Yesterday, a friend emailed me asking about Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner and how Christians should deal with trans people.
She wrote in part,
Please answer a question for me. It is my understanding that a person does not ‘choose’ to transgender … It is really not a ‘choice’, but a diagnosis … Can you point me in a direction for valid information … I would like be able to speak affirmatively with documentation at the next family dinner … you remember the old book/chapter/verse mentality.
What I am having a very difficult time understanding is the ‘christian’ angle … [people I know] are saying … trans gendering is a sinful choice not a correction.
Here is my response to her:
The world is a lot more complex than conservatives like to admit. And it is a human tendency to want things simple and clear. We want to have black-and-white categories so we can pigeonhole and classify — it gives us comfort to believe we have control.
I believe we can learn a lot about our values and what we really believe by looking at people on the margins of society. Jesus went to the marginal, and welcomed them in, and even instructed his followers to care for those who society demonizes. And while most people are born with a clearly defined gender and sex identity, some are not. In reality, there is a huge gray area between what we think of as male and female. Just knowing that everyone doesn’t easily fit into male or female buckets is a revelation to people who haven’t been exposed to the concept.
So who are these people? Some are born with unusual genes and/or indeterminate genitalia. A genetic “boy” may have genitalia that looks like a female, or vice versa. Some have an unusual combination of hormones, genes, and physical appearance that make determining their sex problematic — these people are called “intersex”. A Google search for intersex easily turns up pictures and diagrams of babies with a range of genitalia characteristics.
To be clear, Jenner is transgender not intersex. But knowing that intersex people exist helps us think about how to deal with people who don’t conform to gender norms.
I’m not familiar with any test to identify someone as transgender except to listen to them tell their story. If a person has a hormone imbalance or indeterminate genitalia, they may not necessarily be transgender. Doctors don’t perform sex reassignment surgery on just anyone and it is a many-year-long process of engaging in therapy and evaluation before surgery is approved.
In short, trans people have gender dysphoria: they feel they were born the wrong sex.
Gender Identity Disorder
My experience of my own body is that I’m a male, I am happy being a male, and have never seriously wished I were anything else. But my experience isn’t universal. If you saw the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner, you saw him speak quite movingly about his experience and his life-long struggle to fit in, to be normal, to deny deep-seated feelings and the experience that he is and always has been female despite having been born a male.
If I am insecure in my own gender identity, I might feel threatened by this story. Fear is a powerful emotion. And instead of asking why I have that reaction, I may turn to my religion for certainty so I can separate my experience from “the other” — the thing that I fear — to say he’s falling into sin and is leading people to ruin God’s plan for him and for the Earth. And they will often turn to Genesis, Leviticus, or some other ancient prohibitions about men wearing women’s clothing or whatever other cherry-picking they can get out of the Bible.
So, what do we do with people who don’t fit neatly into the male or female buckets?
If we believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, we listen to them tell their story. (“What would Jesus do?”)
And that’s what I believe we do with people who are transgender and with all people, really, because that is what Jesus did and what we ask God to do every time we pray. Can we really say we love our neighbor as ourselves if we won’t even listen to them? How much do you love someone if you tell them their experience of themselves is wrong?
Bruce told his story. His experience is his experience. And while his experience isn’t my experience, I have no reason to claim he’s lying or wrong in telling his story. I honor his bravery in being honest and vulnerable to the greater world around him by sharing his pain and the story of the journey he has been on.
This is my loving response to someone expressing a life lived in pain.
The problem with Biblical literalism and the conservative concern with authority is this: what do we do when the scriptures are silent on a subject? Jesus never said anything about people being transgender and the apostles and New Testament writers didn’t, either. Without a direct command or an approved apostolic example — to use the Church of Christ hermeneutic — they will search for a necessary inference. I’ve never been happy with this hermeneutic, because every time I questioned why the CofC did something that I felt contradicted their own exegetical methods or that could be done a different way, it always boiled down to “that’s just the way we do it” to end the discussion. That never satisfied me. Instead, I prefer to look at how Jesus treated people, then told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Proof texts on love abound…
John 13:35 NRSV
“…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Romans 13:8 NRSV
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
1 Peter 3:8 NRSV
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
1 John 3:14 NRSV
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
Dealing with people who want a black-and-white distinction between male and female can be hard, because they’ve never bothered to learn the kinds of things I’m writing here. If you want to get someone to think, start asking “why” questions to draw them out and to articulate what they are feeling on a gut level.
- “It is important to you that everyone fits neatly into either the male or female category? Why?”
- “What do you think Jesus would say to Bruce Jenner if he were here today? Why?”
- And keep following up on their responses with, “And why is that important to you?” or “Why does that matter?”
It may take a while to get to the bottom. Often, I think, there is some prejudice against the opposite sex — men fearing being perceived as weak since they view women as lesser, or women fearing violence at the hands of aggressive or stupid men. In my parents’ case, their fear of spending an eternity in hell is their biggest motivator and the main reason they deny love to people who are different. It all keeps coming down to fear… But we know what the writer of I John said about fear…
1 John 4:18 NRSV
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
You might want to check out She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan — a great autobiography about a man who transitions to female.
Also, My Transsexual Summer is a British TV series that is on YouTube worth a watch.
Once you hear trans people tell their stories, you’ll be thankful that isn’t your own problem and you will see that they’re living with a situation you wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I see nothing in scripture that says what a person is is sinful, only what they do and that based on the motives in their heart.
If Mike Huckabee had claimed to be trans in high school so he could shower with the girls in P.E., what is the motive in his heart?
I know this is long, but I’ve included links to lots of other resources. I haven’t addressed complementarianism which is part of your original question and probably a longer discussion.
I’d also recommend you check out Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
Nadia was raised in the Church of Christ like we were. She left organized religion for a while and is now an ordained Lutheran priest. She has a lot to say about how if man is made in the image of God, then what about woman? And about how a 13 year old boy has more authority in the church than an adult woman. I heard her speak here in LA just after her book was released.
Let me know what other questions you have.