By Austen Hartke 5-04-2016

Have you ever wondered about what it’s like to be a transgender person, but you were afraid to ask? Do you find yourself stumped by issues of gender identity?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

Many Christians today have transgender friends and family members that they’d like to support, but they feel conflicted and confused about the details. Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger, and that means opening our hearts and our doors to people we don’t understand. At the same time, it’s all right to have questions! The act of seeking understanding often leads to increased compassion and empathy for others.

This week, Trevin Wax, a contributing writer for The Gospel Coalition, penned a list of 7 questions he had about transgender issues. Though he tends to use oversimplification and rhetorical structures to make his case, Wax does appear to genuinely wonder about his questions. Discussion and education are invaluable as we seek to find common ground in a world of polarities, so let’s dig up some answers!

Q1) “Do transgender theories undercut or contradict the idea that sexual orientation is unchangeable?”

In his article, Wax brings up the example of the partners of transgender people who feel pressured to change their sexual orientation when their spouse transitions from male to female, or female to male. Wax says that this pressure for partners to change orientation contradicts the inborn nature of sexuality that gay and lesbian activists have been suggesting for decades.

What he fails to point out is that LGBTQ+ advocates have been increasingly open about the fact that the “born this way” narrative doesn’t always reflect the realities that science is helping us to observe. While some studies support the concept of sexuality as genetically inherited, others find that humans are more predisposed to sexual fluidity.

Relying solely on the “born this way” argument to justify sexual orientation sets queer folks on a shaky foundation. Not only does it alienate sexually fluid folks — it also tends to erase the existence of bisexual people. Regardless of how we come by our sexuality, studies show that attempts to change sexual orientation lead to negative mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

Because of these risks, we must all agree that no one should be forced into changing their orientation. No transgender person assumes that their partner will stay with them during or after transition, but many do. For some, changes in gender presentation and social perception is a deal-breaker, and in these cases there should be no shame in reevaluating the relationship.

Q2) “If gender identity is fixed and unchangeable, why do many children who experience gender dysphoria lose these feelings after puberty?”

Here again, Wax is basing his argument on the idea that gender identity and sexuality are fixed. This discounts the many stories of transgender people who did not come to understand their transgender identity until later in life. While some trans folks do look back and realize that they showed signs of gender discomfort and dysphoria at a young age, others do not.

When Wax cites the cases of children who experience dysphoria losing this feeling after puberty, both he and the researchers fail to recognize the difference between gender expression and gender identity.

Children who are gender-non-conforming — meaning, they enjoy clothing, hairstyles, activities, etc., that are typically associated with another gender — are different from those who are persistent, insistent, and consistent about their gender identity. The American Psychological Association uses those later criteria to determine which children may actually be transgender. You can find out more about the differences between gender-diverse youth and transgender youth here.

These studies have unfortunately lumped girls who enjoy baseball in with trans boys, and then publicized results when the girl grows up and realizes that her love of America’s favorite pastime doesn’t mean she’s inherently male. We can help clear up some of this confusion by allowing kids to dress and express themselves in the way most comfortable for them, without attaching gender roles and expectations to every ball glove and ballerina’s tutu.

Q3) “When a person feels a disjunction between one’s sex at birth and one’s gender identity, why is the only course of action to bring the body into closer conformity with the person’s psychological state, rather than vice versa?”

The answer to this one is simple — because attempting to change a transgender person’s internal gender identity doesn’t work. While therapy can be helpful in equipping transgender folks with short-term ways to deal with their dysphoria, therapy has never been shown to “cure” someone of being trans.

On the other hand, bringing one’s body into alignment with one’s heart and mind has been shown to be incredibly effective at relieving dysphoria. Wax cites an old study from Sweden that found that transgender people were more likely to commit suicide after surgery, but omits the fact that this study has been disproven multiple times since its publication.

Q4) “Is the higher rate of suicide among transgender persons due primarily to the inner tensions of experiencing gender dysphoria as a disorder, or are these acts motivated primarily by societal rejection?”

Here Wax suggests that you cannot at the same time say that a transgender person doesn’t have a mental disorder, while also pointing out that trans people are more likely to commit suicide than just about any other population.

Wax’s answer can be found within his own questions — trans folks are more likely to commit suicide because of the harassment and rejection they face at home, at work, and at school . Think about what your life would be like if your parents turned you out of the houseyou weren’t allowed to enter a public restroom, and you were denied jobs because a perspective employer didn’t like the way you looked.

We need to learn to differentiate between dysphoria (a medical condition like anxiety and depression) and gender identity (which everyone has, and which is not a psychological problem). Treat the dysphoria; celebrate the identity.

Q5) “Why are the strongest critics of ‘gender binaries’ the most likely to support gender stereotypes on display in transgender celebrities?”

It does seem a little strange when you first think about it — why would people who find gender binaries harmful use gendered ways of expression to communicate their identity? Well, it’s because currently, gendered language is the only kind we have.

It’s tough to try to explain your gender identity without resorting to clichés and stereotypes. Try it for a second — explain why it is you feel like a man or a woman (or both, or neither) without connecting yourself to any concept or object that you’d think of as male or female. Basically impossible, right?

In many cases, trans people find themselves in the position of having to prove their trans-ness to others. In this situation, we often grab for something that the other person is going to understand. So if Caitlyn Jenner wants to connect her sense of femininity to her love for makeup and long hair, go for it, girl! But if a non-binary trans person argues that makeup is not inherently feminine, we can be right there with them, too. We use the language we are given, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create new vocabulary.

Q6) “Why must one’s declared gender identity be accepted without question, while other forms of self-identification can be dismissed?”

When we first heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who lived as a black woman in order to gain jobs and education, many people compared her to Caitlyn Jenner. Many articles and videos have been made on this topic, so suffice it to say here that the major difference between Dolezal and Jenner is that one is attempting to become something she is not, while the other is accepting something that she has always been.

Let’s break that down a bit. For transgender people, coming out is not something we do in order to gain any kind of power — in fact, coming out can put our very lives in danger. It’s also not something we do to trick anyone, and we are not attempting become something we aren’t. We aren’t delusional — we’re not denying the bodies or the sex characteristics we have, as Dolezal denies the physical characteristics she has. Instead, many transgender people give up everything they have to be as honest with the world as they can possibly be.

Gender identity is not the only intangible thing we accept about each other. For instance, I don’t ask my friends to find a way to prove their Christianity, or their belief in the existence of God.

Q7) “Without a settled definition in our legal system for transgender, how can we avoid all sorts of problems, including bathroom access?”

Here are some solutions:

  • Begin providing single-stall all-gender bathrooms
  • Allow transgender people to keep using the facilities that match their gender identity, as they have done for decades without incident.
  • Educate people about gender identity and gender expression, thereby making the topic less scary
  • Put more time and money into enforcing the laws against assault that are already meant to protect all people in all spaces, including bathrooms.

Wax ends his article by asserting that, as Christians, we are neither free to torment transgender people, nor to accept the idea that gender assigned to a baby at birth is anything less than God-breathed. While most people can agree with the former statement, we may be a bit skeptical of the latter.

Transgender Christians all over the world have found ways to understand their gender and their faith as parts of a whole and integrated life. Their voices and their existence in the body of Christ cannot and should not be ignored. To find out more about how our siblings in faith understand scripture and the biblical components of gender, check out Queer GraceBelieve Out LoudRachel Held Evans’ list of trans Christians to follow, and The Transgender and Christian Project.

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.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"7 Answers to Questions About Transgender Realities"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe