What You Refuse To Know Hurts Thousands: Evangelicals, Bathrooms, and Gender Identity

What You Refuse To Know Hurts Thousands: Evangelicals, Bathrooms, and Gender Identity May 13, 2016

On May 13th, the White House, along with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, announcedall-gender-restroom-braille-sign-se-5634_210 that public schools must allow students to use the bathroom and locker room that corresponds with their gender identity. As soon as the announcement was made, the conservative Christian world, as expected reacted with great vitriol and fear. Conservative commentator Michael Brown called Christians to “civilly disobey” the Obama administrations mandate, saying “Enough is enough. Too many lines have been crossed, too many moral values have been trashed, and too much common sense has been ignored, all in the name of radical LGBT activism.” Similarly, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention penned a piece saying, “there are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams, reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it…Every human being knows that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.” Both Christian leaders, however, completely miss the point of the Obama Administrations guidance and have reverted to patently false fear tactics the polarize their conservative base against the basic civil rights that every human being deserves.

First, we must be clear what the administrations guidance is and isn’t saying. The guidance simply asks public schools to allow children to use the restroom or locker room that corresponds to their actual gender. It is becoming widely known and accepted that gender identity is not determined by one’s biological sex, but by a wide range of biological and psychological factors. The American Psychiatric Association has noted that “identifying as transgender does not constitute a mental disorder.”A recent study conducted by Boston University Medical Center found that there is, in fact, “a biological etiology for transgender identity.” In other words, we are gradually coming to understand that gender identity is not necessarily contingent upon ones genitalia, and that those who identify as transgender are not flawed or disordered, but rather experiencing something natural and biologically driven.

Because of our increased understanding about the complexity of gender identity, there must naturally be changes in the way our society conducts itself in regards to gender. No longer is it scientifically or morally acceptable to uphold a gender binary or force humans to identify with the gender that society has determined aligns with their genitals. To do so ignores the best insight that scientists and psychologists are able to offer us today. This is what is driving the growing majority of our nation and it’s policy makers to push back against laws and policies that force individuals into situations that are unsafe and uncomfortable.

The conservative argument falls flat in light of these findings. The Obama Administration is simply requiring schools to allow those who identify as male to use the male restroom, and those who identify as female to use the female restroom. At most, the mandate may lead many schools to create gender neutral, single stall restrooms, eliminating the problem altogether. What part of this is dangerous? What part of this poses a threat to any child who is using the bathroom? If anything, it would be more potentiallydangerous” to have those who identify as a girl be forced to use the men’s restroom or vice versa. The administrations mandate does, in fact, make public schools safer for all of their students.

Russell Moore goes on to argue that “severing self-identity from biological reality will hardly stop at “gender.” If anything, there’s much more of a case to be made that one can feel to be a different age than one’s doctor’s exam or birth certificate would show. That’s relatively indifferent if all that this means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a Millennial trapped in a Gen-X body.” This “slippery slope” argument is very common among conservatives, and is again, a complete straw man. A statement like this, while it may appeal to the “common sense” many, reveals a stunning lack of knowledge about gender identity and sexuality. There is absolutely no similarity in the argumentation between the transgender individuals right to identify with their God-given gender identity and the (non-existent) person who is trying to convince their parents or law enforcement that they “feel” 21, so they should be allowed to drink alcohol or an elderly woman claiming she is eighteen years old. One is a biological reality that affirms ones genitals do not define ones gender identity, the other is a farce, easily disproven by simply checking ones date of birth and measuring the years that have passed since.

The transgender person is not arguing for rights based on “feelings”, but rather on objective, biological, reality. This is where the divide sits between the conservative Christian and the pro-trans* rights citizen. The conservative Christian wants to insist that the gender binary is true because the Bible, a book written 4,000 years ago devoid of any veritable psychological and scientific information, says that God created “male” and “female” and that there is no spectrum in between and that God does not “make mistakes”. The pro-trans* right citizen argues that based on the best biological and psychological (and even, indeed, spiritual) knowledge we have to date, gender can no longer be seen as binary and transgender people are experiencing a naturally occurring biological reality, and are not disordered.

And this is where the problem lies. As a theologian and progressive evangelical myself, I have had to begin the journey of reconciling my faith with modern science and reason. My faith is stronger than ever and is not threatened by the complex knowledge that we are coming to understand. Instead, I see the increasing diversity and complexity as proof that human beings are created in the image and likeness of an eternal, expansive, and indescribable Creator. Of course there is going to be diversity and complexity. Of course nothing is ever as black and white as we desire it to be. Science tells us that our universe is expanding and so is our understanding of the cosmos and all that is in it. As our understanding changes, so will some of the way we live our lives. We must adapt to the truth or else be found lost in our ignorance.

Leaders like Michael Brown and Russell Moore, along with thousands of other evangelical Christians, are refusing to expand their thinking and accept what we are coming to know to be true because of a faulty theology that teaches that what the Bible says is without error and absolutely true. It is likely that both Brown and Moore still believe that our earth is 6,000 years old, that evolution is false, and that global warming is a lie, despite the near universal consensus by scientists on all of these matters. And that brings us to, what I believe, is the real moral question that must be asked: Should theological beliefs that have been proven to be objectively false be allowed to dictate the laws and legislation of our nation? Should one groups religious bias be allowed to dictate the lives of the entire nation? And are those who are advocating for this public policy based on their theological beliefs, in direct contradiction to the general consensus of scientists and leaders in our nation, actually violating the very ethics that they are claiming to promote?

Russell Moore has called Christians the “moral minority” and fights vigorously for the rights and freedoms of Christians to believe and practice their beliefs. Michael Brown has noted that LGBT+ people are only out to …intimidate and manipulate until [conservatives] capitulate.” Continuing, he says “We’re not going to capitulate…we will not surrender our freedoms.” They claim to desire to protect the rights of the growing Christian minority in our country, based on our nations foundational principles, but argue vehemently against the rights of sexual and gender minorities, saying, …the Obama administration has now mandated that all public schools turn their entire programs upside down because of the struggles of perhaps two or three students out of one thousand.” This double standard is frequent in many of the culture wars waged by conservative Christians throughout the history of our country who seem to be more invested in preserving their own privilege and power than defending the rights of all people, including the minorities in our nation, a value woven deeply into both the founding documents of our nation as well as the Christian Scriptures.

The Obama Administrations guidance for public schools to allow students to use the bathroom and locker room that corresponds with their gender is not a symptom of moral decay, but moral progress. It is consistent with the best scientific knowledge of our day as well as the values of our nation and of the Christian faith. We need not fear that this new mandate will open the door for danger for our students, as almost no crimes have ever been reported in relation to a trans* person using the bathroom that corresponds to their gender. Instead, we must stand up boldly and defend the rights of the transgender community, calling out fear mongering and ignorance wherever it rears its head. This is our moral obligation. As Christians. As Americans. As humans.

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