Transgender Transformation: Johnny Weir and a Brave New America

Transgender Transformation: Johnny Weir and a Brave New America May 6, 2014

It was a big weekend in Louisville just a few days ago. The Kentucky Derby–you might have heard of it–ran for the 140th time, and for a brief spell, all the world’s attention turned to this quiet and pleasant city, what with hot-air balloon visits from Tom Brady and sightings of other celebrities (Scottie Pippen, anyone?).

Derby, as it’s called here, brings out a stunning array of fantastic hats. It’s a tradition, and a fun one at that, that ladies outdo one another here with huge, ostentatious headwear. No big news here. What was news, however, was the coverage of NBC News of figure skater Johnny Weir. Weir, professedly a gay man, was wearing the same bouffant-style hat that women historically wear. (See picture top left.) We expect Tara Lipinski, a woman figure skater, to adorn herself with a Very Big Hat. We have not seen this from men.

Here is what was especially noteworthy: no commentator I heard or read had anything but smiling praise to offer Weir. Marissa Payne of the Washington Post gushed that Weir’s hat was “amazing.” Nick Schwartz of USA Today deemed Weir’s get-up “unforgettable” and the “best hat.” On and on it went. NBC made the hat a major part of its coverage, and tracked Weir and Lipinski’s movements through the day. It appeared from my reckoning that Weir had put on not only a hat, but lipstick and other makeup as well. No commentator that I came across batted an eye at all this. Everyone laughed and found Weir’s antics deeply enjoyable.

This is the tip of a cultural iceberg, it’s now clear to me. We’re in the midst of a gender revolution, or more accurately, a gender-bending revolution. Of course, these developments have been afoot for years. But trans-gender identity, either a soft or hard version, is really and truly at the cultural doorstep. I was in New York City a few weeks ago and noted the attention showered upon Neil Patrick Harris’s Broadway play Hedwig and the Angry Itch. The play is about a transgender rock star, Hedwig, played by Harris. The play has been staged all over the world and has inspired a movement among fans, who call themselves “Hedheads.”

There are many other instances of this trend one could cite. I recently saw advertisements for the Alan Cumming-led version of the raunchy play Cabaret. Cumming appears as a highly sexualized figure and, like Weir, wears lipstick and makeup in his role. From coverage, his performance seems to be designed to evoke neither strict homosexuality or heterosexuality, but pan-sexuality. He is not definably man or woman, and his sexual activity is similarly fluid.

This shift in American culture signals that we are in the midst of a cultural changeover. Since America’s founding, both bodily and sexual complementarity have been part of our cultural life. Men have been men, women have been women. Men and women have been understood to be physically different though complementary. All this is now subject to revision. Manhood and womanhood as fixed, essential realities have undergone major criticism in the intellectual mainstream. For decades, gender revisionism has been a boutique discipline of the elite American academy. Now, however, it is crossing over into everyday life. Once you would have been laughed at had you suggested that men and women are the same. Now you will increasingly be laughed at if you suggest they are different.

The norming of transgender identity in American public and cultural life should be a wake-up call to the Christian church. Things that have been assumed for centuries, even millennia, are being overturned before our eyes. The most basic truths of human existence–our sexual identity as a man or woman among them–are being rejected and remixed.

We’ve long debated whether America is a Christian nation. I think it is increasingly clear: America has strong roots in the Christian tradition, but modern America is pagan. It worships the body even as it strips it of any fixed identity.

You cannot miss the wildness, the depraved sinful rebellion, of our modern culture. We still look respectable and act decorous in public. But there has been a changing of the guard in this society. The folks who lead us, those who shape what you could call the public worldview, are not Christian, by and large. They are pagan, or at the very least, friendly to pagan behaviors and practices. They do not believe that life centers in obedience to the divine. They believe that life centers in the liberation of the self. This entails, for many people, that there are no rules save for the rule of one’s will.

Your body, in other words, does not offer you a script, a plan, a path. You may lead it wherever you want to go. You can be a man, a woman, or a mix. You can pursue sexual relationships with the same sex, the opposite sex, or a mix. In short, you can do whatever you want. You are free to remake yourself. God is not so much dead as he is our servant. He exists, yes, but he exists to enable us to become our true self, to be authentic, to be human, which is to say, once more, to do whatever we want.

I do not offer this cultural criticism in a hand-wringing, moist-towelette-to-the-forehead kind of way. I’m clear-eyed about these trends. I don’t think the chief problem in life is the undoing of long-standing manners and mores. But here’s the thing: these trends, the normalization of gender revisionism and pagan sexual behaviors (one follows naturally from the other), tell us a great deal about the chief problem that every person faces: we are all rebels against God. There is a wildness in our heart. We don’t only hear Satan whisper to us in the garden; we want him to come and speak in our ear. We want to be tempted. We desire his unloosing. We deem it good, and in so doing, we esteem Satan as good, not God.

Satan’s words, after all, were not merely a summons to sin. They represent an attempt to undo all of God’s creative work, all of the order he engineered, all the brilliant beauty he authored. God is the Creator. Satan is the un-Creator.

The trends of which I speak, then, are not only a development to oppose. They are a sign of profound lostness. All around us are people who need the ruination and renovation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally, they are like us in their heart. Outside of Christ, whether respectable or anarchic, we hate God’s authority, God’s design, God’s will, and God’s goodness. We want our liberation, and we will have it at any cost. Our cultural leaders today are signaling this, they are celebrating it, and they want us all to follow.

Not only that: they want us all, like the audience at a Broadway show, or a TV-watching crowd on a Saturday afternoon, to behold their spectacle, and to applaud. But we cannot do this. We love them too much for this. We must tell them the truth. We must remind them that manhood and womanhood are essential truths of our humanity. God created Adam, and God created Eve (Genesis 2). We are not the same. God’s design shows us the beauty of diversity, albeit diversity that stems from unity, the unity of the imago dei. Our bodies are not footnotes in our lives, but scripts by which glory may be given to Almighty God, whether as men or women, whatever pain, chaos, or sin might be in our past.

The rebellious, as we once were, want a standing ovation. This we cannot give them. They want adulation; we offer them the gift of repentance. We do not dismiss them, but in love, we call them to Christ, the one who saves us from hell, and Satan, and our pagan hearts.

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