Thinking Aloud About Our Trans Siblings

by Michael Usey

Acts 8.26-39 (MSG)

A couple of years ago a Triad transgender group contacted me about using the parking lot of College Park Church for their annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which (I learned) is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.  I said we’d be glad to consider it, so I took Lin along to meet their rep, Mary, at Port City Java.  We three met, and had a productive time, listening to part of her story, and being made aware again of the statistics of violence against transgender persons.  The event was to be a candlelight service, and she asked if one of us could give the invocation.  That Tuesday was the night Nate was arriving back from college, so I volunteered Lin.  So under a cool November sky, with the smells of wood fire and leaves, they held a time of remembrance here, in our parking lot, with the leaders under the scout pergola, with Lin and Kelli Joyce in attendance.  The planning meeting for this event was the first time in a long time I had thought about what it means to be transgender.

I wanted us to remind ourselves of the trans folx among us for at least two reasons. First, last week in Charlotte two Black trans women were murdered; Friday two men aged 21 and 33 were charged with their murder.  Violence against trans women of color is unfortunately common.  Additionally, three anti-trans bills are currently being considered  in the NC General Assembly: HB358, Anti-Transgender student altheltics bill; SB514: Bill to Prohibit Trans-Affirming Medical Care for People Under 21, Protect Anti-LGBTQ ‘Conversion Therapy’ and Require State Employees to ‘Out’ Gender Nonconformity; and SB515: A “License to Discriminate” for Any Medical Worker.  So our trans siblings are under attack on various fronts.

Even though LGBT gets lumped together in one tagline, the T is quite different than the L,G, & B. Lesbian, gay and bisexual describe sexual orientation. Transgender describes gender identity. These are not the same thing. Our sex is assigned to us at birth, based on visible sex characteristics.  Sexual orientation is about whom we feel an attraction to and want to date; gender identity is about whether we identify as on the spectrum between male, female, non-binary, gender fluid, or intersex. Gender is a continuum; it is non-binary.  Identifying as male of female is not separate, but belongs on the spectrum of what gender identity can be. 

As one of our deacons, Matt Cravey has said, “Sexuality and gender identity are a lot more complicated than A or B. There are a lot of labels, but not every person fits a label. Don’t speculate about what they are into, unless you intend to play touch and smile and think they want to do the same. If someone asks to be addressed by gender-neutral pronouns, do your best to respect their wish. If you don’t, it’s your choice and you look kind of like [a tool].”   There are people who are born one sex, but feel like a different gender.  A child can be born with female genitalia but be masculine in her actions and mentally—both in feelings and in processing.  And, although society pronounces her female, she feels male. 

The first time I thought seriously about transgender was reading in seminary John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and being introduced to the amazing character of Roberta Muldoon. In a book all about gender, Roberta has a better understanding of it than most. Robert Muldoon was a standout NFL tight-end. You don’t get much more stereotypically manly than that. And after her professional football career, despite her delicate “heart of hearts,” Roberta will always have a body like a “highly trained rock.” This makes her ideal bodyguard material for Jenny Fields.

It took chutzpah for Roberta to come out as transgender—Garp was published in 1978—but what’s worse is that Roberta still doesn’t feel completely comfortable since she’s been met with skepticism from feminists and men alike. It’s not until later that Roberta realizes her burden can be a gift. She now has “the vanity of a middle-aged man and the anxieties of a middle-aged woman”—a perspective that “is not without its advantages.” She comes to peace, finally, with all the aspects of her identity. A woman through and through, she no longer concerns herself with society’s expectations for who or how she should be, and instead learns to appreciate herself in all her powerhouse, feminine glory.  This is the proper role of literature in our lives: to introduce us to people we might not otherwise meet.  And, if you saw the film, John Lithgow is perfectly cast as Roberta.

Think how deeply our gender is connected to our identity. Here’s a quick quiz from Philip Gulley that I’d love for you to help me with. I’m going to name some relationship categories, and when I name a relationship category you fit in, please raise your hand, and keep them up. If I name a second category you’re in, just wave your hand. Here we go. Raise your hand if you are a: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, grandson, granddaughter, son, daughter, husband, wife, sister, brother, father-in-law, mother-in-law, step-mother, step-father, step-sister, step-brother, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Now notice that all those words that define us denote gender. All those relationships are the primary ways we understand and define ourselves and they all have to do with gender. Every hand  was raised, unless you were too stubborn, oppositional defiant, or it hurts to raise your arm. 

In fact, our gender and identity are so closely linked, it is extremely difficult to imagine and understand ourselves apart from our gender. Our gender is central to who we are.  I think most of us feel quite comfortable with our gender. It would be difficult for us to imagine being another gender. Most of us are quite comfortable with, even happy with, our gender and can’t imagine being otherwise. It fits us well. We have grown into our gender. 

But there have always been people for whom this isn’t true, less than half of one percent of the population.  We have never understood why, until recently. For most of our lives, it was believed transgender people, people whose inward gender was inconsistent with their gender assigned at birth, it was believed those people had suffered psychological trauma as children, causing them to reject their assigned gender. This has been our default explanation whenever we meet someone we don’t understand. We just assume they’ve experienced psychological trauma. And sometimes that’s true. But scientists believe that is no longer an adequate explanation for why some people are transgender.

We know nothing happens in the body without first happening in the brain. Gender identity? Brain. Sexual orientation? Brain. Body type? Brain. Personality? Brain. Pain sensitivity? Brain. The brain drives everything. We talk about the heart being the seat of emotion, but it isn’t. The heart is a muscular organ. The brain generates and facilitates our emotions. When we fall in love and feel our heart race, it’s because our brain told it to. Nothing happens in our bodies without first happening in our brains. 

Scientists have studied the brains of transgender people and here’s what they’ve learned: Transgender people have brains that don’t match their gender assigned at birth. When we’ve been able to scan their brains, or study them after death, the brains (for example) of some male to female persons have more female-brain characteristics. Conversely, some trans persons moving from the more female side of the spectrum to the male side have more male-characteristic brains. (I mention this as an example, not to neglect our gender continuum on which exists non-binary, gender fluid, and intersex people.  I am skeptical that “sex assignment” has any real basis in scientific fact. It rather may be another construct that continues to reinforce an oppressive identity structure.)

So from the day they were born, transgender people have been moving toward their brain types. Because of their brain’s exposure, or lack of exposure, to certain hormones during fetal development, their outward gender is inconsistent with their inward gender. Events happen at births that most of us never know. It’s not an everyday occurrence but it’s also not infrequent that babies are born with ambiguous or incomplete sexual anatomy. In the past, surgeons often made the decision about whether this child would be a boy or a girl, based on what was the easiest surgical fix. What I just said about brains was unknown, so it wasn’t considered that crucial. Today, much more thought is given to these life-changing decisions. 

Remember when our children were born and we said “It’s a boy” or It’s a girl”? What we’re really saying is that at a certain stage in their development, the presence or lack of presence of testosterone programmed the fetus to grow a certain type of sexual organ. 99.5% of the time the organ accurately reveals one’s genetic gender, but sometimes it doesn’t, which is why some people are transgender. Trans is Latin for “across”. So transgender people are those people who’ve moved along the gender continum—or are naturally inclined to want to, because their inward gender didn’t match their assigned gender, so they are moving toward the gender of their brain type. We know this now. The scientific community has demonstrated evidence indicating this. It isn’t a religious theory. It isn’t a political theory. It is a physiological trait occurring during our fetal development, and thus is beyond our control. 

Emphatically and conclusively, transgender identity 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.

Transgender persons are not “transvestites.” Too many get these words mixed up, in part because the words sound similar and most people frankly have no real knowledge of either. Cross-dressers, identified in slang as “transvestites,” are people (typically men) who are happy with their gender but derive pleasure from occasionally dressing like the opposite gender. Cross-dressing is about something other than gender identity.  That’s crucial to understand, because it means they are NOT transgender —wanting to formally cross over to the opposite gender of what they find themselves.

Further, transgender persons are not pedophiles. Did you know that the typical profile of a pedophile is an adult male who identifies as heterosexual and most likely even is married? There is zero statistical evidence to link transgender persons to pedophilia—something our state leaders choose not to acknowledge. From my limited perspective, trans persons hate all the attention they’re getting. The typical transgender person wants desperately not to attract attention. All this publicity and talk of bathroom habits is highly disconcerting to people who have spent their lives trying not to stand out or become the center of attention.

So what might this have to do with the Gospel? As you know, the Bible talks a great deal about gender, sexual codes, and relationships. But it was informed by a limited understanding of human development. Thousands of years later we know so much more about sexual and gender formation. So we have to stop treating those formed differently as sinners, or moral failures. They are, in the case of transgender people, simply persons whose inward gender and gender assigned at birth were out of harmony, who are now moving toward harmony, toward gender integration, which for some of us had happen to us before we were born. As you can imagine, having to do that after you are born is incredibly frightening and difficult. 

I included the passage from Acts 8 to remind all of us that the first recorder Christian convert on the continent of Africa was someone whose sexuality was non-binary, whose gender and sexual identity isn’t know to us.  Led by God’s spirit, Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch on the road—another summer road story.  Isn’t it terrible that we don’t know this person’s name—and this text is by Luke, who names everyone—so sadly this one is identified by his sexuality and ethnicity.  

I did not have us hear Deut 22.5, 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. “Man’s item” likely refers to a sword. Modern Jews used this verse to argue that women should not join Israel’s armed forces. This also is a rule of war that prevents male soldiers from disguising themselves as females to hide themselves from their enemy. Additionally, in ancient Israel where the sexes were constantly segregated, this prevented one sex from invading the others’ space in order to commit adultery. 

Furthermore, the second half of the chapter is all about intercourse and marriage. Men’s and women’s clothing are separated for the same reason the Hebrews separated many items. Only four verses later the Torah says not to plant different seeds in the same vineyard. The very next verse separates oxen from donkeys. The verse after that separates wool and linen. Torah is filled with instructions of separation, especially how Israel must be separate from other nations and Levites separate from other tribes. Different scholars have different theories for the motivation of this but they all acknowledge this theme.  And, on top of other considerations is that Christians do not follow Torah law.

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 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.  John Pavlovitz is tired of some conservative Christians; this is at the heart of why we’re talking about this issue today, to try to counter the hate d’jour.  Here’s an excerpt: Dear Offended Christian,

  • I’m tired of hearing you telling gay people that they can’t simultaneously be both gay and Christian. 
  • I’m tired of having to explain what “Transgender” means to adult Christian people, who I’m quite sure have Internet access and should know better by now that it ain’t “a guy in a dress.”
  • I’m tired of arrogant pulpit bullies who believe they’re entitled to tell people where they can pee and whom they can marry and whether they really love Jesus or not.
  • I’m tired of you being more outraged by red coffee cups and department store restrooms than by poverty and racism and gun violence.
  • I’m tired of gay people being accused of the kind of predatory behavior that straight men have been exhibiting, since the man cave was an actual cave. 
  • I’m tired of reminding us that the number of times Jesus spoke about gender identity and sexual orientation in the Gospels—is zero.
  • I’m tired of having to explain to people that although I am a Christian, that I’m not that type of Christian; that is, the kind that is generous with damnation and stingy with grace.
  • I’m tired of LGBTQ teens cutting their forearms and jumping off buildings because they’ve been told by their church friends that God hates them, because their Christian parents told them, because their Christian pastors told them.
  • I’m tired of followers of Jesus who don’t seem interested in cracking open a book to see what we’ve learned about the brain and the body in 2,100 years, or to realize that gender identity and sexual orientation don’t equal the word “homosexuality” in the Bible.
  • I’m tired of all the time I have to spend undoing the damage the Church has done to queer kids and their families.
  • I’m tired of religious folk who seem to want small government everywhere except the bedroom and bathroom.
  • I’m tired of scientific ignorance being treated as if it’s a Christian virtue.
  • I’m tired of hearing preached verbatim the gospel of Fox News.
  • I’m tired of high-profile pastors blaming gay people for 9/11 and hurricanes and terrorism and child obesity.
  • I’m tired of waiting for you to show up in this world and actually show the freakin’ love of Jesus to people the way he did and told you to, without excuses or caveats or theological tap dancing to avoid it.
  • I’m tired of this wasteful, fruitless, mean-spirited, unprovoked, unbiblical attack on the LGBTQ community, that is squandering so much time and life and beauty in the name of a God who is supposedly Love.
  • I’m tired of so many people believing that “Christian” and “bigot” are synonymous—and not disagreeing with them.
  • I’m tired of a Church that seems to be so ambivalent toward the teachings and example of Jesus.
  • I’m tired of a Christianity that is making me more and more embarrassed to be associated with it.

My pastor friend Lia said so well: “I think about sex and gender, and indeed, all differences of race, status, and levels like this: God has given us a way to know ourselves best.  It’s in intimate relationships. … [For] it’s through intimate relationships that we learn our emotional boundaries, … how we act in stress.  We learn where we are selfish and where we are selfless.  We learn where we are lovable and where we need some work.  If we ask individuals to forsake intimate relationships, we are asking them to never fully know themselves, to never feel what it’s like to be loved and what it’s like to love.  How could God, who is love, condemn a person to live without love? “There are other options, [such as] acceptance.  We can offer acceptance to people no matter what their differences; we can embrace the idea that we are all made differently; that none of it is exactly like the other, and love is the source, the fabric, and the purpose of creation.  And, hence, love is the intention of the Creator. … Acceptance is only the first step.  Inclusion is good.  Celebration is better.  If we celebrate with our friends who come out, we are saying, ‘God didn’t make any junk.’” 

Last Tuesday I was refereeing a high school Varsity girls’ soccer match, with two other refs, Bob and Jorge. I was not the lead ref, so I didn’t have the final say.  At half time, Bob said to us, “What should we do about the boy?”  “What boy?” I said.  “The one on the blue team; he’s the captain that joined us in the center for the coin toss.”  “Uh, okay, I didn’t notice any boy with us.  How do you know that player’s gender?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.  “He’s obviously a boy,”  Bob said.  “Well it wasn’t obvious to me, and if she identifies as a girl, that’s good enough for me, and apparently for  the school too.”  “He could dominate play,” Bob said, when Jorge replied, “But she’s not.”  I thought, Good job, Jorge.  Being a kind grown-up is hard work, so we should give ourselves the grace to be 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.