Given our wider culture’s confusion around gender issues, how are Christians even to start thinking about the subject?
A series of high-profile cases – transgender celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and the Wachowski twins, Brighton & Hove City Council’s decision to ask four-year-old primary school children to choose their preferred gender identity, and the Obama administration’s law to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, to name a few – have brought trans issues firmly to public attention.
The Danish Girl, a recent film about Einar Wegener, one of the early recipients of gender reassignment surgery, also indicates the changing landscape of what projects studios view as commercially viable, a barometer of wider sensibilities.
One problem in this highly controversial area is that we have not yet articulated an overarching framework within which to think about gender fluidity – and that’s as true for our culture as a whole as it is for Christians.
For Christians, the starting point has often been the binary division of Genesis 1:27, ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ That works well enough for most of us, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a significant minority of the population who don’t fall neatly into the clear-cut categories of male/female (sex) or masculine/feminine (gender), just as we realised some time ago that hetero/homo were far too reductionist labels to classify the full breadth of human sexuality.
- Gender fluidity is a relatively new idea used to convey the sense that gender identity is not fixed, but can change along a spectrum of masculine-feminine and encompass elements of both genders.
- Gender dysphoria is the distress associated with a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity – the sense of being in the wrong body.
- Body dysmorphia is a separate condition, characterised by strong feelings that the body is flawed and must be hidden or corrected, sometimes by extreme means. The two conditions are occasionally conflated but typically treated separately, since they have distinct characteristics and respond to different treatment.
- Transgender is a term used of a broad range of gender identity issues, lifestyles and conditions.
- Transsexual relates specifically to those who wish to or have transitioned from one biological gender to another via medical (hormonal and surgical) means.
Whilst the press coverage has recently spiked, the idea has been out there in the mainstream for decades – at least as early as 1970, when the Kinks’ Ray Davies walked into a bar in Old Soho and struck up an acquaintance with Lola (a song inspired by a real-life encounter experienced by the band’s manager). A couple of years later Lou Reed took a Walk on the Wild Side and unpacked a few elements of queer subculture in terms that most rock fans would find more enlightening and challenging than they were quite ready for.
It’s now almost 50 years later, and we’re still not ready for it. We still don’t have much of a clue how to think about trans issues. Or rather, we’re very clear about some things, but they don’t seem to add up to a coherent narrative that we can use to make properly thought-through decisions, either in the Church or our wider culture.
For example, does the research exist to prove the best way of treating gender dysphoria? If the issue is a mismatch between sex and gender – physical body and psychological identity – then which aspect should we address? In another 50 years’ time might we consider today’s surgical interventions as primitive as our attempts to cure homosexuality with electroconvulsive therapy in the 1960s? Should we instead aim to reduce the distress arising from such a mismatch – not least through reducing transphobia? Perhaps such radical solutions constitute pathologising and medicalising a state that is more normal and liveable than we currently care to admit due to our cultural assumptions about what it means to be gendered in the first place, something that is already suggested by the idea of gender fluidity.
Does (as Germaine Greer would argue) acceptance of the very notion of gender fluidity essentially spell the end of feminism? Surely the idea of fighting for equality is meaningless when the state of male or female can be addressed at the level of the birth certificate? What then of the glass ceiling, and the need for and interplay between several protected characteristics of the Equality and Human Rights Commission: Gender reassignment, Marriage/civil partnership, Sex, and Sexual orientation?
Why do we complain that sportsmen receive higher pay than sportswomen? Is the real issue that we should eradicate the male/female boundary in professional sports altogether and let both sexes compete for a joint pot of prize money on an equal footing? What about single-sex hospital wards?
How can we even have a genuine conversation about these things when saying the ‘wrong’ thing – whether accidentally, misguidedly or accurately – is potentially a hate crime?
There are a small number of proof texts we might use to explore – or perhaps as likely, close down – discussion about trans issues from a biblical perspective. There’s Genesis 1:27, which refers to God’s creation of humanity as ‘male and female’, though this describes the norm before the Fall rather than the complexities of an imperfect world; there is the implication of complementarity in Genesis 2:18, that men and women are equal-but-different. We might draw further inferences from verses about same-sex practice and cross-dressing from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but it would be a dangerous stretch to make a convincing and properly nuanced argument about gender identity from these.
In terms of overarching principles, we are still lacking.
On one level, it is a simple issue. Christians are called to ‘proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4:18-19). When we see pain in the world, we are called to address it. Whether that pain is a headache, a broken leg or depression, the response is broadly similar.
The Bible does not support a gnostic dualism. We are embodied souls, reflecting the complex aetiology of many conditions recognised today by the bio-psycho-social model. This becomes more acutely relevant in conditions like body dysmorphia where there is acute psychological distress associated with the sense of being in that body. (One key difference with gender dysphoria is that we do not treat body dysmorphia with surgery, or by addressing perceived problems with the body itself.)
As a further suggestion in this opening piece (it draws no firm conclusions; as a Church and as a culture, we’re still only starting out on this subject), we might look to Matthew 22:34-40. In this passage Jesus summarises the Law and the Prophets – the whole Bible – in terms of love. Everything in the Bible is concerned with relationship. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. [and] love your neighbour as yourself.’ Chiefly this is understood in terms of love for God and love for neighbour, but there is a third aspect we often overlook: ‘as yourself’. A healthy relationship with the self is a pre-requisite for healthy relationships with God and other people. That being said, it is no surprise that many trans people feel marginalised. Indeed, we might expect better integration into wider networks of relationships to go hand-in-hand with closer integration of the body/mind – without necessarily assuming how that should occur or which should happen first.
Further work might explore the idea of identity in the Bible, and the elements that typically construct it – including family, community, geographical location, occupation and, of course, national and religious identity. It would also be important to explore the nature of the internal relationship with the self. This breadth of factors challenges the idea that identity is purely subjective and emphasises that it tends to include a network of relationships and factors outside the self.
‘Gender Dysphoria’, Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) files no. 59.
‘Born with the wrong body?’ Christianity Magazine, June 2016.