Transgender people and the church
Conversation | | 6th February 2020
In Australia, a number of recent policy changes have sought to make certain aspects of transgender people’s lives easier. In the past few years, governments in Victoria, Tasmania, and elsewhere have introduced policies such as changing the gender listed on official documents like driver’s licences.
With these publicised efforts underway, you could be forgiven for thinking that transgender people’s lives were only improving, or that governments were only acting in their best interests. In the United States, the Trump Administration has wound back certain anti-discrimination healthcare provisions introduced to safeguard the rights of transgender people.
It’s also not always easy for transgender people to be part of the church. Over the past year, Christian leaders from a number of denominations called on transgender people to not transition, to simply not bother church leadership, and called gender fluidity a “confused concept of freedom”.
Already part of the church
Transgender people are already part of the church. Transgender people worship in our congregations, are some of our agencies’ clients, and work for the church. In the above-noted context of struggles for transgendered people’s rights, how Christians approach transgender rights, and how we treat trans people, has an indelible effect on their faith, and life in general.
In an interview with Sojourners, transgender man Taj Smith recalled the experience of finding an affirming church.
“One of the greeters came up to me, and she says, ‘You need help finding your name tag?’ And she laughed, and I laughed, and I said, ‘No, I think I need a new one. I need a new one, like, forever.’ And she went, ‘Okay!’ And she got me a new tag, and she said, ‘Why don’t you write your name on this one and we’ll have a new permanent one for you next week!’ And she handed me an order of service and I went inside and thought, ‘That was the easiest thing ever!’ That church became a safe haven for me.”
Mr Smith said that his life and experience of faith in that church are now inseparable.
“My faith and my gender identity are so linked for me that I don’t know how to talk about one without talking about the other.”
And yet, the experience that transgender people have of church is often not a positive one. To look at the United States, where some 66 percent of transgender individuals have some experience of church, one in five report an experience of leaving their church due to rejection.
What does the Bible say?
Much like the “clobber passages” cited in church debates about sexuality, trans people often experience scripture quoted at them, in the form of proof texts.
One often-cited verse that has been drawn on by people opposed to affirming trans people comes from Genesis 5:2, “Male and female He made them.” For example, when the Vatican issued a June 2019 statement suggesting that trans people could never change their gender, the statement evoked the Genesis passage. Such a verse, read at face value, would seemingly demonstrate that sex is binary and that God creates people with an assigned gender. Someone identifying with the gender outside of what they were assigned at birth would seem to be to go against God’s good creation.
This surface-level approach, however, ignores the way that the meaning of scripture is never self-evident. In general, Genesis, a collection of texts edited together over many years, is a complex book to analyse with many difficult verses. To name but one exegetical dilemma is the way that one of Genesis’ two creation stories depicts the creation of the world taking place over six days, a conclusion that most Christians nowadays reject, instead understanding that the text offers a poetic vision of creation, and what happens when sin divides us from God and one another. In the case of the creation story of which Genesis 5 is part, the affirmation that God created men and women should therefore be read as part of a text that is not to be read literally. To do otherwise is to be hermeneutically inconsistent.
To look a little closer at the verse itself, Genesis 5’s affirmation that God created men and women has a rather different connotation considered against the backdrop of the world in which this text was written. The largely-accepted place of authorship for this portion of Genesis is Babylon, where a number of Jews were cruelly confined as part of an imperial programme designed to stamp out Jewish identity. During this time, the Jews would no doubt have been exposed to the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish. This violent narrative depicts men and women being created apart from one another as part of a wider cosmic battle between warring gods whose image was imparted into the Babylonian royal family.
As the late great theologian Walter Wink summarised it, “Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.”
Affirming that God created men and women together (with the woman coming from the man’s rib), is a subversion of the popular Babylonian narrative that presents men and women as being created apart from one another. The Genesis account affirms the equal value of men and women, rather than making a point about gender itself being a dichotomy.
Another aspect that is worth considering comes from what we understand of the available sciences. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union sets out how the church is to approach the task of biblical interpretation. Part of this includes considering current science during the exegetical process. In other words, the insights that biology brings to bare are relevant to how we understand transgender subject matters.
While it is difficult to summarise a whole tranche of scientific literature on the subject, the concept that male and female sexes are always (and unambiguously) binary has been demonstrated not to be the case.
New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that do not match the rest of their body.
John Achermann studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health. He says that there is a “much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure.”
The University of California’s Arthur Arnold is a biology expert who has studied the differences between the sexes. He suggests that looking at this in a simplistic way is problematic. “The main problem with a strong dichotomy [between male and female] is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” he said.
“That’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”
All of this runs the risk, however, of treating transgender people as a scientific subject to be analysed, rather than people who are part of the church. As such, it is important to hear the voices of transgender Christians in any discussion that involves them.
Elevating their voices
Thankfully, a few transgender Christians have been willing to document their experiences, speaking to the church, their families, and other trans people outside the church of their hopes for the church’s future as a space that is more welcoming of gender diverse people.
Austin Hartke is one such voice. The author of Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians and the Youtube series Transgender and Christian, Mr Hatke himself made the transition. Mr Hartke’s work discusses the implications of transition for theology and church life. In an episode of the Love, Rinse, Repeat podcast, Mr Hatke told host Rev. Liam Miller that he was fascinated by the arc of eunuchs in scripture.
“You go from Deuteronomy…which says that anyone who has had any changes made to their genitalia can’t be involved in the community anymore…to Acts, where one of the first converts to Christianity is a eunuch who has had changes made and has lived somewhere between genders. Nothing can prevent them from being part of this community, despite what Deuteronomy 23:1 said. And so this arc, that moves towards inclusion…was so revelatory for me. It gives hope that the people who were once considered outsiders, they are now one of the foundational groups in the new church.”
It’s a comparison, between eunuchs and transgender people, that Mr Hatke acknowledges has its limitations. “We never want to be anachronistic. Words like “transgender” didn’t exist back then…But we can say that these Christians had experiences very similar to the experiences that we have,” he said. Eunuchs, Mr Hatke points out, were widely considered as being between genders and were oftentimes “treated poorly.”
“I feel there’s a real need for theology coming from non-binary folks.”
“In terms of …what cisgender Christians can do to support trans folk in the churches is to lift them up to positions where they can feel safe to share their stories, because we don’t always.”
Mr Hatke says that the experience of interviewing people for his book has highlighted that a lot of transgender Christians have gifts that were not being fully utilised in their churches.
“A lot of trans folks have said [to me] “if only I could start a podcast” or “if only I could write a book”, or “if only I could become a pastor”, which they have the skills to do but historically they have not had the resources to do,” he said.
“I think that [lifting trans people’s voices] is something that cisgender Christians could do that could really change things a lot.”
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This article first appeared in Insights Magazine