Erasure of Women and Queer Voices in EBTS
Continuing the discussion from Contemporary women's concerns about apparent sexism in the EBTs:
Mansplaining the Path
This thread is filled with men telling women who are voicing their opinions and concerns about the texts to ignore their own readings, or just magic away their feelings as if to say: “You just don’t understand, sweetheart. It’s not that bad. Try being less sensitive. We can’t change the past. Things are different now right. Right?”
The problem of course is that the issues of the past still persist today and that we are actively engaged with this ongoing process in ways that continue systems that disempower and oppress. LOOK! It is happening in this very thread!!
Really, this is a good example of male privilege: never having to think: “these texts are not meant for me.” Texts by men for men, mostly about men, told from the perspective of men; men controlling the narrative and deciding what will be known. Whereas women’s voices and experiences are conspicuously far and few between, and they rarely get to speak for themselves. Is it surprising that women feel alienated from texts where they are not included and when they are it isn’t always very positive? Surely if we want to stop the cycle of excluding women’s voices, we need to stop and listen to how they are seeing these texts, rather than jumping in and explaining away their concerns or gaslighting them into quiet submission for having felt upset about something that was ‘nothing’.
Women readers have much to bring to our understanding of the texts. In the story being discussed here, we only hear of the male’s perspective and the outcome for the men in the story. But there is a whole group of women whose activities, feelings, experiences, stories and futures are left untold, carelessly tossed aside with zero interest. It takes a woman reader to remind us of the existence of women the narrator completely forgot about, whoops:
How come indeed!! I never thought of them before, either. What happened to them? Were they secretly happy to be rid of their husbands? Were they rendered destitute? So many stories untold. Unwanted it seems… Thank you for drawing my attention to the shortcomings of my reading.
Today I was thinking about the concepts of Paranoid Reading and Reparative Readings., terms coined in the postmodern era by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. It’s not the best definition here from wiki but it will do:
Sedgwick argues that much academic criticism springs from a hermeneutics of suspicion as coined by Paul Ricœur. She suggests that critics should instead approach texts and look at “their empowering, productive as well as renewing potential to promote semantic innovation, personal healing and social change.” This is Sedgwick’s idea of reparative reading which to her is the opposite of “paranoid reading” which focuses on the problematic elements in a given text. Reparative readings “contrasts with familiar academic protocols like maintaining critical distance, outsmarting (and other forms of one-upmanship), refusing to be surprised (or if you are, then not letting on), believing the hierarchy, becoming boss.”
Reparative reading is a queer theory strategy of reclaiming texts from cis and straight culture that didn’t include queer audiences, and of reimagining them through a queer lens. Feminists have used such strategies to re-insert themselves into a patriarchal paradigm that omitted their stories, and first nations people have used similar strategies to insert themselves and reclaim colonial histories where they are left out.
Straight white men, especially, are privileged by not needing to do this revision. They see the texts as existing for them, without questioning as if it’s their natural inheritance, even though there’s a huge gap of understanding between now and ancient India of 2500 years ago, they still see themselves as owning these texts, as belonging to them and in them. Whereas women might not feel that sense of ownership or belonging, but rather see the ways they are excluded, forgotten, silenced, discriminated against and oppressed. It will take some real work by men to understand why this is the case and how it affects someone’s experience of the texts.
So, when women are discussing how a texts affects them, men should try to listen rather than to falling into the types of patterns identified by Sedgewick that continue oppression, such as: needing to ‘outsmart’ women with facts or ‘academic’ rigour, or needing to speak as an authority and be ‘the one who knows best’.
Rejecting Received Meanings
Reparative readings are good for us all to engage with. In the story above, we might try to think of the situation from the perspective of the sex worker, or from the women who were left behind. This is imaginative but can still be instructive. So much of what we think we know about a text is just received from a previous authority, unquestioned and not critiqued by us. In Sedgwick’s words, we ‘refuse to be surprised’ because we think we know what something is about. But actually it is often unexamined, with all it’s biases and prejudices.
A good example is the figure of Thullananda Theri, who is cast as a stock character in the vinaya and suttas as a very naughty nun who does so many terrible things. She is the very definition of what nun’s should not be like and her character and exploits are used as a sort of moral warning for later nuns and women. But taking these stories in a reparative way, we can peel away the layers of patriarchy and self interest in the way she was depicted, and uncover a different story to see a woman of immense power and bravery, who was a great leader and teacher. I’d really recommend this episode by Ayya @Vimalanyani, where essentially she does a reparative reading of Thullanada Theri. It is so fresh and liberating, exposing so many problems inherent in the way we might usually think of Thullananda and these texts.
Re-claiming Your Right to a Spiritual Path
Such approaches are necessary to give women’s voices an opportunity to engage with problematic texts in ways that allow them to reconcile the difficult aspects of a spiritual tradition with their own understandings of what they know to be it’s essence. This is something that women and queer folks have been doing in other religions, where religious texts seem to be explicitly against them, taking the texts apart, questioning the received authority, inserting different ways of looking, reclaiming, reimagining. They do this because spirituality is complicated and they want/need to find ways that they can exist in those religions without having to be encumbered by readings that fundamentally go against what they know to be true in their hearts. If god is love to them, then god still loves them even if they are gay or a divorcee, they know that, and they will find their own ways to negotiate what they have been told to think with what they feel in their hearts.
It’s the same when people are surprised at the misogyny of the suttas, they feel that it can’t be right that an enlightened being would discriminate and create a hostile environment, because they know that to be enlightened would be to be free of hate and prejudice. Men might not see this problem, because they are unaffected, but women see this contradiction and it cuts deeply at their faith. They also see and experience in their own selves the results of this type of view playing out in contemporary Buddhism. That’s why it matters when women express their discomfort with the suttas and why we need to listen.
"We're Here, We're queer", But Yet We Disappear...
Hmmmm as a queer Buddhist, I’m gonna have to say “Yeah Nah” on this one Bhante @Sujato.
Prejudice and Discrimination Exists in EBT's
Sad but true. Accept it snowflakes!!
Before I get to homophobia, it’s important to recognise that there is certainly a prejudicial presence in the texts showing discrimination and stigma towards people who are not necessarily same-sex attracted but are included today in the rainbow LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Though these identity groups have very different identities and experiences, they often share common experiences of discrimination and oppression with same-sex attracted people, and so I include them here as an act of allyship, and because people often (incorrectly) use homophobia as a blanket term to describe the various prejudices of bi-phobia, transphobia, and interphobia. So, the people I am referring to in the suttas and vinaya who are not shown favourably include people we might refer to today as trans or 3rd gender, and certainly there is also discrimination against people with variations of sex characteristics, who we refer to today as intersex. Both these categories of people are commonly thought to be barred from ordination - although Ven @Vimala has done a recent study on this here which suggests otherwise.
Homophobia Hides but Still Abides
When it comes to homophobia, well I guess it depends on the definition of homophobia. Some people expect that homophobia should be outright violence and hate but this is an extreme form. Homophobia exists on a spectrum from overt to subtle. Whilst there may be no explicitly hate-filled homophobia that we find in other religions in the EBT’s, this is certainly not the same thing as saying these texts aren’t implicitly and subtly homophobic. They are. And the reason for this is not what is there but rather what is absent. Queer people know this kind of homophobia. It’s an insidious and elusive sort of lack of belonging, a rejection; like someone crossing a street to avoid you, or not looking you in the eye because they are ashamed of you, or being left off an invitation to a family gathering. It’s like people ignoring you or parts of you, or pretending that you and those queer parts of you are invisible. It’s a lack of acceptance and it is tangible. That’s the feeling for subtle homophobia.
The truth is there the texts have a real paucity of information about same sex attracted people. This lack of presence does not necessarily mean that there was no homophobia. In fact when a queer person reads these texts what they will see is a peculiar absence. It’s the absence of something that everyone else takes for granted. WE do not see ourselves in the texts in the way that straight men (in particular) do. This is what privilege means: to have texts that speak directly to you and about you by people like you. Queers are simply not there! Women are barely there… This is not just an accidental omission, but rather it is deliberate, and that means a purposeful erasure of these voices from the texts. Erasure itself is a tool of suppression and can have negative consequences for a group, just as explicit condemnation does.
Playing Peekaboo Through History
Omission means that when queers look at these texts, it is as if we simply don’t exist. This is of course an erroneous impression. Though queers have had different names and different cultural expressions throughout history, there has certainly always been queers of all sorts. So we know we were there but why are we not represented? The feeling for queers is that we are not included. We are not wanted and we do not belong. Our voices are silenced. Our many stories remain untold. We have been expunged. Cleared off. Vanished. This is what marginalisation looks like. This silence becomes the status quo. We start to even question if there were any queers at the time of the Buddha… we get little glimpses here and there, an errant queer will popup, playing peekaboo but then they are gone again. Were they imagined?? And then our very absence becomes an authoritative expression of what is allowed to exist, or desirable, or what is considered acceptable, moral or good. Silence and absence is an indicator to queers to know that they are in fact… bad.
Certainly, in ancient texts and even modern ones, queer identities are not allowed to speak for themselves, they are not certainly not praised or celebrated. This absence relegates us to the periphery, encouraging secrecy and shame. This is felt deeply, and internalised.
Don't Ask and Definitely Don't Tell
The way this plays out even today is through a continuation of that silencing in our Buddhist cultures, where queers are told both explicitly and through many subtle signals that their stories and experiences are not welcome in spiritual spaces; for example. when queer issues of oppression or discrimination are brought up (everyday experiences for us) we are told, ‘We don’t really talk about that sort of stuff here’. A research survey by Dr Stephen Kerry found that 60% of respondents felt that queer issues were silenced in their Buddhist communities.
Talking about queer issues is discouraged, yet straight or cis people are allowed to talk about their marriage problems and kids with no one silencing them. Another example of this erasure is when a meditation teacher assumes that everyone on the retreat is straight and only talks about attraction to the opposite sex, or assumes that the men they talk to in their interviews have girlfriends or vice-versa - I’ve seen all this happen. And then there is the segregation of sexes in meditation halls or retreat accommodation where no consideration is given to people who are trans or non-binary or those who have same sex attraction. Again, it’s like we don’t exist!
The feeling is similar to the way the idea of ‘tolerance’ towards LGBTQIA+ people, we will tolerate you… but we are not changing anything for you and you better fit in or else. This is a poor substitute for seeing us clearly for who we are and understanding our needs, and a long way metaphorically speaking from the warm embrace of undiluted metta… Because erasure makes you feel excluded, not included.
The Only Gay in the Village?
For me as a monk, the absence of stories that talk about people like me in the EBT’s makes me feel like I am the only queer monk in the world! But I know that’s not true and that there has been countless queer monks throughout history. Why are our stories missing? Why is there no guidance for us? Why is there silence? It’s a disapproving sort of silence… queers know that all too well.
This lack of representation places queer monastics in weird and slightly comical situations all the time. Because there is an absence of specific rules for queer monks or nuns, we don’t have rules that make sense for us in many situations. Worse, we are effectively forced back into the closet, again, and instead of existing as our natural queer selves, we are compelled to act out an ongoing and untruthful performance of straight sexual orientation. Can you see how that constitutes a kind of homophobia? ‘There can/should be no queer monastics’ is the message I’m definitely getting here…from the silence.
So, for example, I am not allowed to be alone with a woman, or sleep in the same room as a woman, but yet I can be alone with a man and sleep in the same room? Hmmm doesn’t make much sense does it? And you can’t just say to swap the genders till they make sense, what about bi-folk and in any case we can’t just change the rules, can we? Queers truly are here to create chaos. Our superpower is to mess up all those neat boundaries and make you question EVERYTHING! But seriously, erasure is not just an accidental and unfortunate occurrence. It is an ongoing process of prejudice, discrimination, and often violence. It has real and ongoing consequences for us today.
When THEY See USWhere we do exist in the texts it is usually from the perspective of another, not the voice of queer folks. Or where queers do pop up, they unfairly become emblematic of a group rather than seen as an individual. A good example is the story of the pandaka monk in the vinaya, who has become a trope representing unparalleled lust and debauchery, and whose actions condemned a whole group of people to the discrimination of being barred from ordination. Over the years, because of misunderstandings of exactly what a pandaka is, this story was used to condemn queer sex as sexual misconduct and bar same sex attracted people from ordination. The confusion still exists in Buddhist communities around the world today. The thing about this story is that it sticks out, and so the moral failing of one person is easily highlighted and extended to a group and then to other groups. They are made abnormal and monstrous. But aren't we provided with overwhelming evidence of unrestrained lust elsewhere in the texts of straight cis men (and women) and arent we regaled with stories of bestiality, necrophilia, rape and abuse by those men? But for some reason this evidence is not used against a whole group, but rather these people are seen as individuals. Queers are so often not given the dignity as being individuals, another hallmark of oppression.
Erasure matters. Representation matters.