“She says she’s a man, but you should watch her play with babies. Her motherly instinct just comes out.”
I was talking with a saccharine woman, all nicety and propriety, as she described her female-to-male trans relative to me.
“But she told all of us that she was changing to a man. She even got sex change therapy.” She said in a softer voice now, “she told me she regrets it, but you can’t go back, you know?” She gave me a long look. It was that look that says she’s made the ultimate point.
I felt sad for the poor man who has to deal with this woman, but didn’t know what to say. Her and I were coming from completely different understandings on some very basic issues.
There is a lot of fear on the part of cisgender people, particularly traditional people, when they think of transgender people. This fear is especially intensified when they think of surgery. They are afraid for the trans people themselves. They don’t want to see them hurt by making irreversible and tragic decisions. It’s difficult for any of us to step outside of our own experience, and to step so far outside as to have some level of understanding transgender people requires intention. I believe that this intention is necessary to alleviate the fear.
I want to suggest with this article that those who love trans people consider another risk, not the risk of their loved one making decisions that are scary and seem radical, but the risk that they themselves might not understand the reality of trans lives and may fail to provide the support and care their loved one needs. If that happens, they may lose the opportunity to see and love an exceptional person, someone courageous enough to do hard things for the sake of authenticity.
From the perspective of mental health professionals and transgender people, the woman I was speaking with and her traditional, non-affirming Christian family was likely contributing to their loved one’s difficulty adjusting to his transition. It may be that the trans relative felt regret because he underestimated the degree of rejection and questioning he would experience from his family and community.
In this first post, I had originally planned to address the biblical reasoning behind not affirming the gender of trans and non-binary people. But as I read the statements from theological institutions, and listened to the ideas that are present in traditionalist circles, I realized there are some more basic issues that need to be addressed first, issues about the nature of trans lives. So this post is going to talk about the basics, and about some misconceptions.
In the next blog I discuss common misconceptions about biblical teachings, particularly from the creation narrative. Then I look at biblical arguments around the idea that trans people should conform to the gender of their anatomy because God doesn’t make mistakes. For now, let’s look at some of the basics.
By the way, the terms “trans lives” or similar phrases are used rather than the term “transgenderism.” “Trans lives” focuses on the people who are living the reality we are speaking of, and “transgenderism” implies a philosophy or even a prejudice. If racism is prejudice towards race, what is transgenderism?
What is it to be Transgender?
I’m a woman. I’ve always known I was a woman. Being treated as a woman is something that always felt right to me.
The transgender people I know don’t experience life that way. The best way I can understand the experience of trans people is to imagine people treating me as a man based on their perception of my gender.
No matter how much people might treat me like a man, I would still be a woman. I would still know I was a woman. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable being forced to use a men’s restroom, being called male pronouns, and having women and men alike treat me like a man. No matter what, I wouldn’t stop knowing I’m a woman.
That’s something of the experience of being transgender or of a non-binary gender. Sometimes people know they are trans when they are very young, sometimes it takes years or even decades to unpack the meaning of a difference they’ve felt their whole lives, but it’s always there, unsought and unbidden.
Believing Transgender People
Transgender people don’t feel this way on a whim, it’s deeply ingrained. They aren’t changing their gender so they can have a relationship with someone of the same-sex as is sometimes suggested. They aren’t changing their gender to deal with other problems in their lives. They aren’t changing their gender because it’s a cultural trend or they admire Caitlyn Jenner.
They aren’t changing their gender at all. They are confirming their gender. They are confirming the gender they have always known themselves to be.
Many older transgender people haven’t even known the word transgender for most of their lives, they just knew something was different, and they had a consistent and persistent desire to live as a gender different than the gender they are assumed to have.
They know they are a different gender. They have this knowledge from that most important part of the body, the brain. It’s not something they would have chosen, given the difficulties of living as a trans person in our society, and not something they are able to talk or pray themselves out of.
It’s important to start here, because often people who speak theologically about transgender people misunderstand some key points as a result of not including trans people in the discussion.
Understanding doesn’t supply all the answers, but it does set the stage. Trans people are living a reality that is not typical, and they sometimes have difficult decisions to make about how they should live their lives in their reality. Failure to understand the reality of their lives is failure to pursue truth. It is these lives that we are speaking to when we speak of transgender identity.
What Are The Options?
Trans people have several options. Some trans and gender non-binary people are simply content expressing who they are, they live in families and communities who largely accept them as they are and as they present, and they experience few problems related to their gender identity. These people may never experience mental health problems such as Gender Dysphoria, a mood disorder related to gender identity, and they may never even have the desire for hormone or surgical intervention.
However, in an age where trans people are frequent victims of sexual assault, physical assault, harassment, and discriminator firing, leading to a suicide attempt rate of over 40%, it can be hard to navigate the world as an openly transgender or gender non-binary person. Add non-affirmation by religious folks who prevent full inclusion of trans people in the life of the church, and it gets even harder. I never had this reality hit me so hard as when I saw a transgender child breakdown crying because she’d lost her best friend after coming out. It’s not easy, and that’s our fault, not theirs.
Transgender people have a few options for how they try and navigate this difficult world. This is probably over simplification, but I’ll start here.
1) They could continue to live as the gender society assigns them based on their physical appearance. In other words, they could stay in the closet.
2) They could present differently externally than what most of society expects and make no medical interventions, being content to live as a gender that is different than their biological sex without medical intervention.
3) If they can afford it, they could choose any one of many medical interventions such as taking hormones or having gender confirmation surgery. (By the way, there are many different types of gender confirmation surgery, many do not involve reproductive organs.)
Medical research, mental health organizations, and transgender people agree that leaving all these options open to transgender people results in their best life, reduced mental health problems, and people who are better adjusted and better able to contribute to society.
Most conservative Christian denominations disagree with this. They believe that only the first option, continuing to live as the gender society assigns to them, is morally correct. I will examine some of the biblical reasons that are offered for this belief.
Helping Not Hurting
One thing I know about conservative Christians is that they are not usually out to harm transgender people. They believe that denying two of these three options is the best thing for trans people. I see this when I read conservative explanations for their theology and when I speak to people who don’t affirm transgender identity.
The information they are given leads them to believe that non-affirmation of trans and non-binary identities is the best option. What if those reasons are not accurate? What if the church’s teachings are not helping people, but are hurting them? Wouldn’t you like to know?
When reading the two major documents offered by my denonination, one from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), and one from the General Conference Executive Session (GCES), I found a good summary of many of the views of various conservative groups.
What I found difficult to accept was that most of these statements were made without biblical or medical citations. They were simply stated with no evidence. I don’t think that’s good enough. It’s not good enough to make assumptions without checking out those assumptions. It’s not kind, compassionate, or diligent. It’s not a desire to seek the truth.
I want to look at some of the key assumptions of those documents:
Does Surgery Harm Transgender People?
From the BRI:
It remains unclear, however, if this disturbance or brokenness can be overcome through sex-change surgery. Such treatment may disturb the patient even more.
First, I take exception with calling trans people disturbed and broken. It is pejorative and marginalizes trans people. It also makes it more difficult to understand the lives of trans people because it undermines their voices and opinions when in reality they are the best people, maybe the one people, who can help us understand their lives.
Second, the data does not support this. It’s the collective conclusion of the medical community that gender confirmation surgery should be one of the options available to transgender people. It’s also what trans people will tell you. If you have questions, this video does a great job of addressing the issues.
If conservatives don’t want to trust the medical community, where is their evidence? Don’t they owe it to the trans community to do more than make unsupported statements? Shouldn’t Christians take an objective and honest looks at the lives of trans people and try to present the most accurate information possible? Where did this information come from?
Do People Usually Regret Gender Confirmation Surgery?
Again, from the BRI:
So far, sex-change surgeries are irreversible. Persons undergoing these procedures have to use hormones for the rest of their lives, which indicates that an integrated sexual identity is not achieved through surgery. Surgery does not solve the problem completely. What aggravates the situation is that while surgery is irreversible, people may change psychologically as they grow and mature, seeking again a new identity.
Again, this statement is not supported. There is also a logical problem here. If surgery is problematic because it’s not changeable, therefore it is forbidden, it creates less opportunity for change and not more. By allowing the surgery, trans people can make decisions for themselves. I also don’t see the problem with people taking hormones long-term. There are many things we do everyday to care for ourselves. If it makes there lives better, what’s the problem?
Before people undergo these surgeries, extensive counseling is required. Hormones are also generally taken first and often are the only treatment people receive. Regret for the decision is rare, and usually a result of disapproval and lack of support. Those who have support generally do quite well.
Being Transgender Is Not A Disorder
From the GCEC:
On the mental-emotional level misalignment occurs with transgender people whose sexual anatomy is clearly male or female but who identify with the opposite gender of their biological sex. They may describe themselves as being trapped in the wrong body. Transgenderism, formerly clinically diagnosed as ‘gender identity disorder’ and now termed ‘gender dysphoria,’ may be understood as a general term to describe the variety of ways individuals interpret and express their gender identity differently from those who determine gender on the basis of biological sex.
This quote is inaccurate. The medical community didn’t just change the term, they changed the concept. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) labeled all transgender people as disordered. It focused on the identity. The new diagnosis focuses on people who experience psychological distress related to their identity, but the source could be societal pressures and not the identity itself.
New understandings are based on the growth of research and treatment in the psychological community after extensive effort to understand how best to improve the lives of trans people. I suspect that this inaccuracy is more than incidental, but intentional. It’s one thing to disagree with the psychological community, but they shouldn’t be misrepresented, especially in an official statement with lots of eyes on it. It gives me the feeling that I’ve had more trans people review this blog than the world church had review their statement.
I’ve also never heard a trans person describe themselves as “trapped in the wrong body,” though I hear cisgender people describe it this way regularly. What I hear transgender people describe is a society, family, and friends who refuse to accept their gender because of their exterior presentation. Some transgender people experience psychological distress about the sexual presentations of their bodies, and some do not. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean they feel trapped in someone else’s body. They may wish to modify their bodies, as cisgender people sometimes do with no exclusion or condemnation from the church or society, but they don’t often describe themselves as trapped in the wrong body.
Now We’re Grasping at Straws
From the BRI:
In some cases, sex-change surgery may be motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity.
Nope. That’s just not true. I date women. I would never want to be a man. I would never lie about my gender to be able to date women. No gay people I know would want to change their gender to date the gender they are attracted to. Who would ever want to do that? It’s harder to be transgender than to be gay or bisexual.
I’ve covered some of the myths and misunderstandings about transgender people, but there are many more. Here are some suggestions if you want to learn more:
In the next two (or more) blogs, I’ll be looking specifically at the biblical arguments. Genesis 1:27 will be in the next blog which will be out in one week. It’s written already and ready to go. I’m looking forward to sharing it.
**I consulted with several trans and non-binary people and had this blog reviewed by them as well as consulting sources which include experts and trans people. I myself am not trans nor am I an expert on the topic. Please let me know if you are and have feedback for me. I would welcome your input.**