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Josephine (What the Bible Says About Transfolk)

by Chris Paige


J Mase III is a "Black/Trans/Queer/Rowdy-as-Hell Poet with a capital [P] based in Philly." Transfaith first encountered him on the Philly scene and organizing around the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference.

Mase, now a very fierce 29, has recently published a spoken word selection, called "Josephine (What the Bible Says About Transfolk)," to YouTube, drawing out an often ignored understanding of "Joseph of Genesis" in the Christian Bible (and Jewish Torah).

Part poetic work, part biblical exegesis, and part transgender/genderqueer youth manifesto, Mase's riff on Josephine points out that what is often referred to as a Joseph's "coat of many colors" (in the Hebrew, kethoneth passim) is actually a "princess dress" (see 2 Samuel 13:18-19 where the text clearly identifies the rarely used phrase as the kind of garment worn by the king's daughters).

Teasing out both the bold empowerment and tragic betrayal embodied in the story of "Joseph / Josephine / Jo," Mase speaks out

...and you wore it with pride / openly / you held no shame / I am sorry for what happened to you next.

Jo / when your brothers saw you / in your flowing dress / in all your glory / they became enraged / I am so sorry for the beating you received.

I am sorry for the blood they spilled from you / sorry they destroyed your dress / and smeared it with the red paint of your swollen veins.

However, Mase doesn't end with this tragic scene. He travels on to Jo's triumph as a leader in Egypt who is able to save her family from famine,

Joseph / Josephine / Jo / your love broke through the darkness of resentment / and for the first time / your family saw you as you / as magnificent / for it was you whose word that saved them from starvation.

Dear Joseph of Genesis / aka Josephine / aka Jo / I am claiming your story for every queer kid told / they are unholy / for every queer told that in order to live you must let your faith die.

Don't miss the moving mash up of Ruth's vow to Naomi with Jesus' resurrection story at 3:54.

In the notes to the video, Mase credits Peterson Toscano as an inspiration. When asked to elaborate, Mase explains,

For me, like many queer folks, I have spent a lot of time working with religious communities in a very defensive theology way. That is to say that I was guilty of only being able to provide a rebuttal to the 6- scriptures folks use against TLGBQIA folks, but if you asked me to find something affirming I wouldn't be able to do it. When I first saw Peterson Toscano's play, Transfigurations, a few years ago, a light bulb went off Like, "What?? There are queerfolks in the text?!?!."

Transfaith is delighted to have worked with Toscano to present Transfigurations--Transgressing Gender in the Bible, then a new and relatively little known production, at the 2009 Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference. Since Transfigurations debuted in November 2007, Toscano has performed it over one hundred times in six countries at seminaries, universities, conferences, and houses of worship including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim spaces.

Reflecting on the significance of this kind of empowering religious exploration, Mase gets practical,

I feel that regardless of whether or not TLGBQIA folks are religious themselves, the fact is that our rights our constantly questioned under the guise of religious text. I think there is a huge importance in understanding the texts such as the Bible, Koran & Torah. While many TLGBQIA folks don't feel like they need to reconcile their faith with their identity, for others it is the difference between choosing life or choosing self-destructive behavior--giving up in whatever way that means. So this conversation is important for survival in a multitude of ways.

Meanwhile, Toscano is delighted at the way his work has inspired reinterpretations by Mase and others,

As an artist and an activist I feel thrilled when my work feeds other artists and activists. When I viewed [J Mase III's] work, ["Josephine (What the Bible Says About Transfolk),"], I thought I would burst. I immediately shared it. The creative ability to interpret and reinterpret our scholarship and art is akin to the pollination process in nature. Life and light get spread around for many to enjoy.

Toscano says he is still performing Transfigurations, while also working on a DVD and book version of the material. He says he has even

been able to present it to more and more Evangelical Christians who are hungry for Good News about LGBTQ people. I am mercenary and will bring the work to pretty much anywhere I get an invitation and the means to get there. 

Both artists are available for performances. Check their websites for schedules and booking information.

More on J. Mase III at http://www.jmaseiii.com/.

More on Peterson Toscano at http://www.petersontoscano.com/ and http://petersontoscano.wordpress.com/

UPDATE: See Peterson Toscano discuss his work and performs several (!) vignettes from Transfigurations--Transgressing Gender in the Bible at the HRC Summer Institute.


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