The decision this week by English parents Nigel and Sally Rowe to remove their 6-year old son from primary school and homeschool him instead has started a media storm. Why the fuss? Because their reason for doing so was the confusion their son experienced when a boy in his class came to school dressed as a girl and was treated as a girl by all the staff. Pupils at this school are free to ‘change’ their gender from day to day as they wish.
This comes just a week after one of the UK’s leading department stores, John Lewis, made the controversial decision to remove signs identifying children’s clothes in their stores as either ‘boys’’ or ‘girls’’. They now sell dresses for boys and ‘gender neutral’ clothing.
There is no doubt that an extreme transgender agenda is being pushed and rapidly accepted by our culture. How should we respond as Christians? Al Mohler describes the transgender revolution as ‘…one of the most difficult pastoral challenges this generation of Christians will face.’
How should we relate as Christians to those who genuinely feel they are trapped in the wrong body? I’m not thinking here of those who have a passing sense of ‘gender incongruence’. Many children think they are the opposite gender to what their biological sex says, but studies show that these feelings pass in 70-80% of cases without any intervention or treatment. No doubt there will be those who declare themselves to be transgender or gender queer (neither male nor female but somewhere in between) because they are seeking attention or notoriety. They are not my concern here. How should we respond to people who experience what is now called ‘gender dysphoria’ – someone who is deeply distressed by the disconnect between their sex and their sense of gender.
How should we respond? We should do as Jesus commands and love our neighbour. That’s what we're called to do no matter who we’re engaging with. But what does it look like to love your transgender neighbour in particular? Let me suggest several things:
We should treat them with dignity. Transgender people are image bearers of God and so they are entitled to respect and honour, regardless of what we may think about their self-identity. Go through the whole (ever growing) equality alphabet – LGBTIQA – every human being is created in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and courtesy.
We should treat them with empathy. Try to imagine what life is like for that person. We have all experienced something of the pain of feeling out of place – that you don’t belong somewhere. It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it. Can you imagine how agonising it must be to feel that you don’t belong in your own body? That it’s not really you? If we don’t know any transgender people we should read their stories so as to better empathise with them and understand what life is like for them.
We should treat them with compassion. Gender dysphoria is a very real cause of suffering for those who experience it. More than 60% of people who suffer gender dysphoria also suffer mood disorders, anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts. A 2011 study found that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide at least once. That is a tragic figure. Real gender dysphoria is a terrible affliction, and so we should be full of compassion for those who experience it.
We should especially have compassion for transgender people because there is no human solution for their pain. Changing their name and their clothes, identifying as the opposite sex, taking hormones and even subjecting their bodies to sex-reassignment surgery doesn’t work. It doesn’t really change anything – they are still the same sex and the same gender as before. And they will still be just as confused and alienated as before.
A 2011 study by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden followed 324 people after sex-reassignment surgery. The study found that ten years after surgery there was a significant increase in mental difficulties and, appallingly, that the suicide rate rose by a factor of 20. As long ago as 1979 Dr Charles Ihlenfield, an endocrinologist at a gender clinic recommended that 80% of those who want sex reassignment surgery shouldn’t have it because of the high suicide rates among post-operative patients. He made the following painfully honest but devastating comment: that sex-reassignment surgery was never intended to be a lifelong treatment – only a temporary reprieve. Paul McHugh, chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital which pioneered sex-reassignment surgery, said that all you end up with after surgery is ‘feminized men and masculinized women.’
There is no human solution, and that should fill us with grief and compassion. The best that people can do is engage in a very elaborate game of dressing up, but on the inside those painful feelings of confusion and alienation don’t go away. Walt Heyer, who received sex-reassignment surgery and lived for a number of years as a woman (‘Laura’) described his experience like this: ‘Over time I discovered that life as a woman could not give me peace. To my dismay, I still fluctuated between being Walt and being Laura, sometimes several times in one day. Whatever caused me to want to change my gender identity had not been solved by sex-reassignment surgery or by living as a woman… after the initial euphoria wore off, it delivered only despair. Until I determined to stop living as Laura and to do whatever it took to be Walt, peace eluded me.’ Stories like this one are just heartbreaking. We need to be ready, like our Saviour, to show compassion for hurting people.
- We must share the truth. Much as we feel sorry for those who struggle with this condition, we are not helping them or loving them if we give the impression that it’s OK to embrace a different gender from their biological sex. We need to sensitively and lovingly explain the Bible’s teaching on sex and gender.
- God created us both body and soul (Gen 2.7). Both are important and valuable and integrally related.
- God created our bodies as distinctly male or female bodies (Gen 1.27). These are the only two categories there are and they are always connected to what it means to be a man or a woman. Our chromosomes and anatomy mark us out as either male or female and that is the gender identity we are called to pursue, regardless of our feelings. Our anatomy determines our gender, not our feelings. If there is a mismatch, it’s our feelings that need to change, not our bodies or our clothes. Paul McHugh draws an analogy with anorexia. If someone feels that they are overweight when in fact their biology says they are dangerously underweight, their feelings need to change. To give surgery or to encourage somone with anorexia not to eat would be to collude with their condition rather than to cure it.
- We need to be careful that we don’t equate our own cultural or personal ideas of masculinity and femininity with what the Bible says. Not only are there big differences between men and women, there are also big differences between men and men and between women and women. Unhelpful stereotypes no doubt contribute to many people’s sense of gender dysphoria. It’s not hard to imagine a British man thinking like this, ‘I don’t like sport, but I love the ballet, so perhaps I could be a woman trapped inside a man’s body.’ What a ridiculous idea. The Bible says nothing about masculinity being bound up with liking sport.
- And so we need to lovingly call those who experience gender dysphoria to live life according to the biological sex God has given them. Sam Allberry puts it extremely well: ‘Our culture says, “Your psychology is your sexual identity—let your body be conformed to it.” The Bible says, “Your body is your sexual identity—let your mind be conformed to it.”’ The world will call that ‘hate speech’, but the Bible calls it speaking the truth in love.
- Above all we need to encourage people that our identity is only truly found in Jesus Christ, through whom all our dysphoria is being transformed (eventually) into euphoria. Our satisfaction, comfort, joy and hope rests in a relationship with him, not in changing our gender. After his sex-reassignment surgery, Einar Wegemen (the eponymous ‘Danish Girl’ of the 2015 film) triumphantly declared, ‘I finally am who I am.’ The evidence suggests that that euphoria is short-lived. But one day all who are in Christ will say those words as they are made perfect in holiness and their souls are reunited to their imperishable, glorious, powerful resurrection bodies from which every last trace of dysphoria has been eradicated forever: ‘I finally am who I am.’