Strachan: Transition or Transformation? - A Response
In this series I'm offering my own responses to each of the chapters in the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I respond to Owen Strachan's chapter, 'Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria'.
Strachan starts where I think any Christian response to transgender should start: by reminding us of the full humanity and the consequent right to dignity and respect of every person who experiences gender dysphoria. It is sad that this is where Christian teaching must begin, but it is necessary. I am glad this foundation is the first laid in Strachan’s chapter.
I am also grateful for Strachan’s commitment to biblical authority. In some ways, I agree with his statement that the conversation contained in the book is ultimately about the Bible (p.58), although where Strachan sees it as a debate about biblical authority, in reality, I think it’s a debate about how best to understand and apply the Bible. All four authors claim to be committed to the authority of the Bible and all four make use of scriptural arguments. The disagreements are on what the Bible means and how that should be lived out. This is where the conversation needs to be had. Strachan seems to see his reading of Scripture as the only possible reading and therefore concludes that anyone who does not share his perspective is not accepting biblical authority. In so doing, he sidesteps the real reasons for disagreement which in turn hinders the potential for constructive dialogue among Christians.
I fully agree with Strachan that the matter of anthropology – and specifically identity – is vital in this conversation and that at the core of different views on transgender are different understandings of what it means to be human and how we find or make our identity. This, I think, is one of the most fruitful places to explore as I have sought to do in my own engagement with the topic.
While I find these several points of agreement, there are many places where I found myself disagreeing with Strachan or at least wishing things were said more carefully. While I am grateful for his affirmation of the humanity and worth of every person who experiences gender dysphoria, I felt there was a lack of compassion and feeling in his writing. There is no evidence of a real appreciation of the intense, sometimes even debilitating, pain that gender dysphoria can cause. It is striking to me that in his opening section affirming the humanity and dignity of those with gender dysphoria there is no mention of love or compassion. There is something quite clinical and abstract about the way Strachan handles an incredibly personal and emotive topic. I’m not sure this suits an attempt to put forward the perspective of a God who feels deeply and who, far from approaching human experience in the abstract, stepped into it and experienced it from within.
I find some of Strachan’s analysis of the biblical text helpful, especially as he makes the case that the Bible conceives of humans as existing in a binary of male or female. However, I feel his outline of manhood and womanhood goes beyond what can actually be affirmed from the biblical text. He also fails to make clear whether the male and female roles determined from texts about married couples, such as Adam and Eve, apply only within marriage relationships or to all men and women.
Strachan rightly affirms the reality of intersex and the involuntary nature of these conditions. (Interestingly this is the one place where a sense of compassion appears in Strachan’s writing. Presumably gender dysphoria is not similarly seen as involuntary.) However, his suggestions for a pastoral response to intersex are disappointing. His affirmation that the presence of a Y chromosome means an individual should be treated as a man shows a failure to appreciate the complexity of intersex conditions and roots biological sex in chromosomes rather than hormones, gonads, or genitalia. On what authority is the decision made that chromosomes should be the defining feature when there is genuine ambiguity across the various sexed elements of the body? I fear this view is rooted in a desire for ease rather than any clear authority. The same lack of understanding is shown in the explanation of intersex as the possession of ‘genitalia of both sexes’. Very rarely is such mixed genitalia the form intersex conditions take; the term can cover a huge range of conditions where the body exhibits some level of variation from what is usually expected for a male or a female.
Another point where I have concerns is in the way Strachan talks about the sinfulness of desire in relation to gender identity. As with the parallel discussion about whether same-sex attraction is sinful, this is a complicated topic which has to be handled with great nuance. It is this nuance which I think is lacking in Strachan’s discussion.
Strachan refers to ‘the sinfulness of gender bending and cross-dressing, whether at the impulse level – the level of desire – or at the level of physical practices’ (p.75). When read and understood carefully, I think this is largely correct. To have and foster a desire to cross-dress for the sake of taking on an identity other than one’s biological sex is, I think, sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent.
However, this is not what is usually meant by gender incongruence or gender dysphoria. The ICD-11 defines gender incongruence as ‘a marked and persistent incongruence between an individual’s experienced gender and the assigned sex’, and the APA explain that gender dysphoria ‘involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify’. The APA’s use of ‘identify’ here is unhelpful (couldn’t someone experience this conflict without embracing their internal sense of gender as their identity?), but both definitions focus on an internal experience of tension and discomfort not a desire for cross-dressing or a change of gender. No doubt the former often leads to the latter, but the internal experience could be present without the accompanying desire. The desire is sinful as it is a desire to go against creational intent, but the internal experience which precedes it is not sinful, it is simply the acknowledgment of an involuntary feeling. This is why I think someone can experience deep discomfort with their biological sex without that being a sin for which repentance must take place. Strachan’s failure to observe this distinction leads to a perspective and response which is both unfair towards and impractical for those experiencing gender incongruence.1
My final concern with Strachan’s chapter is that he doesn’t offer practical alternative approaches for the management of gender dysphoria and the pain and distress it causes. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of Strachan’s perspective that the discussion is just about sinful desire. This perspective means all he offers is quite generic guidance on repentance and sanctification, and he fails to engage sufficiently with the complex questions about how Christians with gender dysphoria should navigate the pain and distress of this experience.
Overall, I fear that Strachan’s chapter suffers from a failure to fully appreciate what the experience of gender dysphoria is like and a belief that the discussion is purely about a desire to identify with a gender different to one’s biological sex.
- 1 Strachan’s position is parallel to the position of Denny Burk on same-sex attraction (as noted in n.45 p.75) where a similar lack of nuance is present. The most helpful brief critique of Burk, which has influenced my critique here, is in Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved, pp.144-149.