Transgender Women and Catholic Iconography
Last month, I wrote about a controversial HIV awareness campaign in Germany. Now, a calendar intended to promote safe sex and HIV prevention in Madrid’s LGBT community has incited a very different sort of controversy.
As a fundraiser, the LGTB Collective of Madrid (COGAM) has released a calendar that depicts twelve scenes modeled after well-known religious paintings. And in each image, the Virgin Mary is portrayed by a transgender woman. Given the religious demographics of Spain (at least 76% of the country identifies as Catholic), it’s unsurprising that a calendar featuring such non-traditional imagery is controversial. But members of COGAM and the photographer who created the images object to the accusations of defamation.
On sale to raise funds for the LGTB Collective of Madrid (COGAM), its authors say that it’s meant to be a “secular calendar” and that it each page suggests alternate ways to celebrate religious holidays.
“Wherever it’s noted that December 25 is Christmas, a candy sweet should be eaten on behalf of International Democracy Day” is one example.
Venezuelan photographer Juan Antinoo, author of the images, says that he doesn’t see why they should be considered controversial.
“It’s not something that worries me, what truly is important is that the message gets out there; which is the importance of the use of a condom” he said. “They are interpretations of religious images, not copies,” he added, “I sincerely don’t think anyone should be offended by them”.
Certainly, there is a certain degree of shock value at play here. I doubt this calendar would have generated this much controversy — or popularity — in a country that didn’t have a Catholic majority. And, honestly, I don’t think this calendar will necessarily prove to be an effective resource for HIV prevention, as I haven’t seen anything in this calendar that explicitly relates to condom use, safe sex or HIV.
But there’s something else going on here, and there’s a reason why this calendar — and how it functions as an act of civil disobedience against the mainstream Catholic culture in Spain — is really quite important. This calendar is a public affirmation that transgender women are real women, and it’s allowing beautiful, artistic portraits of trans women to be presented as portraits of cis women have been presented for centuries.
As Carla Antonelli, a transgender rights activist in Spain, recently stated:
I posed myself the following scenario: Why is it that a transsexual woman can’t represent a religious icon given life by so many other actors and actresses throughout history? To not do it would be akin to internalizing the same discriminatory principles that people want to throw against us.
It isn’t as though all visual representations of the Virgin Mary are generally considered to be sacrilegious. There is no shortage of images of the her in Western culture. So why is an image in which the Virgin Mary is depicted as a transgender woman automatically controversial? There can’t be a controversy if we can agree that trans women are as much women as ciswomen are, which means that anyone who finds these visuals controversial doubt the authentic woman-ness of trans women. It’s nothing more than transphobia and transmisogyny, and in order to defeat those prejudices, activists like Juan Antinoo, the people at the LGTB Collective of Madrid and the models featured in the calendar need to create work like this. Confronting prejudice head-on is the only way to overcome it, and that’s what I think this calendar is really successful in doing.
Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia takes the analysis of the calendar a step further:
If the Virgin Mary as an image draws together contradictory ideas about sexuality and motherhood, then perhaps a trans Virgin suggests the impossibility of such a figure of reproductivity. Perhaps a trans Virgin also suggests that our culture profoundly erases the possibility of trans motherhood, something as culturally implausible as a virgin birth. Do people even know that trans women can breastfeed?
Even if this calendar doesn’t make a clear statement about HIV prevention, it makes a very clear statement about the parallels between the Virgin Mary and transgender women, which relates back to the reality of how trans women are treated around the world today. The notion of a virgin birth defies the scientific truth of reproduction, and yet it is a phenomenon revered by Catholics all around the world. Similarly, transgender women defy commonly accepted beliefs in mainstream society about sex and gender — that is, that one’s biological sex and gender identity are always the same and interconnected with each other. But transgender women, and their experiences with gender, are real. Even though those experiences defy commonly held beliefs about gender, they exist. And if so many people around the globe believe in a virgin birth, why is it so hard to fathom the existence of transgender identities?
Questioning Transphobia has a link to the full set of calendar photos. The whole set is beautiful, and I certainly recommend checking it out (though some may be NSFW). I love the idea of this calendar, and I love the art it features. What do you think about the calendar? Do you think the chance of it raising visibility for transgender women and breaking down transphobic prejudices is likely? Are there other examples of religious art in which transpeople are depicted?