Understanding Transgender Identities
Understanding Transgender Identities is a significant new release in the field of Christian discussions on transgender. It is a multi-view book in which four contributors share their reflections on transgender and each is invited to respond to the others’ chapters. The book is an incredibly helpful resource for anyone wanting to think deeply about the topic and to wrestle with different points of view.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be engaging with Understanding Transgender Identities. In this post, I’ll offer a brief summary of each of the contributors’ perspectives, and in subsequent posts I’ll offer my own responses to each of the chapters. Hopefully the series will give a bit of a flavour of the book and encourage some to get hold of it themselves.
The book opens with a substantial introduction outlining some of the relevant history, the current points of debate and controversy, and the Christian conversation so far. The introduction is full of useful information but is much more technical than the rest of the book. If you decide to give Understanding Transgender Identities a go and you struggle with the intro, don’t let it put you off!
Owen Strachan: ‘Transition or Transformation? A Moral-Theological Exploration of Christianity and Gender Dysphoria’
Strachan believes that a right understanding of conversion is the most important starting point for engaging the topic of transgender. After an opening call to affirm the full humanity of those who experience gender dysphoria and to recognise that they are worthy of respect and dignity, his first section gives biblical arguments for binary sex and for the importance of different roles for men and women (looking primarily at Gen. 2, Deut. 22:5, Judg. 4, Matt. 19:1-12, 1 Cor. 11, and Eph. 5:22-33). His view on transitioning is captured in this early statement: ‘[M]en and women who experience gender dysphoria should not undergo bodily changes but instead, with vivified awareness of the witness of Scripture and a moral imagination ignited for God, should pursue something greater and more effectual than any transition: transformation’ (pp.57-58).
In his second main section, ‘Engaging Social Science from a Christian Worldview’, Strachan argues for the importance of calling those with gender dysphoria to continue to live in line with their bodily identity, partly by citing evidence that transitioning does not prove helpful. He also makes explicit his understanding of 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). He calls pastors to lead those with gender dysphoria to live in line with their bodily identity through repentance and sanctification (acknowledging that this is a long process) and says that the church should speak out against ‘the mainstreaming of LGBT identity’ (p.78), while also acknowledging that supporting individuals requires a different approach to challenging the cultural narrative.
Mark A. Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky: ‘The Complexities of Gender Identity: Toward a More Nuanced Response to the Transgender Experience’
Yarhouse and Sadusky’s chapter falls into three main sections. Their first section explores whether gender is a binary or a continuum. Here they outline three interpretive lenses - integrity, disability, and diversity - which can be used to understand differing perspectives on gender identity. These will be familiar to some from Yarhouse’s earlier work. They then look at biological and physiological perspectives, placing some weight on the idea that gender incongruence could be caused by an intersex brain. This opening section ends with a discussion of emerging gender identities in which dysphoria is not always present and also offers a potential explanation for why these alternative identities are becoming more common.
The second section explores gender transitioning, first explaining how each interpretive lens might evaluate the possibility of transitioning and then looking at medical approaches to transitioning. They offer a helpful and balanced assessment of scientific research on the effectiveness of transitioning.
The final section turns to the question of how Christians should respond to the transgender community, opening with the helpful reminder that we must avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Yarhouse and Sadusky explore what ministry to transgender people might look like through each lens, and the chapter closes with a call to continue working towards an integrated lens combining the strength of all three.
Broadly speaking, Yarhouse and Sadusky see gender as a binary, though they recognise the reality of gender incongruence and the impact it has on people. Theologically, they seem to understand this incongruence as a result of the Fall. They are very cautious about transitioning but suggest it may occasionally be acceptable in ‘cases of life-threatening gender dysphoria’ (p.113). Rather than expecting to see healing from gender dysphoria in this life, they treat it as a form of suffering to be navigated alongside a relationship with Jesus.
Megan K. DeFranza: ‘Good News for Gender Minorities’
DeFranza opens by noting how her views on transgender have changed over time. These changes have come about through meeting transgender people and through learning about ‘the complexity of human biology’ (p.150), which, she believes, reveals that ‘sex difference falls on a continuum’ (p.152).
DeFranza’s chapter critiques article 6 of the Nashville Statement. She first challenges the idea that gender identity is chosen, arguing that this view is disproven by the evidence for biological influences, the possibility of brain sex differences, and the complexities introduced by intersex. This being so, she argues that the Nashville Statement should not treat transgender as so sharply distinct from intersex. She accuses the sort of teaching found in the Nashville Statement of causing harm and trauma for transgender people.
The second half of DrFranza’s chapter explores biblical teaching, mostly looking at references to eunuchs. She makes much of Matthew 19:12 noting that Jesus acknowledges that eunuchs don’t fit within the male-female binary and uses them as a picture for radical discipleship. She draws on research into understandings of Matthew 19:12 in early Christianity to argue that some Christians (rightly) concluded that ‘giving up gender privileges inaugurated the freedom of the future kingdom of God’ (p.163). DeFranza also looks at eunuchs in the Torah, Isaiah 56, and Acts 8, arguing that there is a trajectory towards welcoming those who were previously excluded. It is also argued that Genesis 1 leaves room for continuums between its binary categories and that the vision of the redeemed in Revelation 7 shows the acceptance of diversity that wasn’t present in Eden.
In closing her chapter, DeFranza makes the case that identity in Christ is more important than gender identity and that this greater identity can successfully challenge cultural ideas about gender.
Justin Sabia-Tanis: ‘Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God’s Intention for Gender Diversity’
Sabia-Tanis believes that ‘gender falls on a continuum of identities, reflecting a range of healthy human possibilities’ and that ‘these differences are naturally occurring and thus can be seen theologically as part of God’s plan for a diverse and wondrous creation’ (p.195). He notes the reality of liminal spaces between the binaries presented in Genesis 1, suggesting the same is true for humans, and gives examples of the gender continuum found among plants and animals including hermaphroditic organisms and those that change sex during their lifespan. Humans, he notes, can also exhibit such natural variations (intersex conditions) and evidence is growing for a biological basis to gender dysphoria. Turning to the Bible, he considers the positive approval of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 to be evidence of ‘God’s recognition and acceptance of an array of genders’ (p.203).
Speaking from his own experience as a trans man, Sabia-Tanis affirms the acceptability of gender transition for those who could be helped by it. He argues both from the sense of personal calling he and others have felt and from the right of transgender people to receive whatever treatment is best for their well-being, stressing that gender dysphoria should be viewed through the lenses of medicine and pastoral care and not as a sin issue. The application of counselling as a treatment for gender dysphoria is rejected on the basis that it is ineffective, and arguments are given for the safety and effectiveness of gender transition.
In his final section, ‘Considerations for Christians’, Sabia-Tanis calls for the application of a ‘uniquely Christian lens’ (p.214) to the topic. This lens should be shaped by key values of respect (for the body and self, for differing views, and for the complexity of the topic), compassion (which rejects any goodness in suffering and seeks to alleviate it), and justice (in view of discrimination and high levels of need among transgender people).
In subsequent posts in this series, I will offer my own response to each of the four chapters.