How does the deer of Psalm 42 affirm the lives of gender non-conforming individuals? Before we get there, I need to explain how both LGB and T individuals are gender non-conforming, albeit in different ways. (And remember, some people are both!) First, gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals do not fit constricting gender expectations because, as an inherent part of our assigned gender, we are expected to be attracted only to a gender other than our own. Secondly, trans individuals do not fit constricting gender expectations because they often not conform to the names, pronouns, or gender expressions that are imposed on them at birth or by society. In this way, one prejudice that both LGB and T experience is that our existence “defies” people’s expectation of gender.
How does this relate to Psalm 42? Well, Hebrew is a gendered language, with masculine and feminine grammatical genders. But unlike in English, the verbs, too, are gendered to match their subjects in each clause. (That is, there are different forms of the verbs to match in grammatical gender with the subject.)
So, in Psalm 42:1, “As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God!” we find something interesting. The deer is an אַיָּ֗ל, and is masculine in gender. (If the deer had been female, the word would be אַיָּלָה. This is like actor/actress in English.)
Now, the third-person verb used for longing here is תַּעֲרֹג, which is feminine in form. (If the verb had been masculine it would be יעֲרֹג.) This is interesting, because there is a profound mismatch between the masculine gender of the subject and the feminine gender of its verb. The deer is identified as male, but cries out as a female. What this tells me is that the people who best cry out to God are those who do not fit expectations, with gender non-conformity as the Lord’s appointed example here. Queer people are among the ones who long for God the most, are closest to God, and best thirst for God.
We can also ask why this “gender non-conforming” deer was thirsty. Why would the deer be so far away from water? Probably the deer was thirsty and exhausted because it was chased by predators. People had persecuted the psalmist (who perhaps represents David fleeing from his military enemies) and he had to run. The evidence for this is later in the psalm, in 42:9–10, where the psalmist declares how they felt oppressed, misunderstood, and persecuted.
There are also indications in this Psalm that the deer was also mocked for allegedly not having God on their side (Psalm 14: 3, 10). Queer people, too, are also told we do not have God on our side. We can feel the psalmists’s frustration. But I like that when we get to the verb, the deer doesn’t conform to our gender expectations. That reflects how we queer folk are precious to God, and that the Lord hears our prayers. We long for God as a thirsty, panting deer longs for cooling waters. So also, one day the world will know that the Lord was on our side all along, and has granted our desperate plea for the water of equality.