I recently met a lovely young family in the northern suburbs of Dallas. They told me they previously attended a large Baptist church there – until their high school son became their daughter.
The mother was committed to her volunteer work in the church, and when she told the pastor who supervised that ministry area that her child was transgender, the pastor said: “That’s fine. We love everybody here. But it’s still a sin.”
“Blah, blah, blah, but….” Whatever comes after the “but” always negates whatever nice things were said in the first part of the sentence. Beware of the “but.”
Some would look kindly on the suburban pastor’s response because, after all, the pastor didn’t kick the family out of the church or condemn the teenager straight to hell. But.
Even among Christians who appear kind or progressive, too often the existence of someone who identifies as transgender gets chalked up to “sin.” No doubt that’s the root reason so many Christians happily pile on against transgender persons and their family members about bathrooms and schools, because in their heart of hearts, they don’t understand transgender identity and simply default to thinking it is a sinful lifestyle choice.
“Even among Christians who appear kind or progressive, too often the existence of someone who identifies as transgender gets chalked up to ‘sin.’”
I think we all can agree that a “sin” is something we do that we shouldn’t do, something we have a choice about. If I eat an entire half-gallon of ice cream, I am likely guilty of the sin of gluttony. I didn’t have to eat the ice cream. If I fixate on why other people are more athletic and agile than me in my mid-life body, I probably am guilty of the sin of envy. There is a way for me to redirect my thoughts to avoid envy.
The same is not true of transgender identity. Emphatically and conclusively, this is not a choice. It is who a person is. Did you choose to have red hair? Did you choose to be tall or short? Did you choose to have the genetic markers you have? Of course not. Transgender persons are simply acknowledging that the gender identity assigned to them at birth because of physical anatomy does not match the brain, biochemical and genetic gender identity they know inside.
Since writing a column two years ago about understanding transgender identity – an opinion article that has been read more than 1 million times and led to giving a TED Talk on the same subject – I have conversed with hundreds of transgender persons and family members of transgender persons. That’s not just ministerially speaking. It really has been hundreds. Every one of those transgender persons has told me that they knew from their earliest awareness – from the time they were 4, 5 or 6 years old – that the gender anatomy they showed on the outside did not match who they knew they were on the inside.
There is an increasing body of scientific evidence to back up this assertion. For example, a 2008 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that female fetuses with increased prenatal exposure to androgens are more likely to have gender nonconforming behaviors. Researchers – including some theologically conservative ones – point to environmental factors that may be responsible for what appears to be an increase in transgender identity through endocrine disruption beginning in the 20th century. This is linked to industrialization, development of new chemicals and medicines.
But these environmental factors only explain an increase, not the presence of transgender identity, which has been documented for centuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics (not to be confused with a small association of conservative pediatricians often cited by critics of transgender rights) recently released a new policy statement explaining that variation in gender identity is a normal part of human diversity. For an excellent, lay-friendly description of the emerging science of transgender identity, look to this report from Harvard University.
“Most transgender persons will tell you they believe God has, in fact, created them as either male or female; the problem is how they have been labeled by others who are not God.”
I could quote chapter and verse for study after study, and that would not change the minds of some people who are determined to label as sinful anything they do not understand, usually because “the Bible says so.” In these cases, I ask people to tell me where in the Bible being transgender is condemned as sinful. The only answer usually offered is Deuteronomy 22:5, which says: “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.”
Here’s the problem with even a literal reading of that passage: Transgender persons will tell you they are not “men” putting on “women’s” clothing or “women” putting on “men’s” clothing. Instead, they are declaring an identity much deeper than clothing; they are saying that they are dressing outwardly to match who they know they are on the inside. This is not cross-dressing, which is not the subject of this column. Cross-dressing is about finding pleasure in wearing certain clothes. Being transgender is about finding mental and spiritual peace by aligning outward presentation with inner being.
Occasionally, people will point to Genesis 1:27 as a condemnation of transgender identity: “male and female he created them.” Most transgender persons will tell you they believe God has, in fact, created them as either male or female; the problem is how they have been labeled by others who are not God.
Some people today identify as “gender fluid,” meaning they find in themselves bits of both male and female identity and cannot definitely say they are one or the other. While this may sound unsettling to some of us on first hearing, a return to Genesis might help. There we also learn that God created both “night” and “day” and that God separated “land” from “sea.” Yet we have no problem understanding the existence of dawn and dusk or marshes and everglades. Also, the point of Genesis 1 is inclusion, not exclusion. The ancient text tells us that God created everything: “and,” not “or.”
The other lesson we need to keep learning from Genesis is that all humanity is created “in the image of God.” Everybody. Without exception. When we look at others who are different than us and try to see in them the image of God, we gain new understanding and empathy.
Sometimes well-meaning Christians get this part but still can’t get over the “sin” label. So they will say things like, “All of us are sinners in God’s eyes, and it’s just that my sin is different than your sin.” That’s another way of saying, “I love you, but….”
There’s an easy way to remember why this is wrong: Transgender identity is about who a person is. It is about their fundamental being as humans created by God in God’s image – an image that God has declared to be good.