models for her underground ethics. First, Rebekah can be seen as the progenitor of the trickster archetype. The role of the trickster, usually said to originate (in the Hebrew Bible at least) in the character of Jacob, should actually be traced back to Rebekah, his mother, who teaches him how to perform subterfuge. Rebekah is not out in the open, but rather she works in secret.

The author’s second model is the situational ethics of the New Testament, as in 1 Cor 10:23–24. We are free to be queer, she says, but sometimes it is best to be queer in secret:

sometimes it is necessary to eat our sacrificial meat “in the closet,” so to speak. (20)

When we work in secret, subversively, perhaps we are able to do just as much as working while out. Those in the closet need not be considered any less active or any less activist. The relative openness of one’s queer secret does not determine the effectiveness of one’s ministry or scholarship.

I have two fears relating to this. The first is this: a trickster ethics is one that by necessity includes lying and hiding. In what way does such an ethics not simply play into the hands of heteronormativity? Is this not exactly what compulsory heterosexuality and cisgenderedness would have us do? I worry that despite the undercover activist actions we may perform, they are still overwhelmed by a system that works against us even as it erases us. But fortunately, Mollenkott provides for a balance—there is work to be done by people on both sides of the closet.

My second fear is one Mollenkott may have herself. At this point, in 2012, this book is 12 years old, and her essay was published 4 years before even that. Will we or have we reached a point where “queer” is no longer marginal? How much does the new gay mainstream affect our ability to read from the margins? This has been a question ever since queer theory began to be formally studied in colleges and universities: can queer remain queer when it is institutionalized? Can we still read and act as tricksters? The answer, I think, is yes and no; it all depends upon context. But this is a timely reminder to always think of those on the margins even when LGBTQ people are becoming more and more popular in American media. Keep queer queer.

P.S. Do I have the authority to ban the word “lesbitransgay”? Probably not. It’s ugly and ponderous, and I think we can come up with better alternatives. Just a thought.

Foreword by Mary Ann Tolbert – Take Back the Word (1 of 23)

Take Back the Word book cover

Goss, Robert E., and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000). 
AZ | BN | WC

This post is part of a series of posts on the anthology Take Back the Word.


Today I’m beginning a series of posts on Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, a 2000 anthology edited by Robert Goss and Mona West, both of whom also have their own chapters. We’ll see how quickly I can do this, but I’ll try to update regularly.

I have never read this book before, and this foreword (pp. vii–xii) called “What Word Shall We Take Back?” speaks to some of the worries I have going into this. The book’s title seems to imply that 1) the biblical texts constitute something that could be called God’s Word and 2) this is a Word that has been stolen from us. The first point is a confessional statement that many agree with to varying degrees, but the second point concerns me more. The assumption is that the Word was ours to begin with and then was taken from our possession and so must be returned to its rightful owners. The Bible has always been on our side until it was recently appropriated by those who are hostile to their LGBTQ neighbors, and now it is time to reappropriate it.

This narrative—a mere marketing decision though the title may be—is far too simplistic for me. To be sure, there are many passages in the Bible that are positive for LGBTQ and other people, but there are many other passages that are destructive, and reclaiming those as “ours” in some way seems simplistic. Tolbert recognizes this:

it is simply morally unacceptable to ignore the profound damage done to millions of people over hundreds of generations in the name of the Bible. (ix)

But even this division between positive and destructive is far too reductive. Some areas are simply grey, and destructive passages become so because of bad application or bad interpretation. Tolbert indicts some especially conservative readers who view the Bible as a transhistorical document unaffected by cultural particularities and idiosyncracies:

to ignore the degree to which every page of the Bible reflects the presence of its ancient context of production actually results in increasing the influence of that context on the final interpretation of the text. (viii)

The blanket condemnations of same-sex intimacies common in conservative circles today represent a negligence of cultural context. The fact that they deem cultural context irrelevant makes it all the more important if we want to avoid destructive readings.

Furthermore, Tolbert argues, many conservatives not only disregard cultural context but choose to read the grey as black and white. This produces final, official, and normative readings that ignore the complexity of the text:

The conservative Christians who use certain Bible passages to ‘clobber’ lesbians and gay men are deciding to clarify the ambiguities and gaps in those passages in ways that fit their pre-conceived notions concerning the sinfulness of homoeroticism or the normality of heterosexism. (x)

The danger in both ignoring culture and ignoring complexity is that it is both dishonest to the text and hurtful to people. These conservative tendencies normalize particular readings, and Tolbert warns against queer readers’ own possibility to create normalized readings. My worry regarding the title of the book is that it seems to suggest there is one correct reading that we are recovering in reading queerly, but Tolbert cautions us against any reading that claims to be correct. When we normalize, we hurt people, just like many of us have been hurt by others’ normalizations. Our readings need to be open-ended and flexible, not final and dogmatic. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as our forebears.

Tolbert’s foreword is not a celebration of the book’s authors’ achievements or a call to action but a warning to remain ever queer, never fixed.