On Gender Identity Trends

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Gender identity is a trending topic today. There is actually a phrase for it: “trans trending.” But it is being discussed by many people in many circles, including Christian circles, where the focus is on identifying the best and most faithful response.

As I write about in my book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, I do see Gender Dysphoria and the broader transgender discussion as quite complex. The complexity requires a thoughtful, naunced response from the Christian community.

A quick primer: Transgender is an umbrella term for the many ways people express gender identity when they have gender identity that is does not align with their biological sex as male or female. Some people who identify as transgender also experience distress over this lack of alignment between their identity and their biological sex. When that occurs, mental health professionals have called the distress “gender dysphoria.”

I am concerned that “transgender” as an umbrella term is becoming home to many other identity questions that naturally arise in adolescence and are being explored by younger teens, some of who request serious medical interventions. This is in part why we see a growing number of emerging gender identities (e.g., agender, bigender, genderfluid, gender creative).

In my book, I introduce the reader to three frameworks that function as “lenses” through which people “see” the research in this area, the broader topic, and the people who are navigating gender identity concerns. The three frameworks are integrity, disability, and diversity.

Let me review these three frameworks briefly.

The integrity lens emphasizes the importance of a biblical foundation for norms of sex and gender and sets a standard for the Christian who seeks to be faithful to what God has revealed in Scripture. It says that there are real, God-given differences between males and females that were intended by God from creation (Gen 1, 2). These differences lay the foundation for morally permissible sexual behavior. When a male and female come together in the context of a marriage covenant, sexual behavior is morally permissible. Outside of that foundation and covenant, sexual behavior is morally impermissible. This lens is concerned that the integrity of male/female distinctions is forfeited if a person were to adopt a cross-gender identity or pursue medical interventions, such as hormonal treatment or sex reassignment surgery.

The second lens through which people see this topic is called the disability lens. When people experience a lack of fit between gender identity and biological sex, it is thought of as an unfortunate departure from what typically happens—not everything is lining up properly—but is not considered a moral issue by people who think this way. They argue that transgender concerns should be addressed with compassion. Christians might be drawn to aspects of the disability lens because of the reality of the fall (Gen 3) which has resulted in all sorts of consequences for human life. A biblical Christian drawing from the disability lens would likely see “trans trending” as a misguided search for identity. But they would also still likely want to respond with compassion to the distress people with these concerns face, especially when people struggle with life-threatening dysphoria. Different strategies might be seen as permissible and might include more invasive steps, since a person could see it as a way of coping with something after the Fall that was not as it ought to be, as opposed to seeing it as a rejection of male/female sexual difference.

The third lens is the diversity lens. This is the lens that is captivating the culture today. Those who see through the diversity lens see differences in gender identity as signaling a group of people (transgender persons) who should be embraced and celebrated. To be transgender is to be part of the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Adherents of the diversity lens help people adopt and celebrate a cross-gender identity (for example, a biological male who experiences himself as a woman) and would not be concerned with the morality of more invasive medical procedures, as they may see these as appropriate steps to accomplish greater self-realization. Diversity advocates may also see “trans trending” as an improvement over traditional views of male and female that they believe are hurtful to transgender persons.

In my role as a psychologist, I try to understand these different experiences of gender identity and the different lenses people may be drawn to, and find ways to work with clients who seek my help. This is not unlike how I would with other clients whose experiences and decisions may be similar or different from aspects of my own personal Christian beliefs.

But where does the Christian begin in ministry or pastoral care? There is a tendency among some Christians to see the three frameworks as competing in such a way that they have to choose one over the other, or that drawing on some of the frameworks or learning from some of the other frameworks means diluting the one they view as primary. I do see the three frameworks as each providing important insights, so let me unpack this a little further.

Integrating the three lenses has potential great value in ministry, and I think there are elements of all three that can be understood as biblical. The theological foundations that come from the integrity lens are a critical starting point. It addresses what is morally permissible sexual behavior, but it also reminds us of the significance of male/female differences. This gives Christians pause when they see the broader culture encouraging individuals to move towards strategies for managing dysphoria that manipulate the body in some way. Since gender identity concerns can vary in intensity, a number of people with these concerns will be open to a discussing how to cope with and respond to gender identity conflicts in light of one’s biological sex. For many (most?) people that is apparently what happens.

Can Christians who uphold the integrity lens find anything of value in the disability or diversity lenses, even if not prepared to adopt every application of them? While we have to be careful here to avoid sacrificing biblical authority in this effort, I think we can. I would say that, for example, from the disability lens, we can appreciate the compassion that is present. We can appreciate being reminded of the reality of Gen 3, which has clear implications throughout Scripture and thus important to apply, so that a Christian perspective is characterized by compassion and empathy as people explore ways to cope with more intense gender dysphoria when it is present, and as young people find themselves drawn to emerging gender identities about which Christians may voice concern.

Is there anything to be gained from the diversity lens? This is by far the most challenging lens for me as a Christian, since it is often applied by others in such a way that it dismisses male/female sexual difference as merely oppressive and negligible. However, what the diversity lens does is create a sense of identity and community for those who suffer from gender dysphoria and for those who are part of the “trans trending” group. While I disagree with the answers typically offered within the diversity lens, I have to admit that it is the only lens really attempting to specifically meet the longing for identity and community for those with gender dysphoria or are otherwise under the transgender umbrella.

Jesus says in Him we will have life and life to the full, and that means each person ought to find freedom and a capacity to be celebrated in a community where they have a sense of identity by living out Christian faith. Christianity can and has offered people renewed identity and purpose and meaning in life. Proponents of the diversity lens didn’t come up with that; they cast a different vision for what that can be, and they advertise it boldly.

A Christian ministry that wants to be effective will have to address identity and community from a distinctively Christian and biblical perspective. It will have to do this in a way that is emotionally and spiritually compelling to compete with the siren call available to people with transgender concerns arising from the diversity lens. Ministry could do this by communicating that life in Christ can offer identity, community, and purpose in the midst of complex experiences, including experiences of great distress and unwanted suffering. This requires taking into consideration the whole of Scripture, and the myriad of people who, despite their unique experiences and histories, are pursued by Christ to be made anew in His image.

 

What is Gender Dysphoria?

Here is a talk I gave at Q Denver titled, What is Gender Dysphoria?  It is being featured on Q Ideas. I try to explain the phenomenon, as well as provide a little background information on theories of etiology, prevalence, and management strategies. Also, check out the talk by Melinda Selmys, who shares about her own experiences with gender dyshporia.

After we both spoke, Gabe Lyons invited us to join him for a time to Q & A from the audience. This was a helpful opportunity to reflect further on gender dysphoria:

To give you a little background on Q Ideas, here is a description from their website:

Q was birthed out of Gabe Lyons’ vision to see Christians, especially leaders, recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore cultures. Inspired by Chuck Colson’s statement, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Gabe set out to reintroduce Christians to what had seemed missing in recent decades from an American expression of Christian faithfulness; valuing both personal and cultural renewal, not one over the other. Re-educating Christians to this orthodox and unifying concept has become central to the vision of Q.

Together, we explore topics that fall into four broad themes: culture, future, church, and gospel. Q facilitates the investigation of deeper engagement and responsibility in each of these areas. As we continue to work through these ideas on a deeper level, so grows our commitment to equipping innovators, social entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, church-shapers, futurists, scientists, educators, historians, environmentalists, and everyday people to do extraordinary things. At Q Ideas, you’ll see a broad spectrum of content represented in our small group curriculum, essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts. These are all contributed and commissioned to shed light on unique areas of culture and the church.

The Calvin College Talk on Gender Dysphoria

The AV staff at Calvin College have been working on a better quality video of the talk I gave titled Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. Here is the video. It is about an hour with some Q&A from the audience:

Several transgender and gender variant people and families who have loved ones who are under the transgender umbrella have reached out to me following the talk. They are hungry for resources and for a way forward.  If I were to summarize the themes from those exchanges so far (and some are ongoing), I would say they are centered on (1) self understanding (How do I understand what I am going through?), (2) the faith community (How do I have more constructive discussions with pastors and others in my church?), and (3) How do I improve existing relationships with loved ones? In some ways these are similar to what we reported in our research with male-to-female transgender Christians a few years ago. I think these themes also line up with what I have seen in counseling individuals, couples, and families over the years.

These are important, significant discussions for every individual and family that is navigating this terrain. So many feel alone and unsure how to even begin a conversation. The section from the presentation on different “lenses” through which different stakeholders “see” the issues and people seemed especially promising to them. There is certainly much more that can be done to be a resource for responsible care in these three areas, and I hope that ongoing discussions and future discussions will be a part of seeing that come about.

 

 

 

Developmental Trajectories among Gender Dysphoric Children

sextherapytextInterVarsity Press Academic and the Christian Association for Psychological Studies are set to publish a new book I wrote with Erica S. N. Tan titled, Sexuality & Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. I am hearing it will be out in April.

After four foundational chapters offering theological, sociocultural, biological, and clinical perspectives on sexuality, we discuss several sexual dysfunctions, the paraphilias, sexual addiction, and other clinical presentations. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Gender Dysphoria.

What we are discussing is onset and course. Specifically, we are discussing a study of children who persist and desist in their experience of Gender Dysphoria:

Although there is relatively little research on gender dysphoria as compared to many other sexual concerns, there has been some preliminary research (Steensmaet et al., 2010) on possible developmental trajectories among those who persist (in their experience of gender dysphoria) and those who desist (or who do not continue to experience gender incongruence).

When these two groups are compared, it is interesting to note that there are apparent differences in underlying motives in cross-identification, as well as differences in responses to changes at puberty. In considering motives for cross-identification, one persister shared the following: “In childhood (and still), I had the feeling that I was born as a boy. I did not ‘want’ to be a girl. To myself I ‘was’ a boy, I felt insulted if people treated me as a girl. Of course I ‘knew’ I was a girl, but still, in my view I was not” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 6). In contrast to this, a desister shared this: “I knew very well that I was a girl, but one who wished to be a boy. In childhood I liked the boys better, the girls were always niggling [petty, nagging]. I was tough and wanted to be as tough as the boys” (p. 6).

When the researchers looked at the different responses to puberty, they noted the strong reaction against these changes among those who persisted with their gender incongruence. One persister shared the following: “It was terrible, I constantly wanted to know whether I was already in puberty or not. … I really did not want to have breasts, I felt like, if they would grow, I would remove them myself. I absolutely did not want them!” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 8).

Again, in contrast, a desister shared this: “Before puberty, I disliked the thought of getting breasts. I did not want them to grow. But when they actually started to grow, I was glad they did. I really loved looking like a girl, so I was glad my body became more feminine” (Steensmaet et al., 2010, p. 12).

Keep in mind that both groups engaged in some cross-identification at a young age, about 6 or 7 years old. However, Steensma et al (2010) reported that for those who desisted—whose gender dysphoria abated over time—that change occurred at between 10-13 years of age, whereas the gender dysphoria seemed to increase for those who were called persisters.

The persisiters would go on to disclose and make a plan for some kind of transition between the ages of 10-13 years old, while those who desisted tended to identify with their birth sex at age 13 and older.

Although I have provided clinical services and consultations in the area of gender dysphoria and have conducted research involving transgender Christians, I have not written that much about it. I enjoyed the opportunity to work on this chapter with Erica and to reflect further on gender identity and gender dysphoria from a Christian worldview.

MtF Transgender Persons in Corrections

Here is part 1/7 of a documentary titled “Cruel and Unusual” on male to female transgender (MtF) persons in corrections:

The rest of the documentary is available via YouTube.

It is an interesting documentary that opens with the argument that the mistreatment of transgender individuals amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” – hence the title of the documentary.

I am reviewing it as part of a consultation I’ve been doing for a couple of months now dealing with sexual minorities in corrections. You can see from watching the documentary that significant challenges arise in the juvenile justice system (which are not covered here) and in prisons in terms of responding to those who experience gender dysphoria.

The responses to these challenges can become polarizing, with one side charging the other with making demands for accommodations that smack of “political correctness” to them; the other side can run the risk of marginalizing the very staff that they are meant to train and educate.

In my work so far, I have found it helpful to note that those who are incarcerated are serving their sentence by virtue of being in corrections. They are not to be further punished through violence, sexual assault, or other forms of mistreatment. These forms of mistreatment – particularly sexual assault – are of significant concern especially to sexual minorities (those who experience their sexual identity or gender identity in ways that are different from those in the majority).

This has been an thought-provoking topic for me as a Christian who studies sexual identity and gender identity issues. If you are particularly interested in this topic, you might read this post in which I discuss T.J. Parsell’s experience as he shared in his book Fish.

Gender Identity Issues

Here is an interesting video we are viewing in preparation for a training on Gender Identity issues at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity:

If you are curious about how we approach training, let me begin by saying we follow many of the leading mainstream LGBT researchers and theorists; they are the one’s doing the majority (by far) of the research. There are few Christians doing serious scholarship in this area, and to limit our understanding of gender identity, for instance, to just what is produced by Christian psychologists (or Christians from other disciplines), would put us at a severe disadvantage.

Some of the strengths of this video include exposing the viewer to the ways in which the word “transgender” functions as an umbrella term. We may say this all the time, but it can be helpful to “meet” various people who prefer different ways of describing themselves and their experiences, such as transman or female-to-male transsexual. There is also some interesting perspective offered on key terms, such as biological sex, gender role, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Just the discussion of the common ways people think of differences and the ways in which the folks in the video think of differences is informative. There are also some helpful suggestions on how to approach a person – how to talk with them in a way that would be respectful given how they experience themselves.

It would have been helpful to have additional information on developmental perspectives on gender identity, as well as information on some of the issues that lead people to seek counseling/therapy services. But that was not the purpose of the video; the video was meant to be introductory and essentially a primer.

You can imagine that there are many issues that arise for those interested in integration of a Christian worldview with the study of gender identity. I won’t be able to do them justice here, but there are important questions about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity, the nature of the Fall, and how best to respond to such concerns from either a mental health or pastoral care perspective.

Update: Transgender Christians’ Experiences

The paper presentation on “Transgender Christians’ Experiences: A Qualitative Study” was earlier today. It went well. Trista and I went back and forth and discussed the various responses we received to questions about personal faith, relationship with God, religious coping activities, issues that arise in marriage, employment, etc. The day before the session, we were able to arrange to have a person in as a discussant who is transgender and Christian. She shared some of her own story and the challenges she has faced and choices she has made in response to gender dysphoria. Of course, these choices are not without consequences, and she was also able to share how some of her decisions had an impact on family members, local church experiences, and so on.

Although the audience was not large, those in attendance showed a genuine interest in the topic, and some had provided clinical services to this population. Most of the questions actually went to our discussant, which made a lot of sense, as she was quite open and transparent in sharing from her experience, and many in attendance probably have had few opportunities to interact with and ask questions of someone who has been sorting out gender identity questions and conflicts.

I also appreciated the opportunity to present at the Virginia Psychological Association. I have tended to gravitate toward the national organization, and this was my first foray into the state association. The audience was great, and the people there were quite receptive to the presentation and seemed quite appreciative that the topic was covered the way it was.