talking transgender

We need to talk about transgender identities. We evangelicals, that is.

There’s been a few things in the media lately which have got me thinking.

Last week on Kitchen Cabinet on the ABC, Senator Louise Pratt chatted with Annabel Crabb and the rest of Australia about her relationship with her partner. She and her partner were in a lesbian relationship. That was, until her partner started making comments like ‘I think I’d look great with a beard.’ Her partner transitioned and is now a man. The two of them could legally marry now, but have chosen not to, ‘I won’t get married until everyone can,’ she said. Pratt explained that what’s important to her is the person she loves, not his sex, so transitioning was no big deal.

Kitchen Cabinet


Then there’s also been My Transsexual Summer. This is a reality series which follows the journeys  of seven people as they transition. ‘Each of the seven is trying to live in a society that routinely misunderstands them, regularly mocks them, all to frequently assaults them, just because they are different,’ says the website. What I watched I found really helpful, I learned a lot and couldn’t help but empathise with those on the show.

Sam and Evan

Tonight I’ll be watching Sam and Evan: From Girls to Men. Sam and Evan are in the process of transitioning from female to male and identify as a male gay couple. They are 17 and 20 years old.

Last month there was I am Claire: My Transgender Spiritual Diary on Radio National. Claire was a youth-worker in the Anglican Church for 15 years. She explained, ‘I live two separate lives,’ one as a man and one as Claire. She had been married as a man for some 20 years before realising a female identity as Claire. Her wife showed incredible understanding, ‘I’m going to love you as a girl and as a guy’ she said. But it was not an easy journey at all, especially as a Christian. She tells a beautiful story:

He [the Baptist Minister] sat down with me in a room and he said, ‘Close your eyes.’ I was 30 at the time, and I hadn’t told anyone about my transgendered condition, except the counsellors. And he said to me, ‘Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself at your worst, most shameful embarrassing moment,’ which I did, I had my eyes closed thinking about me at my worst. And what I imagined was me dressed up as a girl because I thought that was so bad.

And he said, ‘Imagine in that scenario Jesus comes into your imagination and looks at you, whatever it is you’re doing. What does Jesus say, what does he think?’ And I imagined Jesus coming into my mind and looking at me as a girl and just looking at me and hating me and thinking, ‘You make me sick, aren’t you supposed to be like a church youth worker, like a minister, and look at you, you’re disgusting.’ And all this then came out of Jesus. And he said, ‘Say something back to him.’ And in my mind I just said to Jesus, ‘Go away, I don’t want you around. Come back when I’m being good.’

And then he said, ‘Now what does Jesus say back to you?’ And this went on for a couple of minutes, he actually got me having a conversation with Jesus at my most embarrassing, shameful moment. And at the end of that, which went for maybe a minute or two, it wasn’t long, I just imagined Jesus wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘I don’t care, I love you anyway.’ And I just bawled my eyes out. I’d never felt that was okay. And to have Jesus say that was okay, this God that was so angry at me just love me, I was a wreck, I sobbed for about 20 minutes, I was uncontrollable.

And then I said to the minister at the end of that, I said, ‘If God was like that, that would be the best God. I’d love to believe in a God like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, he is like that.’

My point in sharing three examples in the media is just that transgender identity is not some obscure ‘lifestyle’. No. We have transgender people from all walks of life on the TV, on the radio, in our communities, in our churches. I’m concerned that if we evangelicals have a poor understanding of transgender issues, we’ll fail terribly at welcoming and including people who identify as transgender.

Yet I’m not aware of any evangelical framework to understand transgender experiences, identities and transitioning. Most of what I know is gleaned from the internet, academics, TV and friends. Not from Christians.

You may have seen ‘the genderbread person’ meme:gender5There’s also this one:

gender10These are quite comprehensive explanations of a worldview, clearly communicated for the general public. Yet evangelicals hardly engage with any of this (or else it hasn’t yet trickled down from the theologians to the likes of people in churches like me). It’s like we’re transgender illiterate. Are we ignoring it? Putting it in the ‘too hard’ basket?

These extracts are all I’ve really seen from an evangelical attempt to understand transgender issues theologically. They’ll give you a taste of some of the diversity of views, but also of how much more thinking needs to be done. [Note – these extracts are not my views – some people may find them offensive]

Kevin Vanhoozer in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” pp192-197

Perhaps the greatest challenge to biblical thinking and living posed by transsexualism is not the political one but the ontological. At the heart of the matter is a frontal assault on the very idea of the “naturally given” as opposed to the “culturally graven.” In particular, the notion that human sexuality is dimorphic (consisting of two forms male and female) is ripe for reconstruction. An increasing number of thinkings from different disciplines contend that the male-female binary division is neither a fact of life nor a wholly arbitarty development, but the produce of a non-necessary social constsutrction.

…Thanks to new medical techniques some are able to “choose” their sex. This new technology, when combined with a social constructivism that sees identity and roles as social creations only, provides considerable grist for the mill-to-power, to the illusion that we are our own creators: “I think (male/female), therefore I am (male/female).” Ironically enough, the very material procedures of medicine serve the very idealist project of making the “outer” body conform to one’s true “inner” self. This is not, however, how the Bible scripts the self.

We do not have to become materialists to insist that the body is integral to who we are. Human beings are psychosomatic unities. The person – what makes me “me” – is not located in one “part” only (e.g., the body, the soul). It follows that one’s personhood cannot be divorced from one’s sex. A little lower than the angels, human beings are not abstract but embodied souls and ensouled bodies…In short, it is embodied persons, not mere bodies, who are male or female.

One’s true self is not, therefore hovering above or within one’s body. At the limit, the idea that we are men trapped in women’s bodies or women trapped in men’s bodies collapses the distinction between sex and gender and flirts with a gnostic, even docetic, disregard for bodily reality….

It is not hard to see the transgender liberation movement as transgression: an overt rebellion against the binary divide between male and female bodies and behaviour…

[In] God’s good creation: “male and female he created them”…To be male or female is not for us to decide…It is the producer’s call.

William Webb in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” pp 211-212

While I agree with Vanhoozer’s conclusions in the transexuality exampled, I hope that upon reflection we might all incorporate a softer and more broken tone…

Social-scientific studies reveal with certainty a vast array of broken-world environmental factors that influence sexual preferences. While from a Christian perspective we may view these genetic and/or environmental factors as part of a fallen world, they are, nonetheless, important mitigating circumstances. They offer a lens of compassion and empathy through which we, as broken people ourselves, should view others who are at least in part impacted by this fallen world, whether they are aware of that theological category or not.

Mark L Strauss in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” p.286

Although I affirm Vanhoozer’s conclusion that transsexuality is a distortion of God’s intention for human sexuality, I find some of his arguments less than convincing. When asserting that human beings are psychosomatic unities, Vanhoozer writes that one’s personhood cannot be divorced from one’s sex and that it is not possible to separate the question “who are you?” from “what sex are you?” While this is generally true, how do we deal theologically with hermaphrodites (also called androgynes), whose gender is ambiguous or who have both male and female genitalia? Are they any less persons because of their ambiguous sexuality?

We can certainly account for such abnormalities theologically by appealing to the fallen state of creation, and most theologicans would likely agree that such confusion of biological sex would justify corrective surgery. but what about those whose sexual confusion is psychological, or part psychological and part physical, as in the case of an effeminate man, who is convinced he is a woman? If plastic surgery is justified to correct the detrimental spychological effects of say, a cleft palate, what is the argument against surgery to “correct” the detimental psychological effects of confused sexualit?

Vanhoozer argues that the transgender liberation movement is “an overt rebellion against the binary divide between male and female bodies and behaviour.” But many biologists, psychologists and medical doctors would deny that such a strict binary divide always exists – either in bodies or (especially) in behaviour. Vanhoozer concludes that “in the final analysis, human creativity is unable to alter the created order,” Yet theologians uniformly affirm the use of human creativity to correct the effects of a fallen creation. we protect against natural disasters and fight against the ravages of disease, famine and war…It seems to me a more robust theological engagement will be necessary to answer this challenge.

Like Strauss, I’m also hoping for ‘more robust theological engagement’, and probably more robust social engagement too!

We need it, because as long as evangelicals are confused on whether gender-transitioning is ‘rebellion’ or creative restoration, we’ll be rubbish at including and welcoming transgender people.

I think love compels us to think a bit harder, engage seriously and prayerfully with queer literature and to listen closely to transgender people.

Most of all, we need to make sure that nothing we do gets between people, whatever their sexuality and gender identity, and knowing Jesus. It would be tragic if we were the barrier.

What do you think? Are evangelicals illiterate on transgender issues? Is there a dialogue or a literature I may have missed?

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3 thoughts on “talking transgender

  1. I always find it intersting that people who struggle with this issue view their body as more changeable than their mind. They see themselves as a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, but never a “man burdened with a woman’s mind”. Believing one or the other, I imagine, would make a very big difference to both how you feel and what you do about it, but as to which is ‘theologically’ correct is hard to say.

  2. Yeah that is an interesting point. That said, Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) of Against Me! says of gender dysphoria: “The cliché is that you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body, but it’s not that simple. It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself.”

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