When I was in my early twenties, I went through a David Bowie phase. I dabbled in androgyny which involved some cross-dressing, sexual experimentation, and even giving myself a Ziggy Stardust-like alter-ego. I called myself Agent Starchild, named after a character in George Clinton’s P-Funk ensemble. I told people I was “bi-curious” because I was fascinated with queer people, who were sort of an exotic hobby to me at the time. I suspect that what I did in my early twenties is what conservative evangelicals like Russell Moore presume that transgender people are actually doing themselves. Though I’ve never been close friends with a transgender person, when I look at the story of someone like 12 year old transgender girl Jazz Jennings [pictured here], who was born anatomically male, it’s obvious that her experience is completely different than my David Bowie phase.
In Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, she describes the role that Jews had in bourgeois liberal continental European culture in the late 19th century, which was part of sowing the seeds of anti-Semitism that would ripen half a century later. It was trendy to have a Jew at your cocktail party. It made you exotic and rebellious. Especially if the Jew was an atheist. And even more so if s/he was queer. This exotic tokenism of course didn’t translate into any genuine solidarity when the nationalist reactionaries used it to make “Jews” into the symbols and scapegoats for bourgeois decadence when the libertine party culture came crashing down a few decades later with the first world war.
I think queerness in early 21st century white American bourgeois liberalism functions analogously to Jewishness in late 19th century “bohemian” upper-class Europe. Liberals fetishize queerness. To have a queer friend is the easiest way to be “open-minded” (having a black friend for example is way more complicated), and it justifies indulging your libertine appetites. This is not the fault of people who are born into bodies that are wired differently than the default, “straightforward” genderedness and sexual orientation with which 85-90% (?) of people live. But there is a libertine romanticism that needs to be disentangled from the real biological diversity of human beings whose existence should be validated, but not fetishized.
What I did as a young twenty-something was sinful. Why? Because I was playing around flippantly with something holy, trivializing God’s beautiful gift of sexuality by making it into a navel-gazing, narcissistic venture. I wanted to be exotic and different. I wanted to fit in with the bohemians that I lived with at the Collingwood Arts Center in Toledo, Ohio. So I partied, got high, and played around in my Rocky Horror Picture Show fantasy land. I worshiped created things instead of the creator. Romans 1:18-32 could be legitimately applied to my behavior; I experienced the degeneration of God’s wrath as a result of it. The confusion and drama of that kind of lifestyle compounded with my already naturally problematic brain chemistry and threw me deeply into depression.
But this 12 year old girl Jazz Jennings is a completely different person than the self-indulgent, romantic libertine Morgan Guyton was at age 24. I imagine that conservative evangelicals probably assume that transgender kids are “created” by libertine hippie parents who want an exotic, uniquely gendered child so they can be the stars of their liberal cocktail parties. Who knows? Maybe there are some parents who are that way. But it’s utterly unjust to project that presumption on people we don’t know.
Obviously you don’t have much to go by in assessing the motives of strangers other than their personal testimony, so here’s the way Jazz’s parents describe their attitude about Jazz: “We don’t encourage, we support. And we just keep listening to what she tells us.” According to Jazz’s parents, she has been traumatized by her male anatomy since she was a toddler. When their pediatrician suggested that she might have gender identity disorder, they went to a specialist who confirmed it.
Every step of the way, they set boundaries in such a way that if Jazz’s gender uniqueness was just a quirky phase, she could “go back” to being a boy, but Jazz was insistent, so that when she turned five, her parents let her wear a one piece girl’s bathing suit at her birthday party, and she has dressed and publicly self-identified as a female ever since.
Now for those of my fellow evangelicals who are skeptical about the diagnoses of modern psychology, let’s take a look at the Bible. 1 Corinthians 7 is the most prominent discourse on sexuality in the New Testament (even though the issue here isn’t technically sexuality). When we look at the underlying logic in Paul’s pastoral discernment, it doesn’t have anything to do with the gender complementarity which has become the counterpart conservative fetish to the liberal fetish of queerness in our era. The underlying question for Paul in considering human sexuality is to minimize distraction and maximize our ability to worship God.
Paul says it’s better to be celibate than to be married because “the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33). At the same time, Paul recognizes that people who are wired differently than him (“ I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God,” v. 7) might be more distracted by abstinence than by marriage. So Paul advises that if you cannot overcome your sexual desire, then “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (v. 9). Paul states the rationale for his nuanced advice explicitly in verse 35: “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”
Now I recognize that this passage speaks to a very different question regarding marriage or celibacy but I think that Paul’s underlying rationale can be extrapolated and applied to offer a Biblical perspective on the issue of transgender identity. If a kid for whatever mysterious biological reason is spending her whole mental life scandalized by the male body that she’s been born into, then doesn’t that likewise constitute an obstacle to “good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” which it’s reasonable to try to overcome? It is the most profound theological malpractice for Russell Moore to say presumptuously about these circumstances:
We acknowledge that there are some persons who feel alienated from their identities as men or as women. Of course that would be the case in a fallen universe in which all of us are alienated, in some way, from how God created us to be.
Nothing is a greater abuse of the doctrine of original sin than to pluck it out as a means of filing biological diversity away under “fallen creation.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible says nothing prescriptively about what people should do who are hormonally one gender and anatomically another or how to distinguish the people who are “really” that way from the libertines who are “faking it.” To turn “God made them male and female” into a prescriptive prohibition of the acknowledgment of transgender identity is about as reasonable as saying that astronomy is a sin because Genesis 1:14 says that stars are lights that God built into a dome in the sky. (Oh wait! That sounds like what the church did to Galileo and Copernicus.)
The real reason that transgender or intergender people can’t be allowed to exist is because they represent an existential threat to the conservative evangelical fetish of gender complementarity. If God created someone both male and female, then how in the world can their sexual orientation be adjudicated and policed by others? The fear seems to be that the Biblical prohibition on homosexuality would become meaningless if we can’t say for sure that everyone is either fully male or fully female, which would mean that cis-gendered, heterosexual Christians don’t get to give themselves a gold star for being normal.
There are all sorts of “liberal” and “conservative” idolatries that we can fall into around sexuality and gender. We shouldn’t be fetishizing either normalcy or exoticism. In both cases, we would be worshiping creation rather than the creator. I happen to think that we are best guided by Paul’s pragmatic guiding principles in 1 Corinthians 7 of “promoting good order and devotion to the Lord” when we think about these matters.
If someone’s devotion to the Lord can be less distracted by modifying his/her anatomy to match with his/her hormones, why should any reasonable Christian oppose that? When Russell Moore says that this smacks of the “Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves,” is he willing to take this anti-scientific stance consistently against the use of medical technology for other biological issues like kids who are born without vital organs or with genetic diseases?
What goes on inside the bodies and minds of transgender people is a mystery whose opaqueness we simply have to accept. To presume dismissively that they are fallen creation or self-indulgent romantic libertines has nothing to do with our fidelity to God’s truth (which remains beyond our grasp on this matter) and everything to do with our need to arrogate to ourselves the divine omniscience that allows nothing about other peoples’ behavior to fall outside the dominion of our judgment.
I was originally moved to write about this topic after reading the story of Heath Adam Ackley, a theology professor who was fired by Asuza Pacific University this week after coming out transgendered (his name had been Heather Clements). I have no way of evaluating the credibility of Ackley’s life experience beyond his personal testimony. But I feel pretty confident that someone who walks directly into persecution like that is not just going through a David Bowie phase or fetishizing the exotic. And I don’t see how anyone could argue that it shouldn’t be against the law to fire somebody for that reason.
In any case, I give God permission to create people who don’t fit into my boxes. And I hope that one day there won’t be any more hype about it either from the liberals who want something to show the world they’re “open-minded” about or the conservatives who want something to supposedly “stand up for God’s truth” about. I just hope that in the future, families of people like Heath and Jazz will be able to quietly make the decisions that need to be made so that they can live in their bodies the way that the vast majority of us are privileged to live.