Hegai the Eunuch and Queering Sexual Violence

“So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. The girl pleased him and won his favor, and he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food, and with seven chosen maids from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem.” (Esther 2: 8–9)

This is a narrative sermon that uses the author’s prophetic imagination to conceive of how Hegai became a eunuch and what that story may tell us about ending sexual violence.

***

AND his name shall be called, “Hegai.”

Hegai means murmuring.

Hegai’s name was offered when the King needed a eunuch to guard the harem. They needed a manservant able to keep his sexual urges under control while watching over the king’s potential pleasures. Because most, if not all, of the men were rapists. Rape was a rite of passage for some, a ritual for others. But Hegai was not a man; he was just a teenage boy.

“Hegai” they called.

He did not know why they chose him, but they chose him.

And no matter how loudly his mama screamed, she could not protect him. They’d get her too.

And so when they called Hegai, he bent over.
 
It was almost similar to… “Get on you knees and pray. Or turn over on your face to God.”

It was about submission to authority. To power. And to the powers that be.

When he bent over, he felt a wave of excruciating pain.

He had been castrated.

But like the guards, the church, too, loves genitals, or at least pathologizing certain genitals while valorizing others. Certain genitals are about power. To be dangled alongside and behind the phallic symbol that is the pulpit, while others are deemed “perverse” or “unnatural.”

…Nevertheless, they castrated Hegai. And then they juggled his genitals in their hands like dice. And they laughed as he sobbed.

The king’s priests saw him sobbing and they did nothing.

They said nothing.

They made him feel as if he were nothing.

They walked by him in their finest sacred garments, and they rendered him unfit, not enough, not a man.

Their judgmental eyes shamed him.

And their fancy religious rhetoric felt like rubbing alcohol on an open wound.

Because that’s what happens to eunuchs. And the people in proximity to eunuchs. Those in power render eunuchs misfits, damaged goods, broken and incapable of being whole.

They get rid of eunuchs.

They lock them in cages. They cut them off. They cause them further harm.

And they do not consider the eunuch’s story. They do not see eunuchs as survivors of sexual violence. And eunuchs’ abusers go free.

Just think about today. So many queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people, such as Ky Peterson, a Black trans man, who is currently locked in a Georgia prison for killing his rapist, are rarely seen as survivors of sexual violence. Yet, statistically we know that many LGBTQ youth not only flee their homes and churches because of homophobia and transphobia, but also because of the threat of rape and child sexual abuse.

When abusers go free and survivors are shamed, those in power send a loud and clear message that rape is okay. That it is normal.

They also say that genital mutilation of any gender is okay.

Their beliefs about sexuality are harmful, and these traditional, heteronormative teachings make it challenging to deal with sexual violence in our faith communities.

But even still… In the midst of a wicked Empire, in the face of captivity, in the face of and in the afterlife of rape, sodomy (which is not to be confused with homosexuality), and genital mutilation, Hegai had no other choice but to move into his forced role as eunuch.

He took post. He stood post. And he assumed position. Because he was forcibly made a eunuch.

Hegai did what the King and the Empire told him to do. A wounded spirit mixed with sexually repressive culture and coercive theology is a bad mix. And Hegai had both ingredients. And so he taught the girl children how to please him, in order to teach them how to please the King.

As readers of Hegai’s story, we do not know what he taught the girls in the Harem, but we do know that “Hegai had charge of the women.” It’s important to note that many of the girls went into the Harem as “girls,” and came out as “women.” Mercy.

With these heart wrenching things in mind, what then do we do when rapists have been sexually violated, and what do we do when those who have been raped harm others? What do we do when our culture, our theologies, our sacred spaces create the conditions where rapists teach children how best to harm others?

And what do these things suggest about the Gospel the Church preaches? A Gospel that seemingly necessitates whole communities, whole villages being full of survivors and rapists — in shared space and in position — like lions lying down with lambs?

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, we must redefine and expand our conceptions of sexual violence to account for all survivors — people both like and unlike Hegai — regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. We must vision together and create a world where no person is sexually harmed, and where all harm doers are held accountable.


i. I am indebted to The Queer Bible Commentary edited by Deryn Guest (2006), the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s commentary in “Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch” (2012) published on her website, and Queering Sexual Violence edited by Jennifer Patterson (2016) for my thinking about eunuchs, queerness, queering sexual violence, and cycles of sexualized and gendered violence. In addition, I would like to thank Verdell Wright for copyediting this piece and for talking with me about my thoughts.


Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University in the Religion in the Americas subfield, and an interdisciplinary scholar pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. During the 2016–2017 academic year, he worked with Professor Wallace Best as the graduate student coordinator for the Department of African American Studies’ Faculty-Graduate Seminar, “Sexuality in African American Communities and Cultures.” His research interests include Black religion(s), African American Pentecostalism, Holiness Movements, Gender and Sexuality in Black churches, and 19th-20th century African American and Africana religious histories. A highly sougt after speaker, writer, and advocate, his work has appeared on Ebony, NewBlackMan (In Exile), NewsOne, Racebaitr, The Root, The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire among others.