Reviews

What Transgender People Need from Conservative Christians

We’ll never reach them with biblical truth without first understanding their experiences.
What Transgender People Need from Conservative Christians
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Back in February, a juvenile court judge in Hamilton County, Ohio, pronounced a stunning ruling in the history of American family law. Judge Sylvia Sieve Hendon awarded the grandparents of a transgender 17-year-old boy (i.e., an individual who was born female but understands himself to be male) permanent custody of their grandchild because the child’s parents would not permit the teenager to begin hormone treatment, citing religious objections. The child had been placed in temporary legal custody of Hamilton County Job and Family Services after a 2016 hospitalization for depression and anxiety had resulted in a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Many details remain sealed by court order, but enough information has been released to suggest that the tragic circumstances of the case might perhaps have been avoidable had the parents responded differently.

Today, most experts estimate that transgender people account for about 0.5 percent of the population, which means that an average church congregation of 200 people likely contains at least one person who experiences gender dysphoria. For this reason, evangelicals should pay attention to two recent books that address transgender ideology from a conservative perspective, holding that God has created human beings in his own image, as male and female (Gen. 1:27). The two books are God and the Transgender Debate: What the Bible Says about Gender Identity by Andrew Walker, the director of policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Catholic public policy expert Ryan T. Anderson.

Applying the Bible

In God and the Transgender Debate, Walker has a very specific goal: to provide “a book for … people who want to consider what the Bible says about transgenderism, how that applies to situations they’ll likely face, and, possibly, what that means for the struggles they or their loved ones are experiencing now.” Over the course of 150 pages, Walker guides the reader through three discussions that he hopes will achieve this goal: an orienting discussion, a forming discussion, and an applying discussion.

In his orienting discussion, Walker acclimates readers to the current conversation about transgender experience by surveying the current ideological landscape. According to Walker, understanding “how we got where we are” (the title of chapter 2) is an important first step to knowing how to apply Scripture to the dilemma posed by transgender experience. In particular, he highlights the rise of moral relativism in society, the fading of Christendom, extreme individualism, the role of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and a rejection of the physical meaning of the body.

Walker’s second discussion proposes an understanding of transgender experience that aligns with biblical teaching on gender and sexuality. These chapters are central to the purpose of the book, and Walker is deliberate in the way he steers this discussion. Beginning with a chapter on decision-making, he points out that people often arrive at opposing conclusions on a matter when they have different beliefs about the ultimate source of authority, knowledge, and trustworthiness. Walker then unpacks this basic point over the course of the next several chapters, which examine the biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption.

Walker’s final discussion shifts from theory to application, as he tackles a variety of thorny questions. First comes a broad exploration of what is involved in showing love to transgender people. For example, Walker claims that “love promotes dignity,” pointing out that transgender people are divine image-bearers who are worthy of respect and honor. Subsequent chapters discuss how to offer spiritual encouragement to someone experiencing gender dysphoria, how to talk with children about transgender people, and how churches can play a beneficial role. A final chapter explores a variety of challenging situations that Christians might potentially encounter.

Several elements of God and the Transgender Debate may prove helpful. In a passing comment in the opening chapter, Walker makes the point that one good result of the sexual revolution is that people who experience gender dysphoria are now able to look for help within society at large. Although I think he overstates the point (in many communities it is still unsafe to acknowledge that one experiences gender dysphoria, let alone to adopt a transgender identity), the general idea is accurate. I also appreciated a point Walker made in his chapter on creation when he highlights that Christians have perpetuated stereotypes about gender that are just as unbiblical as stereotypes found in secular society. These harmful attitudes make life confusing for gender and sexual minorities whose personality, behavior, or preferences don’t match the right stereotype.

Finally, Walker appropriately laments how transgender individuals have been hurt by the church. He even acknowledges having personally failed to “deliberately, prayerfully and thoughtfully [extend] respect, empathy, compassion, and patience to everyone, equally, and indiscriminately.” Walker expresses a similar sentiment in a different discussion about why the church should be the first place people who experience gender dysphoria go to find help. His own words are worth repeating at length:

Too often, our churches have been anything but [places where people know they are loved, even if they disagree]—and that is something that Christians, including me, need to say sorry for. If you’re struggling with gender dysphoria and have found church unwelcoming, distant, judgmental or harsh when you have sought to open up, then there is a huge problem—and it’s not yours; it’s the church’s. And I’m sorry.

Only when the church is characterized by a humble repentance for the ways it has failed LGBT people in the past will LGBT people be able to receive the love that we claim we want to show them.

Despite these important strengths, God and the Transgender Debate also contains some unfortunate—and potentially significant—weaknesses. For example, I was disappointed by the book’s almost complete lack of personal anecdotes involving actual transgender people. Gender or sexual minorities are often wary when people who don’t share our experience attempt to explain “what the Bible says” about people like us, or “how Christians can love” people like us, or “what to do” in this or that situation involving people like us. As a sexual minority (I’m a gay man married to a straight woman), I want to know that the person making such statements actually understands me and my experience or has at least tried to understand. Personal anecdotes from Walker about his interactions with transgender friends—or about his experience in providing pastoral care for individuals with gender dysphoria—would have reassured gender and sexual minorities that he knows their experiences well enough to apply the gospel wisely and carefully.

Similarly, God and the Transgender Debate demonstrated scant awareness of LGBT culture (or transgender culture in particular). If believers want to live out the gospel in love for transgender people, we need to be good missionaries and educate ourselves about their culture. There is a world of difference between understanding the spiritual significance of transgender experience and understanding transgender people themselves. Unfortunately, Walker seems unaware that understanding LGBT culture can go a long way in equipping people to contextualize the gospel for the sake of transgender people.

To be sure, Walker’s willingness to acknowledge a history of wrongdoing within his own spiritual tradition is worth noting. At the same time, younger readers might wonder whether Walker’s is a trustworthy voice, especially when they know flesh-and-blood LGBT people who have their own compelling life narratives.

Gender and Embodiment

Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally is a very different kind of book. While God and the Transgender Debate is primarily directed toward the average evangelical Christian and has a specific pastoral goal in mind, When Harry Became Sally rarely appeals to any explicitly Christian beliefs or doctrine. (Anderson’s “natural law” approach is popular in Roman Catholic circles, but it might seem foreign to evangelical readers who are used to seeing references to Scripture in discussions on theology and ethics.)

When Harry Became Sally is also far more wide-ranging in its subject matter. Anderson states that his book is “an effort to provide a nuanced view of our sexed embodiment, a balanced approach to policy issues involving transgender identity and gender more broadly, and a sober and honest survey of the human costs of getting human nature wrong.” And in general, I believe that he has succeeded. Anderson weaves discussions about gender and embodiment in and throughout many sections of the book, and he brings solid theological truth to bear in striking a balance between “essentialist” and “constructionist” accounts of gender identity. His arguments about public policy are rigorous and versatile. And he draws attention to the kinds of tragedies that can result when society loses its respect for the created constraints of human nature.

Anderson maintains an energetic tone throughout the book, continually drawing the reader’s attention to relevant implications of his arguments. Unfortunately, this energetic tone sometimes can come across as tendentious, particularly when Anderson is discussing the work of activists with whom he disagrees. For example, an early section of the book suggests that a liberal organization is merely out for “bragging rights.” In a similar vein, he sometimes relies on blanket statements to summarize his main points, such as, “[Transgender activists] are always changing their creed and expanding their demands,” or “Even as their own position shifts, the activists are absolutely closed off to contrary evidence.” Framing his conclusions this way creates the unfortunate impression that Anderson himself might not understand the concerns of transgender activists and therefore might be incapable of reasoning with them.

The arguments in When Harry Became Sally are heavily documented in 28 pages of endnotes. Among his sources are newspaper articles; legal documents (including the text of actual laws); academic journal articles from the fields of psychology, public policy, gender theory, and theology; official documents from court proceedings; articles on popular websites like The Atlantic and National Geographic; and classic feminist texts (such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics), among many others.

Finally, a word must be said about the title. It is, quite simply, inappropriate to make light of the deeply personal decision that many transgender people make to transition out of the gender of their birth. From a transgender person’s perspective, riffing on the film When Harry Met Sally will sound every bit as tone-deaf as variations on the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” theme sound to gay people. It brings conservatives no respect in the public arena, and it certainly doesn’t represent the missional priorities of the kingdom of God. When we represent Christ in the public square, we need to avoid laying down stumbling blocks to those we would persuade.

Content and Process

Though both of these books address critically important questions that many Christians are asking, it’s possible that neither of these books is exactly what they really need. To understand how this can be the case, it’s important to distinguish between the concepts of “content” and “process.” For example, when attempting to understand a phenomenon like gender dysphoria or transgender experience, Walker takes a “content” approach; in other words, he assumes that the only essential parts of the discussion are those that explain the spiritual significance behind experiences of gender dysphoria. Likewise, Anderson takes a “content” approach to the task of discerning how an understanding of human nature should affect public policy. Content-only approaches are more concerned with telling the right story about a phenomenon than with understanding the actual experience of those affected by the phenomenon.

Evangelicals are learning important lessons about the shortcomings of content-only approaches in other conversations. For example, a content-only approach to abortion emphasizes the paramount importance of protecting the inherent dignity and value of embryonic human life, but it often fails to acknowledge the very real difficulties and challenges that many women face when they discover they’re pregnant. Today, most evangelicals recognize that being anti-abortion also means supporting programs that promote the welfare of unmarried pregnant women, poor pregnant women, and other disadvantaged women. How did this consensus develop? By learning how to ask how specific groups of women are affected by the experience of pregnancy.

Likewise, I believe that a similar adjustment must take place in evangelical conversation about transgender experience. As we commit ourselves to listening to actual transgender people and taking their experiences seriously, we’ll be better equipped to apply biblical wisdom to the specific circumstances of their lives.

Nate Collins is the president and founder of Revoice and author of All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality(Zondervan).

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What Transgender People Need from Conservative Christians