Transgender 101 (for conservative Christians)

Transgender has come into the spotlight in recent days with the debut of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair. Since then Christians in my newsfeed are all over the map in their responses.

My work on intersex (biological evidence of mixed-sex characteristics) has made me more willing to lend a compassionate ear to the stories of transpersons. I have been asking others to do the same. Here are a few reasons why I have been reticent to pass judgement on Jenner and other trans folk:

At present, the major difference between transgender and intersex is that the latter can point to a diagnosis—medical proof explaining the cross-sex identification or mixed-sex feelings which some intersex persons experience. Still, the science of sex difference, particularly the effects of hormones on brain development and function, is still in its infancy. We may not have biological explanations for transgender today but we may very well tomorrow. In fact there are already hints from scientific research pointing in that direction. People who insist that transpersons should prioritize the body over the mind often forget that the brain is just as subject to sex hormones as genitals.

While there is still much we don’t understand. It may be helpful to clear away a few misguided responses I have been hearing in recent days:

Trans is not a result of the secularization of American culture. It has not come into existence on account of American individualism, expressivism, feminism, narcissism, or the sexual revolution. (While we may find traces of these influences among many Americans—trans and cis-gender alike—they are not the cause of trans experiences.) Transgender is a global and historical phenomenon that exists and has existed in many contexts.Consider the few examples below:

(For those looking for an academic source—rather than quick hyperlinks—Anthropologist Gilbert Herdt’s work is a good place to start: Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History by. NY: Zone Books, 1996.)

Transgender people deserve our compassion. Therapists have been working with transgender folks for years, trying to find ways to resolve the conflict between the gender identity of one sex with bodily features of another. The disorientation from this conflict along with the societal pressures and harassment put trans folk among the most vulnerable in our society:

Family refuses to speak to them                                               57%

Harassment at School                                                              50-54%

Doctor refused health care                                                        60%

Physical or sexual violence                                                        64-65%

Discrimination, victimization by law enforcement                    57-70%

Homelessness                                                                            69%

Catholic psychiatrist and opponent of Transgender surgery, Paul McHugh, warns that surgery doesn’t resolve suicidal thoughts/attempts. He compares post-op suicide rates of transpersons to the general population. But he should be comparing post-op to pre-operative rates:

Compare the suicide attempts of the general population                              4.6%

with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual persons                        10-20%

with transgender and gender non-conforming people                   41%

and then add racial minority status to gender non-conforming             54-56%

Sure, surgery doesn’t resolve every psychological problem, just as getting sober doesn’t resolve patterns of behavior that lead to the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Physicians and psychologists who work with trans persons know that there must be holistic care before considering transition as well as throughout the transition and beyond.

Still, McHugh does make a good point that many transgender feelings do resolve naturally, often at puberty. This has lead a number of scientists to believe that there are likelybiological underpinnings to some trans experiences. Thus, there are good reasons to be cautious about puberty delaying interventions when puberty can resolve a good number of gender identity questions.

Nevertheless, for those with persistent cross-sex identification (post-puberty), the question remains as to how best to resolve gender “dysphoria.” To date, therapies aiming at changing the gender identity to align with the body have been largely unsuccessful; while transitioning through cross-living (and sometimes surgery) has the highest rate of satisfaction. This is, of course, how many cultures without access to advanced medical technologies have been managing transgender for centuries, even millennia.

Transgender makes many people feel uncomfortable—including transpersons themselves. I think many of us (myself included) have felt wary because we sense some level of deceit. Why present yourself as a man when you are woman? Why present as a woman when you are a man? It doesn’t look or feel honest. It could very well be that a concern with honesty is what undergirds the biblical commands against cross-dressing found in Deuteronomy 22:5.

On the other hand, trans-folk tell us that finding the courage to cross-dress feels like the most honest thing they have ever done—letting the world in on their gender identity despite the severity of the risks documented above. In her interview with Krista Tippet, Joy Ladin speaks of the moral issue before trans persons as just that —Honesty.

How should Christians respond? I would recommend the advice of James 1:19-20

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

We must begin by listening—instead of simplistically tossing out quotes from Genesis 1 or Deuteronomy 25. Transgender and biblical interpretation are more complicated than that. They deserve our considered attention.

In my work on intersex, I have tried to show that teaching about Adam and Eve is not all that the Bible has to say on sex difference. Biblical authors, church fathers, ancient Christians and Jews were very familiar with the fact that bodies comes in more than two sexes/genders. Jesus speaks of naturally born eunuchs in Matthew 19:12. Augustine writes of hermaphrodites with seeming equanimity:

“As for Androgynes, also called Hermaphrodites, they are certainly very rare, and yet it is difficult to find periods when there are no examples of human beings possessing the characteristics of both sexes, in such a way that it is a matter of doubt how they should be classified. However, the prevalent usage has called them masculine, assigning them to the better sex.” (City of God, 16.8)

Meanwhile Ausutine is rather harsh with castrated eunuchs:

[a castrated eunuch] is “neither changed into a woman nor allowed to remain a man.” (City of God 7.24)

Augustine’s words about eunuch contrast sharply with the tone of Jesus in Matthew 19:12 as well as with other ancient Christian leaders including the Defense of Eunuchs written by the 12th century Byzantine Bishop, Theophylactos of Ohrid (which you can read about in my book or in Kathryn Ringrose’s magisterial work, Perfect Servants: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium).

The point is:

Ancient Christians wrestled with sex/gender diversity

and call us to do the same.

Still, we need help when wrestling with complexities beyond all of our pay grades (mine included). To that end, here are a few more resources for you to consider as you listen and pray and seek wisdom.

Consider the testimonies of these transgender Christians who share their stories in this documentary produced by IntegrityUSA and available on Youtube. Voices of Witness: Out of the Box.

Susannah Conwall is one of the leading scholars in theology and sexuality, whose work on Intersex and Theology I have found incredibly helpful. She has compared and contrasted intersex to transgender in several of her publications, including her book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology,
and this shorter article: “‘State of Mind’ versus ‘Concrete Set of Facts’: The Contrasting of Transgender and Intersex in Church Documents on Sexuality,” in Theology and Sexuality15.1 (2009), 7-28. (Online sources are not free so find them through your local library or University library system.)

Lastly, if you still don’t know the difference between Transgender, Cis-Gender, Transvestism, Drag Queens and other gender terms, you’ll probably find these definitionshelpful.

These are just a few good places to begin… places probably a little more helpful than Vanity Fair.

(originally published 6/8/2015)