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Transgender Women and Catholic Iconography

October 20, 2009

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.

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Photo courtesy of Blabbeando

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.

From Blabbeando:

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?

10 Comments
  1. Christine permalink
    October 20, 2009 9:41 am

    Having just looked at all the photos, I think the more traditional portraits look beautiful, especially the ones of Mary holding the baby Jesus. The only ones I find moderately offensive are the more sexualized nudes of Mary. I would imagine hardcore Catholics would find those very offensive, whether Mary is portrayed by a ciswoman or transgender woman–and understandably so, since Mary is held up as a pinnacle of modesty.

    I find it frustrating that when it comes to this topic, people have to be divided into “ciswomen” and “transwomen” at all. Why not just “women?” I can accept a calendar of tasteful religious portraits of Mary, transgendered or not. Some of these images seem to exist to intentionally incite controversy, which doesn’t exactly help the message that these women want to be treated equally.

    Just my two cents. Another really interesting blog, Carrie. Well done.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 20, 2009 9:57 am

      Ultimately, you’re right. Women are women, and one’s identity as transgender really shouldn’t matter in terms of being treated equally. But because transphobia and transmisogyny are so prevalent, perhaps moreso than homophobia, and especially in socially conservative religious communities, I do think it’s important to promote the voices and images of transwomen so that they’re visible at all. And while some of the pictures in the calendar might be going for a shock-value reaction, the vast majority of them are really just lovely portraits of Mary that happen to feature transgender women. Once images of transpeople become more normalized, we might not need to distinguish between ciswomen and transwomen. But until then, I think images like this are important, if only to generate discussions like this. 🙂

      • Christine permalink
        October 20, 2009 9:57 am

        Word.

  2. Jadey permalink
    October 20, 2009 10:54 am

    Hi, this is a good post, but you might want to consider using “trans women” and “cis women” instead of “ciswomen” and “transwomen”. Putting the space in reinforces the oft-forgot reality that trans people are people first. Ceder (who maintains an excellent blog about trans issues pertaining to women and feminism) has written up a great explanation of this point here, and a longer argument in favour of this usage is available in Julia Serano’s excellent Whipping Girl.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 20, 2009 12:09 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out, Jadey. The distinction hadn’t occurred to me but you’re entirely right. I’ll edit the post accordingly.

  3. Crys T permalink
    October 20, 2009 1:15 pm

    Arrgh, first things first: I support any attempts to normalise transgender people. Religion certainly isn’t my bag, but this calendar is certainly as worthy as any mainstream one.

    But, I can’t help it, there is one point here that drives me mad: why is it that almost every time someone in the English-speaking mentions Spain, a lot of stereotypes involving Catholicism and/or machismo are certain to follow. Yeah, 76% percent of the country may identify as Catholic, but that identification for virtually all of them has long since ceased having much to do with religion and has everything to do with culture. Only 20% of the population attends church, and most of those are old. I do not know ANY Spanish person under the age of 50 who has attended Mass since having their First Communion. Yes, we like our religious-based festivals, mainly because they’re a chance to get out and have food, drink and fun.

    Given that, I fail how to see how the fact that the calendar in question was produced in Spain makes its being controversial so “unsurprising.” Seriously. Are we to believe that if it had been produced in the US or the UK, no one would have raised an eyebrow? Please.

    Just FYI, a VERY common profane expression in Spain translates as “I shit on God.” Say that in an English-speaking country and some religious nut would threaten your life. In Spain, your grandmother might say it.

    I appreciate the intent to highlight transgender issues, but why does it have to be done by falling back on stereotyped, and completely untrue, assumptions about the culture in question?

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      October 21, 2009 1:34 pm

      I don’t think the controversy surrounding the calendar is in question. As the articles linked above explain, the calendar has caused a considerable amount of controversy in Spain. So I felt it fair to point out the fact that the dominant religion in the country is Catholicism, which is also the faith directly referenced (and challenged) by the art in the calendar. For someone on the outside, there does appear to be a logical connection between the religious make-up of the country and the controversy in question.

      That being said – I apologize for making sweeping generalizations about a country that I know very little about, culturally-speaking. I will keep your words in mind as I write in the future.

      Also – I definitely believe that a similar calendar released in the U.S. would create a stir. It probably wouldn’t make waves in, say, Sweden, which is one of the least religious countries in the world, but I wasn’t trying to single out Spain for judgment. This calendar probably would cause controversy in the U.S. and other heavily religious countries. It just happens that this particular incident occurred in Spain.

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