Commentary
By Austen Hartke 2-26-2018

As a transgender person, one of the biggest myths I see in the media today is that transgender people live sad, dangerous, and lonely lives. We’re often defined by our gender dysphoria, and stories about us, especially in Christian circles, are all about how we come out to — and in most cases, are rejected by — our families and our churches.

But while we do face discrimination and rejection, many of us are moving toward joy and community in other ways. So many of us love who we are, and wouldn’t trade it for the world!

That’s why I was deeply upset, but not surprised, when I read Nancy Pearcey’s most recent article in Christianity Today. Pearcey argues that transgender people rely on stereotypes about expression to determine our gender. She also believes that, rather than trying to change anything about ourselves, trans people should learn to love the body that we’re born with.

At first glance, Pearcey’s argument seems like a great one. We should all learn to love our bodies! Most of us realize how much damage gender stereotypes can do, and we want to keep from perpetuating those false perceptions. But in making her argument, Pearcey falls into some common misconceptions about transgender identities and experiences.

Here are five misconceptions about transgender people that I want to clear up:

1) Misconception: All transgender people believe that they are “born in the wrong body.”

Many people will be familiar with this explanation of trans identities — that trans people identify as “a girl trapped in a boy’s body,” or “a boy trapped in a girl’s body.” This narrative is a simplistic one, and we most often see it used by gender-diverse children as they’re exploring their sense of self. As kids, we don’t have a better way of explaining how we feel, and so we use these words to try to get across the fact that there’s something about us that you can’t see. But for many trans people, especially nonbinary trans folks, this narrative doesn’t work. As transpinay activist Sass Rogando Sasot once explained it, “I am not in a wrong body. I am in this body just like how you are in your body. I am not trapped by my body. I am trapped by your beliefs.”

2) Misconception: Transgender people experience “a war between the body and the mind,” which leads to their belief that bodies are unimportant.

While Christians have been accusing transgender people of subscribing to gnosticism since at least 1982, the subject didn’t show up on most people’s radars until New Testament scholar N.T. Wright made similar comments in 2017. The problem with this argument, though, is that transgender people are not moving toward a separation of body and mind — they’re moving away from it, toward wholeness. No trans person I know personally or have ever read about has been of the opinion that their body didn’t matter. Trans people do not “set up” a dichotomy between the body and the mind/spirit. They’re just doing their best to explain the dissonance they feel between who others say they are based on their physical characteristics, and who they know themselves to be.

3) Misconception: Gender dysphoria — that dissonance between who others say you are and who you know yourself to be — is corrected by convincing people to affirm their sex assigned at birth.

Pearcey writes, “A disjunction between one’s body and one’s sense of gender is, like all discordances, an effect of the fall.” The problem with this statement is not Pearcey’s belief that fractured relationships and self-conceptions come from our fallen nature — that’s a fairly standard part of Christian theology. The problem is that by specifically linking gender dysphoria with the fall, with no qualifiers regarding culpability or choice, she’s suggesting that simply by experiencing dysphoria, transgender people are sinning and need to be redeemed.

This kind of thinking can lead to a push for “conversion” or “reparative” therapy that attempts to “fix” transgender people by compelling them to identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. In fact, for those familiar with the practices used in reparative therapy, the phrase Pearcey uses to describe the actions of parents of a gender-non-conforming child sound distinctly menacing: “His parents worked with him extensively to help him accept himself as a boy.”

Regardless of the cause of dysphoria, here’s what we do know. First, we know that conversion therapy to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity doesn’t work. Second, we know that socially and medically transitioning does alleviate dysphoria and lead to better mental health outcomes for transgender people.

4) Misconception: Bodies provide a “scientifically knowable reality” of sex, but there’s no science to back up differing concepts of gender.

Most of us are assigned a sex by doctors soon after we’re born. After a baby’s first cry, we’re used to hearing a nurse or midwife exclaim, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” This first designation is based on our bodies — specifically, on our external genitalia. For some people, though, this designation isn’t as clear-cut. For Lianne Simon, an intersex Christian, having a body did not give her an objective, scientifically knowable way to understand her gender, because she didn’t fit in our culturally understood boxes of “male” or “female.”

But if sex designation isn’t as cut-and-dried as we thought it was, what else do we have to go on? Luckily, we’re getting more information about people’s experiences of gender every day. Brain scans of transgender people in 2013 showed that “even before [hormone] treatment the brain structures of the trans people were more similar in some respects to the brains of their experienced gender than those of their natal gender.”

As more trans people come out and begin to talk about their experiences, medical and mental health centers have begun long-term studies to help understand how gender identity is formed.

5) Misconception: If we don’t claim gender based on our physical sex characteristics, then we end up perpetuating social stereotypes about what makes a man or a woman.

In her article, Pearcey argues that when we don’t take our self-concept of gender from our physical sex characteristics, we have no other solid foundation on which to base it. She laments, “To discover whether you identify as a man, you must first define manhood,” which may push us to conform to stereotypes: “Do you act stereotypically masculine? Then you must be a man.”

Pearcey gives examples of young people who questioned their gender because of the original way they expressed themselves. For one teenager, the problem was that he was sensitive and gentle, and that he enjoyed spending time with girls rather than boys. Because our society sees this kind of gender expression as feminine, this teenager wondered if he might be transgender. Pearcey reports that after he saw more examples of men who were gentle and enjoyed activities we associate with women, he realized that he did identify as male. She uses this example as proof of a number of transgender kids who could be convinced to accept their assigned sex if we could only get rid of those pesky gender stereotypes.

In making this claim, Pearcey leaves out two things. First, she appears not to know the difference between gender identity and gender expression. While gender identity is something internal and intrinsic, gender expression is the way we visually articulate our sense of masculinity or femininity or androgyny to the world. Our gender expression includes our clothing, hair, voice, and mannerisms, among other things. This distinction helps everyone, regardless of whether you’re transgender or cisgender, to understand that you can be just as much of a man if you have long hair and enjoy The Great British Bake-Off, and you can be just as much a woman if you shave your head and ride a motorcycle. While this distinction can be complex, there are many transgender young people who understand this difference, and who are still very sure about their gender identity. Just because the examples Pearcey used eventually identified with their assigned sex doesn’t mean that all other people will.

For the past sixty years or so, Christians have been a major driving force behind gender stereotypes. One only has to Google “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” to realize that too often we’ve been the ones telling people that they’re “not man enough” or “not woman enough.” Pearcey suggests that we shouldn’t base our ideas about gender on cultural stereotypes, and I totally agree! Now, if only we could stop using our Christian megaphone to amplify those same stereotypes, we’d be another step forward.

6) Misconception: Transgender people don’t love their bodies.

As Christians, we are called to recognize that our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). I couldn’t agree more. Despite the fact that for many years Christian puritanism has used passages like Romans 8:1-17 to convince us that our bodies are bad, there’s a much stronger biblical prescient for understanding our bodies as “very good” (Gen 1:31).

But just because your body is good doesn’t mean that it can’t change. It can be hard to distinguish between the things we need to change about ourselves, and the things we need to learn to accept. But one of the best ways of discerning between the two is to look at whether harm is possible if we leave something alone.

For instance, we don’t tell kids they should just learn to love their bad eyesight, because we know it causes headaches and problems learning. Instead, we provide tools — we get them fitted with glasses, and help them feel confident about their new appearance! In the same way, when your child comes to you and tells you that they’re experiencing their gender in a way you hadn’t expected, you’d want to make sure that they have the tools they need to be healthy and happy. Those tools may include gender affirmative therapy to help them figure out how they feel inside and how they want to present to the world. At a later point, once your child has settled into their gender identity, those tools may include things like helping them pick out a new name and a new wardrobe to help them feel more like themselves. But all along the way, we can help trans youth to love themselves by affirming their identity as a beloved child of God, and as someone made in God’s image, no matter their gender.

We don’t have to choose between helping transgender youth change the things that need to be changed for their health and happiness, and helping transgender youth to love themselves. We can do both!

And as a transgender adult, there are so many things I love about my body — my eyes, my hands, my strong legs, and my goofy, crooked smile. I love the two scars that run across my chest, that tell the story of my movement from constriction and fear to freedom and deep breaths. And being trans doesn’t mean I spend all my time having solemn discussions about gender. Sometimes you just have to put the books down and go for a walk, rejoicing in the way your feet know exactly where to go; the way the wind feels in your hair; the way your eyes take in the tiny buds on the trees, all ready to blossom.

Austen Hartke is a writer, speaker, and creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian,” which seeks to understand and share parts of the Bible that relate to gender identity and the lives of transgender individuals. Austen is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies, and is the winner of the 2010 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing from the same institution.

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