Taking an ethical cue from black transwomen: Constructing an ethic of openness, style, love, and empowerment

Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Benae Beamon

This post was originally published on our Medium page.

What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?

The sacred embrace of the messiness and liminality of eroticism

Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar and teacher?

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and sexuality was seen as necessary for reproductive purposes but less so for pleasure. I also learned that sexuality was policed and performed, in part through, gender, which was seen as “intrinsically” connected to expressions of sexuality, and that the ethic that held it was somewhat authoritarian. Lastly, I learned that even under the strict circumstances in which sexuality was deemed morally permissible that it was meant to be experienced and explored in silence.

Knowing this, I am able to identify more disruptive possibilities, including exploring the multiplicity of ways that we experience pleasure and eroticism through joy and meaningful relationships, etc. These conceptions, and my identity as a black, queer woman, also guide my interest in gender expression and identity and how that is policed, at times, as well as my understanding of embodiment. I see embodiment as a definitive extension of the self. I believe that our experiences and truths are held on the surfaces of our skin, both through hegemonic impressions, and through physical, psychical, and social experiences.

Moreover, I believe that we narrate and inscribe our subjectivities through the unique movements and intersectional worldviews that inform our behavior.

If we consider divine creation a foundational element of all existing things, then the erasure, silencing, devaluation, and relegation of sensuality/sexuality in everyday life is immoral and a squelching of human flourishing.

Especially, if we consider empowering, intimate, loving connection between individuals broadly, as an example of the imminence of divine creation, then embodiment as a necessary way by which we establish such creation (either by touching, typing, etc.) becomes an ethical and theological necessity for sacred participation.

Tell us about your research and your work. Why do you study sex and sexuality? What draws you to work at the intersections of sexuality, gender, and religion?

My work focuses on black transwomen, and deals with an understanding of sexuality and gender espoused within the Christian community in response to the abhorrent violence visited upon black people in the United States. I argue that this history includes the labeling of black sexuality as criminal and deviant, ultimately leading to the establishment of a stringent sexual ethic in black Christian communities that echoed the expectations of White cisheteropatriarchy in the U.S.

Under the sociocultural weight of this ethic (for which the penalty was death), I contend that the black community came to police itself in abiding this strict sexual ethic, which impacted black transwomen in a particularly problematic way. I then look to the narratives of black transwomen to use their ethical example as a constructive possibility that cares for black transwomen in life and hopes to better support their flourishing.

I’m drawn to this project because black transwomen are dying; I believe that black lives matter and feel that I have an ethical imperative to support all of my sisters.

I also think that, to write ethics that is intentionally disruptive, one must think intersectionally, and this is an important intersection that has not yet been tackled in Christian ethics.

It strikes me that your work is very interdisciplinary—combining history, critical theory, art, literature, and ethnography. What draws you to this approach in studying religion, gender, and sexuality?

The interdisciplinary nature of my project is intentional because I believe that in order to disrupt hegemonic systems my approach must be as intersectional and complicated as the systems it seeks to dismantle.

What do you wish every graduate theological student knew about religion and sexuality?

Refusing to talk about sexuality is an impossibility if one aims to give credence to the profundity of embodiment. To speak about the body and to speak about the realities and fullness of any embodied reality is to include sexuality because it and its various manifestations in the lives of individuals is an inevitability. This is also to say that to “avoid” addressing sexuality still means to make an implicit, and possibly negative, mandate on the value of sexuality and the ways in which it is morally palatable.

As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” How do you make connections between your theological education and your practical life and ministry? (How is your research and your work connected to the day to day realities of life and ministry?)

My work seeks to shift the way that many of us interact with and understand one another in a generative way. My work takes its ethical cue from black transwomen, who have learned to release the hegemonic fallacies of order, like binarism, and respond with openness, style, love, and an empowering vision of futurity. These responses are enacted in everyday life and aim to encourage a more expansive way of being in the world and being in intimate relationship with other people.

Can you give us an example of one of these responses, based on your work, and how that lends itself to an ethical shift?

In Hiding My Candy by The Lady Chablis, Lady Chablis describes lessons she learned from her grandmother, who “found virtues in all kinds of folks, but never made mention of her own. Her modesty and grace…were underscored by her pride and determination”(38). Later, Chablis writes about her time in church writing about public speaking opportunities she garnered because “they knew I was gonna give ’em gestures with it. My emphasis was on the performance, honey — standing tall and stabbing away at elocution — regardless of whether the messages was ‘bout Bingo Night or the monthly church picnic” (39).

My work analyzes these passages and identifies the dependence upon community. I note the love and appreciation for community that is indelibly enacted and its ability to both lift and drive individuals as a central moral frame, but I also acknowledge that to enact such a moral frame functions differently in the lives and performativity of different subjectivities. Chablis describes her experience of pride and determination, and her narrative allows us to see and recognize the role and power of the community in establishing and making possible the subjectivity that she comes to know and confidently own in those moments.

During those public speeches, the substance is irrelevant because the space to perform her reality is one in which the ambiguity, or non-normative readability of her performance, can exist in the empowering gaze of community, when utilizing the same generous and generative moral frame as her grandmother. If we can find ways to concretely enact that particular brand of humility without relegating our own pride, self-certainty, and drive, then there is the opportunity to make space for the imagined possibilities of a multiplicity of subjectivities. © Benae Beamon 2017

Lastly, three quick-fire questions.

Book, activity, or article thathas had the most impact on your thinking about religion/sexuality?
Audre Lorde “Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power”, Laurel Schnieder “What Race is your Sex?”, and Carter Heyward’s Touching Our Strength.

Favorite self-care practice?
Listening to jazz, the blues, and soul on vinyl with a cup of tea.

What are you currently reading?
Nikki Young’s Black Queer Ethics, Family, & Philosophical Imagination, Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blacknessand Dane Figueroa Edidi’s Yemaja’s Daughters.

Benae Beamon is a PhD candidate at Boston University in the Religion and Society track in their Graduate Division of Religious Studies She earned her B.A. in religion from Colgate University and her M.A.R. from Yale Divinity School, concentrating in ethics. Her focus is black queer ethics, folding Black Church ethnography and philosophical hermeneutics into sexual ethics discourse. Using social history to uncover black moral and social thought surrounding sexuality and building primarily on womanist ethics, queer theory, and black theology, she explores the experience and reality of black queer and transwomen. She also has interests in the black arts, such as African American literature, African American poetry, and specifically Tap dance, as they relate to queerness.

The views expressed in this interview belong to the interviewee, and the ideas within are their intellectual property. If you wish to draw from their wisdom, cite their work. Contact them directly if you have any questions. Please feel free to respectfully share your thoughts, responses, or perspectives in the comment section below.

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