Faith-Based Perspectives: Caitlyn Jenner and Questions About Gender Identity

Level Ground hosted a public screening and discussion of Bruce Jenner's interview with Diane Sawyer a few weeks ago. We collected the questions that came up during our conversation and divided them into three different categories:

  1. Practical Questions
  2. Theological Questions 
  3. Subjective Questions

We asked a few qualified Level Ground friends to respond to our questions and will be posting their answers over the next week. First up is Dr. H. Adam Ackley. You can read more about Adam and his story here

In our mission to create space for dialogue, Level Ground is committed to bringing a diversity of thoughtful and nuanced perspectives to the conversation about gender and transgender identity. A big thank you to Adam for offering his unique perspective on the following questions.  



Practical Questions

1. What is passing? 

A term used earlier in a racial context, when a member of an oppressed / stigmatized minority is physically able to appear to be a member of the majority and allows this to happen rather than identifying as a member of their oppressed group. The 1959 film “Imitation of Life” dealt with this from a racial perspective, and the term is still used by gender minorities (trans or intersex) to describe blending in as a male or female who is neither trans nor intersex (the majority).

2. What does “fully transitioned” mean? 

This term is objectionable, but people who don’t understand that seem to suggest that when a trans person can “pass” as a member of the non-trans majority – usually after long-term hormone treatments, cosmetic and gender reassignment surgeries, and changes of wardrobe, hair and makeup along with name and gender change on legal documents. The reason that many trans and intersex people object to this term is because some people do not aspire to “pass” as the majority, some do not wish to undergo medical treatments or are not able to afford or endure them – or have mixed results. Transition is a highly individual process that varies from person to person, so one person’s “full transition” may involve a great deal less than another’s.

3. When is asking someone which pronouns they prefer an appropriate question? 

They will usually tell you if it isn’t obvious. In a group, use “what is your preferred name and pronoun” with ALL people, preferably allowing people to write this on a nametag, to avoid singling out and embarrassing gender variant people. 

4. How can I ask without being awkward or rude? 

Empathy / the golden rule is the best guide: If you are in a situation where someone asking you what your preferred pronoun or gender is would be irrelevant or offensive, then don’t ask someone else that question. More often than not, another person’s gender is irrelevant to our interaction and none of our business. We can use gender-neutral language whenever possible and follow the lead / trust what we have been told by each person regarding their name and gender when they introduce themselves or correct us. A smile and willingness to learn / make corrections as needed is the best approach.

5. How do I respond to my children when they present gender variance?

As with any other aspect of a child’s health or ability that may differ from the majority – listening, seeking guidance from medical and educational professionals in their lives, loving unconditionally, being patient, understanding that your child may do and be some things that are unexpectedly different from your own experience but (as long as not harming self or others) not necessarily wrong.


Theological Questions

1. Does the Bible have anything to say to the discussion of gender identity? 

That is debated. Deuteronomy 22.5 forbids cross-dressing (people wearing the clothes of the gender they do NOT identify as) but does not address transgender or intersex conditions. Genesis 2, Isaiah 56 Matthew 19 and Acts 8 all praise the only gender-variant people mentioned in the Bible – the original human who is both genders initially before being divided into a man and a woman in verse 22 is described as “good.” The prophet Isaiah and Jesus and Matthew 19 both praise eunuchs – who as Jesus explains may be “born eunuchs” (disorders of sexual development or intersex conditions cause people to be born with blended genitalia, as a gender other than the one they are genetically, and so forth) or “made eunuchs” (genital surgery – though often involuntary on prisoners of war or court guards assigned to royal concubines, Jesus’ praise for such individuals demonstrates he doesn’t cast people out of His Kingdom simply for this reason), and in Acts 8, the first Gentile convert to Christianity, who becomes an evangelist, is a eunuch.

2. Does the male female binary in Genesis matter to us today?

The first three chapters of Genesis describe an androgynous or intersex first human (Chapter 2 until verse 22) who is divided into a male-female pair of equal partners because God deems “it is not good for the adam (the human made of soil) to be alone.” Gender roles are differentiated as part of the curse, after the fall, in Genesis 3. The first two chapters describe a pair of humans who share “one flesh” and have equal responsibility for procreation, childrearing, and stewardship of the earth and its fruits. The broken and hierarchical relationship that separates men and women in Genesis 3 is addressed again by apostle Paul, a scholar of scriptures, when he explains in Galatians 3 that Jesus has redeemed and healed this relationship such that all people – regardless of gender – have unity in Christ Jesus. The gospel message as a whole seems to be that these things which separate us as individuals are important insofar as they help us recognize our need for God’s grace and healing and to celebrate it when we receive it in Jesus Christ.

3. What does it mean when a person born biologically male says he has the soul of a female? What does this say about the nature of gender identity, especially related to hormones and hormone therapy? (e.g. as spiritual, psychological, biological, etc.) 

A lot of people, including Christians, make comments about “soul” that have more to do with Greek philosophy and popular culture than the Bible, and this is one of those cases. In Christianity, the person as a whole is important (including the body, hence this is one religion in which the soul isn’t simply reborn into a different body but the body itself is to be resurrected). With gracious Christian love, we can trust this person is doing the best they can to explain their experience, but it isn’t good Christian theology. With our limited human understanding, our knowledge of how God creates gender in the human body and how many variations there may be is constantly growing. Even medical experts don’t have exhaustive knowledge of this, let alone the average person. As of now, we know of about 46 different ways medically that a person might appear to be one gender on the outside (“the body”) but be wired (genetic code, endocrine system and hormones, nervous system and brain, internal reproductive organs as both or even the “opposite” sex). This may “feel” like having the “soul” of a different sex but could simply be a matter of having an undiagnosed intersex condition such that the person is genetically, hormonally, and psychologically (down to brain wiring) different than the sex assigned at birth that was based only on outside appearance of sex organs.

4. What is a good theology of bodily modification?

The same compassion that guides us when any person has surgery for a disability could guide us here: Discerning when something is a private medical matter, refraining from judgment (particularly if we don’t know whether the person has intersex conditions involved), remembering with humility that many people who identify as trans and most people who identify as intersex do NOT have gender reassignment surgeries. At the very least, if one’s interpretation of biblical anthropology (what makes us human) continues to deny that transgender and intersex people are born gender-variant, whether as a disability that would allow the same compassionate correction as any other disabling condition or not, then at minimum, whatever biblical and theological standards would apply to cosmetic surgeries for any other person would seem to apply. IF we have a theology of breast augmentations, chest reductions, or facial surgeries that apply for all people equally, then they would apply to trans people as well. To single out only trans people in one’s condemnation of such surgeries is questionable application of reason and grace.

5. I’ve heard people make comparisons or analogies between the LGBT community and Eunuchs in Bible. Is this a good comparison? Is this a good place to begin a theology of gender identity? 

While the trans community and intersex people may experience something akin to “born eunuchs” (being born without a penis or testicles though one is neurologically or even genetically male) and “those made eunuchs” through genital surgery (whether involuntary or as corrective) that Jesus describes in Matthew 19, lesbian, gay and bisexual issues (whom one is attracted to) seem different from this. The other discussions of eunuchs (Isaiah 56 and Acts 8) also seem to be about individual identity not about sexual orientation identity. Regardless, this is a minor theme in scriptures. Most people begin their theology (including its application to gender) with the basics: We are all equally created in the image of God, all fallen and unable to save ourselves by our own efforts, all redeemed in Jesus Christ, and no human power (like gender assignment, the construction of race / ethnicity, wealth – see Galatians 3.28) has the power to thwart God’s power in this life-giving creation and redemption of humanity. 

6. By affirming or allowing gender transition, are we saying that God makes mistakes?

No more than if we believe that having any form of corrective treatment for any illness is saying God made a mistake. In the fallen order, some people are born with congenital disabilities, like the inability to process the hormones of their assigned gender, or a genetic code that differs from their external body parts. Though this is rare, Christians generally seem to accept hormone therapies and cosmetic surgeries to alleviate discomforts of the aging process, which (unlike transgender dysphoria) doesn’t have a 47% suicide rate. Professionals who treat transgender clients have known for at least 50 years that the only way to alleviate the intense suffering of gender dysphoric patients is to let them live in the gender with which they identify. For many of us, this entails nothing more than a social adjustment – no medical treatment. It would seem more consistent with Christian compassion to support another Christian’s staying alive rather than imposing standards on them that are never applied when others take hormones or have cosmetic surgeries or change clothes or change a name but will risk sending half of them to suicidal despair.

7. How can the church do a better job entering into the trans/gender identity conversation?

The church has entered enough into this conversation. Sometimes it is time to stop talking and start listening, especially when you have violated boundaries, bullied, harassed, and dehumanized someone. Upside-down kingdom, Great Banquet values (Luke 2 and 14) would suggest we put more qualified trans and intersex people in pulpits to preach and theology classes to lecture and in more small group settings to lead Bible studies to lead these discussions in an informed way rather than speaking ABOUT and AT trans and intersex people without experience or knowledge.


Subjective Questions

1. Do you think the media portrayal and response to Bruce (now Caitlyn) has been appropriate? 


2. Should we encourage cross dressing? 

There is one Bible verse on this topic. Then there is the whole Bible message about being compassionate with one another while remembering that God alone can judge each of us. Making wardrobe choices for other people is not an essential part of anyone’s Christian duty. If I am busy doing everything Jesus outlined in Matthew 25 –feeding the poor, housing the homeless, visiting the sick and those in prison, I will not have time to play fashion police.

3. Why did Bruce Jenner get married so many times to women?

Why does any person have multiple marriages and divorces? The divorce rate among evangelical Christians is higher than average, which God will judge and the rest of us can both try to avoid in our own lives and also express compassion for the broken families involved. If the indirect question is about trans issues, consider with compassion how enduring intimacy can be possible if one is hiding from one’s spouse something as basic as one’s gender, bearing false witness out of fear and shame because one has been told (and hopes) that this can be prayed away, loved away by and with the right partner. Like people who are same-sex attracted, many trans people hope that self-denial through submitting what we are taught is God’s will by entering a heterosexual Christian marriage will “cure” us. The intention is self-denying and God-serving, but for many of us, we are genetically, neurologically, and perhaps in other ways from the moment of our creation (Psalm 139) hard-wired as a minority variation of gender (neither male nor female).

A Series of Questions:

If nothing else, may we remember that our questions (and how we put words to them) is itself a deeply theological task.  

(images shared froCross Connect Magazine)