DeFranza: Good News for Gender Minorities - A Response
Next up in my series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities is a response to Megan K. DeFranza's chapter, 'Good News for Gender Minorities'.
DeFranza exhibits a deep concern that we recognise transgender as a topic about real people. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. I also agree that any feelings of disgust or fear towards transgender people are utterly misplaced.
However, I would challenge the unquestioned assumption that the only way to truly care for transgender people is to affirm them in an identification with their gender identity. This assumption goes hand in hand with another undefended perspective in the chapter: that someone’s gender identity is their ‘authentic self’ (p.176) and so to transition is to tell the real truth (p.150). This is a position that needs to be argued for not simply assumed, but DeFranza fails to do this. When there is a conflict, on what basis do we affirm gender identity as the true self rather than biological sex?
Much of DeFranza’s chapter draws on the reality of differences of sex development (DSDs) or intersex conditions and unhelpfully confuses them with transgender. Despite explicit acknowledgment that most intersex people don’t identify as transgender (p.150), she often collapses the two into one. This is seen in the logic of her response to the Nashville Statement. Putting forward evidence that sex differences are not a pure binary, she argues that the Nashville Statement should therefore view transgender in much the same way as it does intersex conditions: ‘As the Nashville Statement illustrates, it seems that if scientists could pinpoint physical causes for transgender identity, then transgender people would fall under the umbrella of those with “differences of sex development” and thus be included (at least by adherents of the statement) as those who “are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers”’ (p.156).
There are two issues with this perspective. One is that there is not yet firm evidence to support the idea that gender incongruence is always or even usually caused by a biological variation.1 Transgender and intersex are different phenomena.
Second, the claim that sex differences are not binary is not true. DeFranza states ‘Human sex is dimorphic, meaning there are two basic bodily patterns, but not strictly so; it also falls on a continuum’ (p.152). In scientific terms, sex difference is determined through reproductive roles. This is the only recognised and stable way of determining maleness or femaleness and it delineates a clear binary, not a continuum.2 It is true that in the case of DSDs there can be variations from what is usually expected in reproductive structures, but these differences are clearly variations from the expected structure, not alternatives on a continuum. This is why many intersex conditions will leave a person infertile rather than offering alternative functional reproductive structures.
In the case of the vast majority of transgender people, the reproductive structure fits what is expected for a male or a female. Even if secondary sex characteristics, brain structure, personality, or preferences can be plotted on a male-female continuum, these do not undermine the stable identification as male or female based on reproductive structures. DeFranza is therefore wrong to suggest that transgender should be thought of as akin to intersex. They are very different phenomena.
Two further points can be noted on the critique of article 6 of the Nashville Statement. The first is a point of agreement. It is sad if accidental, and wrong if deliberate, that while affirming those born with DSDs as being created in the image of God and having equal dignity and worth to other image-bearers, no such affirmation is made in the Nashville Statement about those who experience gender incongruence (or same-sex attraction). The statement speaks of those who are intersex with a level of care and respect lacking in its response to gender incongruence.
I feel DeFranza is unfair, however, in her accusation that the statement’s language of ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception’ suggests people choose their sexual orientation or gender identity (p.154). Though the statement’s language is clunky, it is clearly trying to speak of the choice to conceive of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a core identity which must be expressed. Nothing is said of the general experience of gender incongruence or same-sex attraction. It is probably DeFranza’s assumption that gender identity is one’s true self which leads to this misunderstanding.
In the second half of her chapter, DeFranza offers her perspective on the biblical material. Here I will raise only the most serious problems I observed in her readings.
There are many problems with DeFranza’s treatment of Matthew 19:1-12. First, she claims that ‘Jesus names eunuchs as those who do not fit the pattern of male and female’ (p.160). However, the topic of debate in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees in Matthew 19 is marriage, not sex difference. Eunuchs are used as examples of those who might not marry and who couldn’t father children, activities which were pretty much expected for everyone in Jesus’ context. Like other biblical authors, Jesus most probably thought of eunuchs as males who are unable to procreate (as argued here).
DeFranza rejects the common reading that Jesus uses the eunuch as an example of celibate singleness suggesting that there is no explanation ‘why he would employ the enigmatic figure of the eunuch to make this point’ (p.160). However, there is are very good reasons why Jesus would do this. First, because eunuchs were unable to produce children. Marriage and childbearing were seen almost as religious duties in the time of Jesus. Eunuchs were unable to father children and were therefore the perfect illustration for Jesus to make the radical point that in his kingdom some people would voluntarily forego marriage and childbearing. Second, eunuchs often served as high-ranking officials in royal courts (as DeFranza states on p.162) and so Jesus could use them as a picture of the kind of service that celibate single people can render to God. It is these points about marriage and singleness which Jesus is seeking to make by employing the figure of the eunuch, not any point about biological sex.
To support her view, DeFranza claims that some in the early church interpreted Matthew 19:12 as a call to reject gender privileges, but these voices, she notes, were silenced when the views of Augustine and others on the importance of gender distinctions became the dominant view. The suggestion seems to be that Augustine was wrong – although this view isn’t defended – and that other early Christians understood Jesus correctly. This being so, she suggests that many early Christians wouldn’t have shared the outrage of some modern Christians about the voluntary surgical alteration of genitals among those who experience gender incongruence.
There are two problems here. One is that DeFranza offers no scriptural evaluation of the early church’s differing views. Augustine may have been right; we won’t know until we evaluate his view against Scripture. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Ephesians 5:22-33, and 1 Peter 3:1-7, which suggest a level of importance to gender distinctions in at least some settings, are not considered. The second problem is that the parallel between modern surgery for transgender people and voluntary castration in the early church is inexact. The view in the early church was that gender distinctions are unimportant and perhaps even unhelpful; therefore, some chose to castrate themselves to renounce gender. By contrast, the view behind supporting surgery for transgender people says that gender is so important it can justify surgery to give it bodily support. If anything, the early church’s alternative view argues against modern affirming perspectives on transgender.
Much of the rest of DeFranza’s treatment of Scripture suffers from the fact that she employs texts about eunuchs (e.g. Isaiah 56 and Acts 8) without sufficiently taking into consideration the difference between ancient eunuchs and transgender people. Her arguments are better applied to those with intersex conditions than to those identifying as transgender.
On Genesis 1, DeFranza suggests that the binaries in creation are not absolute. I have responded to this argument before when considering intersex. Going to the other end of the Bible story, she argues that the presence of great diversity in the multitude before the throne in Revelation 7, diversity which wasn’t present in the garden, shows that God’s intention is to welcome people ‘as they are, not after some kind of restoration to an Edenic pattern’ (p.174, emphasis original). However, the diversity in Revelation 7 is of people groups and languages, diversity which naturally results from human reproduction. Scripture never suggests that these forms of diversity are a distortion of God’s plan in creation or that they are in conflict with it.3 The same cannot be said of gender incongruence, given that Scripture consistently speaks only of males and females and expects individuals to live out the sexed identity given to them in their body. Revelation 7 therefore does not speak to whether there will be ‘restoration to an Edenic pattern’ at the end of the story.
DeFranza’s chapter is a strong attempt to present a thought-through and biblically reasoned affirming position in response to transgender, but ultimately I find that at many key points her arguments fail and so her case is unpersuasive. While I want to reflect DeFranza’s heart attitude of care and love towards transgender people, I believe that her perspective on how this love and care should be expressed is fundamentally flawed.
- 1 See the critique of the claim that brain sex theory may provide such evidence in my response to Yarhouse and Sadusky.
- 2 See Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.79-81.
- 3 The story of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) doesn’t undermine this. Though the confusion of languages and dispersion are presented as an act of judgement, this is only because this dispersion was the very thing the people had been trying to avoid in building the city and tower (Gen. 11:4). The original mandate to humanity was to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28) and so the dispersion of humans across the earth and the emergence of different peoples and languages was part of God’s creational intent. The same cannot be said of gender: no diversity beyond the male and female binary is expected in the original creation (Gen. 1:27).