“Paul, I’m trans.”

It was the spring of 2021, and I (Paul) was standing in the kitchen on the phone with Billie (Willa) while trying to get a snack ready for my toddler.

“OK, that’s kind of an umbrella term. What do you mean by that right now?”

“I mean it in the more classical sense of being transgender. I’m a woman.”

            There are moments in life that suddenly expose the imaginary reality we have built and on which we rely, moments when we are invited or forced into a recognition and reorganization of our worlds that we hadn’t realized we had been resisting. This was one of mine. I felt my world and childhood memories begin to spin and fray as a lifetime of sibling interactions with Billie began replaying and disorganizing. My entire sense of self was beginning to splinter. One of the unspoken, magnetic poles that helped form and organize the basis for my reality shifted, and with it, the sandcastle of my imaginary world crumbled.

            Before her call, I imagined myself to be a cisgender, heterosexual younger brother. I imagined myself an ally of the queer community and an advocate for LGBTQIA+ individuals. I imagined myself to be working hard to analyze and deconstruct the heteronormative, patriarchal, white supremacist privileges and ideologies that had formed me. None of that changed from her call. And also, none of it stayed the same.

“You can’t be trans, cause what does that say about me? I learned to be a man from you!”—the thought flashed into my mind when we hung up before I had a chance to properly conceal the blatant narcissism, sexism, and transphobia in it. I had made her coming out to be something about me and my neat categories. I was afraid of what this would reveal for me. What unknown possibilities did this open up, possibilities that would have been unconsciously foreclosed until this moment?

Less than a week earlier, we had been talking about how each of us had internalized different stories of abuse in our extended family from before we were born. I had entered that conversation, as I often did when talking with Billie, wanting to better understand myself through her experience. I couldn’t articulate how I was internalizing those stories, which had recently surfaced in my own therapy, and I wanted Billie’s experience to help me clarify my own. Billie was my guide, my example of what it meant to be a Hoard boy.

“Yeah, that was a weird conversation for me,” Billie said when we later reflected on how her coming out changed my understanding of that talk. I had been looking for clarity in Billie’s experience, as if it were a mirror to help me understand my own, but instead I found dissonance. We had heard and internalized the stories of abuse differently—she had metabolized our family history in a way that had felt unimaginable to me. Now I better understood why, and it scared me. It disorganized me.

Among many other things, Billie’s coming out presented me with what I felt was an invitation and a confrontation regarding my own identities. As a professor of counseling, I was familiar with queer theory, transmisogyny, cissexism, and the literature around transgender experiences, but my familiarity was intellectual, not personal. Distant. I knew of and about, but I didn’t know. Her call invited me to recognize this in myself and confronted me with my own resistance to that recognition. This resistance, I began to see, was rooted in my own internalized transphobia. Her call became a eucontaminant, or a contaminant for good, that allowed me to begin re-membering and reintegrating parts of myself that I had long ago shut out.[1] It helped invite me to begin queering myself, our relationship, and our family, ultimately bringing us closer to one another and closer to the divine.

I (Billie) spent most of my life trying to fit my queer sexuality and gender into respectively straight and cisgender molds. Paul and I grew up deeply evangelical, and, as a result, we were embedded in a system or imaginary world that, when it engaged queerness at all, distorted it as so thoroughly other and fully contaminating that my evangelical understanding of queerness bore an only impossible resemblance to who I am and how I experience the world. Put another way, straight guy was a mode of being in the world that did not fit me, but it fit better than the image of queerness I had been taught to see as sin.

My eucontaminative queering thus required a reorganization of my understanding of queerness and what it meant to be a transgender woman. That reorganizing occurred over many years, but the moment that stands out for me is a summer day when I stopped to ask myself whether I actually wanted to be a woman. This was a question that registered far differently before and after I came to understand that the persistent desire to be the other gender is a hallmark characteristic of trans people and not a sign of cisgender perversion. The day I asked myself that question—and answered it honestly, knowing already the meaning of my answer—was the moment I allowed a eucontaminating queerness into my understanding of self. It was almost four years later that I would, in turn, more explicitly become a vector of eucontaminating queerness for my brother Paul.

Truth as Eucontamination

Eucontamination is a theological concept that we have previously articulated to describe an inversion of the disgust reaction. Disgust is commonly considered a boundary-enforcing mechanism that operates on a binary logic of pure/unclean, reducing everything into either clean or uncleanclassifications to protect the self.[2] Those things categorized as pure or sterile require protection and insulation from external contaminants that would pollute or infect that which is pure. Food and medical equipment, for example, are kept separate from potential germs, bacteria, and other contaminants that can threaten their cleanliness. Importantly, this purity requires absolute cleanliness and is thus fragile. No amount of a pollutant can be tolerated—consider for a moment how much saliva you would tolerate in your drinking water. Conversely, whatever is gross has a robust, powerful essence that eliminates any purity with which it comes into contact. The saliva is not threatened by the drinking water but would cause most people to immediately reject the drink.

            Disgust is also present in group and social boundary formation and maintenance. We are more likely to view our attributes and identities as pure, clean, or healthy and to likewise view others who share those attributes as pure. We are then more likely to implicitly or explicitly label anyone who falls outside those identities as other and to project disgust reactions onto those individuals. The impact of this can be traced historically in the racist, classist, and sexist systems (among others) that have formed modern social arrangements. Disgust is thus significantly involved in the creation and maintenance of group identities as individuals are socialized into a communal us that also requires a them. One of the noted implications of this is the use of projective disgust to attribute negative, disgust-inducing aspects of ourselves onto those outside the group boundaries. One example of this is the common racist projection by white Americans of Black men as sexual predators.[3]

These social patterns of disgust have also been reflected in the Christian tradition and biblical metaphors, which often associate sin with contamination and purity with holiness and righteousness. However, although holiness carries many of the properties of sterility in the parables and life of Jesus, it does not function like sterility. Instead, righteousness and holiness as reflected by Christ are not fragile but robust. They overcome sin. Jesus did not follow the expected practices and purity codes of his day in relation to those his society labeled unclean. Jesus dined with the tax collectors and prostitutes, touched lepers, and healed gentiles. He acted this way not fearing his own contamination or uncleanliness but trusting the Spirit’s eucontaminating holiness to spread.

We have used the term eucontamination to help clarify this distinction of the properties from the function of contamination and disgust logic. As we have explained, a eucontamination is a contamination-for-good. A eucontaminant has the properties of the pure and the function of a contaminant. Jesus’s blood in the Eucharist is an example of just such a eucontaminant; it is a small, potent substance that is pure but which transforms or contaminates the body in such a way that the impure is made pure and the unclean is made clean. Likewise, the incarnation of Christ can be seen at a macro level as a eucontaminant to the world in that the Divine—the Holy—stepped down into fallen creation, thereby purifying and redeeming creation. As we read in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God.”[4] This Word, Christ, then proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. Consequently all three—way, truth, and life—serve as vectors of God’s eucontaminating power: “God was in the Anointed reconciling the cosmos to himself, not accounting their trespasses to them and placing in us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). Thus, we are made whole through Christ, and Christ was not made unclean through us.

The significance of this is profound. Instead of insulating and protecting a codified truth from the contaminants of the world, as if truth were an object to be protected, we have truth that is alive and active in the world, a subject who is transforming and purifying, setting us free. However, in a post-Enlightenment world, it is difficult to have a relationship with truth. Interacting in a socially accepted way involves investment and participation within a shared register, a shared reality, but as philosophers and psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan would argue, our shared reality is more illusion than concrete objectivity, resulting in a distinction between our experienced reality and the real that does not so much exist as insists, lying just beyond words and symbolization. As Carl Waitz and Theresa Clement Tisdale write in their consideration of Lacan, “The real is . . . not manageable within meaning-making systems and is that which people tend to work hard to cover over or to explain in order to maintain their reality.” We resist this real, fighting culture wars over our different perceived versions of reality and leaning into our imaginary worlds, preferring our expectable illusions to the unknown and unspeakable real that ruptures into our world.[5]

Our so-called truths are distilled to specific claims or propositions that are then held tightly and used to distinguish between groups. We use these personal truths to create and sustain our shared realities and to maintain our group cohesion. Five minutes of doomscrolling on social media is enough to expose the vastly different realities that American society has embraced. Our truths provide a sense of certainty and clarity about our reality—our illusions—but are actually quite fragile, as these constructed realities are under constant threat from the real.[6]

Our defense against the insistence of the real, then, can be seen in parallel to our disgust mechanism. We have a fragile, pure truth that must be kept insulated from a eucontaminating real, the real that might expose our truth for the illusion that it is. Thus, a codified view of truth can be understood through a lens of disgust logic, as the two mutually inform and reinforce one another. Both promote a posture of dualism, dividing the world into the fragile, clean us and the unclean them, or those who agree with our truth and those who we believe are wrong.

As Linn Marie Tonstad writes on the impact of heterosexuality as an organizing system on theological imaginations, “heterosexuality as a system doesn’t deal with truth. Theological heterosexuality deals with fictions, ideas of what human beings ought to be like that are divorced and distanced from the reality of human, bodied, sexual life.”[7]Additionally, the emotional, visceral disgust reaction helps to prevent any questioning or doubt around those truths, instead identifying both questioning and doubt as dangerous contaminants that can lead people astray. Like with contaminants in drinking water or dirt in a surgery suite, the posture demands an absolute stance, tolerating no impurities.

Alternatively, God’s truth is far less straightforward. It isn’t safe or tame, and it doesn’t play by our rules. It refuses to abide by categories and transgresses our taxonomies. It speaks in the prophetic voice, calling from the real to those who listen even when the message is not what we want to hear.[8] Truth disorganizes our illusory realities. Truth is found in the doubts and contradictions. Truth pulls us toward complexity and uncertainty, trusting in something bigger than ourselves and our dogmas. Truth is a eucontaminant that nags at our convictions and certainty. Truth violates our norms and denaturalizes our presumed normative structures. In short, truth is queer.

Queerness as Eucontamination

Discussing the perennial impossibility of a discrete definition of queerness, Tonstad, synthesizing Cohen and Helperin in Queer Theology, suggests that “‘queer’ if useful, stands for those against whom dominant social understandings of the normative develop,” adding the clarification that, in our usage here, queerness also orbits the domains of gender and sexuality.[9] In other words, queer signifies those who are left out, the not us of the current power structures and social realities. But of course, “dominant social understandings of the normative” in terms of sexual and gender rules are precisely the boundaries constituted by evangelical teaching as instantiated in purity culture and the concerns of mainstream evangelical organizations like the Gospel Coalition and documents like the Nashville Statement. Thus, queering can be understood as the recognition and reception of a disorganizing insistence from the margins into our imagined realities.[10] To queer, as we have applied it, is to question or transgress, to denaturalize and then reorganize our realities.

It strikes us now that queerness, or that which we identify as queer, stands out as a vital species of eucontamination in several significant ways. First, queerness is understood by white American evangelicalism to be deeply suspect and is in fact treated as a contaminant. In that very fact, we see the seeds of the eucontaminating power of queering. That which is fragile, which must be protected from contamination, cannot, in truth, be holiness specifically because holiness is robust; holiness acts with the power of eucontamination. Thus, a Christian who fears the queering of their own experience admits to a fragility of their very identity—that is, as “Christian,” cisgender, and straight—and that fragility betrays a belief in the power of queerness over and against their fragile, heteronormative, cisnormative understanding of those identities. Indeed, if a Christian’s assumed cisgender heterosexuality is true, it has nothing to fear from denaturalization and recontextualization as one possible state among many—that is, from the real—because that Christian’s robust cisgender heterosexuality will only be confirmed as theirs.  If, on the other hand, queering their experience risks the revelation that their assumed cisgender heterosexuality leads to the shattering of a false identity—if they are themselves queer—then the act of revealing their queerness will bring them not further from truth but closer to it.

Roughly two weeks after Billie came out to me, I (Paul) sat on my back deck and wept. I had just finished reading a short story she had written about her experience. She retold stories that were familiar to me but were suddenly brand new. Waves of emotion washed over me as I felt lost in a conflicting, ambivalent swirl of pain, anger, fear, joy, and love. What an incredible honor that she had told me. What an amazing act of trust, speaking to the closeness we shared. And at the same time, I was flooded with the implications and questions about how much of her I didn’t know. I felt angry that I had shared so much with her when she hadn’t shared with me. I felt shame at that anger, knowing the cultures and systems that had prevented us from being more fully ourselves with one another. I felt a fear of who Billie was, knowing she is still the sibling I love but also not knowing what parts of her had been tailored to fit a heteronormative world. I felt fear for her safety in a world that will see her as a contaminant, an aberration. I felt grief at what almost forty years of our relationship had not been able to hold. I also wondered what this invited me to recognize about myself.

Stepping into the process of letting go of my resistance to the eucontaminant of Billie’s identity changed both everything and nothing for me. I am still Paul. I still use he/him pronouns and identify as a cishet male. But while those external signifiers remain, what they mean has shifted. I’m a cisgender man who learned about masculinity from my transgender sister. I learned from her as she was wrestling with her experiences of a developing male body and queer experiences in a transphobic evangelical world. My gender is not a mere result of my sex organ but a deeply complex expression and identity rooted in my own story, body, and relationships, as well as my sexuality. Moving beyond the binary choices of gender that we were born into allows for more complexity, allows for more of me to be recognized and metabolized into me. I can imagine myself to be more than I was before. This expansion of the imaginary allows for a more robust embrace of those around me.

Billie’s identity is not a threat to me. Her experiences have shaped me and my gendered experiences in beautiful ways that I couldn’t name before her coming out. What a gift it is that I was able to witness her wrestling with gender norms, gender expectations, and faith! Her wrestling deepened my experience of each. Her story has helped my identity grow roots that can embrace flexibility, an identity that is not shoddily tied to a binary illusion. Her courage to come out to me has made possible a closer and more genuine relationship with myself and with her.

Although it is certainly and beautifully true that I (Billie) am queer, it is also true that I have experienced a process of being queered starting with the moment I recognized my queerness—initially understood as transness—as a fact. That process involved years of struggling to (re)locate myself relative to the dominant social understandings of the normative, both within the church and in the world. While I kept my transness secret, I existed in a false position, being publicly within normative expectations while knowing that, really, I was outside them. The decision to live fully as myself thus represents a completion—though there may be more to come!—of the queering process that started with the realization that I am a woman (and therefore trans).

But this narrative can be retold in a language more familiar to Christian discourse. In his reflections on Revelation 2:17, a passage in which the listener is given “a white stone, and a new name inscribed on the stone.” George MacDonald writes, “In this passage about the gift of the white stone, I think we find the essence of religion. . . . The giving of the white stone with the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man. It is the divine judgment, the solemn holy doom of the righteous man, the ‘Come, thou blessed,’ spoken to the individual.”[11] The dawning understanding, accepting, and growing into who we are in Christ—these are other ways of speaking of sanctification. Thus, one key development in my sanctification began the day I realized that, contrary to what the world had told me, I am a daughter of God. The gradual process of discipleship wherein I knew, then resisted, then suffered, and ultimately accepted the glory and weight of who I am had one of its culminations—and there may be more—in the decision to declare, first to those I love, and eventually to the world, that truth of who I am.

Queering was for me, then, also sanctification. So too for Paul,queering has led to a deepening and denaturalizing of the illusory boundaries and binary categories that had foreclosed complexity and nuance in his identity as a cishet Christian male. It is a eucontaminating process of his sanctification in the continued gradual recognition of who he is.

And this is precisely what Christians ought to have expected all along. Insofar as “friendship with the world means enmity with God” (James 4:4), friendship with God will require a stance in opposition to “dominant social understandings of the normative.” But such a stance is one we are conditioned to experience as threatening, which may make us experience the very disgust reactions that ought to alert us to our need for eucontamination. In embracing being queered—whether that means our own queerness or in the (re)location of ourselves as denaturalized cishet members of a queer world—we invite eucontaminating queerness to infect and thereby cure us, to further sanctify us.            If, as we have argued, queering is a deeply eucontaminative, reorganizing practice with the potential of denaturalizing and recontextualizing even hitherto cisgender and heterosexual experiences, then it is vital that queer people not merely be included or accepted in the church; they must be welcomed as valued and unique members of the body. It is, after all, not possible to have queerness without queer people. Furthermore, the church, corporately experienced and instantiated as the body of Christ, already is a queer body composed of many members. It is only a hand that is not yet denaturalized that says to the queer eye, “I do not need you,” believing that hands are all that are necessary to the body. The denaturalized hand—a member of a queerly eucontaminated, reorganized body—knowing itself to be one member of a diverse whole is better enabled to recognize the other as a self. These parts serve different functions and bring different perspectives, experiences, and expectations for the building up of one another, a dynamic exemplified in our varied and mutually beneficial reactions to queer eucontaminant reorganization. But as delicious as it is to imagine the queer eye, we are more fruitfully served to remember that it is the members without honor (that is to say, the members “against whom the social understandings of the normative” have developed) who are to be clothed in a greater honor. As such, beyond welcome, beyond tolerance, beyond affirmation or acceptance, it is the queer members of the body who, seen as shameful by the world, are to be clothed in greater honor by the church, for they are indecently holy members eucontaminating the body of Christ.

[1] For a book that helped shape Paul’s intellectual understanding of these ideas, see Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: Seal, 2016). For our introduction to eucontamination in Paul R. Hoard and William Hoard, “Eucontamination: A Christian Study in the Logic of Disgust and Contamination,” The Other Journal 32 (2020), https://theotherjournal.com/2020/10/19/eucontamination-christian-logic-disgust-contamination/.

[2] See Hoard and Hoard, “Eucontamination,”; Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth, 2012); and Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012).

[3] For projective disgust and boundaries, see Martha C. Nussbaum, Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), esp. 16. For a historical perspective on the impact of disgust, see Eleazar Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2004). And for examples of racist projective disgust, see Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox(New York, NY: Grove, 2008).

[4] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017); unless otherwise noted, all subsequent biblical references are also Hart’s translation.

[5] Waitz and Tisdale, Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Eastern Orthodox Christian Anthropology in Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022). Also see Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology after Lacan (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001); and Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[6] For more on the culture wars over different truths, see John Caputo, Philosophy and Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2006); and Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2002). For more on the fragility of our truths, see Tad DeLay, God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

[7] Tonstad, Queer Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), 76.

[8] See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination,40th anniversary ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2018).

[9] Tonstad, Queer Theology, 67.

[10] For examples of evangelical boundary drawing, see the “Nashville Statement,” Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/. For more on queering as listening to the margins, see Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (London, UK: Icon Books, 2016).

[11] MacDonald, “The New Name,” in Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald, https://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/5/.