Topical Tuesday: Transgenderism - Confusion and Compassion
Posted by Peter Ould, 16 Jun 2015
Peter Ould explores the confusing issue of gender dysphoria which has hit the headlines recently.
In the past two weeks the issue of transgenderism has been in the news. From the former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner announcing he now wants to be known as a woman, Caitlyn, to a Blackburn priest asking General Synod to consider a “new name” ceremony for those who have had an operation to change their genitalia, the subject of sex changes and those who want them is something that cannot just be ignored by churches. Many of us know people who struggle with what is clinically known as “gender dysphoria”. Some of us have members of our congregation for whom this is part of their own lives.
Gender Dysphoria is the condition where one does not believe that one’s true gender is the sex that one was born with. The term “transsexual” refers to someone who wishes to be the other sex (before or after any surgery) whereas the term “transgender” is a wider term to describe those who experience gender dysphoria. A “transvestite” by comparison is someone who dresses up in the clothes of the opposite sex, but most transvestites do not wish to physically become the opposite sex and are not transgender in any meaningful sense. Add into the mix those who are “intersex”, whose genitalia may not fit male or female norms or who have an extra sex chromosome, and the myriad of complexities around sexual identity become apparent.
The Evangelical church’s response to Gender Dysphoria is mixed and has historically been a little bit knee-jerk. A traditional narrative has been that the Genesis texts show us that God made humans male and female, that these are the sexual identities we should accept and that transgenderism is a rebellion against that natural order. This might at first glance appear an easy theology to hold to, but the Scriptures don’t really give us as much guidance in this area as they do around sexual behaviour where the case for chastity within and outside of marriage is clear. If we believe in a fallen world, is transgenderism a sign of sinful rejection of God’s order or evidence that for some people their sex has been corrupted and is as broken as other aspects of being human today? If that is the case, might it actually be a foreshadowing of heavenly perfection to align someone’s sex with “how it should be”? We allow doctors to mend broken legs, why not broken sexes?
Well perhaps not. The pioneer of sex change surgery is now of the opinion it shouldn’t be done and there is an increasing body of research that shows that mental health outcomes do not improve post surgery. Of course, someone who has been through a sex change (commonly referred to as “post-op”) still has the same sex chromosomes as before and needs to be on hormone treatment for the rest of their life.
Regardless, those in our congregations who struggle with this issue primarily need our compassion – often they have kept this part of their life a secret for years and church is seen as a safe space to be vulnerable. That vulnerability needs to be honoured and safe-guarded, not punished and protected against.
One final thought – it’s rather ironic that those who most loudly support the right of individuals to change their sex are also often vitriolic in their denial of others’ right to try seek therapeutic help to modify their unwanted sexual desires. At the same time however, if some reading this believe that sexual orientation can be altered to bring it in line with what God intends, why are we so upset when others try to “correct” their sex to come into line with who they believe God intended them to be? This comparison between the two attempts to “correct a mistake” requires more careful thought.
For those who want to learn more, Dr Mark Yarhouse has a new book out on this subject which is well worth a read. In the meantime, this article by him on the issue will help you explore more of the subtleties involved in pastoring in this area.
Peter Ould is a Church of England minister and consultant statistician who speaks and writes about sex and sexual identity issues. He has a blog at peter-ould.net.
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