I have recently had a number of pastors consult with me about the reality of transgender persons. I would be the first to say how limited I am in navigating this complex topic. However, I am very grateful for a number of trans people and those living with the reality of intersexuality who have graciously and generously shared some of their journey and life with me. It seems that this modest relational engagement is head and shoulders ahead of many Christians who have next to no personal interaction with those for whom these are personal realities. My heart in raising this topic at all is to articulate my conviction that we must create and nurture safe and hospitable space for trans and intersex individuals to explore and grow in faith. We need to create space within our own hearts to receive the gifts that they offer to the Body of Christ. And we, as followers of Jesus who went to the margins and drew people in, need to be at the forefront of educating and confronting hurtful stereotypes and assumptions. And we need to remind ourselves in the church that coercion is inconsistent with the way of Jesus who was always invitational. We need to give people the freedom and space to own their own journey with Christ and to exerience in God’s perfect timing the ways the Holy Spirit would prompt them to grow in surrender and obedience. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a retired teacher in his 70’s. He’d lived his whole life with an unsettling sense of ambiguity and confusion despite having married and adopted children. He was finally diagnosed with an intersex condition in his 60’s. He told me of speaking with a leader in his church who simplistically admonished him to, “Pick a gender and then live faithfully in the boundaries of that.” While on the surface, this might not seem to be such terrible advice, I could feel the pain and sense of dismissal and lack of validation this person experienced. So I think our first posture in fostering hospitable space is the crucial necessity of humility. If you’ve never experienced the agonizing dissonance of gender ambiguity or disconnection, then you are best to humbly listen to the stories and realities that such individuals offer. They are not your problem to fix – they are human beings, loved by God, invited to find their life and identity in him. When I think of the parable that Jesus told about leaving the 99 sheep to go find the one who was lost, I am encouraged to speak up for the one half of one percent of the population who are facing significant gender dissonance. They may be few in number, you may not know anyone personally who lives with this reality, but they are loved children of God none-the-less. The reason I have brought intersexuality and trans individuals together is that it seems to me that understanding the reality of intersexuality may help Christians try to wrap their brain around the reality of trans people. Which is not to say that every trans person is living with the reality of an intersex condition (or that everyone who is intersex is seeking to make some kind of transition) – but understanding that within our very physiological make-up there can be ambiguity of biological sex, can help us to consider that there may also be physiological factors that lead to a disconnection between biological sex and experience of gender. Consider this: “People who have what are now controversially referred to as disorders of sex development, or DSD. They include a variety of conditions with numerous variations, which can be inherited or occur as spontaneous mutations. People with the condition may have irregular chromosomes: XXY for example, instead of the typical XX (female) or XY (male) set. The genes on the chromosomes may be defective. The work that hormones do, shaping male and female sex organs, may be impeded. Occasionally, environmental factors can affect sex development.” The simplistic response of, “God doesn’t make mistakes” doesn’t account for the kind of complexity that clearly evident in such conditions. The idea that people simply choose to rebelliously live a transgender ‘lifestyle’ fails to consider the potential of physiological influence or the anguish and rejection that the journey of transition will entail. To suggest that gender transition is sexual immorality would seem to reveal a lack of understanding of the distinction between gender and sexual identity. In the realm of drag queens and transvestite fetishes the realities for transgender people are clouded by the often sensationalistic overlap of gender and sexual behaviour. The Christian trans people I know make a very clear distinction between feeling compelled to make a gender transition and any kind of connection with boundary-pushing sexual behaviour. Some, in fact, have stayed faithful within their covenant relationship even through the challenges of transition. Recently Caryn, an M to F trans person who has stayed married to her spouse for more than 30 years, shared on my FB page that she has found herself, “Longing for a sexual aspect to life again. Some TS lose all sex drive and I appear to belong to that group. Eerie. I miss it some days. I mean, Bon is a wonderful wife, and I adore her… but I watch myself becoming more and more only her friend, and unable to be attracted to her (or anyone else for that matter). I find myself in a grief cycle over such a ‘death’… this should happen when I am 80, not 54. I suppose, such is the sadness of the sins of the Fall of Man.” If ever there was an experience that demanded a willingness to live with mystery, I would suggest that gender difference falls near the top of the list. Most of us, I think, need to accept that this is so far out of our realm of experience that we can’t hope to really understand what it feels like to navigate this difficult journey. At various points in my life I have dealt with feeling at odds with my gender. I was a kid who tried to fulfill the identity of a son for my dad – and when my only brother was born when I was 12 I no longer knew who I was. And when I was a young adult, I had the experience of feeling misplaced as a woman called into ministry in a church context that only invited men into pastoral roles. While these experiences brought turmoil into my life, I cannot imagine the degree to which some of my trans friends have struggled. I cannot imagine living with the pressure and exhaustion of feeling like I was living a lie within myself. I cannot truly imagine what it would be like to feel that my only choice is to transition or kill myself. And I, for one, will not sit in the seat of judgment or suggests that an individual at that kind of cross-roads just hasn’t worked through their issues. That may be true in some cases. But in other cases, it might not be remotely accurate or helpful – because the individual has sought help through therapy, prayer, inner healing ….. and still lives with what seems to be a deeply hard-wired dissonance in their sense of gender identity. I’m not content with validating people’s discomfort simply on the basis of their own anxiety and unfamiliarity – as understandable as those feelings might be. In fact, I find my patience running very thin when I encounter this kind of knee jerk response. Yes, this is challenging to understand and relate to …. But for the sake of Jesus and in the name of Jesus, get to know the real human being behind some imposed label or issue. Listen to the story of faith in their heart. Listen to their journey. Listen, learn and love. That won’t answer all the questions. It won’t answer a question like leadership roles in the church. But these are so rarely the issue. Most often the issue is simply creating a safe place of hospitality where relationships can be experienced, where growth can happen, and where love can be given and received. And this is completely consistent with the person and ministry of Jesus. If there is any convicting that needs to happen, as I say so often on this blog, the Holy Spirit is more than able to do his job. At the end of the day, humility also needs to extend to the realm of admonitions around Scripture. The one text that seems connected to these complex realities is Deuteronomy 22:5 “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.” What does this text mean for a gender variant person wrestling with their identity? How much is this text influenced by cultural notions of gender and the deep aversion to a man being denigrated to the role of the lower class of women …. or a woman presuming to elevate herself to the privileged status of a man? How much might this have referred to those who used this practice as a sexual fetish and a way for sexual release? Given views around sex and procreation is it possible that the idea of not wasting seed was a sense of the motivation behind this text? What would seem quite clear is that this single text was penned by someone who had no concept of the kind of gender identity complexity we are just beginning to articulate today. This doesn’t lessen the reality that the Scripture’s author was inspired by the Holy Spirit – but it does remind us that the Holy Spirit inspired a text for a specific people of a specific time – and we are challenged to discern how that applies to the trans or intersex person today. And I’m just not sure it is as cut and dried as many paint it out to be. Some time ago I had some correspondence with a person who believed they were intersex. This individual wanted a platform from which to share their story. I explained that we were not in a position to offer any significant level of platform (because we don’t have one other than our online presence) nor did we have the resources to produce a DVD resource based on their story. However, the individual was invited to submit their story in written form to be considered for use on our online sites. This apparently wasn’t satisfactory. Since then, I’ve noticed that this individual has commented on another blog pronouncing that I gave them a resounding “NO” when they requested to share their story. I found this disappointing. Intersexuality and transgender realities are not something we want to shy away from – even as we acknowledge limitations in our understanding of these topics. We think these are really important realities for the church to wrestle with – and to ultimately make the decision that we need to prioritize hospitality and relational engagement in a humble posture. This goal will be accelerated when intersex and trans people who are followers of Jesus model a maturity that is consistent with the fruits of the Spirit. While a chip on the shoulder is totally understandable – it won’t ultimately help change the hearts of those who currently want to hold gender variant people at arm’s length. I want to include this drop in the bucket post with such an example of maturity. My friend Caryn expressed recently in her FB status that she and her wife Bon,
“held an in-process meeting with the pastor and asst pastor. They updated us on the concerns of the elders. Building a bridge requires honest communication. The Spirit told me to offer that I remove myself from helping the homeless on Wed. nights. They agreed that the offer was wise. Building a bridge is costly. After 2 hours of chatting, we left. Building a bridge takes time Patience, listening, tears in the car, recovering in the evening. Bonnie and I just hung out with each other, softly chatting. Recalling our history is extraordinarily painful, many scars have never healed, and we have yet to fully ‘forget the past and press towards the future’. I still have some bitterness over the church-people refusing to pray for my friend with cancer (she died shortly thereafter) or wishing the ‘tough youth’ by the trash cans would go away (I kept them company in winter). I still remember the pastor that scolded me for my lack of spirituality, and I replied, “Tell me the names of those that have lived in your basement” – and he went silent, for he knew Bonnie’s and my years of allowing others to live with us. But Bonnie longs to heal in her relationship with our Lord, and it seems at this time, that this church will be part of that healing balm. So, having already been ‘scolded’ by one elder for ‘having drug my family through all this’, I wonder… can I withstand the inevitable attacks? Can I focus on the opportunity and not the offense? Can I have the patience needed to let the anger and repulsion (towards the trans-community) come boiling to the surface so that it can be addressed by the pastor and asst pastor? Can I bless the few that curse me, and be willing to accept the love that appears to be flowing from some of the elders and/or pastor? May my Lord Jesus fill me with love overflowing so that every offensive look or jab is never felt and always receives a blessing in return.”
Oh that everyone in the church prayed for that kind of patience and Christ-likeness! If you would like to read more of Caryn’s writings, you can check out her website here.