Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon

A little while ago Christianity Today approached me about writing a lead article on Gender Dysphoria. A presentation I gave on the topic caught someone’s attention, and there was interest in a reflection on the topic from a distinctly Christian perspective. The article I wrote was posted on-line recently and will be in the July/August print edition. Here is a quote on not equating management of gender dysphoria with faithfulness:

…Christians are to facilitate communities in which we are all challenged to grow as disciples of Christ. We can be sensitive, though, not to treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness. Some may live a gender identity that reflects their biological sex, depending on their discomfort. Others may benefit from space to find ways to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort. And of course, no matter the level of discomfort someone with gender dysphoria experiences (or the degree to which someone identifies with the opposite sex), the church will always encourage a personal relationship with Christ and faithfulness to grow in Christlikeness.

I hope you will consider reading the article. It is not long, which actually carries risks when writing about something as complex as gender dysphoria. But I discuss the three lenses I wrote about here. If you want more details on any of that, let me encourage you to pick up Understanding Gender Dysphoria, as I dedicate a chapter to these different lenses, and then I draw on an integrated framework throughout the rest of the book as I get into responses to the person and at more of an institutional level.

14 thoughts on “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon

  1. I thought your article was excellent. One comment about the integrity lens. I’ve read trans individuals state that integrity was why they had to transition. They felt it was dishonest to present in a way that was not congruent with their identity. Joy Ladin is one example.

    • Thanks, Erica. I don’t mean to imply that trans individuals (or adherents of the diversity lens or the disability lens, for that matter) do not have integrity or do not experience the decision to transition as an act of integrity. I was trying to use a word that reflected the language of adherents of what I refer to as the integrity lens. It is a word (along with sacred) used by a theologian who sees from that lens. Thanks again for your comment.

      • Hi Mark, I understand why you used the word integrity and I didn’t take it as a slight. I think we’re both using the definition of “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished” vs “adherence to moral and ethical principles;” I think it’s interesting that people on opposite sides want trans people to be “whole”, Maybe it’s more a misunderstanding of what being trans is vs. a misunderstanding of what the Bible says that leads to disagreement. Thanks again for writing such an excellent article.

    • I too found the word “integrity” to be problematic here. It is confusing because many trans folk use “integrity” differently:

      Some do think of it in a lie vs. truth sense.

      For myself (I’m a trans woman), I think of integrity (and “authenticity”) in terms of growth: I was never lying to people about myself. I have always been 100%, as much myself as my circumstances allowed. Yet, I have grown considerably in my understanding of myself, the way I communicate that to others, and the way I express myself.

      Who I was was not a lie anymore than a seed lies about the form of plant that will eventually shoot forth. And this colors how I regard my self, then and now. Some transsexuals see themselves as dying and being reborn (and this is a useful perspective). I tend to see myself as having become through *growth* into who I am now (growing into who I will be tomorrow). It’s not a mistake and it’s not a deception and it’s not yet finished: it is my lifelong path into God’s fullness.

      At the same time, people are able to see more clearly who I know myself to be. For much of my life, the windows into my soul were smoky and crazed, and Jesus shined through with some difficulty. Now, the glass is being cleaned, and it is revealed to be in lovely stained hues with filigree designs, and Jesus’ light shines forth with far greater clarity and glory than before.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brettany Renee. I can appreciate the reasons for experiencing the word “integrity” as problematic. I hope my explanation (to Erica above) gets at what I was trying to do.

  2. Hi Mark, appreciated your explanation via the 3 lenses. On the diversity lens, you state: “Yet we should reject the teaching that gender identity conflicts are the result of willful disobedience or sinful choice.” I think there is a word missing in your statement. Shouldn’t it read: “…are NOT NECESSARILY the result of willful disobedience or sinful choice.” Here is my reasoning: in our sex-crazed culture, we all watch movies and interact via multiple forms of media with current culture…in the process our Christian “sensitivities” or moral underpinnings get undermined more and more so that we watch or listen to talk and pictures of aberrant sexual activities with increasing acceptance: that’s just the way it is, can’t watch many films, talkshows, etc. without some reference to current forms of sexual expression. Now a person exposing themselves willfully, even as a believer, over long periods of time, to such material, at least in some cases enters the realm of temptation to actually engage at least in part in some of those activities that have been watched. Or not? What role does constant exposure to media play in our increased susceptibility to aberrant gender identity and sexual practice? All I am suggesting here is that at least in some cases there could be at least a measure of sinful choice, or am I just too naive in overestimating the power of media not only to REFLECT but also over time to INFLUENCE existing behaviour? Would invite your response to my concern here. Once, again, thanks for your helpful article which I read via CT.

    • You raise a good point, Walter. I can appreciate the influences you describe. I think what I see more often in clinical practice are cases in which older children and teens are told the incongruence itself is willful disobedience, and the people saying that are not (from what I can tell) identifying the influences you describe. I want to speak against that and the potential for harm, but I like and appreciate your point.

  3. Mark, I thought your article was spot-on. And thank you for taking the risks you took. How else can dialog happen?! However, today it has become a “limited access” article for CT subscribers only. Is that necessary? Is there any way that it could be posted somewhere else online? I sent the link to multiple people and a Christian ed class may use it too . . . but now we can’t read it any longer.

  4. Mark — Thank you for taking on this subject. It’s very timely in my ministry as well as relevant to the cultural developments today. I appreciate the way you are broadening viewpoints on this subject.

    I’m a Christian who experiences same sex attraction. I’m wondering if you see a distinction between the following two people: 1) a Christian who lives with the difficulty of same sex attraction while, under God’s grace, remaining faithful to His will concerning thought life and behavior and 2) a Christian who lives with the difficulty of gender dysphoria while, under God’s grace, remaining faithful to His will concerning thought life and behavior.

    I may not be picking up a nuance or I may misunderstand what I’ve read so far on your blog concerning the subject of gender dysphoria, but I’m wondering if there is something missing. It seems to me that your writing on the subject of same sex attraction advocates for a life such as Christian #1 above is pursuing. However, it seems that your writing on the subject of gender dysphoria is void of a similar advocacy of the life such as Christian #2 above is pursuing.

    Am I missing something?

  5. Hi Mark, *thank you* for writing this…

    …Actually, I had to re-read it several times, each time detaching myself a bit more and more so that I could appreciate what you were communicating. You see, I am a married, Christian woman of transgender experience.

    I’ve worked through all of these lenses with God (and beyond that to flesh-out what redemption may look like on this side of eternity, for folks like me and you).

    My first reading was very painful because, as I choose to be a plank in the bridge between the trans and Christian communities, I am personally hurt by the “Integrity” lens quite a lot (I’m on my third excommunication!).

    What really helped me was a note a dear cis friend sent to another mutual (cis) friend recently. She sent my life-long friend (who views me through the Integrity lens) your article and she compared your lenses to the classic analogy of the Three Blind Men Describing An Elephant. Each one was correct inasmuch as they could perceive, but it required all of their perspectives to realize they were describing an elephant instead of a wall, or snake or tree. This was key for me because…

    …I had painfully worked through the Integrity lens time after time, from first principles, baring myself before God in case I misunderstood Him previous times. Each time God’s Spirit brought me to the same conclusion: God’s okay with me and we’re doing this together. Each time someone I respected confronted me, I went through this agonizing process, until eventually His Spirit suggested that I could count on His promise to convict me of sin and to never let me fall away. The practical application of this is that I will listen to criticism, and open my heart to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. If I am convicted, I *will* move in repentance (as I have always been prepared to do), otherwise, I rejoice that I am being made Christlike: even through the “scandal” of my gender affirmation…

    …I’ve also worked through the “Disability” lens, and especially early-on, I needed it for my sense of legitimacy. In all likelihood I will eventually be reclassified as intersex – I am a DES (diethystilbestrol) child and my body is quite “in between” in many ways (beyond the fact that my gender identity and overall brain functioning are essentially female). YET, as part of working through my “stuff” God strongly impressed upon me He knows why I am as I am, that people might consider it a birth or developmental *defect*, but that it was intended to be this way for His glory…

    …Most recently, I have come to internalize the “Diversity” lens. Though I have long known (through copious study) that there is good reason and history to suggest that I am simply a variation on the theme of “human,” recently I have felt comfortable thinking that I’m not some special bad example of the Fall. Though it has been a very difficult path, I can now say: “God made me transgender because: God thought I might enjoy it.”

    Here is where redemption comes in: if you think of pre-Fall as Plan-A for humanity, then we are forced to realize that Plan-B is where we ALL begin, and because of the Fall we are in a process of stumbling (or repeatedly “falling”) throughout our lives. God knows this, and because He loves us, He is constantly making contingency plans to bring us into relationship, to bring us into healing, into wholeness, into Christlikeness. So we all pretty much blow-past Plan-B and God works Plans C, D, E…and whatever to bring us to our redemption. (I’m up to Plan-T myself!)

    But here’s a crucial thing: does our journey to wholeness and holiness mean that we will all be brought back into the same state that Plan-A was about? Some people insist: YES!! But I suspect that Plan-A is forever irrevocably lost to us. We are creatures of all the plans beyond ‘A’ and we can never go back AND STILL BE OURSELVES. You see, we become who we are through the infirmities, the unfairness, through or own rebellion and that of others. God takes our scars and birthmarks and redeems them into re-birthmarks of beauty – a different beauty from Plan-A’s and, I firmly believe, a greater beauty than could have happened..

    The Japanese have an art form called Kintsugi, where broken pottery is mended with gold-infused resin, and the resulting repaired pottery is considered more beautiful and stronger than the original. I believe THAT is what Christ is doing in and through us.

    …Chatting online with some dear cis and trans friends in a discussion about both cis and trans people have their own “broken-ness,” I wrote this:

    “I guess that I might be admitting here that (at this point) I don’t really want to be cis born…goodness…what am I saying?? I think it’s this: I am trans, not cis, and so it is my path through THIS KIND of brokenness that I will be redeemed, and it is through this path that all that has been difficult will be worked together into something beautiful…A *different* beautify than I would have if I was cis-broken. If God gave me the opportunity to be a cis woman, trading what has been in my life thus far, I could not do it…*so much* good would have to be erased…and bad, but I have hope that the even the bad will be redeemed into great beauty.”

    I think what has struck me in all this is to realize that there is merit to each of the lenses, and each lens distorts reality somewhat. No one lense is sufficient to understand ourselves, nor to live-by. Even the Integrity lens which seems so rooted in Scripture must bow to its own assertion that for now, we see through a glass darkly…but THEN we will see truly. For now, there is gender brokenness in each of us in some way and to some degree: cis and trans. But then, we will be fully congruent, and gender dysphoria will be changed to gender euphoria as we know and our known by our *extravagant* God.

    Some have said to me, “be what God made you!!” To which I reply, I am being who and what God made and is making me. It has been God’s plan to bring me to my womanhood through a different, more difficult path than is typical of other women, for His own purposes (some of which I am coming to grasp). If this was not God’s plan, then I would not be the woman I am today: our relationship is THAT CLOSE, that I know He would have found another way and I would have walked in it had that been the case. AND He has gently cautioned me that I need to remain close: our journey in this is not complete, AND that I must not assume any particular outcome, but continue walking together.

    Most female people *become* women through their girlhood and adolescence. *This* female person has *become* through her transsexuality and transition.

    At the same time…

    As close to “bare metal” as I can get, I recognize that I am a blend of sexes and genders – neither a natal female, nor a natal male: I was born trans, and that’s perfectly okay. AND for this person, I am most myself when expressed as a woman.

    I am reminded of this:

    [For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.] 2 Corinthians 5:1-5

    I don’t know what I will be like in Heaven, what gender or sex I will be or whether those considerations are even relevant. I’ve struggled with this painfully. But in the end, I know, that God will make this right however that is to be done. I have to trust my Lord, my Love with even this.

    Blessings & Joy!!

    • Thank you for sharing a little about yourself, Brettany Rennee, and especially your progression through the various lenses. I’m sorry that the first read was painful though. I’d heard of the Japanese art form previously but I appreciate how you described it.

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