A report Nov. 15 in Time magazine online — “‘This Isn’t Just About a Pronoun.’ Teachers and Trans Students Are Clashing Over Whose Rights Come First” — begs two important questions regarding religion’s oversized effect on American culture.
One question is whether human rights or religious freedom should be given primacy in the United States when a conflict arises between the two.
The other is whether supernatural beliefs, which are effectively superstitions (because they are unverifiable), should ever be allowed to accommodate discrimination or social repression in defiance of practical, often already legal, understandings of reality.
For example, the Time article focuses particularly on school teachers’ discrimination for religious reasons against transgender students, and whether that is morally or ethically supportable.
Teachers say they oppose the “transgender” concept due to their “sincerely held religious beliefs” (fundamentalist Christians believe God denounced such “unnatural” realities as sinful n the Bible). Transgender students say they feel “humiliated” and “disrespected” by gender-prejudiced teachers who will not refer to them in class by their chosen gender name (e.g. Brian or Brianne) or pronoun (she or he).
So, the question is, who should have the more compelling claim for redress — the offended teachers or the offended students.
In my view, superstition, whether or not it derives from religious ideology, should never be allowed to trump demonstrable, factual reality.
So, on the one hand we have Americans who are offended by even the idea of “transgender,” and they extend their distaste to actual transgender people, including students. They have this prejudice because an ancient book seems to prohibit such thinking and behavior, supposedly contrary to “God’s will,” that only males and females — exactly as they are born — be acknowledged. No hybrids allowed.
Teachers who are now plaintiffs in three cases pending in three states — Indiana, Virginia and Ohio — contend they were forced to choose to keep their jobs or behave in ways they consider sinful “for refusing to use the preferred names or pronouns of transgender students.
On the other hand, a federal law protects employees by prohibiting sex discrimination in workplaces, and presumably also pertains to schools. In addition, trans students face extreme marginalization and discrimination at schools, from students and staff. The Time article notes that some 150,000 teens, ages 13-17, identify as transgender in the U.S., and that they are exceedingly vulnerable to harassment, bullying and violence. Seventy-five percent of trans teens feel “unsafe” at school, according to a 2015 survey conducted by GLSEN, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights in schools.
A mental health study published in August by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary college students are two to four times more likely to suffer from mental-health issues than other students.
In practice, protections for trans students are spotty nationally because of a “patchwork of policies,” and policies even differ from district to district in states that have actually issue guidelines to schools for treatment of transgender students.
“But schools also face obstacles when they attempt to accommodate transgender students,” Time reported. “In October, a Georgia school district that had adopted a transgender-friendly bathroom policy — in line with the ruling in Adams’ case — reversed the decision in the face of death threats, vandalism and other forms of harassment.”
“We see a growing hostility in the culture to religious liberty, and so this is another example of that. And we want to fight those examples hard with all the tools we have,” Curt Smith, chairman of the conservative Indiana Family Institute, which is involved in one anti-trans suit, told Time. “The larger goal is to have the government realize it cannot coerce speech.”
A deep chasm exists on the issue between American Christians and citizens who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” (known as “nones”). In a 2017 survey, Pew Research Center reported that 63 percent of Christian respondents in the survey said that a person’s immutable sex is determined at birth, whereas nones “think a person’s gender is not necessarily determined by the sex they are assigned at birth.”
The upshot is that transgender youths are not mentally ill, and their gender issues are formally not considered psychological aberrations. In 2012, the psychiatry profession’s controlling Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) replaced the diagnostic term of “Gender Identity Disorder” with the term “Gender Dysphoria,” according to the Advocate, an online news site, referencing the Associated Press.
“People who have gender dysphoria feel strongly that their gender does not match their biology,” according to the website WebMD. “For example, a person who has a penis and all other physical traits of a male might feel instead that he is actually a female. That person would have an intense desire to have a female body and to be accepted by others as a female. Or someone with the physical characteristics of a female would feel her true identity is male.
“Gender dysphoria used to be called ‘gender identity disorder.’ But the mismatch between body and internal sense of gender is not a mental illness. Instead, what need to be addressed are the stress, anxiety, and depression that go along with it.”
Once such people transition (thus, the “trans” label) to the gender of their choice, those discomforts often disappear or greatly lessen, experts say.
The evolution of public attitudes toward transgender people follows that for homosexuals in American culture, as elsewhere in the West. In 1973, homosexuality was diagnosed in the DSM as a mental illness, and it was not entirely removed from the manual until 1987, as homosexuality widely came to be viewed as part of a natural human sexuality continuum.
Which, of course, has not stopped conservative Christians from using the courts to legally endorse their continued discrimination against gay people in the public square. The jury’s still out.
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