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.
We examine the summoning of Vashti and her defiance. The king commands his eunuchs to
bring Queen Vashti before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on (Est. 1:11).
The king wishes to display Vashti’s beauty before the feasters – flaunting before them his prized possession. However, in this pivotal moment, Vashti is holding her own court amongst the women. As a proud and autonomous woman she refuses to surrender the ownership of both her will and body to the king. Upon hearing this, King Ahasuerus is furious.
Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by the eunuchs; therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him (Est.1:12).
Regarding this moment, Dore’s engraving visually misrepresents one important detail of the text, yet captures its metaphoric symbolism. When Vashti refuses the summons delivered by the eunuchs, she is in her own quarters, surrounded by women. Vashti does not appear in the king’s domain at that moment, nor ever after, contrary to how she is depicted in the engraving. Doré thus overlooks how Vashti undermines the king’s authority amidst an audience of women – similarly to how transgender women destabilize male patriarchy amidst an audience of women in female restrooms and locker rooms. This refusal, being witnessed by other women, sows the seeds of autonomy within them, thereby threatening the proprietary instruments of patriarchal control. Crucially, however, Doré’s portrayal exquisitely captures the symbolic imagery of fear and anger burning in the male courtiers and the king upon being apprised of Vashti’s response. As we study the image, it is interesting to note that there is also a dimensional aspect in the depiction – Vashti stands in planar relief to the courtiers, implying an inaccessibility to their gazes and their reach. She revokes their authority over her. Transgender women are correspondingly inaccessible to men in female spaces, as they elude them in the metaphoric harems of restrooms and other gendered spaces.
In the next phase of our story, King Ahasuerus turns to the seven princes of Persia and Media for counsel to help him devise a lawful plan to deal with Vashti’s rebellion. The king asks:
What shall we do unto Queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the eunuchs? (Est. 1:15)
The response of the princes is somewhat lengthy, but deserves mention because it gets to the heart of their unrighteous anger, and also highlights how Vashti’s transgression is dealt with through legal sanction.
Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like unto all the king’s princes. So will there arise a great contempt and wrath. If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be, all the wives will give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. (Est. 1:16-20)
The king thus enacts the law:
The word pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan, for he sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to its writing, and to every people after their language, that every man should rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people. (Est. 1:21-22)
In the king’s eyes, Vashti’s solitary instance of refusal will spur all women everywhere to hold their husbands in contempt. This compels the royal court to dispatch missives to every man in the land, in every province, in every language, and in every household, instructing them to reinforce absolute dominion over their property – women. The courtiers’ disproportionate reaction provides keen insight into why men who enact bathroom panic bills are determined to erase transgender women. These men fear that the presence of even a single transgender woman in a women’s bathroom will cause all the women everywhere to hold all men in contempt. The fear of this contempt must be monumental indeed, for state legislatures to sanction by decree and to publish throughout the republic, the exclusion of transwomen from all bathrooms in all cities of the state.
A close examination of the Hebrew root for contempt will be useful here. In Hebrew a set of typically three consonants is at the root of both verbs and nouns, and looking at the root in another context can give us a deeper understanding of its meaning. The root being translated here as “contemptible,” or despised, is ב.ז.ה. In this context, Vashti does not hold the king in contempt; rather, the men of the king’s court interpret her actions as subverting other women into despising their husbands.
For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible (לְהַבְזֹות) in their eyes,
כִּֽי־יֵצֵא דְבַר־הַמַּלְכָּה עַל־כָּל־הַנָּשִׁים לְהַבְזֹות בַּעְלֵיהֶן בְּעֵינֵיהֶן
The root is used in another context where a woman is depicted as despising her husband. It takes place at the moment when King David arrives in Jerusalem, a conquering hero, restoring the ark of God to its glory in the center of the city, thus re-centering Jerusalem as the focus of Israelite polity and religion. David is overcome with emotion and does a wild victory dance in the marketplace, a dance in which perhaps his clothing flaps around and reveals more of his body than might be customary in a public place. Everett Fox, in his commentary Give us a King (pg 154) refers to David here as “a believer uninhibitedly religious enough to leap and whirl before God.” Yet, David’s wife, Queen Michal, looking down over the city center from her window, despises David’s dance “from her heart.” As the daughter of a king, she feels David’s behavior does not befit the office of king.
2 Samuel 6:16
And it was so, as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out at the window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised (וַתִּ֥בֶז) him in her heart.
וְהָיָה֙ אֲרֹ֣ון יְהוָ֔ה בָּ֖א עִ֣יר דָּוִ֑ד וּמִיכַ֨ל בַּת־שָׁא֜וּל נִשְׁקְפָ֣ה ׀ בְּעַ֣ד הַחַלֹּ֗ון וַתֵּ֨רֶא אֶת־הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ דָּוִד֙ מְפַזֵּ֤ז וּמְכַרְכֵּר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה וַתִּ֥בֶז לֹ֖ו בְּלִבָּֽהּ׃
We can further understand the weight of this “contempt” by reading what Michal says to David when he returns after whirling and leaping, to bless the household:
2 Samuel 6:20
‘How glorious was the king of Israel today, who uncovered himself to-day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the low fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!’
When King Ahasuerus and his princes claim that wives will hold their husbands in contempt, we can imagine that they picture themselves as King David, perpetually and inherently dancing for the glory of God, while their wives, under the influence of Vashti, will despise them and accuse them of pandering to the handmaids of their servants. At all cost they must root out this rebellion, and erase Vashti from the kingdom.
Let it be known that Vashti will come no more before the king! (Est. 1:19)
This gets to the heart of the unrighteous anger driving the current “bathroom panic.” What eats away at the ego of the modern day King Ahasuerus is not in fact the fear that transgender women are a danger to cisgender women and girls; it is the deep-seated terror that they are a danger to patriarchal hegemony. In order to establish and maintain ownership of women, men must first define women as unequivocally different from themselves, and lower on the gender hierarchy. Without an unambiguous binary, there can be no master and no slave and the patriarchy is rendered meaningless. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals only partially whittled away at these boundaries and yet they already drew the wrath of the hegemonic masters and their indoctrinated handmaidens. The gays won, at least in symbolic measure, when the highest court in the land granted the right to same sex marriage throughout the country. However, the misogynists suddenly faced a threat that would go beyond blurring the binary, one that would shatter the foundational structures that upheld it.
The upheaval wrought upon the misogynistic colossus by transgender womanhood can be understood by recognizing that the symbolic exertion of control of man over woman has been the interpretation of the penetrative act as a form of domination and control – the active male penis possessing the passive female vagina. Transgender people – the binary ones – demonstrate that men can have vaginas and become pregnant, while women can have penises that can both penetrate and impregnate. Add to that mix the non-binary trans individuals, and the tyranny of the binary, of divisions and hierarchies based upon sex and gender, and of and male and female categories, are swiftly relegated to the dustbin of history.
The public and open presence, in women’s bathrooms, of transgender and non-binary women, of whatever appearance, and regardless of gender assigned at birth, should be unremarkable. Like Queen Vashti, they simply assert their rights over their own bodies and wills by peeing in the bathroom of their choice. However King Ahasuerus and his minions take this as a public and intentional rebellion against the strictures of the patriarchy, and as an act of contempt towards men which will cause women everywhere to despise their masters. If, so they reason, the necessary factor for enactment of domination and ownership of a woman is the vaginal penetration by a man’s penis, what happens when the woman herself may have a penis? Granting a transgender woman access to a women’s facility is publicly acknowledging the womanhood of an individual who might have a penis. This threat to the inviolable power of the male as the only penetrator is intolerable to him.
The denouement of this biblical tale is Vashti’s erasure by decree; interestingly and crucially she is not punished but rather disappeared. This is an essential piece in the metaphoric relation to the legislative targeting of the transgender woman in America. These bathroom bills are not explicitly violent or punitive of transgender women on the surface; instead they inflict violence through erasure. At their core, these bills set out to achieve an exterminatory goal of vanishing trans women, not by placing their bodies in ovens or gas chambers, but with the smoke and mirrors of false and pseudo-medical language which asserts the hegemony of external birth markers – genital anatomy and chromosomes. Assigned at birth, consigned to birth, unchanging, world without end. Every man should rule in his own house, Vashti shall come no more before the King, and all the wives will give to their husbands honor. It is indeed a chilling picture, but we wish to end this paper by inviting you to go back and view Gustav Doré’s engraving. If we say her name, Vashti is not erased.
Mischa Haider is a mother and trans activist who studies applications of physical and mathematical models to social network theory at Harvard University.
Penina Weinberg is a Hebrew bible scholar and teacher who approaches the text from the perspectives of feminist, queer, and historical commentary.