Calvin College has hosted a Sexuality Series for several years now, and just this past week I had the opportunity to participate in the series and to speak on the topic of our series: Gender Dysphoria. If you would like to watch that talk, you can see it here. It will provide you with a sense for where the series is headed.
In the past several years our culture has changed dramatically in terms of popular cultural and professional acceptance of transgender persons. In the popular culture, we see this in the recent Time magazine cover and popularity of shows that have transgender characters. Our culture has in many ways moved past the afternoon television shows that capitalized on “shock and awe” in their presentations, where you might see producers orchestrate a dramatic confrontation between a male-to-female transgender person who once dated a woman and is now surprising her with her true sense of self. These colorful presentations in the media were once an expression of almost gawking at the phenomenon, but they did not reflect the cultural sea change that would soon follow.
In the professional literature, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-fifth edition (DSM-5) reflected a shift away from Gender Identity Disorder toward the use of the phrase Gender Dysphoria to reduce stigma. Actually, several steps in the new nomenclature were intended to reduce stigma. The first is the shift from an emphasis on identity as the disorder to the emphasis on the dysphoria or distress associated with the gender incongruence for many people who report it. The other was the wording to allow for someone to no longer meet criteria following a transition.
In my forthcoming book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, I define numerous key terms. Let me cover three here:
Gender dysphoria: The experience distress associated with the incongruence wherein one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex.
Transgender: An umbrella term for the many ways in which people might experience and/or present, express (or live out) their gender identities differently from people whose sense of gender identity is congruent with their biological sex.
Transsexual: A person who believes he or she was born in the “wrong” body (of the other sex) and wishes to transition (or has transitioned) through hormonal treatment and sex reassignment surgery.
There are expressions of what we often refer to as gender variance that would not necessarily report gender dysphoria. For example, most people who have an intersex condition (e.g., congenital adrenal hyperplasia), do not report gender dysphoria. They may have a higher incidence rate than those who do not have an intersex condition, but gender dysphoria is not a given for someone with an intersex condition. Nor would it be common for a person performing drag. That person may not even think of him or herself as transgender, and many in the transgender community would not think the transgender umbrella covers most drag kings and queens.
So it’s complicated. This is an area that requires time and patience to unpack and truly understand—and even then, we do so with humility given how much we do not know at this time. But Christians are going to need to spend some time on this topic–to spend time in careful reflection as we think about the best way to engage the broader culture while simultaneously considering how to come alongside people within our own Christian communities who are navigating this terrain.
As I bring this post to a close, I want to point out that there has been one study published of male-to-female transgender Christians. My research team conducted this study a couple of years ago. It was a study that addressed gender identity and religious identity in terms of personal faith, God, and the local church. Perhaps surprisingly, some transgender Christians shared that their gender dysphoria led to a strengthening of their personal faith; others reported a past struggle with their faith, and still others left the organized religion with which they grew up. For some, the challenges they faced brought them closer to God, but others reported a strained relationship with God because of their gender dysphoria. What was particularly common were past conflict with the local church community or the persons and leaders who represent these organizations. I’m sure I’ll come back to this study in a future post, but needless to say, it provides an interesting perspective on the topic.
Most people approach this topic with one question in mind: What are you for (and what are you against) in terms of resolution? I have not found this question to be exceedingly helpful over the years I’ve worked with gender dysphoric persons. As I’ve mentioned previously, it is unclear to me at this time that there is any one outcome that is ultimately satisfying to everyone who has a stake in these discussions. It is such a rare condition that we little good research from which to draw strong conclusions, and I have known people who felt gender dysphoria so strongly that they felt that nothing less than their sanity and their life was at stake. They desperately sought a resolution to a dysphoria that caused them significant distress and impairment. This is not an argument that they then should pursue the most invasive procedures, but I can understand and empathize with that decision, as painful as it often is. Rather than reject the person facing such conflicts, the Christian community would do well to recognize the conflict and try to work with the person to find a path. There is an opportunity here to learn much more than we know at present, and we would do well to enter into the discussion with patience and humility, as we balance multiple perspectives on how best to resolve what people often report to be an impossible situation.