You might imagine that I get lots of requests to write about various things, but very rarely do so many requests for one specific topic hit my inbox. Today we’ll be talking about that topic: the new war that toxic Christians are waging upon transgender people. Obviously I haven’t talked enough about it, and we’re going to start fixing that problem today. I’m deeply honored that the people who suggested this topic felt safe doing so and felt that I’d give it a fair shake–and I will do my level best to honor that trust here. Thank you, everybody who made this suggestion.
The prejudice that toxic Christians are propagating and fanning against transgender people is bullshit. It needs to stop. Nobody asked Christians to approve or disapprove of anybody else’s lives. But that’s kinda the problem here for them, isn’t it?
It seems to me that the Christian Right lurches from made-up crisis to made-up crisis–in between protesting things that are established reality. From the War on Christmas to their ongoing War On Women(‘s rights), from battling the evils of evolution taught in classrooms to protesting UN resolutions that don’t actually have any power over their lives, it’s just goofy to see them freaking out every year or two over some new, totally-fictitious fear that their thought leaders have ginned up in them using psychological warfare techniques like “insertion”. All of these fake wars and nonexistent problems revolve around the erosion of Christian privilege, power, and sense of exceptionalism. But then their sights settle on some cause that is genuinely none of their business, something that they really shouldn’t be meddling with, and their leaders cry out for a holy war and they charge into yet another battle for All That Is Just And Good. In this case, their newest opponent is…. transgender people.
It’s shocking and deeply troubling to see toxic Christians focusing their watery, unsteady gaze upon one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, one of the most-maligned, and one of the most-demonized. Of course it’s far beyond them to actually show Christ’s love toward these folks. No no, instead they’re drilling down on the condemnation, judgment, and victimization of some of the folks who need everyone’s love and acceptance the most.
And I think I know why it’s happening.
Simply put, young people are pulling away from Christianity because–in large part–it is hugely oppressive and judgmental of people who don’t fit the mold they think everybody should fit into. These young people are starting to embrace groups once pushed away and they refuse to accept their leaders’ attempted demonization of the marginalized. And they’re not coming back when they get older. Their would-be tithes aren’t flowing into the coffers; their would-be pew-warming butts are absent every Sunday. These churches get emptier and emptier every weekend; you can all but hear the panic in church leaders’ voices as they survey their echoing sanctuaries. These young people are rejecting not only the hate and bigotry of their leaders but also all the rest of their message. And I think that mainstream bigoted Christian leaders could deal with the loss of their young people to some extent if it weren’t for the fact that even older Christians are starting to wake up to how bad and corrosive this bigotry is.
I think it all comes down to knowing the enemy. It’s really hard to hate and fear a group when you know a bunch of folks in that group, isn’t it?
Think about the average little old white lady sitting in the average fundagelical church of a Sunday, hands clutching her Bible, mouth singing words of love and devotion, tummy looking forward to the buffet restaurant she’ll be visiting post-service with her friends. Think about how likely it is that one of her grandchildren is, say, gay. Think about how likely it is that someone she interacts with on a daily basis is gay–her barista, or her hairdresser, or her lawn person, or her accountant, or her lawyer, or her best friend. Think about how often she sees gay couples represented on television, and about how likely it is that the TV show she likes most has a well-represented gay person or couple on it as characters. Now think about her reaction when, remembering the good people she knows who are gay, she hears her pastor go off on some fire-and-brimstone sermon about the evils of “the gay lifestyle.”
She might well throw all those people she knows and loves under the bus (and many older people do, heartbreakingly), but there’s a decent chance that she’s eventually going to react very poorly to someone spouting off about people she cares about very deeply.
Right-wing toxic Christianity is all about hating and fearing the Other, whatever “the Other” is defined as right then. For a while, “the Other” was feminists, and to a large extent it still is. But there were lots of other “Others” to hate and fear. Gay people were the Other for quite some time, and for some toxic Christians they still are. But that hatred is fading one grandchild at a time, one dear friend at a time. You can only ostracize and cut off so many people before you’re left with nobody at all.
But slowly, slowly, the biggest names in Religious Homophobia turned out to be, um, gay themselves (here’s a big huge list of dozens of the worst offenders thus caught). Scandal after scandal erupted. Their “scientific studies” got debunked and laughed out of courts. Their attempts to strong-arm legislatures got overturned by judges who actually do know the law. Their shamelessly dishonest tactics, from historical revisionism to outright lying about gay people to ginning up fear of a gay takeover of America, all backfired one after another. And it wasn’t just young people seeing all of this happen–it was the older folks too, the folks with hairdressers and grandchildren.
Worst of all, the “sky is falling” mentality that toxic Christians had about equal marriage never turned out to be true. Meteors didn’t hit the planet; no widespread huge natural catastrophe occurred in states that granted equal rights to all their citizens; no Christians got frog-marched to any guillotines in the streets over protesting these rights’ extension or refusing to conduct the marriage ceremonies themselves. Life went on pretty much the same as it ever had for everybody (excepting of course the bigoted shopkeepers who tried to use “sincerely held belief” as an excuse to exercise bigotry against a select few of their customers). A few folks got married who hadn’t been able to get married before, that’s all, and nothing bad happened. So the terrors that toxic Christian leaders threatened about what’d happen if even one state adopted equal marriage just never turned out to be valid–and each state that follows suit reinforces the message that equal marriage isn’t any kind of threat to either Christians or their own marriages.
In many ways, this failed furor over equal marriage and gay rights mirrored the previous tantrums toxic Christians threw over mixed-race marriages and civil rights for black people decades ago–sometimes right down to the same Bible verses used on the protest signs and the same failed predictions about what would happen if those rights were extended as desired. If there’s one thing you can say about right-wing Christianity, its adherents have this stunning ability to totally forget the lessons of the past as they plow into their next disastrous idea. And I have no doubt whatsoever that they’re going to totally forget the lessons of their previous failures for their next big battle: the one they’re now starting up against transgender people.
The problem is this, though: all white people know some black people. All men know some women. All straight people know some gay or bisexual people. But not all cisgender people know transgender people. If it’s hard to hate and fear people you know, then it seems to me that it’s much easier to hate and fear people you don’t know.
Remember our little old white lady sitting in the pew a bit ago? She’s probably still sitting there, so let’s return our gaze to her. How likely is it that one of her grandchildren is transgender? How many transgender people is she likely to run into every day? There’s a lot of ignorance out there, and in absence of solid information, it’s a lot easier for toxic Christians to gin up fear and hatred of this particular group of Others.
So when toxic Christian blogger Matt Walsh saw some news about a transgender child being validated and shown respect, he cried out OH NOES! WHO WILL THINK OF THE CHILDREN? And Christians answered en masse: WE WILL! It’s a donotlink link, so you can feel free to take a look at the bigotry on display: the use of scare quotes around the word transgender, as if it’s not a valid word at all. The term “progressive mania” used to denigrate the entire idea that a young child might actually know what gender he or she is (when in truth most transgender people, like most cisgender people, are well aware of this fact about themselves from earliest childhood). Calling respect for transgender people “nonsense.” It’s a typically toxic misunderstanding and mischaracterization of people and ideas for his own self-serving ends. It’s just sickening to see, and it rolls on and on and on. Look at the bigots in the comments validating this bigot, this self-proclaimed egotistical “sayer of truths,” for saying the ignorant lies they all wanted to say. Comment after comment of ignorant people all swarming over the few sane people in the list: “it’s in your DNA!” and the like.
I wonder what they would have said about equal marriage, and about civil rights for black people, and about women’s suffrage.
Actually, roll that on back. I don’t really wonder at all.
The whole fight about transgender rights hits some real soft spots in toxic Christianity’s underbelly in a way that not even gay rights or women’s rights could. Being transgender isn’t like being gay or female or anything else. There’s a serious hierarchical streak in that sort of Christianity and a serious inclination toward black-and-white thinking–an insistence that their god created people exactly this way, for exactly this purpose, and that only exactly these expressions of masculinity and femininity are okay, and that society runs best when all of these things work as toxic Christians think they should. The transgender community flips all of that the bird in a way that nothing else does.
For example, Christian leaders envision Christians as being “married” to Jesus, and often refer to the church as “the bride of Christ.” Their entire conceptualization of people’s relationship to their god and each other centers around who is superior to who, and who owns whose bodies. There’s a pyramid in their minds with “godly white men” at the top, and “godly white women” right below that, and people of color below that, and so on and so forth, until one reaches “godless heathens” at the very bottom. And anybody above a person on that pyramid owns that person below and has a say in that person’s life. And toxic Christians genuinely think that when a society is run with this pyramid in mind that everybody is happier. That’s why they keep harping on “traditional marriage” being a foundation of society. When someone, say, insists that women own their bodies and should be entirely able to make their own healthcare decisions without Christianist interference, that strikes a blow at that idea and refuses to endorse or buy into or cooperate with one of the foundational building-blocks of the entire toxic-Christian conceptualization of society: churches and the ideal relationship between men and women.
In the same way, Christian leaders envision men as an embodiment of Jesus himself and women as an embodiment of the Church itself (meaning the body of all believers, not one particular church or denomination). Men always give; women always receive from men. Men provide for women; women use those provisions to nourish men. Men bless women; women accept their blessings from men. Men order women around; women do what they’re told by men. Men have sex with women; women acquiesce (with varying levels of enthusiasm) to men’s advances. When someone, say, decides that he or she doesn’t want to have sex with, marry, live with, or possibly even interact closely with someone of the opposite gender, that strikes a blow to the entire conceptualization that toxic Christians have of how relationships should function. That’s why they freak out so much over relationships that don’t echo their ideas–be it between people of the same gender, or people of opposite gender who take an egalitarian view of things, or people of any gender who don’t choose to formalize their arrangements with the label of marriage. Toxic Christians don’t have the faintest idea what to do when someone rejects their conceptualization of gender roles and identities.
And now we’re on to the worst blow yet against Christian toxicity: the idea that their god simply can’t possibly make “mistakes.” The idea is that their god is perfect and that he makes all people exactly as they are born. Transgender people are saying that the bodies they were born with don’t match their genders, and that simply can’t stand. The idea that their god could possibly make someone who identifies as the opposite gender is just unthinkable. It’s okay for a baby to be born different in general (which happens in 1 out of every 33 births on average)–almost anything that’s not conventionally-considered “normal” can easily be excused as “part of their god’s plan.” That baby can be thought to fulfill some kind of purpose even if nobody can imagine what that might be; that child can grow up with any kind of hardship and still be considered noble in suffering. And if something needs to be repaired, fixed, or changed, then the work can be accomplished without anybody feeling that child has gone outside of what even the most toxic of Christians would consider their god’s divine plan.
So when the child at the center of Matt Walsh’s sanctimonious hand-wringing tells his parents that despite what they thought earlier that he is a boy, then obviously that child must be wrong and his parents must be engaging in child abuse by allowing this boy to live as a boy. It’s their job as parents to thump that idea out of that boy’s little head and force him to live as a girl. Obviously all of these people saying they were born with the wrong bodies are just totally wrong. One commenter on Mr. Walsh’s blog even smugly compared the situation to his/her own daughter saying she was a puppy (s/he must be very, very proud of that snide, hateful analogy; it has the sound of one that’s been trotted out often and polished with use). The sheer amount of hateful, mean-spirited ignorance on display in pieces like that one is just shocking to me. The stated reason it’s happening is out of “love,” but in reality this concern trolling is about demonizing and dehumanizing transgender people to enforce right-wing Christian cisgender privilege.
The fight for transgender folks’ dignity and rights is going to be one of the hardest, though. As I said, of all the marginalized groups, they’re one of the most marginalized and least visible. There aren’t a whole lot of transgender celebrities, not a whole lot of transgender people on TV shows or depicted favorably in movies, and their ribbons and awareness campaigns aren’t anywhere as visible as those of other groups. Though many cisgender (btw, the term means someone who is born with a body that matches their gender identity) people have had some faint brush with transgender people, not a whole lot of us are really close to any. And there are a lot of myths, misunderstandings, and prejudice going on.
So when right-wing toxic Christian leaders do something outrageous that demonizes transgender people, not many of their sheep will know that what they’re hearing is total bullshit. This occurred just the other day when the Southern Baptist Convention, eager to add to its list of human rights abuses and hasten its slide into total irrelevance and show itself to be nothing but a pit of depravity, issued a resolution against transgender people that made them out to be mentally ill and seriously sinful–in between disgusting mealy-mouthed insistence about how much the SBC just lurrrrrrrves their “transgender neighbors” and would simply love to see them in church every Sunday, just so long as they admit that they’re fundamentally broken and ickie, of course, because that’s exactly what Jesus did before he’d deign to hang out with sinners. (Oh wait..)
You watch and see: this is going to be the next big culture war that toxic Christians wage against society in their effort to stay relevant and pander to the hateful. This, right here, is the beginning of the end for the religion. And the battle is already being lost–on their side. The hateful Christians the SBC hoped to gin up are indeed ginned up, yes, but I’m noticing the backlash happening a lot faster among loving, sane Christians than I saw in the previous culture wars toxic Christians have waged. John Shore, one of my favorite non-toxic Christians, has already spoken out against it, as has a group from within Baptists’ own ranks.
These criticisms may be entirely lost on toxic Christians themselves. A Christian pastor referenced Mr. Shore’s post and asked, “Are these the kinds of things we want people saying we believe?” about a resolution that he himself fully supports. He characterized Mr. Shore’s post as “mean-spirited,” but he doesn’t understand that the resolution itself is what’s mean-spirited. The problem to him isn’t that this incredibly repellent resolution got passed; the problem lies only in how it was worded. And I bet he’s not alone in supporting the resolution but wishing it’d been spin-doctored differently, like there’s some magical way someone could call transgender people defective, delusional, broken, invalid, and especially sinful and it still be “loving.”
Still, every time one of these culture wars breaks out, toxic Christianity loses a few more moderate Christians. When World Vision’s scandal broke (they said they’d stop discriminating against gay people and when toxic Christians freaked out, withdrew that idea–and immediately apologized to the bigots), Rachel Held Evans, a loving Christian, talked about hearing from fellow evangelical Christians who said that look, they loved Jesus, but they just couldn’t be part of the evangelical movement any more if that’s how it was going to be: more about who evangelicals hated than about who they loved. And indeed, after some soul-searching, one of the biggest names in evangelical Christianity ended up leaving evangelicalism behind:
But I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change. For many years, I felt that part of my call as a writer and blogger of faith was to be a different sort of evangelical, to advocate for things like gender equality, respect for LGBT people, and acceptance of science and biblical scholarship within my community. But I think that perhaps I became more invested in trying to “fix” evangelicalism (to my standards! oh the hubris!) than in growing Kingdom.
This is what it’s come to: fundagelicals are now driving off their own onetime strongest, loudest defenders as they circle the wagons and prune out all but the true believers. Every scandal that breaks, more people leave and more outsiders begin viewing Christianity with hostility and wariness. This new culture war over transgender people’s dignity and rights is just another of those battles, one that toxic Christian leaders desperately hope will finally unite their followers, fill their churches again, and gain the grudging approval and acceptance of the outside world.
But they’re wrong.
They picked on a group that seemed pretty safe to demonize. Not many cisgender folks know transgender people. Not many cisgender folks understand the situation or know about the myths and misunderstandings that abound there. I’m sure it all seemed like such a sure thing to the toxic Christians’ leaders.
But they’re wrong.
This is going to backfire as much as or worse than their other culture wars. It’s just too much of a bullying session and too much demonization. We’ve learned from the previous fights, you see. More people are willing to speak out even if they’re still learning themselves. More information is getting pushed and faster than in the previous wars. The voices of bigotry are being drowned out even as they open their mouths to speak. When I went a-hunting for that SBC resolution, I found pages of links condemning it–and the resolution itself was buried amid those condemnations. It’s simply amazing to me how fast this culture war is being lost before the opening salvos are even finished getting fired. I wonder if it’ll even get as far as demands for fake “reparative” therapies or a few token “ex-transgender” people giving their testimonies to vast crowds.
That doesn’t mean we let up.
It means we push harder.
Transgender people are one of the most vulnerable populations there are. They’re way more likely to face harassment on the street than cisgender people are, and they’re more at risk of facing violence and bullying from bigots than pretty much any other group out there. They’re entirely too likely to face depression and risks of suicide. They don’t even have the same access to safe, nonjudgmental health care as cisgender people do. They’re seriously in need of love and acceptance, and we need to step up to the plate and show them that we’re here for them.
I can’t even imagine who toxic Christians will demonize next after they lose this battle, and how many hate-consumed Christians will be left afterward. They’ve got to be running out of targets by now and it’s hard to imagine that the core group of hateful bigots left when it’s all done will be enough to sustain their churches financially or politically. “Hate isn’t working… Add more hate!” is not a viable survival strategy for churches. Part of me hopes they figure that out, but you know what I say; either way they go, humanity wins in the end. And we will be the richer for people who are proud of who they are and who are embraced in their fullness as they are by people who accept them and love them as they are, living in truth and grace and dignity, with full rights, privacy, and fairness.
Love’s going to win this one. Don’t doubt it, friends. Don’t doubt it for a minute. But don’t let up till it’s won.
This is one time when good people cannot stand by and do nothing.
Resources and Good Reads:
I’d like to thank both my readers and this GLAAD reference page for helping me learn the terminology used in this post. I’m from an age when terms once used by transgender people themselves are now considered derogatory, and I am very grateful for the corrections and any others that are needed in the future.
Shout-outs to an especially compassionate, kind, self-aware, generous, and knowledgeable reader and commenter, Sofi, who helped me with this piece. She pointed me toward this really good blog, Aoifeschatology, that covers a variety of topics on the higher end of philosophy, intersectional social justice, and an incredibly thoughtful and passionate person’s transgender experience. On Mother’s Day, from that blog, is simply beautiful in its starkness. I’m sure that a number of my readers will find some striking and heartbreaking points of commonality in Aoife’s account of what it’s like to have a parent who can’t accept her child’s new life.
Where’s the Love? A passionate denunciation of Matt Walsh’s blathering from a caring mother.
In case I didn’t make this very clear, the trans* experience is not like being gay or black or female or ex-Christian or anything else. There are several notably unique and specific hardships and worries for a transgender person that simply don’t exist for anybody else. That said, transgender people aren’t a monolith and obviously can’t be lumped together any more than any other group’s members can be. If I’ve gotten something wrong in this piece or said something that causes pain to anybody in a marginalized group, then I take full responsibility for the error and it is mine alone, and I will happily make corrections as needed. My inbox is up there under “Contact Me” if you don’t feel comfy commenting. <3