Faith and Gender Dysphoria

Many transgendered folk are also people of faith. This creates substantial conflicts. I am a Christian. Christianity comes in many forms, from the tub-thumping fundamentalist evangelical to the liberal who is barely distinguishable from a secular humanist. However, for most Christians, the authority of Biblical teaching in matters of life and morality will be respected. It is, I think, significant that the Bible says next to nothing about transgender issues and barely any more about same-sex relationships. In contrast, it says a very great deal about wealth – in particular, the evil caused by the pursuit of wealth – and charity. Many of those who are quickest to condemn those of us who identify as gay or trans are also those with the most profoundly unbiblical attitudes to the accumulation of wealth.

I think it is inevitable that people of faith will be morally conservative. “Anything goes” is never likely to be the catchphrase of somebody steeped in Biblical teaching. Nevertheless, the straightforward teaching of the New Testament is that salvation comes through faith in Christ and not through the observance of the Law. A significant body of Pauline teaching is devoted to this matter: we are saved by grace (ie. by an act of God) and not through works (by being pious). Jesus was disliked by pious religious folk who, according to the Gospels, labelled him “the friend of prostitutes and sinners”, and a really Biblical test for a church would thus be to ask whether a prostitute would feel welcome there. In this context, it is significant to note the treatment in the media of the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farren. Repeatedly asked by the media to say whether being gay was or was not a sin, he maintained that the Bible says we are all sinners. While the New Testament talks about the “acts of the sinful nature”, it does not provide us with a numbered list of sins. Farren was right to be reluctant to do this, especially because, as he pointed out, it really is not the job of politicians to define right and wrong. And for the record, he voted in Parliament in favour of civil partnerships and then some years later in favour of gay marriage – so his actions hardly speak of bigotry.

But for all that the New Testament does not wrap us in detailed lists of moral injunctions, Christians are unlikely to think, as I said, that “anything goes”, and for those of us who are trans, there will have been much soul-searching about how we square our gender identity with out faith. For fundamentalist evangelicals, who may be content for Franklin Graham to pocket $800k per annum from charitable donations and preach at the inauguration of President Pussy-Grabber, wearing a frock is a no-no. The verse which settles the matter is Deuteronomy 22:5, “a woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God”.

Evangelicalism has been given a really bad name by the mad fundamentalist types we find in the Bible Belt in the USA. Its history is more noble, however, beginning in the Methodist movement, which rejected the established church for its conservatism and for being so much a part of maintaining the status quo in eighteenth century British society. Methodism, with its strong emphasis on charity, was intimately connected with the growth of the Labour movement in the UK. Even today, the fundamentalists at the lunatic fringe who are so good at getting into the headlines through exhibitions of bigotry do not represent the majority of evangelical Christians. Although it is true that many are deeply conservative, it is notable that thinking evangelicals in the US are beginning to speak out from a socially liberal perspective about many issues. These include climate change – some evangelicals see the creation narrative in Genesis as a mandate to care for the Earth and campaign against its destruction through greed – and social issues (for example, New York pastor Tim Keller has spoken out about issues of social marginalisation and racial discrimination).

Mark Yarhouse is an evangelical psychologist whose clinical work focuses on sexual and gender identity. He has made a brave and ground-breaking attempt to try to grapple thoughtfully and sensitively with these issues from an evangelical perspective. His book, “Understanding Gender Dysphoria”, was for me a revelation. It demonstrated understanding of what it is to have gender dysphoria, and sensitivity to the feelings and conflicts common to all trans folk. But in particular, it recognised the challenges experienced by trans people of faith. I have sought long and hard for an understanding of my innate sense of femininity that is faithful to the teaching of the Bible as well as congruent with my rational analysis (and developing a rational understanding of all of this without resolving questions of faith is difficult enough). Searching for a Christian perspective, I have found on the one hand many evangelicals who are quick to judge and to condemn, and in whom I find compassion to be lacking; and on the other, many liberals who seem too quick to abandon the Bible (which whether evangelical or not, occupies a position of importance in the faith of most Christians).

Yarhouse’s book begins by exploring frequently-quoted Biblical passages, although given the context in a comparatively brief book he does not offer a thoroughgoing theological treatise. Yarhouse concludes that he is “unconvinced that [these verses] alone provide the final word on the experiences of gender dysphoric persons” (p. 34). He then proceeds to examine “the four acts of the Biblical drama” – the creation, the fall, redemption and glorification. He concludes that “there is a need to balance key doctrines about personhood with each of [these] four acts…sexual difference is from creation and has been a part of Christian thought as ontologically significant and in some ways a living parable about the relationship between God and his people” (p. 45). This is an important theological stand, and it will divide Yarhouse from those who might approach gender dysphoria from a theologically liberal perspective: his starting point is not that “anything goes”. However, neither is it the end of the argument.

Yarhouse proceeds to consider different frameworks for understanding gender identity concerns from a Christian perspective. He begins with what he calls “the integrity” framework, “the primary (or even exclusive) lens for most evangelical Christians”. This is the idea that God created male and female; thus to be transgendered challenges the “essential maleness” and “essential femaleness” created by God (p. 46).

Against this he sets the “disability framework”: the recognition that in our world, conditions exist as “nonmoral realities” (p. 48) that do not easily fit into the categories defined by the integrity framework. This would apply to physical disability – not identified in Genesis as part of God’s creation plan – and to psychological disorders. Many transgendered folk are prickly about the term “disorder” because, they say, it implies that by definition gender dysphoria is something that should not be. Indeed, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the America  Psychiatric Association now identifies gender dysphoria as well as gender identity disorder. However, I am relaxed about the distinction. For me at least, being transgendered has created distress in the past (the definition of a disorder is a condition that causes distress) even if it does not do so now that I have become reconciled to being trans. For all that trans people may be sensitised to the word “disorder”, it is theologically important to note that disorders exist as non-moral realities because it changes the dynamic of the conversation in a radical way. A disorder is not a choice, it is something that is irrespective of the decisions made by the person who expresses the disorder.

Finally, Yarhouse discusses the “diversity framework” (p. 50). He identifies a weak and a strong form. In the weak form, transgender issues reflect identity and a sense of community, and diversity is celebrated. However, in the strong form, which Yarhouse is uncomfortable with, sex and gender are regarded as purely social constructs. I have great sympathy with this, irrespective of any theological considerations. My scientific training leads me to believe that biological sex is determined by chromosomes and hormones, and I do not believe (as I have written on another page) that gender identity can exist independently of a body. That gender is in some sense at least biologically determined is surely demonstrated by the need of many trans people to receive treatment through hormones and surgery. Thus whether we call it a disorder or not, having gender dysphoria is at root about a dissonance between the self-perception of the psyche and the biological sex of its body.

Yarhouse is sympathetic to the diversity framework, although many evangelicals would not be. However, he notes that as a Christian, any one of these frameworks deployed in isolation will “likely be an inadequate response”. After a discussion of the nature and phenomenology of gender dysphoria (which my wife, having very little knowledge of the condition, found to be very informative and which I found to be well-balanced), Yarhouse proceeds to apply his three frameworks to explore issues surrounding transgender folk in a church context. I believe that many liberal Christians will find his guiding principles too restrictive; recognising the integrity framework does entail rejecting the notion that gender is purely a social construct. However, Yarhouse strives to avoid offering simplistic rules of thumb, and repeatedly stresses the importance of navigating sensitively through the multiple paths that are often open to churches and pastors. Particularly helpful is distinction between a traditional evangelical approach (behave > believe > belong) and the missional church model (belong > believe > behave): Jesus, “the friend of prostitutes and sinners” exemplified the latter approach, and the former seems to deny what ought to be the cornerstone of evangelical Christianity – salvation through faith not through works.

In summary, Yarhouse’s book most certainly does not assert that “anything goes”. In that sense it may be regarded by many as too conservative. But to me, it reprsents a very important milestone with its understanding, compassion and resolute determination not to judge or condemn. It provides a model for beginning to navigate a path through the complex challenge of being a transgendered person of faith.