It’s debatable whether May 2014 was in fact “The transgender tipping point”, as the Time magazine cover story in that month suggested. But there’s no doubt that activism over transgender rights has exploded into the mainstream discussion of our culture over the past five years in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
What are we to make of this as Christians? If we are to do better than a knee-jerk response, we need to understand both the facts on the ground—what transgenderism is, and what the implications are of its recent prominence—and how the teaching of Scripture should direct our thinking.
Based on a long-running research project, Moore College alumni Rob Smith is in an excellent position to help us with both of these vital tasks. He is our guest on this episode of the CCL podcast.
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Runtime: 53:00 min.
Tony Payne: On May 29 2014, the cover story of Time magazine was “The transgender tipping point”, and on the cover was a photo of transgender actor Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black. One of the opening paragraphs of the article read as follows:
Almost one year after the Supreme Court ruled that Americans were free to marry the person they loved, no matter their sex, another civil rights movement is poised to challenge long-held cultural norms and beliefs. Transgender people–those who identify with a gender other than the sex they were “assigned at birth,” to use the preferred phrase among trans activists–are emerging from the margins to fight for an equal place in society. This new transparency is improving the lives of a long-misunderstood minority and beginning to yield new policies, as trans activists and their supporters push for changes in schools, hospitals, workplaces, prisons and the military.
Now that was Time magazine in 2014. And whether or not that was the tipping point, there’s no question that transgenderism was once on the margins, but is now very much in the mainstream, and that the political battle for transgender rights is well and truly on—including the rights of pre-pubescent children to be administered drugs to block the development of male or female characteristics at puberty.
To get a sense of just how much has changed, have a listen to the following clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Now, this was made in 1979, and it really is impossible to imagine this scene being written and performed and laughed at in quite the same way today.
In this scene, Reg, Francis, Stan and Judith from the People’s Front of Judea are trying to discuss what their movement is fighting for when the conversation turns to the rights of women.
Reg: Agreed. Francis?
Francis: Yep. I think Judith’s point of view is very valid, Reg—provided the movement never forgets that it is the unalienable right of every man—
Stan: Or woman.
Francis: —or woman to rid himself—
Stan: Or herself.
Francis: —or herself. Agreed. Thank you, brother.
Stan: Or sister.
Francis: Or sister. … Where was I?
Reg: I think you finished!
Francis: Oh. Right.
Reg: Furthermore, it is the birthright of every man—
Stan: Or woman.
Reg: Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan? You’re putting us off!
Stan: Women have a perfect right to play a part in our movement, Reg.
Francis: Why you always on about women, Stan?
Stan: I want to be one.
Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me “Loretta”.
Stan: It’s my right as a man.
Judith: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg: You want to have babies?!
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them!
Reg: But you can’t have babies!
Stan: Don’t you oppress me!
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate? You gonna to keep it in a box?
Judith: Here, I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb—which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’—but that he can have the right to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother! Sister, sorry!
Reg: What’s the point?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!
Reg: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.
TP: A struggle to come to terms with reality: is that what transgenderism really is? Or is even putting it that way an expression of the bigotry that the current transgender movement is seeking to combat? How should Christians approach this subject—both at the broader social level, but also among people we know and love who are touched by this emerging social movement? That’s our topic on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal in this episode, as in all of them, is to speak the truth about the moral reality of our world and our part in it as God’s people. Or, to put it in terms of our tag line, to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and the issue we’ll be looking at in just a few moments is transgenderism.
First, though, I just want to tell you about the Advanced Diploma of Bible, Mission and Ministry . That’s a bit of a mouthful! The Advanced Diploma of Bible, Mission and Ministry that Moore College offers to train people in the knowledge of God and in their ministries as God’s people. The Advanced Diploma is the one-year course that Moore College offers to prepare you to serve Jesus and to serve God’s people wherever you happen to be. It’s a flexible accredited one-year Diploma, it’s done on campus in community here at Moore College, which is one of the great strengths of the way that Moore College teaches theology. It teaches a foundation in the Bible—in understanding the whole Bible and in its parts, the theology of Scripture and different aspects of Christian ministry, and you can choose streams within the Diploma that reflect your interests or where you’re going to be ministering. So you can do the mission stream, the lay ministry stream, women’s ministry and music ministry as well.
As a one-year break out from whatever you happen to be doing to train yourself in the Bible theology of ministry for better service, the Advanced Diploma is a terrific option. To find out more about it, go to moore.edu.au/advanced and to apply for this or for any of Moore College’s offerings and—and programs and courses, go to moore.edu.au/apply.
But let’s get to our guest for this episode—someone who trained here at Moore College and who has been doing a lot of thinking and research recently into the subject of transgenderism.
Rob Smith: I’m Rob Smith. I’m an Anglican minister and work part-time for the Diocese of Sydney, but also teach part-time at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, where I lecture in theology and ethics.
TP: I started by asking Rob about the background or history of the transgender movement, because although it feels like it has burst onto the scene seemingly very suddenly over the last five or ten years, these kind of social revolutions almost always have a longer gestation period. Where did the transgender movement come from?
RS: Yeah, well, look, I—it—in some ways comes out of the sort of gay rights revolution. I mean, there were transgender patrons at the Stonewall Bar, you know, when the famous Stonewall riots took place, and there were similar transgender rights around the same time. So these two revolutions have been intertwined, although the—the—I guess the trans community have been tucked in behind the gay community for much of that journey.
And there was a bit of tension too, over the years, between the two communities, and in recent times, the gay community have offered and issued apologies to the trans community for—for not giving them, you know, prominence and—and so on.
But certainly those two things go together, and behind both of them, of course, is the—the, you know, the 60s sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, questions about gender, questions about sex and gender, the relationship between sex and gender and—and … whether heterosexuality is, you know, the only norm, and then whether transsexuality is another type of norm. All those questions have been bubbling away really from the post-war period on, but sort of coming to the surface in the 60s and then growing legs in the 70s and 80s, and when you get the, sort of, advent of queer theory in the 90s, well, that really, I think, sort of gives some intellectual energy to the whole transgender enterprise and the ideology that’s grown out of it.
TP: What’s queer theory? Tell us about it.
RS: Well, yeah, queer theory: it’s hard to define, because it—it—part of—part of the essence of queer theory is to—is that we need to question and queer or query everything and not just accept what seem to be established norms or inherited systems. So one of the pioneers of queer theory is a—a philosopher named Judith Butler, and, you know, she is famous for making the statement that the—that gender is a free-floating artifice that really has no intrinsic connection to sex. She even beg—raises the question as to whether sex itself is a social construct, and—and not actually is objective and biologically grounded as we think it is. But certainly she, I guess, pushed that idea—that sex and gender are not just distinct things, but actually independent things.
TP: Let’s come back to that, but define those two things, first of all. So when you say “sex” and “gender”, what do you meaning by those two terms?
RS: Yeah, well, look: once upon a time, “gender” was a grammatical term and “sex”, of course, a biological term. Occasionally gender got sort of pulled across to speak of biology, and it was really just a synonym for “sex”.
But in the late 50s and early 60s, really coming out of the medical realm and—and particularly some doctors who were working with people with intersex conditions—what we now call intersex conditions—distinction between sex and gender was made that, you know, “sex” was the biological and “gender” the psychological. And, again, that has roots in feminism as well: the—the conceptual distinction’s there, but the terminological distinction comes out particularly out of the medical world. And the psychological world.
So that’s, I guess, distinguishing of terms. In some ways, it’s quite profound development, and not a wrong development, in my view: it’s—I mean, it’s perhaps a little arbitrary. You know, guess—I guess how we define things is always—it’s of—open to change or improvement. But, yes, there is a difference, obviously, between our biology—whether we’re male or female—and then how we think about that, how we express that, how we live that out, how we dress that, you know, how we behave that. So for “gender” to come to refer to these other things—the social and psychological expression of sex—you know, I—that’s a development I’m happy to—to work with.
TP: In the sense that I’m a male—I’m born a male, but me being a man is a description not simply of biology, but of a certain kind of identity in being in the world that is a man’s identity—
TP: —and being in the world.
RS: Correct, yeah.
TP: And that’s something I grow into and inhabit and become as it—not just—I’m not born a man; I’m actually born … a boy—
RS: A boy, yeah.
TP: So in a sense, the fact that there’s a little boy and a young boy, and young man and a man, we would say—
TP: —that those are different expressions of what we’d say “maleness”—becoming of that kind of gender. Am I—am I getting it?
RS: Exactly. And—and—you know, this was Simone de Beauvoir’s quote—contribution, really, to—well, to this line of thinking—you know, the famous statement, that “one is not born but becomes a woman”. And, again, making the point you just made, yeah: a—a female is born a little girl and grows to become a certain type of woman, and depending on the culture in which she lives, and the influences and expectations that are brought to bear, that all shapes what it means to become a woman and be a woman. And begs the question, well, is that the only way to be a woman?
Now, Simone de Beauvoir was not pushing a transgender sort of line of saying, “Yeah, one can be born female, but become a man.” But simply pointing out the obvious—that, yeah, okay, we do all become man—man, woman, masculine, feminine in different ways.
TP: Was the difference with queer theory that it separated the gender and the sex, then—
TP: —that your gender could become something that was different from your sex? That was the new development?
RS: Yes, that’s right. So once you detach the two and say that, you know, gender is totally constructed, as opposed to something that’s connected to sex and then, you know, constructed on that basis, but once you detach it from that basis, yeah, then it bears no relation at all. If it happens to coincide, well, good for you, perhaps. But if it doesn’t happen to coincide, it—that’s just as normal.
Okay, so this is where these terms “cisgender” and “transgender” get paired against each other. “Transgender”’s an older term; “cisgender” a newer term—launched somewhere in the 90s. So “cisgender”’s when your gender and sex align on the same side. “Cis”—Latin. “Transgender” when they’re on opposite sides. Again, “trans” from the Latin. So, yeah. That’s how that line of thinking goes.
TP: You mention those two common terms, and that’s a helpful definition. Let me ask you about a few others that we hear being thrown around and that are often confusing. For example, is there any difference between someone being a transsexual and being transgender in the way that the words are used these days?
RS: Yeah, there’s been quite a development of terminology over the last 50 years or so. So once upon a time, people distinguished between “transvestite”—right, those who wore the clothing of the opposite sex; “transgenderists” was the word that was used for a time, which were those who either wanted to be or actually thought they were the opposite sex; and then “transsexuals” referred to those who actually have surgery to, yeah, as it were, become, or at least appear to become the opposite sex. So—so, yeah, and some of the older literature from the 60s, 70s, even 80s, you—you get these things distinguished.
More recently, the term “transgender” is an umbrella that covers them all. So there are different ways of being transgender and different levels, you might say, or different lengths to which people go to transition. So you might just be a cross-dresser, or you might simply identify as the other gender, or other sex, or you might, you know, have hormonal or surgical treatment to try and appear as the other sex.
TP: But at the heart of it is the perception—the psychological, emotional perception—that my gender is one thing and my body is another.
RS: Well, for many, yes. [Laughter] It’s a very complex scene. So, you know, there are some, for example, male cross-dressers who are not at all confused about their gender: they—they—
TP: They just like dressing in other people’s—
TP: —clothes—dry—like dressing in female clothes.
RS: Yeah. It’s a bit of fun, perhaps it’s a job, you know. Perhaps they get a bit of a kick out of it. But they’re not actually confused or conflicted about their gender identity.
So you—you do get people like that. But, then, of course, you get those who really are quite conflicted about their gender identity: they feel on the inside the opposite to what their body is telling them on the outside, and so, you know, that’s what once upon a time was called “gender identity disorder”—that kind of mismatch between, you know, inner and outer person. These days, it gets referred to more as “gender dysphoria”. Yeah. And then, I guess, that begs the question, you know, what does a person do with that? And that’s where in the last 50 years, you know, surgical options have, you know, become more and more the recommended sort of treatment path.
Not everyone wants to go there—not everyone does go there—and some people do go there and then wish they hadn’t, and then seek to de-transition. But I guess as surgical techniques have developed and various other medical advances have taken place, you know, that partly explains why people don’t just stop at these perhaps more benign levels of transitioning, but want—want to see how far they can go in the surgical direction.
TP: So for a person experiencing gender dysphoria, where “dysphoria” means a—a distress, a degree of disturbance about the connection between what they feel their gender to be and what their biological sex is, what are the kind of options or processes that normally happen for someone who presents with that experience? You’re implying that up to a certain point, when was that? That was treated as a disorder—that is, something to be worked through and treated, as it were. But now it’s not treated as a—as a psychological disorder, is that correct?
RS: Well y—if you sort of take the—what some people refer to as the “bible” of mental health disorders, the DSM—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental health [Disorders]—that comes out every 15 years or so, so DSM 4 was in 1994, I think, came out, and it had this diagnostic category of—of gender identity disorder. By the time you get to DSM 5 in 2013, they’ve dropped that and now have this category of “gender dysphoria”, which focuses the problem simply on the distress experienced by a person with a mismatch. In other words, if you think you’re a man in a woman’s body, but it doesn’t bother you, well, according to DSM 4 you had a—a disorder, but according to DSM 5—DSM 5, you don’t. It’s only if you’re distressed by that mismatch that according to DSM 5, you have a mental health problem. And so, that then, I guess, focuses the question on, okay, how do we resolve that distress?
Now, again, historically, people have done that in different ways. Sometimes through counselling and—and even just conversation and—and others through prayer and others, of course, have taken steps along a path of transitioning, whether, again, a bit of cross-dressing or something, to alleviate that. But, again, more and more, the—the gender activists, I think, have convinced the medical fraternity that the way to proceed is to help people transition hormonally and surgically.
TP: Does this to some extent lie behind the—the whole idea of transphobia—that to—to suggest that someone experiencing gender dysphoria ought to be treated or to be treated as a psychological disorder is—is to vilify, offend, insult and otherwise humiliate them, and so to—to not affirm them in—in their dysphoria and in transitioning to resolve it, that you’re—you’re performing a form of hatred against them in some ways? Is this where this term comes from? I’ve—I’ve wondered.
RS: Certainly, yes. If, you know, being transgender, as many would say, is—is normal, just as being cisgender is normal, so, you know, if it’s just as normal that—be one as the other—
TP: There’s just two different social constructs at work—
RS: —they’re just two different ways of being, and—and neither is better than the other, then to, as it were, pathologise one is, you know, seen as an act of oppression, hatred or—or phobia of some kind. So this was, again, the great pressure on the—the DSM nomenclature committee, who had—you know, were trying to work out, well, what we do? They basically had to de-pathologise, you know, gender identity disorder, and the way to do that was to, again, to change the label and to focus the problem only on the distress. Because, obviously, if somebody’s distressed, that’s a problem. And—but to call the mismatch itself a problem, now, yeah: it opens you up to being labelled “transphobic”.
TP: How many people in our culture would be transgender? Is that a—an impossible question?
RS: Yeah. I—look, I’m not on top of the—the most recent figures. I know there was a study in the States recently—I think, late last year, perhaps—done on teens in a certain part of the country, at least, where the claim was that now 3 per cent of American teens identify as a gender other than that which is indicated by their biology.
Again, that—that could mean a number of things, because it’s not just transgender, there’s, you know, agender and bigender and trigender and pangender and ambigender and omnigender. So—yeah, so there’s—you know, so I think there’s about 117 gender identity options on Tumblr if you care to look them up. And so there’s lots of alternatives that people are experimenting with and playing with.
Now, that’s an exc—astonishingly high figure—you know, 3 per cent—particularly as it’s an over 300 per cent increase on an earlier study only a few years prior. So keeping track of prevalence is enormously, what, a movable feast—it’s—and I’m just not on top of the figures here in—in Australia—and I—it’s very hard to get accurate figures anyway.
TP: It strikes me that—it’s ironic or—or strange in a sort of way that—that transgenderism, which so strongly insists that gender is a social construct, at the same time seems to indicate that there’s something essentialist or … unmovable or unchangeable about something within me—
TP: —that something is lodged within me that is male, even though my body is female. How do transgender activists or theorists address that question about what that thing is that we sense inside that is a woman—classically a woman trapped in a man’s body? What is that thing that’s trapped?
RS: Well, that’s a—that’s a very good question, which I’ll creep up on simply by saying there’s a parallel debate, if not confusion, if not contradiction in the whole sort of transgender scene, as there has been in the gay scene. So you get this clash in—in, I guess, the whole history of discussion of homosexuality between, you know, is this something that’s determined or is it something that’s chosen?
TP: Is it an orientation or a preference?
TP: Those words changed over time, didn’t they.
RS: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s flipped back and forth, and—and similarly in the transgender world, there’s a voluntarist stream, and there’s a determinist stream. And then there are different kinds of determinism: there’s obviously the social determinism, as opposed to biological determinism, and—and other things. So—so it—again, it’s messy, it depends who you ask and who you’re reading and, you know, which activist is—is making the case, in what sort of way. But I guess at the level of a person declaring themselves that, you know, to be transgender, they’re really, I guess, making the claim that I have an inner sense of who I am that really wins out over my objective biology. So it’s a—it’s a triumph of the subjective over the objective. It’s saying “The way I feel is a truer indication—indicator of who I really am than what my body tells me”. So “I feel like a woman, even though my body’s male. So I really am a woman”, rather than “I’m a confused man”.
TP: That wouldn’t be an unusual state for a modern person to be in—to give the victory to the subjective over the objective word.
RS: Yeah, no, we’ve—we’re privileging the subjective for several hundred years now, and I guess in Western culture, you know, goes right back to Descartes and the whole subjective turn that—so, yeah, there’s a long history to this, and, again, it feeds into twentieth-century existen—existentialist thought and the whole, I guess, well, the key idea there—that—that you really create your essence by your existence. So, yeah. All of these things kind of come together to help produce, I guess, this way of self-diagnosing—that this is who I really am.
TP: We’ll be back to our conversation with Rob Smith in just a few moments. But in the meantime, two quick things: firstly, if you’ve been enjoying this podcast, and I hope you have, you can do us a big favour simply by telling other people about it and spreading the news. You can do this in a number of ways, of course: you can go onto your podcast delivery service of choice and rate or review the podcast. A classic way of doing that, of course, is to go onto iTunes and to offer a rating and review. Well, of course, you will click five stars, I know that! But say something about the podcast and how you found it enjoyable and—and why others should listen. That would be a really great help. But also just tell your friends: share episodes on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or whatever you happen to use, or just tell your friends at church about the value of—of regularly catching up with Christian material like the CCL podcast in this podcast form. So spread the word! We’d love you to do that.
And the second thing to tell you about is that our next episode coming up is one of our Q&A episodes, where we answer your questions about Christian living in the world. We have a few already lined up by other people have been sending in, but if you have any questions and you’d like us to address them in our Q&A episode—questions about any aspect of Christian life in the world—whether personal or in your family or socially or culturally or at church—please don’t hesitate to send us an email at email@example.com and we’ll answer your questions.
But back to Rob Smith and to transgenderism.
TP: I guess it’s easy, Rob, and I certainly find this personally, to have a knee-jerk reaction to this phenomenon—to just regard it as a form of kind of social contagion—like a madness that has taken over a certain percentage of the population, and the rest of us required to affirm and agree on pain of social os—ostracisation that all this is as it—it should be—that though you are, in fact, a—a woman, I have to treat you and call you a man, and that if I don’t, it’s me who has the problem.
But I suspect those kind of knee-jerk—knee-jerk horror kind of reactions that many of us might have to the whole phenomenon aren’t helpful, and we need to be driven by the Scriptures to have a framework that’s thoughtful and genuinely Christian. So can you help us make a start on that? What sort of biblical framework should we bring to this difficult question?
RS: Yeah, well the—that’s really the key cur—key question for Christians, isn’t it: how—how do we think about this rightly? How do we respond to it well? And, you know, truth and grace, I guess, are the—the primary drivers here: we—we need clear-headedness and tender heartedness, and certainly on the latter, we need to feel—and ought to feel—great compassion for those who are genuinely conflicted and in profound pain. At the same time, we need to be clear minded in our sort of diagnosis of what’s going on socially. I think you’re right to—to identify a—this is a social phenomenon—indeed, a social contagion—that language is now being used more and more, and I think rightly. So, yeah, we’re—you know, we’ve got just hold those things together: truth and grace.
Now, on the truth side, we best begin, I think, where the Bible begins, and that’s in Genesis 1, where, as we all know, we have the statement that God created man in his own image, and male and female made he them. So there we’re given two sexes, they’re sexed terms—male and female—zachar and nekeva in Hebrew—and that, well, tells us that this is God’s plan, this is God’s pattern.
Now, again, the medicos have never really doubted this, even though they’re aware, of course, very much of—of people with intersex conditions where there is some, perhaps, blurring of male and female at some level of their biology. But that doesn’t itself overthrow the binary reality that we’re either male or females. One writer says, “There is no third gonad”, you know. So even though, yes, there are some people born with a—what is often called “a disorder of sex development” or sometimes “a disorder of sex differentiation”. Still, male and female are—are the categories.
TP: The two options.
RS: They’re the—they’re the two options. And that’s where the Bible begins, and that’s the path it sets us on.
Now, as I said, Genesis 1, we’re given those sex terms. In Genesis 2, we meet two individuals who are described in slightly different terms. We could call them gendered terms, so we meet a “man” and we meet a “woman”, we meet a husband, we meet a wife—ish and isha, the Hebrew words—we meet a father and mother, you get the famous statement in Genesis 2: “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two become one flesh”, and so on. And we see through Scripture an alignment between sex terms and gender terms—that if you’re male, you grew up—grow up to be a man; if you’re female, you grow up to be a woman. So what some people call “cis-normativity” and often use that as a bit of weapon word, is in fact what the Bible presents us with—that God made males to become men and females to become women, and when somebody feels or perceives that that’s not the case for them, then something has gone wrong, according to Scripture.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s simply fixed. All kinds of things outside the Garden of Eden are very difficult to address. But the path to wholeness—the path to living as God’s person in God’s way—is to live in alignment with one’s sex. And so, you get various biblical commands and indeed sometimes prohibitions that warn us against trying to mess with the genders—sex/gender and the sex/gender connection. Okay, so you get the famous cross-dressing prohibition in Deuteronomy 22—that, you know, a man shouldn’t wear a woman’s garment and a woman, a man’s garment, and so on. That’s not just a cultural command; that—that’s tapping into the creation theology of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and just reminding us that, no, God wants us to live in line with our sexed reality. And the New Testament has some parallel statements in 1 Corinthians, and teachings there that, again, remind us of the same thing—that we’re not to blur genders, bend genders, blend genders—you know, we’re—you know, we’re to live in conformity with our God-given sex.
So in—from that point of view, again, the—the biblical teaching’s straightforward. But at the same time, it—again—acknowledges the mess. In fact, the biblical category of the eunuch is one little acknowledgement of, yeah, okay, here’s—here are people—now, the eunuchs are—in Scripture are actually all males, but they’re males who are not able to function reproductively as males—at least in most cases. You know, Jesus distinguishes eunuchs who have been so from birth—yeah, perhaps born without, you know, genitals or—or something—or eunuchs who’ve been made eunuchs by men—have been castrated, in other words. And then he also talks about those who’ve made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, which is, I think, a metaphor for those who deny themselves marriage.
TP: Oh, thank goodness it’s a metaphor, Rob!
RS: Well, yes, sadly some of the Church Fathers didn’t get that memo and took it literally. But we won’t dwell on that.
So, again, yes, the Bible gives us the norms, but also acknowledges the mess. But calls us forward to live as best we can in line with God’s purposes—yep, in the mess, and, you know, for some people, that’s straightforward; for other people, it’s more complicated. But certainly for those who put their trust in Christ, we have enormous spiritual resources and profound God-given motivations and, indeed, Christian brothers and sisters to help us move towards and grow towards being and becoming the kind of people that God desires us to be.
TP: So would you say that in some ways, if the way that the world is as created by God has a certain objective moral shape to it—that’s—that’s given to it by the—the creative purposes of God—that the world is a certain way—that people are a certain way by God’s design, as it were, based on his goodness and his—his character, and that for all kinds of reasons—for—i.e. the sin of the world and the judgment that—that lies upon the world—that gets up messed up in all kinds of ways, and that we all struggle in different ways to conform our minds and our bodies and our lives to that order. Part of us resists it—whether—whether it’s because we sinfully don’t wish to confine ourselves to the order, and sometimes there are things about us that are just not ordered the way they’re supposed to—whether that’s a—
TP: —a physical characteristic or a mental characteristic, we’re disordered, all of us, in different ways. Would that be a fair thing to say?
RS: Absolutely, yeah. The created order—yeah—is—is a given, even though it’s been impacted by sin, yeah. And so, that objectivity is very helpful to us, because it—it, well, speaks to us of the givenness and calls us to choose in line with that which God has given.
So, you know, again, if I recognise, okay, God has made me male—he’s given me a male body—that’s a given. I—it’s not up to me to choose that or to change that.
TP: It’s—it’s interesting that the w—you use the word “given”, which is so close to the word “gift”.
RS: Well, isn’t it? It—it is a gift, in that sense. It’s a gift that’s God’s given, and, again, the calling for me is to embrace that gift and to live in line with it, and to honour him through it, rather than to resent that gift, reject that gift, live against it and, you know, try to change it for another.
TP: So, okay. So that’s the story of creation and of Fall. What—what differences does—does Jesus and the gospel make to this story?
RS: Well, everything, I think! Really—I mean, obviously when a person comes to Jesus, they are born again—become new in Christ—given a new identity as son or daughter of the living God. And out of that liberating reality be—comes all kinds of possibilities—like the possibility of self-acceptance. Even despite our disorderedness—that we can accept who we are and not resent who we are and—and, well, call on God to help us to, again, change the things about us that are disordered where they can be changed, and—and to live with the things about us that are disordered that can’t be changed. But to, again, to live under his sovereign wisdom and to just draw on the resources of his love and kindness.
So there are all kinds of possibilities now that are there for the Christian person that weren’t there before they were a Christian, right? They’ve been washed, sanctified, justified, now have the Spirit of God within, and the people of God without, helping us to, again, walk the path of discipleship and to live out our createdness to the glory of God.
TP: So for someone listening to this podcast, Rob, who—who may be experiencing gender dysphoria, for example, and let’s assume they’re a person who’s different—maybe a Christian or maybe someone who’s open to Christian teaching. What does the Scriptures say to that person about how to deal with this—this deep—deep—often disturbing, often conflicting experience?
RS: Yeah, well the Scriptures have a category of affliction, and I want to say to the gender dysphoric person, “You”—you know—“You have been burdened with an affliction.” Now, there are many many kinds of affliction to—various ones of us have to—to carry and bear. But this is a particularly painful one and a very distressing one, hence the “dysphoria” component that we’ve talked about. And so, you—you know, a person who’s carrying that person our compassion and needs our care, and so this is not a journey anybody should try and walk alone; they—you know, the—they need all kinds of assistance and prayer and support and—and encouragement to learn to bear that burden and, if possible, to resolve it or—or to reduce it. Again, there’s a mystery to these things, you know: some of the burdens God gives to us to bear do dissipate over time, and sometimes the Lord removes them. But other times, like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, they—they stay, and we’re given grace to bear with them.
So, you know, I—again, I have great sympathy and great compassion for the—the person who’s carrying this particular burden. But the way to try and handle it is not to change—try and change sex. That’s really going the wrong way. That’s, again, rejecting the gift, rather than learning to receive the gift that God’s given. And so, the path ahead is to, with the help of God—with the help of his people—to try and embrace the gift of one’s sex and to live in line with it.
And for many people, that gets easier. I mean, we know more today than we did, perhaps, even a decade ago about, you know, neuroplasticity and—and that, you know, if we behave in a certain way, then our—our minds start to, as it were, you know, reconfigure, and indeed our brains sort of rewire for that then to feel more and more natural.
Though this is one of the reasons why many people who have transitioned in their past and now have de-transitioned give the advice that—that, yeah, even sort of minimal transitions of cross-dressing and cross-gender identification are not actually helpful to the gender dysphoric person, because they’re just confusing the wiring and they’re sort of, as it were, feeding the—feeding the—the problem, rather than, as it were, starving it of oxygen and helping the rewiring so that living in line with their body’s actually comes to feel more and more possible—more and more normal and less distressing.
Now, again, for some people, the distress persists. But for others, it does indeed minimize or perhaps come and ago, and for others, of course, it completely disappears. So there’s—there’s a whole range of outcomes here. But the—the path ahead, I think, is the same for all.
TP: You’ve already begun to touch on how we can help others and be supportive and encouraging to others who are experiencing this, and within a Christian community especially. What would you say were some of the most helpful things we could do as a Christian community, and perhaps some of the things we should avoid—the unhelpful things?
RS: Yes, well, one of the unhelpful things that we can do is perhaps even unwittingly perpetuate very rigid sort of gender stereotypes. You know, so, you know—you know all the men in the church are going off to play rugby—something. Well, what about the men who don’t enjoy rugby? And all the women are going to have a—a bake off, or something. You know, well, what about the women who can’t stand baking? You know.
Now, it’s not wrong to have those activities, of course. But if we’re presenting that this is what it means to be male and this is what it means to be female, then—and not really giving many other options and possibilities, we’re sending a message that if you don’t happen to like this thing, it says something wrong with you. And our culture, of course, will jump in on that point and say, “Well, actually, maybe that’s because you’re transgender” when the answer may be nothing of the sort. The answer may simply be because there’s a whole range of different ways of being male. There’s all kinds of things that different males like and there’s a whole range of ways of being female, and a whole range of things different females like, and—and God’s given us a rich diversity and variety of things to enjoy, and we—and we—why do we narrow that down and restrict that into a little tight sort of track? So we can create problems that way.
And for some people, that—that does trigger, if not, you know, sort of push them towards, again, psychological disturbance and genuine self-questioning: “Okay, well, am I—is this something wrong with me? Am I a normal male? Maybe I’m more female than male, ’cause I kind of like the things the women are doing.” So we can create problems that way. So if we can be conscious of that and work against that—without becoming obsessive—that—that will only help.
Now, for someone who’s genuinely gender dysphoric and is, you know, part of the church and now maybe they’re not yet just a Christian, or maybe they are, but yeah, we need to appreciate, again, the difficulty of the burden they’re carrying. And don’t just work out how to be most encouraging to them, while still being sensitive.
Now, if a person’s not a Christian, of course, they may still be identifying in a transgender fashion, and so that raises, you know, all kinds of challenges of what—what pronouns to use and what pronouns are they asking you to use and, you know, should you call someone as a biological male by a female name, if that’s the name they’re using of themselves? So there are lots of challenges there and there are not simple answers to them.
With the pronouns thing, my—well, my preferred path, if I can find the path, is just to avoid pronouns, which actually—is not that hard to do when you’re talking to someone. You usually use their name or you just talk—talk to them. Harder to do when you’re talking about them, but that’s less problematic, because if you’re talking about them, they’re not usually there to hear you.
With names, I’m a little bit relaxed with names. There is a sense in which all names are social constructs and—although obviously some names are meant to signal male and female in different cultures. But you—you take a name like “Beverly” in our culture here in Australia—that’s a female name; you go to America, you find all kinds of men with that name, and. So, you know, names are a bit fluid like that, and we do choose names. We do change names. So I’m a little more relaxed about just working with the name somebody’s chosen for themselves. But I’m a little more … nervous about using what I would call false pronouns of someone. So calling someone “she” when they’re actually male—calling someone “he” when they’re actually female.
I don’t—well, the person may want that, of course. But I would try and avoid that—only because it reinforces—to use those pronouns—just reinforces, well, a falsehood that I’d love them to see for what it is and find a better way to think of themselves.
TP: Thinking about the broader cultural and political aspects of this question, Rob, how as Christian citizens ought you respond in a culture where I—I think I’m right in saying there’s a state in Australia now where recording the sex of a baby on the birth certificate is—has been removed or is about to be removed—how—how do we respond in that kind of context where our culture is moving fairly strongly in that direction towards affirmation of transgenderism? What should we do as Christian citizens, do you think?
RS: Well, we certainly should be praying for our culture, for our government and for those who are making these kinds of decisions at various levels of society—praying that they’d be given wisdom and not just fall into line with, you know, the latest push from whatever activist quarter it is. And so, that’s the starting point.
But of course many of us have opportunity to involve ourselves in different ways—in public life, in—whether it’s on a school council or even just by writing to our local member or, you know—all kinds of way we can participate. And in social institutions and even in policy formation—of course, we get—we all get to vote at various points in various ways. So we just need to be wise in the way we engage and have thought through what the issues are and what, you know, what God would have us do and say in light of some of these changes that are being proposed and being put forward.
But as we’re aware, we—we don’t obviously don’t control things and can’t always have a great amount of influence on the way they go, and then that creates its own new set of challenges to how—how do we work with these new norms and, indeed, new laws. And, well, I guess we’d have to get into the specifics there to try and think out what is a Christian response in this or that point.
But I guess God has called us to faithfulness, and we … you know, not—not to capitulate. And so, there may be times where we have to say “No, sorry I can’t—I can’t go with this. I can’t cooperate with this.”
Now, doctors are facing this—at least, some Christian doctors I know—who are under enormous pressure to, for example, refer people on to gender clinics, where they’re going to be put on a sort of conveyor belt towards transitioning and—and I know a number of doctors who are saying, “No, I won’t grant those referrals” and are coming under increased criticism and pressure from activists and so on. So—again, this—this one example of a point where we have to say, “Well, for the good of people, we can’t just give way.”
TP: If we have a child ourselves or—or know a child in our extended family who is, at young age, expressing some kind of confusion about their gender identity—you know, “I wish I was a boy”, “I think I’m a boy”—how should we respond there? What’s the wise and good path?
RS: Well, the first thing you say is, “Don’t panic.” You know, gender exploration is actually a normal part of childhood. No human being arrives on the planet and comes straight out of the birth canal sort of with a clear sense of who they are, what they are. That’s something we grow into and we’re kind of checking out, and for some of us, it will come together fairly quickly, and others of us, it takes a little while for the clarity to come. So don’t panic; it’s actually fairly normal.
But the good news is that even for children who, you know, might well be at some point diagnosed as having some gender dysphoria from childhood—gender dysphoria—a very very very high percentage in the—in the 90 per cent have that resolved as they grow and particularly as they come into adolescence. So, again, the—the advice I would give, which has certainly been given by many—not just Christian medicos, but non-Christian as well—is just patient—“watchful waiting”, it’s sometimes called, or gentle—gentle guidance, but certainly not panic and clamping down and overreacting. That can, you know, be profoundly unhelpful.
TP: In one direction or the other, presumably—
TP: —either—either pushing quickly towards some kind of gender clinic which—which, as you say, puts them on a conveyor belt towards puberty blockers and other things that are going to only reinforce the process—
TP: —and actually lead the process, or a reaction that—an overreaction in the other direction, perhaps.
RS: Yes. Well I—yes, I—I’ve been talking with a mother who has had a gender dysphoric child for a number of years, and she deliberately hasn’t taken the child to a gender clinic and, indeed, not even to a GP, because she’s worried the GP will refer the child on, and she won’t be able to stop that then following through, and, you know, those clinics are really a one-way street: the conveyor belt, you know, only goes in one direction.
Anyway, this little boy has now—he’s resolved his issues. You know, they just were just patient and loving, and he’s—it’s all sorted out now for him. Didn’t re—require any intervention; it was just part of his development, and now he’s got to a point of comfort and clarity with who and what he is, and praise God.
TP: Rob, you speak of these issues sometimes resolving themselves—sometimes just with—without even much intervention—and sometimes, though, not resolving themselves in this life. But as Christians, what kind of ultimate resolution do we look for?
RS: Yeah, that is a great question, and really takes us to, well, where the Bible takes us to, which is the hope of the future and the dawning of a day when the Lord Jesus comes again—when there’ll be no more disorder of any kind, and no more dis—disease—no more dysphoria—where we’ll be made new completely, you know—resurrection bodies—and no disappointment with those: you know, we’ll get—we’ll get a major upgrade and, again, any gender incongruence, that will be a thing of the past, just like every other disability and—and disfigurement will all gone. So made perfect—made new.
And so, that’s the Christian hope, and it really does make a profound difference to what we can live with and bear here and now. You know, I mean, it’s just a human fact that when we have hope, we can put up with things that if we don’t have hope, we can’t put up with. And we have a living hope—a certain hope—a sure hope that all things will be made new. And so that hope is very powerful. It helps us to bear, as Paul says, with these “light and momentary afflictions”, because we’re heading towards an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them.
So that is, perhaps, a great place to end our conversation, I suppose, because that’s got to be the thing that sits in front of every Christian person, whatever our set of stresses, struggles, temptations, testings. You know, we are given this wonderful life-changing hope that will help us to indeed rejoice in our sufferings, says Paul. And so, that is one of God’s great gifts to his people.
TP: Well, thanks for being with us on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to check out the Advanced Diploma of Bible, Mission and Ministry; it could be just what you or someone you know really needs to be trained in theology, Bible and ministry so that you can serve Jesus in your church or in your workplace, or wherever you happen to be. Check out the Advanced Diploma at moore.edu.au/advanced/. Also, don’t forget to spread the word about the podcast by rating or reviewing it, or just telling your friends. And we very much look forward to having you with us at our episode, the Q&A episode: don’t forget to send us in your questions.
Thanks again for being with us today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.