‘Stop messing about; you’re on the road to hell.’
‘What you’re doing is sinful and against God’s laws. You need some serious prayer ministry.’
‘You need to repent of your chosen lifestyle.’
Who made these strongly worded statements and to whom were they addressed? Was it referring to child abuse, incest, serial adultery or what?
Well, the remarks were made by members of my own church, they were directed at me, and the reason was because I disclosed to them that I sometimes wear a dress. I am a trans person, and decided that after many years of keeping this a secret now was the time to be honest and tell my church friends about this unseen side of me. The outcome was that I was forbidden from being involved in any sort of ministry until I ‘sorted myself out.’ I had already been down the various routes of denial, abstinence, prayer, counselling and the rest, but nothing had changed. Eventually I worked through the issues surrounding trans and came to a position of peace, which is why I decided to be more open about it.
After all the negative responses I received from church members, I felt it that I was no longer welcome and decided to leave. Fortunately I was able to find a church which was more open and supportive, a real Godsend.
Four years have passed and I have often thought about why people are trans and listened to the differing views that are held by trans Christians. Some say: ‘God made me trans; it’s His will and I thank Him for it’. Others feel that God has dealt them a trans card and that they have to live with it as best they can. Then there are those ridden with guilt who say: ‘I shouldn’t be like this, it’s sinful and I need to repent and turn away from all this.’ A comment I have yet to hear is: ‘I decided to be trans; the responsibility was entirely mine.’ Whilst detractors may refer to trans as ‘a chosen lifestyle’, the truth is that I’ve yet to meet anyone who said that they had made such a choice.
So how should we view trans people? Are they diseased, disordered, disobedient to God, or just plain different? The answer to these questions may shed light on how trans people view themselves, how others see them, and indicate what they should do about it. The issue has a much broader implication as it questions how we should regard any person whose body or mind differs in some way from the accepted norm and how God’s will fits into that picture.
We’ll start with a difference which is both physical and visible, about which there should be few ethical or moral disputes. Consider a child with a cleft lip. Should we say: ‘God wanted my child to be like this; I will thank Him and will learn to live with the situation’? I have a problem with that concept. Do we really believe that a loving God is going to hand out different anomalies just to test us and see how we manage? To me that would be cruel, and inconsistent with His nature.
Perhaps God made an error, but that doesn’t fit with an omnipotent God either. In my work as a surgeon I am aware of the ethical dilemmas which surround birth defects. As an aside, I remember a cardiac surgeon colleague whose speciality was operating on congenital heart problems. He was very self-opinionated, and one day an anaesthetist became so exasperated with him that he blurted out: ‘Who do you think you are, God?’ The surgeon replied: ‘No, I just correct His mistakes!’
My own view is that God did allow the child to be born this way, even though I can’t clearly say why he should have done so. Some explain it by the concept that we live in a ‘fallen world’, but it’s hard to understand and for me it remains a mystery.
Now to an example which is closer to transgender. Some babies are born with sexual organs (external and/or internal) which are not clearly male or female, a condition collectively referred to as intersex. There are many possible causes of this condition, hormonal imbalances, chromosomal variations, and a variety of inherited syndromes. It becomes very difficult to assign the infant to a male or female identity, and the outward appearance is not always the best guide. Corrective surgery to bring the body into a more normal pattern is usually irreversible. It is only when the child develops that his or her core gender identity becomes apparent, and it won’t necessarily match their surgically assigned gender. This can put them into a gender limbo where they become confused about who they really are. It is worth noting here that the existence of people with intersex conditions shows that not everyone in the world is strictly male or female. Those who point out that God makes us one or the other, backing it with Scripture, ignore the fact that there are exceptions, and that some people do not fit into this binary pattern. It’s not as simple as they make out.
So what about a less tangible situation, where all the physical, genetic and hormonal evidence confirms one sex, but the person’s core identity is the opposite, which is the situation with most transsexual (TS) people? The only evidence of their condition comes from their description of being different and identifying with the opposite gender from a very young age, sometimes five or less. Some point to traumatic events in childhood as the cause, but many TS people lack such experiences, and an early onset of trans feelings makes it less likely that external influences play a part. I came across a striking example of this in an American child, physically male, brought up in a secure middle-class family, but who identified as female from the age of two. She is now 12 and a compelling documentary of her life thus far has been made recently. (see on YouTube under the title ‘I am Jazz’, in 3 parts)
There is no clear evidence as to why people are transsexual, although there is a hypothesis that it may relate to intrauterine hormone imbalance, and that this could influence ‘brain sex.’ This lack of hard evidence is used by some to infer that people make a decision to become TS; it’s a chosen lifestyle and they need to repent of it. An even more disturbing conclusion is that trans people are spirit possessed and are in need of deliverance.
This sort of misunderstanding was endured by people with epilepsy over the centuries and right up till recent times. They were shunned and looked at with fear and suspicion. Anyone who suggested that there might be a medical explanation would have been shouted down, although History would eventually prove them right, Just because we don’t have all the facts should not allow us to conclude that a condition is due to upbringing, evil spirits, or a personal choice. If we accept that there might be some, as yet undiscovered, aetiological factor or factors which result in transsexual identity, we should accord such a person the benefit of the doubt, and approach their situation with compassion and care.
But what about other trans people, the ones who do not regard themselves as transsexual and who have no desire or need to transition? There is much variation in this group, with labels including transgenderist, bigendered, crossdresser, transvestite and gender queer. There are no clear divisions, but it’s a group of people whose gender identity differs from the norm in some way. The strength of their feelings is usually less intense than the transsexual experience. Society may not take them seriously, perceiving that they have a strange little hobby in which they indulge from time to time. But do they choose to be like this? Having talked with many, I have yet to find one who has decided to be trans. It’s true that to express one’s trans nature is a conscious decision, but the alternatives of denial, counselling or other therapy rarely result in a positive outcome. The fear of discovery can result in stress, mental health issues and broken relationships. But if they are able to accept who you are, to have a positive view of self and if possible to be open about their trans nature, then they can enjoy a balanced and fulfilled life as a trans person. Whilst transition for such people might be attractive in order to gain credibility, it is inappropriate for people in this situation and likely to be regretted later.
My own view is that transgender is a condition rather than a disorder or a disease. There may be something in a person’s foetal development that influences brain sex and therefore core identity, but as yet this remains unproven. It is wrong and harmful to assume that transgender people are living in a sinful state, or have unnatural and perverted lives, bearing in mind the history of the understanding of epilepsy described earlier. Acceptance of all those who are different is vital and is particularly important for trans people. Given the right help and support, whether medical or emotional, trans people can have a positive role in society and provide a unique insight into the diversity of gender that others cannot. Sadly the Church is often reluctant to embrace their trans neighbour, when it should be setting an example to Society. I, and many like me, are willing to explore this reluctance and to find ways to build bridges of understanding and love. Are you willing to join us and travel this road together?
© Elaine Sommers 2013