Christian Hegemony and the Architects of Anti-Trans Violence

The following article is by Cole Parke — activist, organizer, and scholar as well as LGBTQ and gender justice researcher at Political Research Associates. Cole does an excellent job of showing how dominant Christian leaders, denominations, and parachurch organizations such as think tanks and legal organizations work together to create and activate a national agenda. The article focuses on coordinated attacks against the transgender community by organizations also involved in anti-gay, anti-choice, and other campaigns. This article was originally published on Political Research Associates and is reposted here with permission.

TDOR 2014 AND THE RIGHT-WING ROOTS OF ANTI-TRANS VIOLENCE

Cole Parke

Since 1999, Nov. 20th has been set aside as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). TDOR provides space to remember and honor those who have been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The annual event originated when trans activists and allies came together to mourn the loss of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was brutally murdered in Allston, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, 1998. Beyond a few transphobic mentions in the local media (the Boston Globe referred to Hester as “a man who sported long brtransgender-day-of-remembrance-PRAaids and preferred women’s clothes,” while the Boston Herald called her a “transvestite” and “a large man who lived as a woman”), her death garnered little attention, let alone outrage.

While significant legal advances have been made for the LGBTQ community in the 15 years since Hester’s murder, trans people continue to experience horrific and disproportionate rates of violence. As the official TDOR website states:

“We live in times more sensitive than ever to hatred based violence, especially since the events of September 11th. Yet even now, the deaths of those based on anti-transgender hatred or prejudice are largely ignored. Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating.”

Yet most media outlets, policymakers, and even the mainstream LG(BTQ) movement, have a long history—that continues to this day—of marginalizing the experiences, contributions, and needs of transgender people and people of color. The 1969 Stonewall Riots—often considered a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history—are frequently claimed by White, gay men as a triumph of their own doing, even though it was primarily trita-hesterrans women of color and homeless youth who led the charge. And whereas Rita Hester’s murder in 1998 was largely ignored, the murder of Matthew Shepard—a young, White, gay man—just two weeks later prompted nationwide vigils and helped lead to the eventual passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The legislation expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

                                                                                       Rita Hester

Indeed, disregard for the role of trans people and people of color has plagued the LGBTQ justice movement since its earliest days. Meanwhile, these are the members of our community who bear the brunt of the violence and oppression directed toward LGBTQ people.  In its annual report on hate-violence experienced by LGBTQ and HIV-affected persons in the United States, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) documented more than 2,000 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2013, and 18 hate-violence homicides. NCAVP’s findings also reflect the disproportionate impact of this violence: almost three-quarters (72%) of the  documented homicide victims were trans      women, and more than two-thirds (67%) were trans women of color.

TDOR interrupts this pattern of neglect, insisting that the LGBTQ movement—as well as our broader  communities—acknowledge and mourn these lives.

Who Are The Architects of Anti-Trans Violence?

To a certain extent, talking about violence against trans people as a “hate crime” abstracts it from any social or political context, and suggests that these attacks are isolated incidents caused by rogue individuals. As Kay Whitlock has argued in a PRA discussion paper:

“While the hate frame may be powerful in terms of increasing awareness and mobilizing opposition to the threatening, violent actions of individuals and small groups directed against targeted communities, it also, paradoxically, obscures the relationship of such violence to its systemic underpinnings […] It’s so much easier to place the blame for violence directed against entire groups on criminal misfits, loners, and crackpots than to challenge the unspoken public consensus that permits broader cultures and structures of violence to exist.”

And so we must acknowledge—and then challenge—the architects responsible for manufacturing and perpetuating a cultural climate that justifies violence against trans and gender nonconforming people. 

Christian Right Church Leaders

Earlier this year, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June signed a “Declaration on Transgender Identity.” With 16-plus million members, SBC is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States (in terms of Christian organizations, only the Catholic Church manages to outnumber them). Consequently, SBC’s policy decisions carry tremendous influence.

Unfortunately, the declaration was far from affirming. It states that trans and intersex people are manifestations of “human fallenness” and “contrary to God’s design.” The resolution notes that SBC condemns “acts of abuse or bullying” (unlike many of the document’s other proclamations, the authors couldn’t seem to find any scriptural backing for this piece), but they are quick to note that SBC also opposes hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery, as well as any legislative or cultural efforts to validate trans people as “morally praiseworthy.”

SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hosted a conference last month on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” At the event, ERLC president Russell Moore—who was recently invited by the Vatican to speak at a conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman”—took the opportunity to offer advice to pastors ministering to trans people during a live “Questions & Ethics” session, saying “The people who are coming to you—that biologically male person who says ‘I think I’m a woman,’ or vice versa—that person really experiences that and believes that. … You don’t have to agree with that at all, and I would say we can’t. The Bible teaches us that God created us male and female.”

Right-Wing Parachurch Organizations

Focus on the Family explicitly opposes “the celebration of ‘transgenderism’ as one of God’s gifts.”

On its website, FOTF explains its position: “Because ‘transgenderism’ violates God’s intentional design for sex and sexuality, we believe that this is a cultural and theological battle that we must engage and win. The modern ‘transgender’ movement is systematically working to dismantle the concept of gender as the Bible and the world have always known it to be. If the transgender lobby succeeds, there will be striking consequences for marriage, family and society at large.” Those who fail to follow FOTF’s guidance are told, “[T]he problems associated with transgenderism, like confusion and pain, stem from a lack of parental involvement and guidance.”

Right-Wing Think Tanks & Legal Lobbyists

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), a right-wing legal ministry committed to “religious freedom,” has recently taken up the cause of isolating and shaming transgender students. Arguing against a Massachusetts school’s 2013 decision to allow transgender students to access facilities and recreation activities that aligned with their gender identity, ADF’s Jeremy Tedesco warned the policy created “an atmosphere that could result in sexual assaults committed by minors.”

In letters delivered last month to similarly progressive schools in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, ADF suggested that creating inclusive policies for transgender students would “seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ right of conscience, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning.”

The Family Research Council, a right-wing lobby group based in Washington, DC, similarly argues that gender identity protections would “purposefully threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek.”

Concerned Women for America has warned its members that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—legislation that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—could force “Christian businessmen” to allow transgender employees to wear male and female clothing alternately, and could “open bathroom doors for predators throughout the nation.”

As Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, put it, “These bills or policies are gifts to predators![emphasis his].

What’s Next?

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and co-author of the SBC’s anti-trans declaration, has warned that the trans justice movement is “the next phase of the LGBT revolution.” In actuality, the mainstream gay rights movement is already demonstrating a preference for other, international priorities in the post-marriage equality era.

Nonetheless, with leaders on the Right conceding defeat on the marriage front, we can expect to see them turning their sights toward other battlefronts, particularly ones they perceive to be winnable.

While it may seem that the trans community is that vulnerable, “winnable” target, what the Right doesn’t recognize is that the power of the gay rights movement—a movement that most would say has beaten the Right—was fueled first by trans women of color. These women—who find themselves at the nexus of White supremacy and heteropatriarchy—were fighting long before Stonewall, and they’ll continue fighting long after Gay Inc. closes its doors. They are fierce and formidable, and, as the Right will soon learn, they are undefeatable.

 

Are You Ready for the Holidays?: The Fall/Winter Christian Holiday Cycle

Via sunnewsnetwork.ca

Holidays are great when they reaffirm our connections to family and friends, are inclusive, build community and honor accurate histories. Holidays are also important when they celebrate significant cultural events and connect us to our deepest communal values.

However, holidays can be destructive when they celebrate war or colonialism, are promoted aggressively or when corporations use them to promote values hostile to our environment and communities. Holidays become destructive and exclusive when they are proclaimed as universal but are actually culturally specific or when they are based on historical lies and perpetuate misinformation. We need to think seriously about what we celebrate and why, who is included or excluded in the celebration and what values are implicitly or explicitly communicated.

Christian leaders have established an annual holiday cycle that extols US militarism/triumphalism, the nuclear family, consumerism and whiteness. This holiday cycle downplays the violence in our history and holds up a few white Christian men, such as Christopher Columbus and our presidents, for uncritical praise while emphasizing faith, family and country.

For many in the US, this cycle has come to seem traditional even though most of the holidays originated within the last 150 years. For some, these holidays have come to feel familiar, unifying and just plain American even though for millions of others they can be painful and alienating. Most of our national holidays are seen as secular, even though their underpinnings are deeply Christian. Even Christmas and Easter are viewed as secular by many. (I have been told that the phrase “Merry Christmas” in bold letters on the public buses in my city is not religious but merely a general holiday greeting.)


 

Columbus Day

Even by the standards of his day, Columbus was an extreme Christian who saw his voyages as attempts to meet up with the kingdom of Prester John (a mythical Christian ruler in east Africa) and from there reconquer and rebuild Jerusalem.

columbus2
Via Tumblr

Brutal in his suppression of Native Peoples, Columbus condoned rape of Native women and hung rebellious infidels in groups of 13, the number representing Jesus and his apostles. In a letter to the Spanish court dated February 15, 1492, before his departure, Columbus clearly delineated his goals: “to conquer the world, spread the Christian faith and regain the Holy Land and the Temple Mount.”[1]  “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”[2] Those indigenous peoples who were not enslaved were killed. The population of Haiti at the time of Columbus’s arrival was between one and a half million and three million. Sixty years and five Columbus expeditions later, nearly every single Native had been murdered.[3]

During his voyages Columbus was carrying out Papal policies of discovery that gave him divine sanction for the theft of Native lands and the destruction of Native peoples on the grounds that they were not Christian. Even his economic motives had religious undertones. He wanted to discover riches so that the rulers of Spain could afford a new crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. In addition, his voyages were probably, at least partially, funded from wealth stolen from Jews when they were expelled from Spain in 1492 to create a pure Christian kingdom.


 

Halloween

Continuing Christian efforts to curtail non-Christian community rituals, in the eighth century Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day from the spring to supplant the Celtic holiday, Halloween (originally the pagan holiday Samhain), which celebrated the harvest and preparation for winter.

Catholic Irish immigrants brought many of the current customs practiced on the holiday to the US during the Great Famine (1845-1852). Traditional Halloween figures include the devil, demons, witches and black cats, all associated with evil by Christianity. Even the name jack-o’-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking farmer who tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then trapped him by carving a cross into the tree trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle inside a hollowed turnip.


 

Thanksgiving

Like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is a holiday that attempts to give a benign veneer to a violent colonization process. Early New England colonists generally believed Native Americans to be infidels and Canaanites. Puritan preachers in the colonies routinely referred to them as savages.

The historical evidence is not of a thanksgiving meal but of an invitation from the invaders inviting Wampanoag locals to a feast with the goal of negotiating a treaty for land the Puritans wanted. The Wampanoag brought food to the gathering out of a sense of hospitality.

The Wampanoag and other Natives refused to give up their lands, but the pressure and violence from the colonists were unrelenting. Within a single generation the Puritans eliminated nearly all Native peoples in New England by murdering them, driving them into French territory as refugees or selling them into slavery in the Carolinas.[4]

Thanksgiving, as celebrated today, promotes a false understanding of this period in which white Christians supposedly coexisted peacefully with Native Americans. It portrays Indians as generous but long gone, mysteriously vanished from the places the so-called pilgrims lived and where their descendants live still.

For the Puritans, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. Many of their early thanksgiving celebrations were to give thanks that they had triumphed over “the Indians” and been able to massacre so many.[5] This is illustrated in the text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by Mather the Elder. In it, he gave special thanks for a devastating smallpox plague that wiped out most of the Wampanoag Indians who had helped the Puritan community.[6]

Celebration of Thanksgiving ensures that the European invasion of North America and the genocide against its original inhabitants remain invisible. Native peoples remain stereotyped, marginalized and exploited. Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for many Native Americans and their allies.


 

Coca-Cola-Art_Christmas_Santa9
via Coca Cola Christmas Art

Christmas

Similar to St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Christmas began as a thinly veiled attempt to place a Christian overlay on Winter Solstice celebrations common throughout the Roman Empire. Christmas has a checkered history and was never a particularly spiritual holiday. The noisy and festive celebrations brought over from England by non-Puritan colonists were so unsettling to the Puritans that they banned them. In fact, many of the dominant religious churches in the colonies did not celebrate holidays such as Christmas. [7]

Even into the 17th century boisterous festivities marked the holiday. In the late 19th century Christian male elites such as the Knickerbockers – a group of New York gentlemen – began a systematic process of domesticating the holiday by moving its celebration from the rowdy public to a more quiet home setting. The people most influential in establishing Christmas as we know it now were writers: Washington Irving [8], Charles Dickens [9], Clement C. Moore [10], Francis Church [11], Thomas Nast and Queen Victoria [12], through her very public celebrations of the new Christmas [13].

North America’s traditional Christmas was created during this late 19th century period. People were moved off the streets and into churches and family gatherings, where everyone was encouraged to give gifts to children. The rise of department stores and advertising during this time further commercialized and managed this holiday. There have periodically been campaigns to “put Christ back in Christmas,” but in fact he was never really there.

However, authoritarian values normalizing reward and punishment for good and bad behavior, the watchfulness and judgmental nature of God are memorialized in the verses of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”:

You’d better watch out,

You’d better not cry,

Better not pout,

I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He’s sees you when you’re sleeping,

He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good

So be good for goodness sake.[14]

Although one is fat and jolly and the other is lean and serene, the similarities between Santa and Jesus/God are striking. They are both all-seeing and all-knowing, both reward or punish behavior (even thoughts), both are portrayed as living in pure white lands with assistants (elves and apostles), both are immortal, accept prayers (and letters) that pledge good behavior in return for favors, perform miracles (bottomless bag of toys/loaves and fishes) and are claimed to be universal in bringing good things to all people. [15] Although Christmas was recreated as a secular commercial holiday in the 19th century, Christian values remain not far below the surface.

During the Christmas season, calendars, school activities, public displays, constant advertising and the media all convey a message that everyone else is not quite American if they celebrate “exotic” holidays such as Chanukah, or more recently, Kwanzaa.


 

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve/Day is clearly a Christian holiday. The central figure of Christianity is publicly acknowledged to such an extent that history itself and the entire yearly cycle are centered on his birth. [16]

New Year’s day for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mayans and many Native peoples happens at other times of the annual cycle, according to other calendars. The fact that western countries imposed this calendar worldwide, even though those in the West are a minority in the world, is never acknowledged.

At the same time, non-Christians operate simultaneously with a second, culturally specific calendar and a set of celebrations and calibrations that guide their community life. Many of these calendars are lunar-based and have a very different rhythm than the solar-based Christian one. And yet we say “Happy New Year” as if this calendar were universal, and we might say “Happy Chinese New Year” or“Happy Jewish New Year” to note these other calendars are culturally specific.

 


 

There are many efforts to reclaim some holidays and to abandon others. Multiple cities have proclaimed Columbus Day Indigenous People’s Day, sponsoring education and alternative activities. Throughout the Americas there are Dia de la Raza festivals not only protesting Columbus Day activities, but also celebrating the survival, cultures, land claims and diversity of Indigenous peoples. Native Americans and their allies have organized indigenous celebrations around both Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. [17] People of the Wampanoag nation and their allies in the Plymouth area have declared Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning and hold alternative activities. For several years in Oakland, CA, Native Americans and their allies have hosted a Thangs Takin pre-thanksgiving event. They currently organize a day of protest against the post-Thanksgiving shopping that occurs at a mall built on a Native American village site and cemetery. Some Christians try to avoid the commercialization of Christmas and to infuse the holiday with an alternative set of values.

The holidays we celebrate and the ways in which we choose to celebrate them reveal the values we uphold and pass on to our children. The choice is ours. Christian hegemony operates through the holiday cycle; yet we each have the ability to challenge its impact and gather with others to celebrate our diverse families and multicultural communities. We can do this with simplicity, creativity, joy and much fun.


 

1 Dahr Jamail and Jason Coppola. “The Myth of America.” Truthout website, October 12, 2009. [online]. [cited September 25, 2012]. truthout.org/1012091.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Chuck Larsen. “There Are Many thanksgiving Stories to Tell,” in Doris Seale et al. Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. Oyate, 1998.

5 For example, the thanksgiving celebration after the massacre of Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort. For more details see Judy Dow. “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving’.” Oyate website, revised June 12, 2006. [online]. [cited October 24, 2012]. oyate.org/index.php/resources/43-resources/thanksgiving.

6 Chuck Larsen. “Teaching About Thanksgiving: An Introduction for Teachers.” Fourth World Documentation Project, 1987. [online]. [cited December 2, 2012]. 2020tech.com/thanks/temp.html.

7 Max A. Myers. “Santa Claus as an Icon of Grace,” in Richard Horsley and James Tracy, eds. Christmas Unwrapped: Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Trinity Press, 2001, p. 197. In Massachusetts a five-shilling penalty was imposed on anyone found feasting or shirking work on Christmas Day.

8 Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York invented the figure of Santa Claus, and his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon portrayed a Christmas feast that set the standard fare to today.

9 Dickens toured extensively throughout England and the United States reading his story “A Christmas Carol” to enthralled audiences.

10 Slave owner Moore wrote “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

11 Francis Church wrote one of the most famous newspaper editorials of all time “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” in 1897.

12 Queen Victoria’s family (but very public) Christmas tree was romanticized in the popular media, and Christmas trees became essential components of every Christian family’s celebration.

13 For more details see Tom Flynn. The Trouble With Christmas. Prometheus, 1993, pp. 96-108.

14 Lyrics and music 1934 by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie © EMI Music Publishing.

15 See Flynn, The Trouble with Christmas, pp. 139-40.

16 The Romans eventually settled on the Julian calendar that had January 1st as the start of the year, but many European countries used other annual starting dates, most prominently March 25th, the day of the Annunciation. It was only during the 16th century when Pope Gregory XIII officially set the Gregorian calendar (1582) that most Christian countries aligned their annual cycles with a January first start date. England only moved New Year from March 25th to January 1st in 1752.

17 One of the most noteworthy events are the sunrise gatherings held on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay every year on both holidays in commemoration of the takeover of the island by Native American activists in the 1970s.

Christian Place Names

One indicator of dominance is the ability of an institution to rename the people and the geography that they control. Many people around the world were given anglicized names when they were baptized to affirm their existence as a believer in the eyes of God. Many others had their names anglicized by immigration officials or other bureaucrats because their names were “barbaric”—they sounded strange, they were judged to be difficult to pronounce, or they were too long and just didn’t sound Christian or civilized enough.

The European conquest of Africa, the Americas, the Pacific Islands and much of Asia led to the renaming of many landmarks, natural features, and population sites in the European languages of the conquerors.

Often Christian colonizers would build cities on top of indigenous villages and, in particular, they would build churches on indigenous spiritual sites, including cemeteries. This practice continues today. There are recently completed or currently under construction shopping malls, convention centers, sports stadiums and other projects built on recognized Native American grave sites across the United States.

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Christian Influence Permeates our Healthcare System

Christian influence permeates our health system. Religiously affiliated hospitals—there are hundreds–accounted for 13% of all hospitals and 18% of all hospital beds in the U.S. in 2002. Nearly three quarters were Roman Catholic. Aside for a handful which were Jewish or Muslim affiliated, the rest were associated with other Christian denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.

There is nothing inherently wrong with religiously affiliated institutions providing medical services (although a comprehensive national health care plan would eliminate most of the need for those services). Problems arise, however, when those institutions dictate the terms and conditions of medical service based on religious beliefs.

According to a recent report there are 624 Catholic hospitals, 373 other Catholic health-care institutions including 11 of the 40 largest in the country, and hundreds of nursing homes. Two million people are enrolled in the 48 Catholic managed-care plans. In many states, 30 to 40 percent of people who need emergency care visit a Catholic hospital. In 2008, more than 90 million patients were treated at Catholic health-care facilities in the U.S. Many of these hospitals do not offer birth control, sterilizations, abortions, infertility services, comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention information (such as “safer sex” counseling about use of condoms) and some limit patients’ end-of-life choices. Continue reading

The Phoenix Affirmation

When I bring up the subject of Christian hegemony some people think I am attacking Christianity; and some individual Christians become defensive because they assume I am attacking their personal faith. Neither is true. Christian hegemony is the institutionalization of Christian dominance throughout society. Individual Christians have a wide range of relationships to this system, from complete acceptance of it to radical resistance. Many Christians experience ambivalence, gaining a great deal personally from their Christian faith, while being uncomfortable with some of the dominant values and the concentration of Christian political, economic, and cultural power.

The Phoenix Affirmations, listed below, were put together by Eric Elnes and other devout Christians in Phoenix, AZ (the phoenix was also an early Christian symbol).[1] Recommending frequent prayer and a thoughtful understanding of the scriptures, they focus on Jesus’ naming of the two greatest commandments –To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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Christian Hegemony and Language

The language we use is an indication of the deep structures of the way we think. The vocabulary, phrasings, and both explicit and implicit meaning of English words and concepts reflect our long history and the influence of many cultures, religions, and ideas of both dominant and resistant groups.

One of the longest-standing systems of institutionalized power in the United States is the dominant western form of Christianity that came to power when the Romans made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Christian hegemony—the everyday, pervasive, deep-seated, and institutionalized dominance of Christian institutions, Christian leaders, and Christians as a group—has profoundly shaped our lives. Some of that influence is very visible in our laws, customs, beliefs, and practices. Other parts of that influence have become nearly invisible, secularized, “common-sense” forms of knowing and being in the world. One way to identify both levels is to examine our language and the ways it represents, reflects, and reproduces Christian dominance.

When presented with Antonio de Nebrija’s Spanish Gramatica, the first-ever grammar of any modern European language in 1492, Queen Isabella reportedly asked the scholar, “What is it for?” Nebrija reportedly answered, “Language is the perfect instrument of empire.”[1]

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