Understanding Gender Dysphoria: I review Mark Yarhouse’s new book

Understanding Gender Dysphoria: I review Mark Yarhouse’s new book July 3, 2015

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Over the past year, I’ve had a number of people ask me for good Christian resources aimed at helping pastors, parents and Christians with gender dysphoria to navigate the difficult questions about gender identity that we face in the postmodern world. In all cases I’ve smiled sadly, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Well…there is a book being written about this. It’s good. But unfortunately, it hasn’t been released yet.

That book is now available. Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture is a book that has the potential to change the conversation surrounding transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming people and our role in the church. Mark writes from a fairly conservative evangelical perspective, but there is one critical difference between his approach and the approach I usually see from conservative writers: Mark has actually listened to trans people with a view to understanding, and his goal is to help churches provide pastoral care to a group that has traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized.
A lot of the concerns that Mark voices echo my own. For example, he talks about the problem of marginalized groups having their stories written or told for them by more dominant groups, and then goes on to analyze how this happens in both the Christian and the secular world. I think it’s a very pertinent point. On the one hand, there is a very strong risk that people (young people especially) who are experiencing gender dysphoria in a Christian context will feel like they have to conform to gender expectations or that their trans experiences are an affront to the created order. On the other hand, there is a risk of people being railroaded into a narrow kind of transgender narrative in which hormones, surgery and legal change of identity are the only means of living authentically.
Yarhouse suggests that if Christians want to minister effectively trans people, one of the approaches that we should consider is helping people to navigate gender dysphoria by exploring alternatives to both of these narratives. He offers three different frameworks that might be considered, and provides an honest discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these different paradigms. Instead of telling people how they need to identify, what treatment they ought to seek and how they ought to conceive of their experience, he instead offers a toolkit to provide folks with a greater range of options.
Mark also offers a lot of advice for how Christian communities can improve their ministerial approaches to trans people. He illustrates his points in simple, accessible ways like this flow chart, describing two different approaches to ministry:

“Behave –> Believe –> Belong”
“Belong –> Believe –> Become.”

Mark suggests that many Christian communities close their doors to trans people because they functionally practice the first model, and he suggests that the second model is more evangelical in the sense that it has a greater capacity to actually evangelize.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with Mark on everything. There are some places where I would have been more critical of traditional Christian approaches to gender, and where I would more strongly emphasize the harm that can be done. I suspect that some trans readers will find this book frustrating because it approaches transgender expression, especially surgical and hormonal interventions, with a great deal of caution. I suspect that some Christian readers will find the book objectionable because it approaches those same topics with openness, and without condemnation. A lot of people would probably prefer a book that was more polemical and less even handed.
Yet it is to those folks, especially, that I would recommend this book. I’m not saying that you need to read it and agree. I’m saying that if you want to be able to actually understand both sides of the issue, whether you’re on the left or the right this book will give you something to think about – and it will do so with humility, insight, and respect.

Bonus!: You can listen to Mark and I discuss gender dysphoria and trans issues with Zach Perkins on the latest episode of the Theologues podcast.

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