To a lot of Christians, the trans community just seems like a natural extension of LGB politics – trans is kind of like gay, but worse. Trans people are habitually sexualized (sometimes even more than gay people) and trans identities are described as “demonic” or “Satanic” with unfortunate regularity.
This is a serious problem. It represents a failure on the part of our Christian imagination. Specifically, a failure to imagine the trans person as really a person at all. Trans people are imagined as mutilated bodies, demonic icons, lurking rapists in women’s bathrooms, a threat to marriage and society, and worse. They’re not imagined as our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Trans people are full human beings. They have interests and talents that don’t relate directly to their gender identities. They have spiritual lives. Some are Christian. Some are Catholic. I know one trans woman who wanted to be a nun, another who wishes that she could be a mother. Some are married and have children. Others are asexual. Some are celibate.
Although it’s widely assumed that being trans means having genital surgery, this isn’t actually the case. Gender dysphoria (the clinical name for feelings of alienation from one’s original sex) takes a variety of different forms, and different individuals will pursue different avenues of treatment depending on their individual needs. Dysphoria varies greatly in intensity from person to person and it may fluctuate over a lifetime. Some people will get surgery, others just take hormones, some merely adopt gender-non-conforming dress or ask that people use neutral pronouns to describe them. Others may be content to cross-dress in private, or adopt cross-gender identities on-line.
All people who identify as trans or genderqueer are trying, in one way or another, to deal with an involuntary and often very painful condition. Feeling like you are in the wrong body is not comfortable. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that rates of depression, substance abuse and self-harm in the trans community are through the roof. Approximately 40% of trans people will attempt suicide. Being a good, prayerful Christian who is earnestly trying to do the will of God does not exempt a person from this pain.
We don’t know what causes people to experience gender dysphoria, but I have a very good personal reason for thinking that, at least in my case, it’s partly biological. I would describe myself as “gender fluid” — not because I think it’s fun to wake up in the morning and think “Hmm, would I like to be a boy today, or a girl,” but rather because I experience considerable fluctuation in the degree to which I feel alienated from, or connected to, my femininity and my female body.
There are two really major fluctuations that I’ve experienced. One was about two years ago, when my dysphoria really intensified. I’d always felt some alienation from my femininity, but this was relentless. It wasn’t just a sense of not fitting in with other women, or of not being able to conform to gender stereotypes, it was a feeling of not being a woman at all. The conspicuously female parts of my body felt like they didn’t belong to me, and I felt really uncomfortable and fake when I had to go out and behave like a woman in public.
At the time, I came up with all kinds of psycho-spiritual explanations for what was maybe going on. Perhaps I had been suppressing my feelings of dysphoria for a long time, and now I had let them out of the closet so they were running amok. Or maybe I had opened up some kind of spiritual door to evil, and now it was being allowed to get in and ravage my psyche. Or maybe…or maybe…etc.
Then one morning, in early April, I woke up and the feeling of dysphoria was gone. Well, not completely gone but diminished to the point where it just felt like background radiation rather than like one of the central defining elements of my experience. I felt like I belonged again in my female body, and I wanted to do traditionally feminine things. I called my daughter down and sewed some dolls clothes and started thinking about how I might like to redecorate my bathroom. It was really weird and I didn’t have an explanation for it, but at the time I was really just too busy to get my knickers in a knot worrying about why I was no longer suffering with a constant sense of my body being wrong.
Two weeks later, I realized that I’d missed my period and the pregnancy test came back with two cute little pink lines. I wasn’t planning to get pregnant. I didn’t think that I was pregnant. I actually thought that I’d carefully avoided my fertile days and was guaranteed to NOT be pregnant. Yet in spite of the fact that there was no way that I could have known about my pregnancy, my body and my psyche were responding to a surge of hormones. In fact, from the dating ultrasound and my own records, I happen to know that the sudden drop in my feelings of dysphoria coincided more or less exactly with the hormonal changes that accompany implantation.
As soon as I realized this I also realized that the sudden increase in dysphoria two years ago probably had the same cause: when I lost my previous pregnancy to miscarriage suddenly, for the first time in my adult life, I was not pregnant or breastfeeding. In both cases, the changes in the intensity of my gender dysphoria were obviously linked directly to biological events.
Indeed, although the study of transgender neurology and biology is still fairly primitive, most of the studies suggest that there probably is a biological component to gender dysphoria. In other words, there is a significant likelihood that when we’re looking at trans people we are not looking at people who are “confused” about their “gender identity,” or who “reject God’s plan” for their bodies. Rather we are looking at people who have intersex conditions that cannot yet be easily diagnosed. Conditions that we don’t yet completely understand.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Although intersex conditions are rare, they are tremendously varied. There are conditions that affect almost every aspect of human sexuality, from the most superficial to the most essential. Sometimes these conditions have no influence on gender identity (bearded women or men with breasts are generally completely cisgender), in other cases they make it practically impossible for medical personnel to even decide what sex should be assigned to a person at birth.
Some intersex conditions have only recently been discovered. Complete androgen insensitivity, for example, is a condition where a woman develops with XY chromosomes and undescended testes instead of ovaries, yet her body otherwise develops in a female-typical way. Most women with this condition are identified as female at birth (they have external female genitalia), and go on to have completely normal feminine gender identities. Until very recently these women would have been diagnosed with ammenhorrea and infertility – only with the advent of modern sonograms and DNA testing did it become possible to understand the nature of their condition.
Neurology is currently in its infancy compared to other medical sciences. As recently as 20 or 30 years ago it actually seemed fairly reasonable for people to argue that psychological differences between men and women were entirely the result of social conditioning. Now we know that just could not possibly be true: endocrinology and neurology play a significant role in shaping our psychological, emotional and intellectual experiences of masculine and feminine. We still don’t completely understand these differences or what causes them, but we do know that there are sex-differentiated neurological structures just as there are sex-differentiated hormones, sex-differentiated phenotypes, and sex-differentiated genitalia.
Given out present state of knowledge, there is no scientific, scriptural or theological reason to discount the possibility that gender dysphoria may be the result of rare biologically determined neurological or hormonal conditions. If this is the case, then it is not only cruel and unkind to treat trans people as if they are demonic, sinful, and in error – it’s also wrong. In this case, as in so many others, it may be that that which is uncharitable is also just untrue.
Photo credit: Pixabay