The Starting Place (part 2 in The Gender Agenda series)

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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I recently heard a talk about gender. Its message was clear: God created us as male or female and to change our gender is an act of self-creation and as such a rejection of God’s ordained purpose and design (the speaker used the word gender throughout but did not define it). The speaker was adamant that to refer to a trans-woman as a woman or to a trans-man as a man is to collude in a lie because we cannot change our gender and it is a deeply unloving act not to point out this truth to people. To change one’s gender was in conclusion a form of idolatry. I found it a hard listen, it came across as harsh even though that was not the heart behind it. I wondered how this would sound to someone struggling with their gender identity. If Christians were to adopt this advice pastorally would it really help people come into a relationship with Christ? I fear it would drive people into the supportive arms of the transgendered community and confirm them in the opinion that the church is transphobic. Mermaidsuk an organisation for teenagers and their families set up to support transgendered youth is clear:

‘Discrimination occurs in many forms, such as repeated or deliberate misgendering of an individual, exclusion from services or activities, or refusing to stop using a person's birth name (also known as dead-naming)’.[1]http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/hate-crime.html

Christians refusing to address someone with their preferred name or pronouns need to  realise that that act will be not be perceived as lovingly pointing them to the truth but as an aggressive form of rejection. Guidance to all public services is for everyone to respect individuals gender identity whether or not that individual has undergone medical gender reassignment. Earlier this year The Women and Equalities Select Committee recommended that:

‘The protected characteristic in respect of trans people under the Equality Act should be amended to that of gender identity. This would improve the law by bringing the language in the Act up to date, making it compliant with Council of Europe resolution 2048: and make it significantly clearer that protection is afforded to anyone who might experience discrimination because of their gender identity.’ [2]

Campaign groups are keen for the government to fully implement the Yogyakarta principles 2007 (the campaign for international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and  gender identity) [3].Yogyakarta defines gender identity in the following way:

‘Gender identity  refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth, including the personal sense of the body (which may involve, if freely chosen, modification of bodily appearance or function by medical, surgical or other means) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech and mannerisms.’

The direction of travel in the UK is to protect individuals gender identity in law and to enable legal gender reassignment on the basis on self-declaration.  Currently the law protects those who have undergone gender reassignment e.g. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 which protects  transsexuals right to confidentiality i.e. it is illegal to disclose the information that an individual has undergone gender reassignment apart from in a few clearly defined circumstances .The government has published guidance for the workplace which includes:

‘Civil Service managers are expected to take a robust line in respect of harassment or discrimination against transsexual staff in the same way as unacceptable behaviour targeted at any other protected group’ [4]. Unacceptable behaviour includes:

‘A refusal to allow the use of facilities appropriate to the acquired gender.
Refusing to change records ,refusal to acknowledge the rights of a transsexual person or failing to acknowledge the individual’s transition.’ [ibid.]

Insisting that a trans-woman or trans-man is not a trans-woman or trans-man is to go against not just the prevailing cultural opinion but the law itself.

Do Christians really think it is helpful to start getting into head to head fights on this? There may be a place to discuss these things in the political arena (although this is increasingly difficult) but surely we need to take care in our relationships with transgendered individuals? We need to point people to Jesus and remember that whenever any of us come to Christ we come as broken people in need of a redeemer. The gospel offers us much more than a ‘correct’ understanding of gender. In helping someone meet with Christ should gender identity be our starting place?  

Mark Yarhouse has written helpfully about the different frameworks we use when it comes to understanding gender dysphoria: the integrity framework, views male and femaleness as physically stamped on ones body; the disability framework, references the mental health dimensions of gender dysphoria and the diversity framework celebrates different forms of identity expression. He urges Churches to develop an integrated approach  considering all three frameworks (even at times the diversity framework). He appeals for us to avoid oversimplification and to meet individuals where they are at. His book is essential reading. He concludes that ‘ if there was ever a topic that elicited simplicity in the face of remarkable complexity, it is gender dysphoria’ [5] He calls on the Christian community: ‘to recognise the conflicts experienced by those with gender dysphoria ,and to find the least invasive ways to manage the dysphoria and do everything we can to help foster growth in spiritual maturity among those who face impossible circumstances, as well as facilitate “a final an unambiguous “Yes” to God’s mercy and grace’ [ibid].

In practice this will mean there will be no single approach that fits everyone. We need before anything else to love people, get to know them and be concerned above all that they come to know Christ. How they then navigate their gender identity will vary from person to person depending in large measure at what stage they are at in their transition when they come to Christ. With loving support from the Church family an individual may then seek to deal with their dysphoria in the least invasive way possible for them.

When we insist that true godliness is found through embracing and living out the traditional gender roles we leave all those who struggle with their gender identity isolated and condemned. Currently it is relatively few who experience severe gender dysphoria but many others hear the churches teaching on gender and find themselves alienated from the supposed expression of godly masculinity or godly femininity and conclude that therefore the gospel is not for them. In order to foster a sensitive pastoral approach we need to take step back and think through carefully what does it really mean to be a woman or a man? What does it mean to be a gendered human being? Does the bible have anything to say on the subject? That will be for next time.

[1] http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/hate-crime.html

[2] If you are interested you can read the full recommendations and the government response online at: www.gov.uk The Government response to the Women and Equalities Committee Report on Transgender Equality

[3] http://www.yogyakartaprinciples.org.

[4] www.gov.uk The workplace and Gender Reassignment

[5] Mark A.Yarhouse Understanding Gender Dysphoria , 2015, IVP