Faith-Based Perspectives: Caitlyn Jenner and Transgender Identity (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a Dialogue Series on Faith-Based Perspectives of Transgender Identity. Read Part 1 here

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

The second installment of responses to our questions is from Level Ground Artist, Mac Shannon. You can meet Mac (via Vimeo) 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 Mac for offering his unique perspective on the following questions.  

Quick note before jumping into the questions, when I say “female body,” “male body,” “male,” or “female,” I am referring to what general society says is male or female. 


Practical Questions

1. What is passing? 

“Passing” is the idea that the person unquestionably fits into the societal idea of what it means to be male or female. Aspects that go into this are appearance, interests, body language, speaking patterns, voice, people’s memory of that person, etc.

2. What does “fully transitioned” mean? 

“Fully transitioned” has three different answers (at least) depending on your perspective.  

1. The general population’s answer is that the person is "post op" (i.e. post operation, having had bottom and/or top surgery), is on hormone therapy, and passes as either male or female, and so has socially transitioned. I purposely listed these things in essentially a backwards order because this is the order that the general population usually seem to care about.  Also this is a very binary way of viewing gender and bodies, unfortunately.

2. The other answer is more inclusive, and generally is a queerer answer. This is that the person has taken any steps they’ve deemed necessary to pass: be it pronoun change, social transition/perception, hormone intervention, surgical intervention, or any combination of these. Once a person feels comfortable with where they are and feels that the steps that they have taken are the ones needed in order to feel and express fully the gender that the are, then they are “post transition”.

3. A lot of people simply believe that it’s not really possible to be “post transition” because it seems to imply a fixed ending point or that this particular experience is capable of no longer affecting them. Is there ever such a thing as a fixed or fully finished expression of oneself regardless of gender identity? 

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

Most of the time this really isn’t a question that has a clear answer. The rule of thumb is to ask politely and one-on-one. Don’t ask in front of other people! And make it clear that this may be an unwanted question but you are trying to be respectful and avoid making a potentially hurtful mistake and so thus are asking. Privately.

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

Do it one-on-one. It will probably be awkward, just accept that. And as much as anyone tries not to be rude, it completely can be perceived to be rude no matter how it’s worded. That being said, it’s still important to make it clear that the question is one intended for knowing how to address the person in a proper and respectful manner. 

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

For older kids, “Okay. Could you explain what you’re feeling to me?” Generally, ask what their thought process is, and just be part of the conversation. For younger kids, still talk. Just let them know that you think that they are a great person and that you enjoy that they are who they are. Make it clear, through actions, words, and tone, that you are there for them if they have any concerns (usually brought up by being bullied unfortunately) and that you’ve got their back. Kids need parents who are in their corner, and as long as you have made that clear, there will be space for honest conversation and the kid will help guide you towards whatever next steps there may be. 

Finding a gender-friendly therapist is a good start for you to think through this, and for your kid to have someone to talk to about their feelings if they express a need to transition in some way and ask you about that. I would probably err on the side of letting kids come to me and ask about options than my going to my kid first. Mostly because kids explore options, and I would want to let them decide on their own which options are the best options for them and informing themselves a bit before they come and ask me for more information or help. 



Theological Questions

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

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

The idea of complementary people, roles, and community members definitely is still an applicable concept today. I do think that we tend to understand our world first through concrete roles and concepts, and as we grow older, those boxes get less solid and the roles more fluid (if we are allowed to that is…). Having this as a basis from which to extrapolate is, I think, a good thing. 

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.)

Considering that I know two people who say this, both coming from opposite ends of this spectrum, I would say that I still know very little about this. I don’t think that it says much more about gender identity than what we already know: that gender identity is complicated and people’s perceptions of their gender can manifest in many ways. In this case, it’s that the person feels that they have a female soul in a male body, or a male soul in a female body. Both of the people I know have not taken any steps toward physical transition, and of the two, I am aware that one isn’t ever interested in taking any such steps. This person tends to answer to any pronoun, wears makeup, and seems to be rather content with how they are doing. This is just one person expressing their gender as they feel fit, explaining their gender how they understand it. 

I don’t know why this question mentions hormones and hormone therapy, actually. That holds a big assumption, the assumption that every female-bodied person that feels male will go on testosterone, or vice-versa. But for those people that do, I would say that that person feels the need for their external physical self to reflect their internal gender identity (to a certain point), and that point of reflection requires hormone therapy for that person. This isn’t an answer for everyone, nor would I say that anyone can change that specific answer for anyone. Gender identity and gender expression are very closely linked but not always exactly the same things. Someone could easily identify as female but be perfectly happy with their traditionally male body. Someone could also identify as female and be uncomfortable with one or two aspects of their male body. Someone could identify as female and feel that their body needs to “pass” totally as female for them to feel comfortable. 

4. What is a good theology of bodily modification?

I am no master of theology. I’m just a junior in college studying Psychology and Accounting, not the Bible. That said I would say that my two cents are this: do not modify your body if your intent is to hurt yourself or somebody else by doing so. Granted yes, a lot of body modification, such as tattooing, piercing, surgery, etc, can be painful, I would say that most of it is just a part of acquiring a particular aesthetic that a person wants, regardless of it is related to gender or not. But as long as it isn’t with intent to harm in a negative way, I would say that it probably isn’t a theological problem? 

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? 

Oy vey. No, I don’t think it’s a good place to start the theology or discussion of gender identity. Intersex people and babies, in particular, are involuntarily operated on all the time because people are trying to “normalize” them. Eunuchs were castrated men, I think sometimes even enslaved men. The castration was to keep their testosterone levels, and therefore aggression, lower. It’s just a practice of unnecessary surgery that isn’t helpful to the person and has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with control. It is more applicable to the Intersex movement today and is in no way a good place to start with that conversation either. Then again, I am not Intersex, so take these thoughts with a grain of salt and ask an intersex person, not me, to verify if this is response is on target. I believe the Eunuch discussion has less to do with gender identity than with the conversation about forced surgery to control a person’s body.

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

I personally wouldn’t say so. While many people do think so, there are plenty who don't. I would suppose that the idea here is that God knows how you are supposed to be, and apparently that is to be transgender. I personally have a difficult time reconciling that particular idea, simply because being transgender is difficult and not an easy thing whatsoever. I’m more of a fence-sitter on this one.

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


By not starting with the that little peering-over-glasses-at-you look.





Subjective Questions

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

Honestly I haven’t paid much attention beyond the Interview, of which I saw parts of and discussed with a few people. I do think that that Interview was rather well done and sensitive as it could have been, but otherwise the media has seemed to have been a bit more positive and sensitive overall. I’m not sure if it because Caitlyn Jenner has been such a big figure for years and there’s that financial and social power that she has to lash back against negative people, or if it’s really people giving a shit this time around. I don’t know. The media is fickle, and I think in this case, there was a tone set at the beginning by Caitlyn herself that really helped. Of course, before she came out and effectively took control of the media’s portrayal of her as much as she could (which was an incredibly smart move), the media was intensely negative, gossipy, and inappropriate. So maybe it was just a matter of being strong-armed into being nice, because Caitlyn had too many powerful people backing her at that point, when her trans-ness became fully public.

2. Should we encourage cross dressing?

No, I don’t think we should encourage it, per se, but what I do think is that we shouldn’t  discourage it. That’s the key difference—many people who would have fun cross-dressing once or twice would have the freedom to, people who feel the need to would have the freedom to, socially transitioning would hold less negativity with it, etc. Clothes would just be more interesting in general and there would be more options for everyone if cross-dressing didn’t hold such a huge level of a taboo feeling. 

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

I don’t know. Maybe because that was the expectation and when there is no other viable option that you can see being presented to you, then you’re just not going to do anything else. Caitlyn, before she came out, was upheld as such a manly person, was a world-class athlete, had all of these expectations riding on her that she likely didn’t feel like she had any other option but to marry women. She probably really did love these women, cared about them, had good relationships with them. Maybe she didn’t, I don’t know. But it’s clearly totally possible to marry someone regardless of attraction or love or lust, and it’s possible to fall into and out of love/attaraction/etc with anyone. There are plenty of examples within all types of relationships of such things. But at the end of the day, I’m not her. I can’t tell you why. I do know that if I was in her position, I probably would have done the same thing, and from what I remember in high school, I definitely just thought that all relationships held this strange disconnect that was actually just a complete misalignment of both of our identities.

Mac Shannon