Orlando, Transphobia, and Culture-Shaping Violence
Attis arrived in Lydia with the Mysteries in hand. She taught the worship of the Mountain Mother, and more and more took initiation as gallai, Kybele’s transgender priestesses. As the Mother’s cultus started to rival his in popularity, Father Zeus became angry and punitive. He sent a giant boar to Lydia, trampling crops and goring farmers. No hunter survived trying to bring the creature down. Attis prayed to her Mother, then knew what Zeus demanded. When Attis sought out the boar alone, it sliced her body with its tusks; Zeus and his monster were satisfied as she lay bleeding out in the field. The other gallai found Attis and took her to Kybele’s temple. Attis lingered for days in front of the altar as her sisters fasted and prayed for her recovery. When she finally died, the Mother heard the gallai lamenting and saw them flagellating themselves in grief. So, Kybele lifted Attis up from the underworld, making Attis her dead-yet-immortal charioteer. Ever since, every year, gallai bleed during the Spring Hilaria, enacting the mysteries of Attis’s killing and apotheosis. Through ritually sharing that violence, we move into the sacredness of trans embodiment, trans devotion, and trans religion.
Orlando wasn’t unique because a racist homophobe attacked queers during Pride week. What made it different was the degree to which the shooter pulled it off; hate crimes, especially during Pride, are depressingly routine. Double-digit body counts, though, still rattle us. Once the news broke, I started receiving (and sending) texts, calls, and Facebook messages: comrades and partners locally, queer friends online, chosen family back in the South, all checking up on each other. Perhaps someone’s social network would extend to Orlando. Even if not, for many of us, it felt personal because hate violence always does. Shooting up a nightclub exists on a comparatively short spectrum with the ambient violence that informs queer consciousness. We know to reach out and offer emotional support. We’ve had practice.
For trans women and nonbinary transfemmes, we do something similar every few weeks. Someone will have vanished from the internet, or posted a note; a body will be found (and misgendered) in the news. We contact each other with fear and urgency, because it’s even odds that someone we know has died by suicide or murder, been attacked, or landed in a psych ward after an attempt. Our communities have developed the social and cultural infrastructure to acquire and share that type of information very, very quickly. Living under such precarious material conditions, we have to.
And of the women and nonbinary people that I’ve had any degree of closeness with, I can’t think of more than two or three who haven’t dealt with some experience of rape and/or abuse. I certainly have. I can’t think of one who hasn’t been harassed, sexually and/or transphobically – sometimes, both at once. Trans or cis, queer or straight, binary or nonbinary, gender violence pervades our lives and profoundly inflects our psyches, politics, theologies, and relationships.
For women and for gender and sexual minorities, as for people of color and disabled people and impoverished people, violence shapes our communal lives. Subjectively, I’d call it the predominant discursive theme in transfemme subcultures. Beneath the discovery of identity, coming out, and navigating the world as trans, there’s the threat and practice of violent punishment. It’s not by chance that violence from a male authority provides the basis for the apotheosis of Attis in otherwise-quite-different versions of the myth. How could gallai realize holiness through our transness if we didn’t come to terms with this daily ordeal? Sure, painful trials can bring power and gnosis. I’ve spent enough time around other transfemmes, seeing their wisdom and power and tenacity, to realize that. However, there’s only so far that sacralization can carry us. At a certain point, even the most spiritually rooted of us stops getting anything from traumatic conditions besides more trauma.
Barrett and Brennan are both women deeply embedded in lesbian and feminist communities. While I lack direct knowledge, I’d be stunned if either has managed to avoid these pervasive types of gender violence. One would have hoped that a shared position of disempowerment and danger under patriarchy would provide a sufficient basis for feminist solidarity. Sadly, unlike other radical feminists of their generation, neither has approached trans women as sisters in the struggle.
They deny the bare material truth that transfemmes are at least as victimized by gender violence as any other population. Instead of joining with us and resisting sexist violence, they’ve joined in. They’re doing patriarchy’s work, just as much as every misogynist, rapist, or MRA out there. TERF discrimination isn’t just cruel. It’s redundant.
That shapes our subcultures, too. For instance, I’d heard of Cathy Brennan long before finding her websites or meeting anyone she’s doxxed. In transfeminine oral culture, she’s a synecdoche for the worst kinds of TERF violence, harassment, and discrimination. Brennan has served as our folk villain for years now. Now that she’s targeted some well-known cis Pagans, I halfway wonder if this is her ticket out of the folkloric niche market. While her actions certainly produce immediate destructive consequences for individuals, at the same time her power as a cultural figure far exceeds anything she could actually do. Harassment doesn’t only victimize its targets. I think of the panopticon, the prison where there are more inmates than the warden could possibly watch at once – but where every prisoner always feels surveilled, because they can’t know at whom the warden is currently looking. Doxxing functions the same way, as does hate crime. Why be afraid, when most of us will never actually get the worst of it? Well, any one of us could.
Brennan and Barrett have both presented trans women as some powerful, conspiratorial force. They tell stories of terroristic trans women supposedly endangering both them individually and womanhood itself. Of course, we aren’t so powerful. Cis lesbian feminists aren’t particularly high up in the patriarchal pecking order. In transfemmes, though, they’ve found one of the few groups they can target with relative impunity. I’ve talked before about the underlying dynamics there. It comes back to sexual work and the role of transphobia in constituting transfemmes as a sexual underclass. I won’t rehash it here.
Instead, I’ll just extend my solidarity, love, and prayers to all of us whose communal lives get shaped by violence, be it in Orlando or in the bedroom or on the sidewalk or at Cherry Hill Seminary. Queers and women and trans people deal with too much horror already to inflict it on each other. May the Mountain Mother hear our grief. May she bring us all through pain and bloodshed to community, freedom, and love.
Io Attis. Io Kybele.
Sophia Burns is a galla of Attis and Kybele, a Greco-Phrygian polytheist, and a communist. After coming out in the small-town South, they moved to Seattle, where they are active in the trans lesbian community. They also write at The North Star, where they’re part of the editorial board, and serve as an officer for the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism. This August, they will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.
Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.