In my first article ‘A Chosen Lifestyle?‘, I looked at the roots of why people are trans and how society regards them. I didn’t provide definitive answers (who can?) but I did suggest the possibility of accepting trans people as they are, without being judgmental or negative. This time I am addressing the different ways trans people cope with their situation and how society can best help and support them. There is no stereotypical trans person; each one has a unique makeup and finds their own ways of dealing with the issues involved.
Most trans people have been unhappy with their situation at some time in their lives, and for some this is overwhelming and on-going. All have been influenced by the views of society, church, family and the Bible. The outcome may be that they develop a secret trans existence, with feelings of guilt, shame and self-hate – a kind of internalised transphobia. They would do anything to get rid of this uninvited guest which inhabits and complicates their lives. They may experience stress, depression and suicidal attempts.
Trans Christians are especially reluctant to seek help from the Church, for fear of being misunderstood and even rejected. Whilst some ministers see no problem at all, others warn that it is sinful and harmful, holding the view that the person has chosen a lifestyle which is in need of repenting and abstaining from. The person is compared to someone addicted to drugs or pornography, which is not how they see themselves at all. They may try denial and abstinence, only to discover that this almost always results in failure, risking further stress a sense of failure, and a resumption of trans activity. If they are not in a relationship, they may seek a partner, in the hope that getting married will solve everything. It rarely does, and didn’t in my own case.
They may be encouraged to seek counselling for suspected childhood trauma, abuse or neglect, which is helpful if such a history is present, but not for the many trans people whose upbringing was stable, loving and unremarkable. Some will be directed towards spiritual ministry such as healing of the memories, casting out demons, or prayer for a miraculous healing. There are organisations on both sides of the Atlantic which use these measures to try and ‘de-trans’ people, in much the same way that ex-gay ministries claim to do. If someone seeks such ministries then of course that is their choice. However, if I was asked to advise on such a step, I would first point out that this approach makes an assumption that being trans and expressing one’s gender identity is wrong in the eyes of God and needs to be dealt with according to that premise. Then I would suggest that they examine their own situation and consider another possibility, that God does not see them as living in sin, and accepts them just as they are. I would also encourage them to study the biblical passages which refer to cross-dressing or gender variance and look at the context in which they were written. When I did this myself I found nothing in Scripture to indicate that a trans person should feel condemned. Over the years I sought some of the ministries described above, but the end result was that my trans feelings remained unchanged. My impression from listening to others’ experiences is that many of the attempts to de-trans people do more harm than good and can lead to heartache, grief, false guilt and possible mental health problems.
If a trans person can work through their guilt, shame and self-hatred and arrive at a position where they are proud of who they are, with assurance that God accepts and loves them just as they are, they will potentially be able to experience true peace and inner healing that they have been denied for so long. This is what happened to me and it is my prayer that all trans people can enjoy that same freedom in Christ.
For some this process of realisation and acceptance may be enough. If the person has no desire, need or plan to transition into their non-birth gender, they can enjoy a fulfilled life expressing both their male and female sides in a balanced and harmonious way. But for others issues may need to be addressed with the help of professional counselling, particularly where relationships with partners or children are involved. Personal circumstances may dictate that being trans has to remain a secret, but they feel the need to meet other trans people for friendship, mutual support and the opportunity to express their trans self in a safe environment. The question is, are they happy with a life of subterfuge, where very few people know their secret and there is always the fear of discovery hanging over them?
There are now groups for trans Christians, where issues of faith and gender can be discussed and explored. The decision to ‘come out’ is a major one, as it is an irreversible step with its own risks. What effect will the knowledge about them have on their partners, children, friends, colleagues and fellow church members? Finding a church that embraces and supports an openly trans person can be difficult, especially if they have already experienced abuse or rejection in other churches. Would they be accepted to the extent that they would be equally welcome to attend church in either male or female presentation? However I am convinced that it is possible for everyone to find a caring and accepting fellowship. I do not pretend that these problems are easy to solve, but there is some cause for optimism as society and the Church learn more about gender identity and become more open to meet with and listen to trans people.
However for some this dual role life is not the answer. They can’t identify with their birth gender at all and will only be at peace with themselves by living permanently in the gender they feel they are. This inevitably involves coming out (if they have not already done so), and the consequences of going full-time are far more profound. Whilst some partners are able to cope with the major changes brought about by transition, for others this is a step too far and separation is the unfortunate outcome.
At the very least transition should involve detailed psychological assessment, counselling and a trial period of living in the desired gender – the Real Life Test. It is often assumed that transition must always include genital surgery, but this is untrue. Gender reassignment, where the external sex organs are brought in line with the felt gender, is a complex procedure and carries with it significant risks. For this and other reasons some may decide that surgery is not an option for them, but this does not imply that they are not serious about their transition.
There are other changes which the transitioning person may go through to enable them to live better lives. These may include long-term counselling, speech therapy, laser depilation, breast surgery, facial feminisation surgery, laryngeal shaving, hormone therapy, hair transplants, and more. The aim in all of these is to feel more complete in the new gender role, and to be less conspicuous in public. In spite of undergoing these procedures, some will still stand out in a crowd and have to accept that they will always be seen as different.
For most Christians, hearing about transgender issues may be totally new for them. They may find it hard to understand what it is all about and what life must be like for trans people. They may also feel that there are more important areas of life which demand their attention and it’s a waste of time to look any further. This has often been said to me and I have to say that it hurts. For a trans person the need for people to accept and embrace them is vital. They have felt rejection throughout their lives and to hear such a reaction just adds to that feeling. If you don’t know a trans person yourself (and the chances are you probably do, even if they haven’t told you about it), it is important to consider the issue, and if possible come to a position where you can openly express your love and support for trans people. If a church fellowship can do this together it will bring a very positive message not just to trans people who are seeking fellowship, but to the public at large which often sees the Church as a homophobic and a transphobic place.
© Elaine Sommers 2013