With an increasing number of high-profile individuals coming out as transgender or ‘gender fluid’, Lucinda van der Hart explores how we can begin to formulate a biblical response to transgenderism
Zak, who was born female, grew up in a Christian home. He struggled with his gender and identity throughout his teenage years, and is now transitioning to become male.
‘When I was 6 or 7 I thought, “I wish I could be a boy; I wish I had been born a boy”,’ Zak says. ‘I didn’t know at that time that I could be anything other than female… so I pushed it down. I tried harder to be a girl…it wasn’t until I was about 16 or 17 that I really encountered [the concept of] being trans and what that meant. I thought, “That sounds like me.” ‘I was too scared to do anything about it until I was 18, when I finally talked to someone.’
Not long after this, Zak changed his name and identity at school, becoming known as male to his teachers and friends. His relations with his Christian parents soon became tense. Zak tried to take his own life.
‘I jumped off the top of a multi-story car park – I broke a lot of my bones and was in a coma and very nearly died. ‘My parents became very careful about what they said around me after that; but I didn’t go back and live with them… ‘I’ve spent a really long time struggling with my faith, struggling with how God could love me and make me like this. Perhaps he doesn’t intend me to be trans, and intends me to be female? And then, am I going against his will because I am transitioning? Or did he make me trans? In which case: how could a loving God make me trans?’
Transgender to the fore
Perhaps you’ve encountered Zak, or a transgender person with a similar story in your church? If not, you probably will do soon.
Last year saw a wave of transgenderism in the public sphere. Best known was retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete and TV personality Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, as she asked to be known from June 2015 onwards, when she revealed her new identity via the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.
Singer Miley Cyrus, model Cara Delevingne, star of the Twilight films Kristen Stewart and Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of actor Johnny Depp) also publicly identified themselves either as ‘gender fluid’, or at least as falling outside traditional gender labels. The fashion industry is beginning to reflect this, with London’s Selfridges store offering a ‘genderless shopping experience’ with its gender neutral collections, and Louis Vuitton announcing 17-year-old Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) as the new face of its womens-wear campaign, in early 2016.
None of us are the way that God intended
The Oscar award-winning film The Danish Girl, which explores the story of Einar Wegener, one of the first people to receive sex-change surgery in the early 20th century, also brought transgender issues to the big screen at the beginning of the year. Today, transitioning can produce striking results. All the individuals pictured (above) are transgender, some of them working as models.
Meanwhile, Facebook has expanded its options with regard to users listing their gender – no longer limited to a mere 58 choices, there is now also a free-form field. The message to the world: a binary concept of gender is a passé one.
Alongside this, we are seeing a cultural shift taking place. Many now view sexual orientation as being on a continuum. A YouGov survey published in August 2015 revealed that half of young people would say that they are not 100% heterosexual. The study used the Alfred Kinsey scale, asking the British public to plot their sexual disposition from exclusively heterosexual at 0 through to exclusively homosexual at 6. Seventy-two per cent placed themselves as fully heterosexual, with 4% identifying as fully homosexual. The remaining 19% said they fell somewhere in between. Forty-three per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds placed themselves in the non-binary area – they view themselves neither as fully heterosexual, nor fully homosexual.
If societal views on gender and sexual orientation are changing as rapidly as the secular media might have us think, it is high time the Church sought to form a theological and pastoral response to transgender and the psychological condition that usually pre-empts a gender transition, known as gender dysphoria. Those with gender dysphoria experience a mismatch between their physical sexual organs and their psychological and emotional understanding of their own gender.
Gender in the Bible
The first text usually cited in discussion of biblical orthodoxy on gender is Genesis 5:2: ‘He created them male and female and blessed them.’ Many would say that gender identity is decided from the moment of conception, and we can’t choose to change our gender at will. Catholic theologian Christopher West writes on his blog, corproject.com, ‘What does it mean – really – to speak of “true gender identity” and to express it “in an authentic way”? According to Christ, the answers can only be found by returning to God’s original purpose for making us male and female before the confusion of sin obscured it. Only by doing so can we save the term “gender” from the insanity of a world untethered from reality.
Transgender – a person who experiences a mismatch between their gender identity and assigned sex. Some may refer to this as third gender.
Cisgender – a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; i.e. they are not transgender.
Gender dysphoria – the psychological condition in which a person feels distress because their body does not align with the gender they identify with.
Transsexual – a person who has made or will make a medical transition, including hormone therapy and sexual reassignment therapy, in order to realign their body with the gender they identify with.
Transvestite – wears the clothes traditionally associated with the opposite sex; may be more committed to doing so than a cross-dresser.
Pansexual or Omnisexual – may be attracted to people of any gender or orientation.
Polysexual – similar to above, but with a firmer theoretical rejection of the concept of gender being binary.
Gender fluid – a sense that gender identity is not tied to one gender or another; an individual may choose to change gender at their will.
‘Contrary to widespread secular insistence, a person’s gender is not a malleable social construct. While certain societal roles conventionally limited to one or the other gender can and should be challenged, gender itself, as the root of the word indicates, is determined by our genitals…’ West’s subsequent view is that ‘A de-gendered society is bound to de-generate.’
Others believe things are not quite so straightforward. What of those who are intersex, or who face gender dysphoria? Jenny-Anne Bishop is a Christian who has transitioned from male to female and chairs a Manchester-based support and discussion group for transgender people. She has wrestled with her faith and application of the Bible to her life. ‘Over time, going to the church I go to, I came to an understanding through prayer and reading the scriptures that God says, “Be yourself.” Matthew 19:12 says: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” [An angel sent Philip] to convert the eunuch – not to change him, but to baptise him. In a way it’s a bit like being trans – going from male to female.’
Jenny-Anne cites two passages commonly used to argue that Jesus spent time with, and did not judge, eunuchs – representing those who fall outside of gender norms. However, a more conservative interpretation of the Matthew text, taken for example by Mark A Yarhouse, author of Understanding Gender Dysphoria (IVP), is that ‘those who make themselves eunuchs’ in this text ‘almost certainly refers to those who choose not to marry (rather than suggesting they were castrating themselves).’ Are we guilty of misapplying such verses to modern categories such as transgenderism?
Sex reassignment surgery
What of the decision for sex reassignment surgery (SRS), which can involve hormone replacement therapy and an array of reconstructive genital operations? Could this be a move towards the essence of who a person was created to be – or is it a step away from God’s intention for an individual? Passages commonly cited in argument against such procedures are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and Deuteronomy 22:5 and 23:1.
Rev Dr Sean Doherty, co-founder of Living Out and author of The Only Way is Ethics (Authentic) believes we must allow a reading of Genesis 1-3 to shape our view on gender dysphoria, and the possibility of subsequent surgery. Doherty sees gender dysphoria as one of the many consequences of the Fall. ‘None of us are the way that God intended. I might be cisgender, but my gender identity is also fallen – what it means to be a man in a fallen world is not what God intended either,’ he says.
‘The big challenge is, “How do we respond to our fallenness?” I am not convinced that…surgical interventions are necessarily the right response for people…The reason I’m unsure is that if someone’s gender identity does not match with their physical body, our culture treats our gender identity as what really defines us, rather than our physical sex. But one of the wonderful things that shines through Genesis 1 and 2 is that our physical bodies are “very good”.’
Doherty believes it is usually better ‘to seek an integration of body and identity which honours and cherishes the person’s body as it already is, rather than imposing upon it’. However, he points out that, ‘Of course many trans people have tried incredibly hard to do that before they seek more invasive help.’
Loving the hurting
Suicide rates among transgender people are ten times higher than for non-transgender people. It’s a shocking statistic. Many who have transitioned via SRS say their lives have been immeasurably improved. However, Walt Heyer, who transitioned from male to female – and then, having become a Christian, made the transition back to his original birth gender, says that the suicide rate among those who have had SRS is not necessarily lower than those who do not make the physical transition. On his blog sexchangeregret.com he cites a 2010 survey showing that, in the US, 41% of transgender people who have had sex-change surgery have attempted suicide. SRS, he says, is not the answer.
Views on SRS aside, how can we, as the Church, effectively love those who are experiencing gender dysphoria?
‘Churches like to gather people who are like them…we need to open our minds to being more welcoming to all kinds of people,’ says Stephanie, a Christian who transitioned from male to female in 1979. ‘I don’t remember Christ actually rejecting anyone who came to him and asked him for help. There are small Christian groups of trans people out there who have been badly burned through being in a church. We as Christians need to examine our own motives about why are we rejecting people…all I know is that God never rejected anybody and the Word tells me that he wants everyone to be saved: Everyone.’
Writing in Premier Youthwork magazine (November 2015) Rev Rachel Mann, a male to female transgender vicar, advised: ‘Perhaps the single most important thing to remember is that…trans people are, ultimately, people…Trans people of all ages are often seen through a lens that treats us as curiosities, freaks or alien people.
‘Churches must push against this…no one wants to be sensationalized…Churches ought to be modeling a different kind of response.’
Mann also says that when talking to a transgender person, we need to be mindful of simple factors such as ‘…respecting the chosen names and gender pronouns of a trans person…If in doubt, ask what the person prefers. Equally, the vast majority of trans people do not wish to broadcast their former first name…please do not consider it appropriate to ask, “What is your real name then?”’
Caroline Farrow, speaker, blogger and columnist for the Catholic Universe, says that while she cannot endorse sex change for those battling gender dysphoria, a pastoral response must include listening, dialogue and offering understanding to transgender people. ‘My position on transgenderism is that it is not within God’s plan for humanity; it’s not what he desires for humankind, but I wouldn’t say that those people who transition are willfully rejecting God. Many of them are Christians of good heart and good faith…I might disagree with the course of action they have taken. Pope Francis put it really well when he said, “If the person is of good heart and is seeking God, who am I to judge?”’, she says.
‘I would say, “This is not what God wants for you”, but I wouldn’t condemn them as a sinner...’
Trans people are, ultimately, people
Doherty also emphasises that it is ‘hugely important to have honest and open discussions rather than to brush big issues like this under the carpet’. ‘In any group of young people there will probably be people who will at some point experience gender dysphoria so a respectful and caring discussion could make all the difference in terms of them feeling accepted, and could help them open up about how they feel,’ he says. ‘I heard about a church youth group recently where a young person wanted to move from their boys’ group to their girls’ group. The youth leaders were nervous about how the young people would respond but they didn’t mind at all, they just got on with it!’
At the start of 2016, Christy Wimber, senior pastor of Yorba Linda Vineyard Church, US, watched the much-acclaimed film The Danish Girl. Reflecting on it, she says: ‘The groaning in this film…was a picture of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans clearly reminding us that all of creation waits; all of creation is groaning to be restored. There are broken places in each of us...’
As we approach the complex issue of transgender we do well, as Wimber reminds us, to remember that each of us is broken, groaning and waiting for restoration in Christ. And while we wait, we are called to love every individual indiscriminately – whether they go by ‘he’ or ‘she’.
To listen to Did God Give Me the Wrong Body? – a one-hour documentary about transgenderism from Christian perspectives, visit premierchristianradio.com/body
Click here to hear a debate between transgender woman, Jenny-Anne Bishop, and former transgender Walt Heyer about the rights and wrongs of gender-change surgery and how Christians should respond on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable program