Saturday, March 25, 2017

Transgender People and the Body of Christ

Trans people welcome!
[Re-sharing this post because the previous image made it look specific to the event at PSU today - it isn't.]

This is a rough transcript of a presentation I gave to the Penn State Faculty-Staff Christian Fellowship, entitled Transgender People and the Body of Christ. The talk ran about half a hour, so this is quite a bit longer than a regular post on this blog.  I’m grateful to the group (which skews relatively conservative) for inviting me and for paying attention to what I had to say.

“Hello.  Why I am I here? Of course that’s easy to answer – because you invited me. But let me change the emphasis a little bit – why am I here? If you want to hear about the experience of transgender Christians, the best thing to do is to invite a transgender Christian, right?  (The Church has a terrible habit of pretending to know more about other people than they know about themselves.)  Or at least, since I’m not a transgender person myself, I should maybe have brought a transgender Christian person to support me, someone we could ask questions of? That would be a bit better than theorizing in the dark.

Well: I did bring a transgender Christian with me.  The only thing is, none of you can see him. I see him all the time. He is my child, my Eli, who was lost to suicide a little over a year ago.  He spent a lot of time thinking (and talking with me) about what it meant to be trans and Christian, and I think that I’m able to reflect some of that to you.  When, a few months after Eli’s death, I myself was diagnosed with incurable cancer, I knew one of the things I wanted to do with the time I had left was to try to carry on Eli’s work, as best I could. And part of his work – his dream – was to help the Christian community listen to and understand transgender people better. That’s why I’m here today.

I’ll try to talk about four things
(a)    Who are transgender people anyway?
(b)    Some statistics (statistics don’t substitute for stories, but they are useful background)
(c)    Transgender people and Scripture
(d)    Transgender people in the Body of Christ

  1. Who are transgender people?
When you or I were born, the doctor or midwife who cut the cord most likely handed the newborn over to their mother with three words, and everyone knows what they were, right? [Everyone did].  “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl”.  This gender assignment, which is a conclusion the doctor reached by looking at the external genitalia (or conceivably by chromosomal tests) is the gender that is recorded on your birth certificate.  This is a scientific group, so I’m going to ask you to think of this gender assignment as being recorded on one axis (say the x axis) of a graph.

Now as children grow up they develop what is called a gender identity.  Gender identity refers to your internal sense of being male or female: “I’m a man” or “I’m a woman”.  To understand that this is something different from gender assignment, just imagine being asked (say in a text chat, so that there are no visual or aural cues) “Are you a man?” or “Are you a woman?”.  I wager that none of you would respond, “Let me go check my birth certificate”, or even “Wait a moment while I look in my underpants”.  You feel you just know – and that internal “knowing” is what is called gender identity. Let’s put gender identity on the y axis of our imaginary graph.

Most people cluster pretty close to the line y=x.  On my birthday, October 6, 1959, the doctor said “It’s a boy” (gender assignment); I’ve known that I was a boy (or man) ever since (gender identity).  But for a small minority of people (about half a percent), as their gender identity develops it does not match their “birth certificate” gender assignment. Instead, it pushes against it. These are transgender people (often abbreviated to “trans”). Many work incredibly hard as kids or young adults to maintain the expectations that go with their assigned gender, to pretend they are on that y=x line, but it feels unreal to them: one writes that “I thought I must consciously monitor each body movement, each expression and every act of communication so that it would meet the gender expectations assigned to me.”  This feeling of unreality can result in gender dysphoria, a pervasive unhappiness with one’s self and one’s body, potentially leading to life-threatening depression.

Let me introduce one more phrase to you: gender expression.  This refers to the variety of social cues (gendered names and pronouns, clothing choices, bodily mannerisms, and so on) by which we communicate our gender identity to the outside world. (If you like, make the imaginary graph 3-dimensional and think of this as the z axis.) When a transgender person realizes that they are trans, one of the first steps they may take to alleviate dysphoria is to adopt a more wide-ranging gender expression; for example, dressing more in accord with their gender identity.  They may change their name, and request family and friends to call them by gender-appropriate pronouns (in my experience the pronoun change is much harder than the change of name!).  Those for whom this change does not relieve their dysphoria may also seek a variety of hormonal or surgical interventions which are aimed at bringing bodily experience more in line with gender identity. It’s important to understand that these interventions are not “fringe” treatments, but “best practice” procedures endorsed by the American Medical Association.   

No two transgender people will make exactly the same decisions about how far they want to go along the road of physical transition, or about who they want to know about their gender identity.  So we should not make assumptions about people we meet.  If you have questions about someone you know, the best person to ask is your transgender friend themselves! Here are some safe and courteous questions to ask:
  • What name/pronouns would you like me to use when addressing you?
  • If someone asks me about your gender identity or gender expression, how would you like me to respond?

There is one misapprehension about being transgender that I need to say a word about, though, before moving on.  “Being transgender” is not a subspecies or an intensifier of “being gay” – I can still hear Eli’s voice saying, “Dad, I wish people realized that trans does not equal super gay”.  None of the axes on our imaginary graph say who you want to have sex with; they are about how you understand yourself. Yes, there are straight transgender people and gay transgender people, just as in the cisgender (=non-transgender) world.   But being transgender, in and of itself, doesn’t have anything to do with being gay. Please don’t respond to trans people with your thoughts on the morality or otherwise of gay sex (Eli got a lot of this).  It’s completely irrelevant.

2.      Statistics
I think it’s helpful to know a few numbers. The latest national survey is Flores, Herman, Gates and Brown, How many adults identify as transgender in the US? (The Williams Institute, 2016).  They find that the national total of adults identifying as transgender is 1.4 million.  (They break it down state by state – the total for PA is 45,000). They also do an age breakdown into three groups: 18-24, 25-64 and 65+.  They find that the youngest cohort is slightly (about a tenth of a percent) more likely to identify as trans, but there’s no suggestion of a sudden huge uptick of trans identity among the young.  Nearly a quarter of a million trans people are of retirement age or older.

Being transgender brings many dangers.  One in five trans people have experienced homelessness.  Over 10% have been evicted (or kicked out of their family home) because of their gender identity – sadly, it appears that Christian-identifying parents are more likely to make their trans children homeless in this way.  One in four trans people have faced assault or violence because of their gender identity.  Trans women of color are at particular risk of deadly violence; at least seven trans women of color have been murdered in the first two months of this year.   41% of trans or gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide at some point, compared to 1.6% of the general population. Trans people are four times as likely to live in poverty than the general population.  Only 19 out of 50 states have clear nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender people.

[At this point I was asked to clarify the term “trans woman”.  It means someone who was assigned male at birth, but who identifies as female – not the other way around.  I’m grateful for the request, which was a good reminder to me how easy it is to slip into using language that is not clear to those you are talking to.]

It’s a myth that transgender people are anti-faith or anti-Christian.  In fact, data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study shows that trans people identify as “born again or evangelical” at the highest rate of any of the gender identity/sexual orientation subgroups included in the survey (“transgender”, 44%; “not transgender”, 27%; “heterosexual”, 30%) and they also lead in church attendance and frequency of private prayer[1].  Among the wider LGBTQ[2] community, 76% report a yearning to return to a community of faith they have decided to leave.  (Corresponding figure among the general population: 9%).  96% report that when they first began to realize their sexuality/gender identity they prayed for God to “take this away”, “make me right”.  (These figures come from Andrew Marin, “Us v Us”).  That last statistic presents a major problem of unanswered prayer for those who believe that God always is ready to “fix” the LGBTQ person if only they will ask for it.  96%!

3.      Scripture and transgender people
How should we proceed in answering the question “What does Scripture say about transgender people?”? I’d like to repeat that the first step is listening to transgender people themselves.  There’s something seriously wrong with the idea that a bunch of cisgender people can shut themselves up in a room with the Bible for however long, and then announce to the trans people waiting patiently at the door, “Okay, we have decided what God says about you.”  I am sorry to say that this is exactly how Eli was treated by (what he thought was) his church fellowship.  Suppose though that we have listened with loving attention to trans people and their personal witness, we must also give loving attention to the witness of Scripture – all trans Christians I know would agree.  So again, then, how should we proceed?

One way (let’s call it the “microscopic” way) would be to make a list of all the Scripture references to transgender identity, and then see what we can make of them. (This would be analogous to the approach to the question “What does Scripture say about gay people?”  that starts from the half-dozen or so verses that talk about men who have sex with men.)  I have trouble with this approach in general: Scripture has more to say about almost any topic than can be found in the verses that specifically mention that topic.  But for our topic, this approach runs into a much more serious problem right from the start: there are no verses that talk specifically about trans identity.  Nil. Nada. Zip. I expect you might want to ask about this in Q and A time [indeed, people did], but that’s my conclusion. The microscopic approach can’t get off the ground on this one.

Another way (let’s call it the “telescopic” way, I guess) starts from the “big picture”. How does God in Scripture, and Jesus specifically, treat all kinds of people? And, since much of the moral and emotional weight that people attach to “the transgender issue” stems from purity concerns, it is relevant to ask how Jesus treats people who are outside the purity boundaries set by the Torah – people like the woman with the “flow of blood”, making her continually “unclean”, who he heals in Mark 5:24-34, or the “untouchable” leper who he reaches out to touch in Mark 1:40-45.  I believe there is much that is right in this approach.  All of Scripture centers around Jesus and the redemptive love of God shown in Him, and therefore I feel we are on the right track if we focus the answer to “What does Scripture say about X” (whatever X is) around the person and work of Jesus.  But I also think there’s something between the microscope and the telescope.

I’d propose using the analogy-scope.  Let me make an analogy (!) to explain what I’m suggesting. When AIDS exploded in the early 1980s, many evangelicals were initially tempted to see it under the category of God’s judgment for sin.  But this didn’t meet the Jesus test, and we looked for a reading of Scripture that gave more guidance in responding lovingly to people with AIDS, however their suffering had come about.  Many found such guidance in an analogy between AIDS and something we just mentioned: leprosy.  Obviously AIDS and leprosy are not the same thing, but they shared significant attributes (especially, widespread fear of contamination leading to “untouchability”), so that for many evangelicals Jesus’ boundary-crossing love for lepers became a guide and a motivation to reach out with similar love to AIDS sufferers.  In my view, this way of thinking helped produce one of the noblest fruits of the George W Bush administration, PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for Aids Relief, which is now in its thirteenth year and has saved millions of lives. 

Using the analogy-scope, readers searched in Scripture for a class of people (lepers) who were sufficiently and relevantly similar to those whose lives they wanted to understand (AIDS sufferers) that the trajectory of the Scriptural response to the former (from purity restrictions in Leviticus to Jesus’ deliberate transgression of those restrictions in Mark) could guide their modern-day response to the latter (PEPFAR, Kay Warren’s AIDS activism, and many other examples could be cited).  Is there a similar analogy-scope that we can apply to help understand transgender people?  I think there is.

The analogy I’d like to make is between transgender people and the biblical category “eunuch”.   Eunuchs were common in the ancient world, especially as counselors or royal officials [one questioner referred to the possibility that the biblical Daniel, a Jew press-ganged into the service of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, might have been made a eunuch as part of his “promotion”].  There is a relevant analogy between eunuchs and transgender people, in that neither group “fits” into what is sometimes called the gender binary, the line x=y=z on our imaginary graph where gender assignment (as measured by external genitalia), gender identity, and gender expression all match up.  So what is the trajectory of Scripture in addressing these “non-conforming” people?
(i)                          In keeping with the purity focus, the Torah declares “No-one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deut 23:1).  Eunuchs are cut off from worship and, in a significant sense, from community.
(ii)                        But in the Prophets we hear of a change, related to new covenant promises.  Isaiah writes: “Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”  For this is what the LORD says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.” (Isaiah 56:3-5)  The faithful eunuch is no longer excluded: indeed, they are welcomed to a lasting place in the community.  The later part of Isaiah speaks to the situation of the Babylonian exile: if the idea that my questioner raised earlier is correct, it speaks to the situation of Daniel – a hero of faith, whatever the circumstances may have been that brought him into the royal court.
(iii)                       Jesus speaks of eunuchs in some cryptic words in Matt 19:11-12, part of a dialog stemming from a question about marriage put by the Pharisees.  His disciples, shocked by the rigor of his teaching on marriage, remark (facetiously? I’m not sure) that it is better not to marry than to accept such an open-ended obligation.  In response, Jesus talks of eunuchs “who have been so from birth, who have been made so by men, or who have become eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom”.   It is a passing comment, but it seems to show that Jesus envisaged eunuchs as sharing in the Kingdom – something we would anyway have expected, given how he treats the “unclean” and “untouchable” in other contexts.
(iv)                       And then there is Acts 8, where we read of a certain Ethiopian eunuch, a powerful and important official (He is driven in a chariot! He owns a book, a copy of the scroll of Isaiah!) who is attracted to the faith of the Jews as a proselyte, and has made pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Does he know that in the light of the Torah teaching he will not be admitted to the assembly?  I think he does – but because of the attraction that the community of Yahweh has for him he makes his pilgrimage nonetheless.  Now, having got as close to God as he can ever get, he is on his lonely way home.  But he is still reading Isaiah.  He has the scroll open very close to the passage we quoted in (b).   Has he heard the message of hope, “Let no eunuch complain, I am only a dry tree”?  We don’t know.  But we do know that when Philip the evangelist meets him, and beginning with Isaiah tells him the good news about Jesus, he (Philip) has no hesitation in declaring that the good news belongs to this eunuch too. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” asks the eunuch, and the answer is clearly “Nothing”.  The chariot stops, the new believer is affirmed by baptism as a member of the Body of Christ, and he “goes on his way rejoicing”.  (Reference for all of this is Acts 8:26-39)
Remember, we are talking about an analogy here.  Transgender people are not the same as eunuchs, but they are relevantly similar in that they don’t fit the gender binary.  And for such people, the trajectory of the biblical narrative that I’ve sketched above is one of expansive welcome – of those initially rejected because they didn’t fit a specific gender-related conception of purity being finally welcomed on the same terms as all other Christians: repentance and baptism.  What I hear through this narrative is a strong call to welcome and accept transgender believers: not just as tolerated Others, but as full members of the Body of Christ, gifted to serve together, delighted to worship together, and empowered to follow their particular calling with the support and love of the whole community.

4.      Transgender People and the Body of Christ
If transgender people are full members of the Body, as I have argued, what then? Let me direct your attention to Romans 1:11-12. Paul, the great Apostle, is writing to introduce himself to a group of Christians (in Rome), most of whom he has never met.  “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is (Paul corrects himself) that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”  Paul’s self-correction is an important one.  It reminds me that the first question I should be asking when I meet another Christian is not, “How can I advise or teach or regulate or even strengthen this person?”   That’s where Paul’s mind was going before he corrected himself, and no surprise we might think: he knew he had a unique mission.  But his self-correction tells me that my first question when I meet another Christian should be, “What gift is God offering me here?”  I believe this is incredibly important as the Church tries to think about transgender Christians (or LGBTQ Christians more generally, though that’s not my topic today).  So often, we straight, cisgender people are thinking that we have all the gifts and good stuff already, here on the inside, and our question is “Should we let these other people in? Should we let them share the good stuff we already have?”  But I don’t believe that’s how God sees it.  God sends transgender believers to the Body bearing their own gifts, gifts which are unique and irreplaceable.  And our question should be: “Are we going to receive these gifts? Or are we going to miss out?”

 So, what gifts does God offer the church through trans believers?  I’m not sure I can speak of “trans-y” gifts in general – gifts that trans people often or typically offer just by being who they are. (Some people speak of “womanly” gifts, for an analogy, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about those either, if they exist.)  But I’ll tell you about some spiritual gifts that I personally have witnessed trans people using to benefit the whole community:
  • Preaching – I have heard superb preaching from transgender people, preaching that edifies, challenges, is rooted in Scripture, and (yes, perhaps this is a “trans-y” thing to some extent) is deeply aware of the way God’s love reaches us without asking us to check some boxes first, and that in fact God’s expansive grace may first reach those who can’t check all the right boxes because they are the ones who need it the most.
  • Teaching – I’ve been present at a panel discussion between Millennial transgender theologians whose mutual respect and love, commitment to Scripture, and desire to bless the Body would put the average young people’s group to shame and which honestly gave me more hope for the future of the Church that I had felt for some time.
  • Service and mission – Allow me here to tell a story of my own child.  One weekend, as we were in the process of being extruded from our longtime State College church because they would not accept Eli as a transgender person (but we had not finally left), we went to the evening worship service.  The preacher delivered a powerful call to Christians to leave comfort zones and minister to people in need wherever they are.  Okay – but we were in church.  We were in our comfort zones right then – and, you see, I knew where Eli was. I knew because I had talked to him that afternoon, at some length, trying to dissuade him from doing what he was doing. He was putting himself in a situation of physical and psychological danger to try to help a friend who was struggling with heroin addiction take the first steps to get clean.  “You’ve got to look after your own safety”, I had said.  “Dad, I know. But this is what I have to do”, Eli had responded.  I don’t remember, to be honest, if he cited Jesus’ example, but the preacher sure did.  Who though, I wondered, was following through with the preacher’s advice: those of us in the comfortable church, or Eli, responding to the call to service, even to the point of danger – Eli, who that Christian body was not even ready to welcome?

I’ll end on this.  People sometimes, quite wrongly in my opinion, say that “being transgender is a choice”.  In response, it’s tempting to cite statistics like those in section 2 and say, “Who would make such a choice? A choice that involves such risk of poverty, suffering, discrimination and violence? Who would choose that?”  And to that there is an answer: “Only someone whose very identity was at stake.”  The New Testament is emphatic that Christians are ones whose very identity is at stake in this exact way: their inner life is different from their outer appearance (e.g. Colossians 3:3) and the only possible way of authentic living is to live from their new inner identity, which is a gift from God. It is because they must live as the people they really are – children of God – that New Testament Christians embrace the risks of discipleship.  Ironically, the heroic sacrifices that trans people make in order to live authentic lives can become a clear reminder to comfortable cis Christians like me of what discipleship truly involves.  And that too is a gift, if we are ready to receive it.

Thank you.”

[2] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer – an umbrella acronym

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