The conversation about transgender identities is about people – people who identify as trans*, many of whom experience gender dysphoria, people whom we should listen to, learn from, and love.1 The conversation also involves concepts – concepts about human nature, the body/mind relationship, masculinity and femininity, and what it means to be male or female or intersex.
I’ve spent the last several years interacting with both trans* people and the relevant concepts in this discussion. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be trans* from personal experience, and that puts me at a significant disadvantage in helping others understand trans* experiences. But I have learned a lot from my friends, and I’ve tried to wrestle with the conceptual aspects of this conversation. I’m still growing in my understanding and still have much to learn. At this point in my journey – and it is a journey – here are five main things I feel every Christian should know about the trans* conversation.
1. Trans* people are people, not issues
This should go without saying, and it’s almost insulting to have to say it. Obviously, trans* people are people and not issues, or debates, or policies. Unfortunately, some people are so focused on the latter – policies around bathrooms and such – that this obvious point needs to be said. Now, there are several ideas being promoted among some voices in the the trans* conversation that I’m concerned about. And there’s a place for standing against certain ideologies that go against a Christian worldview and ultimately harm people. But we need to make sure we’re not shunning and shaming trans* people in the process.
Trans* people are people. Wise, beautiful, valuable people who are created in God’s image and therefore, worthy of dignity and respect.
Trans* people are people. Wise, beautiful, valuable people who are created in God’s image and therefore, worthy of dignity and respect. People who aren’t just needy – who isn’t? – but needed. If Christians simply grumble about the latest bill or bathroom policy and don’t take the time to get to know, listen to, learn from, and love trans* people, then we fail to embody the presence of Christ as we ought.
Posture is crucial in this conversation. As Christians, we already have many strikes against us. We’re known for being judgmental, hypocritical, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-this, anti-that. Jesus was against many things, but somehow, he had a reputation of being for people.
It’s easy to get upset at the latest news headline or political event; outrage comes naturally. But outrage doesn’t change the world. Love changes the world. Our truth will not be heard until our grace is felt, because the greatest apologetic for truth is love. We need less outrage and more outrageous love.
2. Sex is different from gender
Sex and gender are the two most important concepts in this conversation. Until we understand what sex and gender mean, we’ll be lost in this conversation. Prior to the 1970s, sex and gender were used interchangeably. But people today use sex and gender to capture different aspects of the human experience.
Sex refers to biological sex, whether someone is male or female. (You can read my discussion of intersex here.) Humans, like most species, are sexually dimorphic, which means we reproduce when the gamete of one kind of human (sperm) is fused with the gamete of another kind of human (egg) to produce a new organism. The categories used to classify the respective roles humans play in reproduction are ‘male’ and ‘female’. This is all basic science and not disputed among anyone you’d want operating on you at hospital.
Gender is much more complicated. It’s a broad term that often refers to: ‘the psychological, social and cultural aspects of being male or female.’2 This can be broken down into three different sub-categories:
- Gender Identity – one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both, or neither.
- Gender Expression – how a person expresses themselves through clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc.
- Gender Role – a culture’s expectation for how males and females should act.
In the trans conversation, the primary area of focus – and much debate – is the nature of gender identity. What is it? Is it a thing, a feeling, an ontologically independent aspect of humanity? Is it a subjective sense or an objective reality? All of this is disputed among scholars and trans* people alike. Practically, the main question is this:
If someone experiences incongruence between their biological sex and their gender identity (their internal sense of self), which one determines who they are – and why?
This is not an abstract question. However you answer it will have profound relational, spiritual, and societal ramifications for people who experience such incongruence.
I spend the bulk of my book Embodied working through this question, and other related questions, and my purpose here is not to give an answer. I simply want to point out that sex and gender are crucial terms to understand – and distinguish between! – in the trans* conversation.
3. Trans* people are diverse
Trans* experiences are diverse. We cannot collapse ‘transgender’ into one neat and tidy category. Dr. Mark Yarhouse likes to say, ‘If you’ve met one transgender person, then you’ve met…one transgender person.’
Some trans* people experience gender dysphoria from a very young age while others don’t experience it until after adolescence.3 Gender dysphoria itself is quite complex. It’s mild for some, while severe for others. Some experience it their whole life, while for others, it goes away. In fact, 61-88% of children with gender dysphoria desist (meaning, the dysphoria goes away) after adolescence.4 And some trans* identified people don’t experience gender dysphoria at all. ‘[M]ore and more people who identity with the label of transgender have also found they haven’t ever felt any dysphoria at all’, says trans* writer Jessie Earl. ‘[W]e cannot let dysphoria be the only path, the price of entry, into our community.’5
Trans* experiences are diverse. We cannot collapse ‘transgender’ into one neat and tidy category.
For some biological males who experience autogynephilia – a subtype of trans* experience that’s been well-documented – gender dysphoria is linked to an erotic desire to view themselves as a woman, which is quite different from other trans* experiences that are not at all linked to an erotic desire.
Some identify as trans* because they believe they were born in the wrong body, while others might identify with their biological sex but use the term ‘trans*’ as a simple shorthand for their experience with dysphoria. Some desire to transition, while others do not. Transitioning itself is a multifaceted topic, which includes a social, hormonal, and surgical component. Some desire to transition socially, but not hormonally; others transition socially and hormonally but not surgically; some pursue all three. And some trans* people pursue none at all.
‘If you’ve met one trans* person, then…you’ve met one trans* person.’
The point is, a one-size-fits-all understanding of what it means to be trans* needs to be locked in a box and tossed into the sea. If someone says they’re trans*, all you know about the person is… they just told you they’re trans*, and an opportunity for a relationship has just plopped in your lap. You are invited to steward this opportunity well.
Being trans* is not one thing. It’s not even five things. It’s an umbrella identity that captures a wide array of circumstances and assumptions.
4. Our bodies are good
While the Bible doesn’t use the term ‘transgender’ or give explicit advice on how to live with gender dysphoria, it does have much to say about our topic. One theological point that’s very relevant is this – our sexed bodies are good. In the Bible’s opening moments, Genesis 1 declares the most fundamental truth about human identity: we are created in God’s image:
God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Whatever the image of God points to, one thing is clear: our bodies are essential to bearing God’s image.
The Hebrew word for ‘image’ is tselem, and it almost always refers to ‘idols’ throughout the Old Testament. Idols are visible representations of an invisible deity. In Genesis 1, the ‘idol’ is humanity, and the non-physical being is Yahweh. This means that ‘[v]isibility and bodiliness’ are central to the meaning of the phrase ‘image of God’.6 We are God’s idols – visible representations of God on earth. The term ‘image’ highlights human physicality, which means the most fundamental statement about human nature (we bear ‘God’s image [tselem]’) highlights our embodied nature. And not just embodied nature, but our sexed embodied nature. We bear God’s image as male and female.7
Our sexed bodies play an essential, though not exhaustive, role in determining who we are. Male and female sexed bodies do not linger on the fringes of Christian theological anthropology. ‘[W]e are made in God’s image as persons who are not completely defined by their sex, but who cannot be defined apart from their embodied sex.’8 Scripturally, biological sex is an undeniable aspect of human identity.
5. Most gender stereotypes come from culture, not the Bible
The Bible (and science) recognise two categories of biological sex – male and female. Most humans are one or the other; some might be both (intersex). Sex is binary, but gender is not. While the Bible celebrates our sex differences as male and female, it gives us tremendous freedom in how we live within our sexed bodies.
In the Bible, men often kiss other men (1 Samuel 10:1) and cry (Genesis 33:4). They are tender and called to be tenderhearted (Ephesians 4:32). They are profoundly emotional (the Psalms) and relational (1 Samuel 18:1–5). They are called to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), to love – not kill – their enemies (Matthew 5:44), to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), to raise up and teach children (Ephesians 6:4), to be sensitive (Ephesians 4:2), to be kind (Proverbs 11:17), and to be peace- makers (Matthew 5:9), if they want to truly be men.
Biblical women also defy current stereotypes. Sure, the Proverbs 31 woman is an ‘excellent wife’ (v.10) who rises up early and ‘provides food for her household’ (v.15), who makes ‘bed coverings’ and ‘linen garments’ (vv.22, 24). But then she taps into her entrepreneurial skills and sells those linen garments for a profit after she ‘considers a field and buys it’ (v.24, 16). She’s wise, hardworking, has strong arms, and engages in social justice in her spare time (v.20). Fortune 500 companies long for a CEO as qualified as the Proverbs 31 woman.
Jesus also challenged the cultural views on masculinity and femininity. Sure, he flipped over tables in the temple, but he also wept over Jerusalem and longed to ‘gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (Luke 13:34). Onlookers might have considered Jesus masculine when he chewed out the religious leaders in Matthew 23. But he also let others slap him in the face and smack him on the head, and he rarely stood up for his personal rights. Jesus as a single man of marital age, reaches out to those of lower social classes, and acts nonviolently toward his enemies – all of which were very unmasculine traits according to his surrounding culture. Jesus, in other words, supplies us with a countercultural view of masculinity.
The Bible is scientifically sound when it mentions only two sex categories – male and female. But it’s also profoundly liberating when it comes to how males and females are expected to act.
The Bible is scientifically sound when it mentions only two sex categories – male and female. But it’s also profoundly liberating when it comes to how males and females are expected to act. Stereotypes are descriptions of how many men and women behave, but they aren’t biblical prescriptions for all.
The transgender conversation is about both people and concepts. Both are important. Both are necessary. We can’t just focus on dissecting concepts without loving people, and if all we do is try to love people without understanding concepts (like sex and gender, Genesis 1:27 and the image of God, etc.), then we won’t actually love people well.
Jesus is building an upside-down kingdom where outcasts have their feet washed, the marginalised are welcomed, and dehumanised people feel humanized once again. Where truth is upheld, celebrated, and proclaimed. Where those who fall short of that truth are loved.
You can find more on this topic in Preston’s book Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church and What the Bible Has to Say (David C. Cook, 2021
- I put an asterisk after trans* as a way of including many other identities related to transgender: nonbinary, gender queer, gender fluid, etc.
- This is from Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria (IVP Academic, 2015), p.17, but is also reflected in most other scholars I’ve read.
- Gender Dysphoria is the psychological term used to describe the distress some people feel over their biological sex.
- See Paul Eddy, ‘Reflections on the Debate Concerning the Desistance Rate among Young People with Gender Dysphoria’ (Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender, 2019).
- Jessie Earl, ‘Do You Need Gender Dysphoria to Be Trans?’ Advocate. Accessed 12 February 2021. Some states in the U.S. (for example, California) and several countries (Malta, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium) have adopted self-identification as the legal basis for gender recognition. No medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria is necessary to legally change a person’s gender. See Nick Duffy, ‘California Adopts Self-ID Gender Recognition Law’, Pink News.
- Middleton, Liberating Image, (Brazos Press, 2005), p.25.
- ‘Clearly, ‘male and female’ correspond structurally to ‘the image of God,’ and this formal parallelism indicates a semantic correspondence’ (Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1978), p.17). On the importance of the connection between the image of God – specifically God’s ‘likeness’ (demut) – and humans as male and female, see W. Randall Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity and Monotheism (Brill, 2003), pp.167-69.
- Ross Hastings, ‘The Trinity and Human Sexuality: Made in the Image of the Triune God’, CRUX 54, no. 2 (2018), 10-24 (10).