by: Mischa Haider and Penina Weinberg on May 13th, 2016 | 8 Comments »
The night after Purim the two of us sat feasting – a queer Hebrew bible scholar and a trans woman activist. The book of Esther was on our minds, as we read Esther every year on Purim, the festival when we celebrate the brave Jewish queen who saves her people from annihilation in Persia. Also on our minds was the “bathroom panic” gripping the nation over the perilous prospect of transgender women using women’s restrooms. To address the threat, state legislatures are being flooded with proposed measures to deny transgender people access to restrooms and facilities in accordance with their authentic gender identity, instead forcing them to use the restroom matching the inaccurate gender assigned to them at birth. To those who may have missed the news, the rallying cry of these bills is “no men in women’s restrooms.” Since the trope that transwomen are actually men is patently absurd, we sought to delve into the mental plumbing of the cisgender men who craft these “bathroom panic” laws. What is it that compels them to enact such draconian measures? What is the source of their unrighteous anger?
There are many parallels in the story of Queen Vashti, as related in Esther. The lesser-known Queen Vashti, who enters the story prior to Queen Esther, is a proud and determined woman. Her strong-willed independence prompts the men in power to erase her existence, much as the enactors of the bathroom bills seek to erase transgender women. Perhaps in exploring Queen Vashti’s defiance and subsequent disappearance, we may illuminate the motivations of the cisgender men legislatively erasing transgender women, and get to the root of their anger.
As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a farcical extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver divans; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, banquets the women in her quarters – the women’s area of the royal house. On a certain day, the king sends his seven eunuchs – sarisim – to bring Vashti before him. Note that the word in the text, sarasim, is often translated as chamberlains, owing to their function at court. However, it is their status as eunuchs that enables them to be admitted to the women’s quarters.
Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. A preliminary clue to the ideology of those who seek to obliterate transgender womanhood may be found in the reaction of the court to this insubordination. In a masterful engraving, the French artist Gustave Doré perfectly illustrates both the refusal and the reaction.
In the engraving, the figure of Vashti stands in the spotlight in an unbowed posture. The expressions and carriage of the men around her suggest fear and anger – arguably arising from their inability to control her. Visualize Doré’s interpretation as we explore the interactions between Vashti’s independence and the enactments of King Ahasuerus and his princes in the text. We will argue that the forced erasure-by-legislation, which certain cisgender men in power today enact against transgender women, is rooted in the same feelings as those illustrated by Doré: the perceived loss of ownership and domination of the women in their intimate circles.