Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture
Mark Yarhouse is the Hughes Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology at Regent University. The following interview revolves around Yarhouse’s book, Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Challenging Culture.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and interview videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: What and/or who was instrumental in getting you interested in this most challenging subject of gender dysphoria?
Yarhouse: When I was completing my doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Wheaton College, I had the opportunity to serve as research assistant to Stanton Jones, who was at the time the department chair. His expertise was in two areas: human sexuality and the integration of psychology and theology. When he asked me to serve as his research assistant it was to work on a line of research on the use of scientific research in the church’s moral debates about homosexuality. We were looking at what science actually says about key areas of research, such as etiology, and how scientific findings were being used in the debate to move the discussion down a certain path. In any case, there is overlap in research and clinical practice between sexual orientation and gender identity, at least in childhood, when there is greater gender atypicality among children who later grow up to identify as gay or transgender. After I graduated and was developing my own lines of research and setting up my clinical practice, I would see people who were navigating either sexual or gender identity questions in light of their Christian faith.
Moore: Every historical period has its peculiar challenges. It seems fair to conclude that our late modern period poses the formidable challenges of rapid and complex social change. Because of these dynamics, I find many Christians immobilized in learning how to respond. The sheer amount of information overwhelms the desire to come to some sort of settled conviction. How do you motivate Christians to engage this particular issue?
Yarhouse: I haven’t felt the need to increase motivation among Christians. I find that the topics—whether sexual or gender identity—are motivation enough. Many Christians are quite interested in these topics. The topics have been at the center of the cultural discourse regarding norms for sex and gender, norms that have often been informed by a Christian worldview. In addition, more people know friends or family who are navigating these questions, and so there is a sense in which it has moved from theory to people Christians actually know. Also, of course, many of the people wrestling with these questions are Christians, and so it brings the whole topic close to home.
Moore: A number of scholars argue that the ways in which we conceptualize “identity” are wrong because we are children of the Enlightenment. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so, what are the practical ramifications for gender dysphoria?
Yarhouse: I agree that ways we think about ourselves have certainly changed throughout history. We find ourselves in a post-Enlightenment sociocultural context in which both identity and community are particularly salient. In fact, I would say that these are two things offered by the mainstream LGBTQ+ community: a sense of identity and a sense of community. When people grapple with questions of identity and community in light of either their same-sex sexuality or their gender identity, I think the answers they find in the mainstream LGBTQ+ community are often quite compelling. I think the church has at times failed to realize how compelling the answers are. There is a larger philosophical critique about what informs and shapes our identity, and I do think there are potentially untapped resources from Christianity that could prove useful in navigating gender identity conflicts.
Moore: What is the average age where people experience gender dysphoria for the first time? How much of it is due to factors outside themselves?
Yarhouse: A child is aware of his or her gender identity at a young age, typically between ages 2 and 4. So historically if a child were to experience what we refer to as early onset gender dysphoria, it would be at a fairly young age, at around the time a child develops their gender identity. The ratio of boys to girls referred for evaluations were often about 4:1 or 5:1. In the past several years, however, gender specialty clinics in the U.S. and other countries are reporting an increase in late-onset cases, particularly among biological females. There is no consensus today among professionals as to why this shift has taken place.
Moore: Biblical scholars like N.T. Wright say that appreciating antithesis is crucial for faithful exposition of the overall story of the Bible: night and day, men and women, etc. How much help do you think this provides with respect to gender dysphoria?
Yarhouse: For many Christians, myself included, the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts establish a male-female binary as a reflection of God’s creational intent. At the same time, we know that there are exceptions to the binary, as we see with intersex conditions and diverse experiences of gender identity. The question then is, how do we understand these variations in light of creational intent? In my book, I introduce the reader to three explanatory frameworks for making sense of questions like this. The three lenses are integrity, disability, and diversity. The integrity lens emphasizes Genesis 1 and 2 and God’s creational intent. The disability lens focuses on how gender identity and biological sex do not align and this is a nonmoral variation that occurs in nature. It isn’t tied to moral categories in quite the same way I see happening among those who are proponents of the integrity framework. From the disability framework, gender dysphoria exists because something is not functioning properly, which I think creates more empathy and compassion for the person navigating gender identity concerns. Christians drawn to the disability lens often see lack of proper functioning as the result of the fall in Genesis 3. The diversity lens looks at these variations as reflecting a sense of identity and community. A strong form of the diversity lens wishes to deconstruct the male-female binary, viewing this binary as a source of oppression.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers take from your book?
Yarhouse: I suggest readers take more time to understand these three explanatory frameworks, to identify which framework resonates with them and why, and to consider what each framework could bring to the church and how each framework can inform how the church could position itself in relation to the broader culture. This is what I refer to as an integrated lens, one that draws on the best of each of the three lenses. For me, an integrated lens recognizes that the integrity lens is right in placing a high view of Scripture and God’s creational intent. It seems to me that a Christian account of gender and sex begins here. The strength of the integrity lens is the emphasis on Genesis 1 and 2. But what I appreciate about the disability lens is the way people there recognize the reality of Genesis 3. We live in a fallen world, and the fall has touched all of creation, including our experience of our gender. What the diversity lens brings to the discussion is the emphasis on identity and community. Again, these are emotionally compelling answers to fundamental longings for personhood and place in the world. I may disagree with the answers from the mainstream LGBTQ+ community about how to make sense of all of this, but I can appreciate that there is a genuine attempt to address identity and community, and that those attempts have been quite compelling to people navigating gender identity and faith.