Time magazine calls the debate over transgender people and bathrooms “the latest civil rights fight”. A year ago, this issue was unknown to most of us. Today it is dominating headlines across the country.
What are the issues involved? What does God’s word say?
This controversy is complicated—the biological, psychological, social, and legal issues involved are still evolving and hotly contested. The following essay is intended to provide brief responses to the most common questions associated with the transgender debate.
What is “transgender”?
Let’s begin with definitions. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines “transgender” as “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” “Gender identity” is “a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.” “Gender expression” is “the way a person communicates gender identity through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.”
The APA explains that “sex” is assigned at birth, referring to one’s biological status as either male or female. “Gender” refers to “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for boys and men or girls and women.”
A “transgender” person, then, is someone who identifies with a different gender than their sex—a boy who identifies as a girl or a girl who identifies as a boy.
But the issue is more complicated than this. Some people are born with genitals that are not typically male or female, a condition called “intersex.” And some identify their gender as falling outside the constructs of “male” or “female” and are referred to as “genderqueer.” They may prefer pronouns such as “zie” instead of “he” or “she.”
Other categories of transgender people include “androgynous,” “multigendered,” “gender nonconforming,” “third gender,” and “two-spirit people.” Reflecting the complexity of this issue, there are now more than fifty gender options on Facebook.
Transgender people may or may not seek hormonal and/or sex reassignment surgery to conform their bodies to their gender identities. Those who undergo such medical procedures are called “transsexual,” as they have transitioned physically from one sex to another. A person born as a male becomes recognizably female, and vice versa.
Why are some people transgender?
A study published by the Williams Institute in 2011 estimated that 0.3 percent of the population, or 700,000 people, identify as transgender.
The APA states that “there is no single reason for why some people are transgender.” It cites experts who believe that “biological factors such as genetic influences and prenatal hormone levels, early experiences, and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood may all contribute to the development of transgender identities.”
Some scientific studies seem to indicate the presence of biological factors in the brain of some transgender persons. For instance, one study found the “white matter microstructure pattern” in the brains of its transgender subjects to be closer to the pattern of the person’s gender than the person’s biological sex. However, some studies on neuroplasticity show that some brain structures can be modified by circumstances such as parenting and repeated activities.
In other words, it is plausible that possible transgender brain factors may be the result of life circumstances rather than inherent conditions. The nature vs. nurture argument is relevant to this issue as to so many others.
In addition, the (possible) presence of biological factors does not necessarily warrant acceptance of behavior associated with these factors. A person’s biological conditions and aptitudes are not the only factors in determining appropriate moral and practical standards.
For example, even if a so-called “gay gene” were to be discovered, we would still debate the morality of homosexual activity and marriage in light of biblical truth. Some feel the same way with regard to transgender people. We are fallen people living in a fallen world.
What about sex change operations?
To some, the clear answer to the transgender question is to change one’s sex to match the person’s gender. But the issue is far more complicated.
Paul McHugh is the University Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where sex-reassignment surgery was first performed in the 1960s. He writes in The Wall Street Journal: “Policy makers and the media are doing no favors either to the public or the transgendered by treating their confusions as a right in need of defending rather than as a mental disorder that deserves understanding, treatment and prevention.”
When Johns Hopkins studied its sex-reassignment patients, it discovered that they were no better adjusted after their surgery than before, so the university ceased such operations. The physician who headed the study later told The New York Times: “My personal feeling is that surgery is not a proper treatment for a psychiatric disorder, and it’s clear to me these patients have severe psychological problems that don’t go away following surgery.”
Dr. McHugh reports a recent study of sex-reassignment patients which found that their suicide mortality rose almost twenty-fold above the comparable non-transgender population. He concludes: “‘Sex change’ is biologically impossible. People who undergo sex-reassignment surgery do not change from men to women or vice versa. Rather, they become feminized men or masculinized women. Claiming that this is a civil-rights matter and encouraging surgical intervention is in reality to collaborate with and promote a mental disorder.”
What about bathroom laws?
According to the APA, “Anti-discrimination laws in most U.S. cities do not protect transgender people from discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression. Consequently, transgender people in most cities and states face discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives.”
In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a report titled “Injustice at Every Turn.” It found that transgender people experience high levels of discrimination in legal systems, education, health care, housing, employment, and even in their families.
Now the movement to ensure transgender rights is focused on bathroom access. Eighteen states and more than 100 cities in the U.S. have enacted legislation allowing people to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender rather than with their sex.
Supporters of these “bathroom bills” claim that such legislation is needed to protect transgender people from abuse if they use the bathroom assigned to their biological sex. Responding to the assertion that sexual predators could use such access for abusive purposes, they cite a study that discovered no such problems in seventeen school districts covering 600,000 students.
Opponents of “bathroom bills” counter that people, especially children, often cannot know if they are being spied upon. They fear that “Peeping Toms” could claim to be transgender so they could access girls’ restrooms and showers. And they fear the use of cell phones in such facilities to take inappropriate pictures or videos.
There is a clear pattern of men who claim to be transgender and gain access to prisons and homeless shelters where they assault women. What if such criminals use “bathroom bills” to commit these crimes in public facilities? In addition, opponents of such bills worry that they would adversely affect business operators who object to transgender access on moral or religious grounds.
What does Scripture say?
Obviously, the question of transgender bathroom access was unknown to the biblical era. But God’s word does speak with relevance to the larger issue before us. Consider five biblical principles.
One: Scripture calls us to affirm our created sexual identity.
Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” Jesus affirmed that God made us “male and female” (Matthew 19:4).
Two: We must protect those who are most vulnerable.
Scripture clearly calls us to defend children (Matthew 18:10) and women (1 Peter 3:7). Any legislation that could endanger those who cannot defend themselves should be questioned and all necessary protections ensured.
Three: We are all broken people.
The Bible states that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). However, as fallen people, we have each distorted the image in which we were made. This distortion extends to sexual sins such as lust (Matthew 5:28) and adultery (Exodus 20:14), as well as to confusion and deception regarding our identity and significance.
Four: Separating the body from the soul heals neither.
As we have seen, studies show that changing one’s biological sex often does not heal the psyche. That’s because God made us in his image. Where we are wounded most deeply, we most need the transforming power of God’s Spirit.
Five: Suffering people are desperate for hope.
When we are in pain, we will try whatever promises to help. Many who choose to live as transgender are not seeking to become involved in sinful behavior. Rather, they are responding to what they consider to be natural. Those who choose sex-reassignment surgery and hormone treatments take even more drastic measures. They need compassion and community, not ridicule and rejection.
Writing for Christianity Today, John W. Kennedy notes: “The challenge before conservative evangelicals is persuading transgendered people, their families, and faith-based advocates that gender identity disorder is not beyond the reach of God’s grace, compassionate church-based care, and professional help.”
Whatever your view regarding transgender and transsexual people, know that Jesus died for them just as he died for you. If God loves them, it’s your job to love them, too.