by Matt Sitman
Recently Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offered these thoughts on how conservative Christians should respond to the “transgender question”:
As conservative Christians, we do not see transgendered persons as “freaks” to be despised or ridiculed. We acknowledge that there are some persons who feel alienated from their identities as men or as women. Of course that would be the case in a fallen universe in which all of us are alienated, in some way, from how God created us to be.
But we don’t believe this alienation can be solved by pretending as though we have Pharaoh-like dominion over our maleness or femaleness. These categories we believe (along with every civilization before us) are about more than just self-construction, and they can’t be eradicated by a change of clothes or chemical tinkering or a surgeon’s knife, much less by an arbitrary announcement in the high school gym.
The transgender question means that conservative Christian congregations such as mine must teach what’s been handed down to us, that our maleness and femaleness points us to an even deeper reality, to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church. A rejection of the goodness of those creational realities then is a revolt against God’s lordship, and against the picture of the gospel that God had embedded in the creation.
I suppose the caveat Moore includes about transgender people not being freaks is welcome, but what he gives with one hand he immediately takes away with the other, rigidly adhering to the binary categories he supposedly finds in “creation.” So, transgender people aren’t “freaks,” just particularly stubborn examples of the sinfulness of this fallen world. Its truly bizarre to characterize the struggles and, often, suffering of the transgendered as a “revolt” against God, as if their experiences merely were a form of arrogant defiance, something chosen and pursued out of a prideful rejection of God’s plan. Even more importantly, its far from clear to me that “creation” is so simple. Jonathan Merritt, responding to Moore, points out the complexity of the matter:
According to research conducted by Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University, one in 100 children are born with “bodies that differ from standard male or female” biology. This includes those children born with both a penis and a vagina, as well as those with vaginal agenesis, ovatestes, or genetic disorders such as Klinefelter syndrome. Apparently, God sometimes creates humans both male and female or neither fully male nor fully female.
Intersex persons offer a critique of those who believe that gender is a static binary assigned from birth and divinely ordained. For example, what about a person who is a sexually “mosaic,” which means they have mixed gonadal dysgenesis such as the development of both ovaries and testes? It’s hard to say because Christian commentators almost never acknowledge the existence of these individuals…
[T]he situation seems to grow even more complex when one considers the internal workings of transgender people. According to research conducted by the National University of Distance Education in Madrid, Spain, transgendered people show significant differences in brain patterns. MRI scans of female-to-male transgender people, for example, resembled male brain function even though they were born biologically female.
Christians believe that God not only creates our bodies, but also our minds. Are one’s external created realities more revealing about God’s intentions than one’s internal created realities?
Merritt asked Moore about these matters, which he waved away by replying that these facts are “a question of epistemology, not of ontology,” meaning they merely obscure what sex a person “really” is. Which is another way of saying: everyone is either male or female, they just don’t know it yet. Sound familiar? Its similar to many right-wing Christians’ rhetoric about homosexuality – everyone really is straight, they just haven’t realized it, or refuse to act in accordance with that “deeper” reality.
What I find so disturbing about Moore’s approach is both its evasion of the actual, documented facts noted above and its a priori imposition of easy answers, gleaned from one rather narrow reading of Scripture, on this sensitive question. I haven’t considered all the theological implications of transgender people – its an issue, I suspect, many Christians haven’t fully considered – but I do know thinking through the question should begin with profound empathy, and a willingness not to presume to have the “right” answer from the start. Moore’s position bothers me, then, not just because of its substance, but because of the posture it exemplifies: there’s not a trace of doubt in his essay about the righteousness of his own approach. Sharon Groves wrote a follow-up article that captures this almost perfectly. She argues that Moore’s handling of the matter “is dangerous because it discourages a curiosity about the actual lived experiences of trans people” and that he’s “shutting down any deeper conversation and, in the process, dampening our understanding of how the spark of the divine exists in all of us.” She continues:
The core teachings of Christianity are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot love God fully if we don’t do the work of trying to understand who God is for each of us. When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing – from Augustine to Thomas Merton – there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God. We can’t love God if we don’t try to glean how God works in our lives.
Similarly, we can’t really love our neighbors if we cast off all curiosity about who they are and their experience of life in the world. And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves – about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors.
The heart of Christianity is grace, or God’s one-way love for each of us, wherever we are in our lives. Its a message of radical acceptance and affirmation, without conditions. It does not depend on our having figured everything out, or having gotten our lives together, or having settled questions about our gender or sexuality. Similarly to the way the Bible does not address the matter of homosexuality as we have come to understand it, there is no “biblical” position on the issue of transgender people – except to love them exactly as they are. Transgender people need to be shown this love, not have their own experiences dismissed as a form of alienation from God’s intentions for them. Showing them this love, if it is real and not a mere pose, necessarily includes walking along side them on their journey, not pointing them to a one-size-fits-all destination. A love that seeks to change or cure is not love at all, but only a more subtle form of power and control, the very means of relating to others Jesus consistently rejected. Like all of us, transgender people need mercy, not easy answers. Like all of us, they need to experience the church as a welcoming refuge – a place of genuine affirmation. Like all of us, they need to be reminded, not of those verses Moore rips from the book of Genesis, but of St Paul’s words from his letter to the Galatians that, in the Kingdom of God,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
(Photo: Five-year-old Tyler, known until last fall as Kathryn, gets a haircut from his dad Stephen at their suburban Washington, D.C., home, on Monday, March 12, 2012. Tyler’s insistence on being a boy started at the early age of 2. By Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)