Can God make people who don’t fit our boxes? (The #transgender question)

jazz jenningsWhen I was in my early twenties, I went through a David Bowie phase. I dabbled in androgyny which involved some cross-dressing, sexual experimentation, and even giving myself a Ziggy Stardust-like alter-ego. I called myself Agent Starchild, named after a character in George Clinton’s P-Funk ensemble. I told people I was “bi-curious” because I was fascinated with queer people, who were sort of an exotic hobby to me at the time. I suspect that what I did in my early twenties is what conservative evangelicals like Russell Moore presume that transgender people are actually doing themselves. Though I’ve never been close friends with a transgender person, when I look at the story of someone like 12 year old transgender girl Jazz Jennings [pictured here], who was born anatomically male, it’s obvious that her experience is completely different than my David Bowie phase.

In Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, she describes the role that Jews had in bourgeois liberal continental European culture in the late 19th century, which was part of sowing the seeds of anti-Semitism that would ripen half a century later. It was trendy to have a Jew at your cocktail party. It made you exotic and rebellious. Especially if the Jew was an atheist. And even more so if s/he was queer. This exotic tokenism of course didn’t translate into any genuine solidarity when the nationalist reactionaries used it to make “Jews” into the symbols and scapegoats for bourgeois decadence when the libertine party culture came crashing down a few decades later with the first world war.

I think queerness in early 21st century white American bourgeois liberalism functions analogously to Jewishness in late 19th century “bohemian” upper-class Europe. Liberals fetishize queerness. To have a queer friend is the easiest way to be “open-minded” (having a black friend for example is way more complicated), and it justifies indulging your libertine appetites. This is not the fault of people who are born into bodies that are wired differently than the default, “straightforward” genderedness and sexual orientation with which 85-90% (?) of people live. But there is a libertine romanticism that needs to be disentangled from the real biological diversity of human beings whose existence should be validated, but not fetishized.

What I did as a young twenty-something was sinful. Why? Because I was playing around flippantly with something holy, trivializing God’s beautiful gift of sexuality by making it into a navel-gazing, narcissistic venture. I wanted to be exotic and different. I wanted to fit in with the bohemians that I lived with at the Collingwood Arts Center in Toledo, Ohio. So I partied, got high, and played around in my Rocky Horror Picture Show fantasy land. I worshiped created things instead of the creator. Romans 1:18-32 could be legitimately applied to my behavior; I experienced the degeneration of God’s wrath as a result of it. The confusion and drama of that kind of lifestyle compounded with my already naturally problematic brain chemistry and threw me deeply into depression.

But this 12 year old girl Jazz Jennings is a completely different person than the self-indulgent, romantic libertine Morgan Guyton was at age 24. I imagine that conservative evangelicals probably assume that transgender kids are “created” by libertine hippie parents who want an exotic, uniquely gendered child so they can be the stars of their liberal cocktail parties. Who knows? Maybe there are some parents who are that way. But it’s utterly unjust to project that presumption on people we don’t know.

Obviously you don’t have much to go by in assessing the motives of strangers other than their personal testimony, so here’s the way Jazz’s parents describe their attitude about Jazz: “We don’t encourage, we support. And we just keep listening to what she tells us.” According to Jazz’s parents, she has been traumatized by her male anatomy since she was a toddler. When their pediatrician suggested that she might have gender identity disorder, they went to a specialist who confirmed it.

Every step of the way, they set boundaries in such a way that if Jazz’s gender uniqueness was just a quirky phase, she could “go back” to being a boy, but Jazz was insistent, so that when she turned five, her parents let her wear a one piece girl’s bathing suit at her birthday party, and she has dressed and publicly self-identified as a female ever since.

Now for those of my fellow evangelicals who are skeptical about the diagnoses of modern psychology, let’s take a look at the Bible. 1 Corinthians 7 is the most prominent discourse on sexuality in the New Testament (even though the issue here isn’t technically sexuality). When we look at the underlying logic in Paul’s pastoral discernment, it doesn’t have anything to do with the gender complementarity which has become the counterpart conservative fetish to the liberal fetish of queerness in our era. The underlying question for Paul in considering human sexuality is to minimize distraction and maximize our ability to worship God.

Paul says it’s better to be celibate than to be married because “the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33). At the same time, Paul recognizes that people who are wired differently than him (“ I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God,” v. 7) might be more distracted by abstinence than by marriage. So Paul advises that if you cannot overcome your sexual desire, then “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (v. 9). Paul states the rationale for his nuanced advice explicitly in verse 35: “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

Now I recognize that this passage speaks to a very different question regarding marriage or celibacy but I think that Paul’s underlying rationale can be extrapolated and applied to offer a Biblical perspective on the issue of transgender identity. If a kid for whatever mysterious biological reason is spending her whole mental life scandalized by the male body that she’s been born into, then doesn’t that likewise constitute an obstacle to “good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” which it’s reasonable to try to overcome? It is the most profound theological malpractice for Russell Moore to say presumptuously about these circumstances:

We acknowledge that there are some persons who feel alienated from their identities as men or as women. Of course that would be the case in a fallen universe in which all of us are alienated, in some way, from how God created us to be.

Nothing is a greater abuse of the doctrine of original sin than to pluck it out as a means of filing biological diversity away under “fallen creation.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible says nothing prescriptively about what people should do who are hormonally one gender and anatomically another or how to distinguish the people who are “really” that way from the libertines who are “faking it.” To turn “God made them male and female” into a prescriptive prohibition of the acknowledgment of transgender identity is about as reasonable as saying that astronomy is a sin because Genesis 1:14 says that stars are lights that God built into a dome in the sky. (Oh wait! That sounds like what the church did to Galileo and Copernicus.)

The real reason that transgender or intergender people can’t be allowed to exist is because they represent an existential threat to the conservative evangelical fetish of gender complementarity. If God created someone both male and female, then how in the world can their sexual orientation be adjudicated and policed by others? The fear seems to be that the Biblical prohibition on homosexuality would become meaningless if we can’t say for sure that everyone is either fully male or fully female, which would mean that cis-gendered, heterosexual Christians don’t get to give themselves a gold star for being normal.

There are all sorts of “liberal” and “conservative” idolatries that we can fall into around sexuality and gender. We shouldn’t be fetishizing either normalcy or exoticism. In both cases, we would be worshiping creation rather than the creator. I happen to think that we are best guided by Paul’s pragmatic guiding principles in 1 Corinthians 7 of “promoting good order and devotion to the Lord” when we think about these matters.

If someone’s devotion to the Lord can be less distracted by modifying his/her anatomy to match with his/her hormones, why should any reasonable Christian oppose that? When Russell Moore says that this smacks of the “Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves,” is he willing to take this anti-scientific stance consistently against the use of medical technology for other biological issues like kids who are born without vital organs or with genetic diseases?

What goes on inside the bodies and minds of transgender people is a mystery whose opaqueness we simply have to accept. To presume dismissively that they are fallen creation or self-indulgent romantic libertines has nothing to do with our fidelity to God’s truth (which remains beyond our grasp on this matter) and everything to do with our need to arrogate to ourselves the divine omniscience that allows nothing about other peoples’ behavior to fall outside the dominion of our judgment.

RNS-TRANS-PROFI was originally moved to write about this topic after reading the story of Heath Adam Ackley, a theology professor who was fired by Asuza Pacific University this week after coming out transgendered (his name had been Heather Clements). I have no way of evaluating the credibility of Ackley’s life experience beyond his personal testimony. But I feel pretty confident that someone who walks directly into persecution like that is not just going through a David Bowie phase or fetishizing the exotic. And I don’t see how anyone could argue that it shouldn’t be against the law to fire somebody for that reason.

In any case, I give God permission to create people who don’t fit into my boxes. And I hope that one day there won’t be any more hype about it either from the liberals who want something to show the world they’re “open-minded” about or the conservatives who want something to supposedly “stand up for God’s truth” about. I just hope that in the future, families of people like Heath and Jazz will be able to quietly make the decisions that need to be made so that they can live in their bodies the way that the vast majority of us are privileged to live.

27 thoughts on “Can God make people who don’t fit our boxes? (The #transgender question)

  1. And just so what I believe doesn’t get lost, I am not arguing that transgender or homosexuality is not biological, I am arguing that all sin is biologically based. This is being proven regularly as they identify the genes that are found to be in people’s DNA who have tendencies to be angry, chronic thieves and alcoholics. It’s all because of a corrupted DNA as introduced by Satan in the garden. That’s why it is assumed that an alcoholic is always an alcoholic – if he goes back to drinking; it’s simply like taking another bit out of the apple. Why do you think they call it “falling” off the wagon? It’s just another “Fall” (like “falling” into sin). Salvation in Christ begins the sanctification process which I believe is the physical healing of our corrupted DNA. That’s why it’s call sin “nature”, because it occurs naturally (“all have sinned and fall short….) and to do otherwise requires the introduction of the Spirit of God which is Who moved over the face of the earth in the creation process in the beginning. It all just makes perfect sense unless you are trying to justify some particular sins by putting them in a separate category.

    • wow you are freaking medieval not theological. The whole “original sin” thing is not biblical and is why the Jews reject the notion. It is a Greco-Roman forced interpretation to make certain verses fit their existing beliefs (like Hades for one). So it’s sin that makes a person mentally ill? F- you buddy and your medieval torture beliefs. Burn any witches lately while you are at it?

  2. Not tracking with you so much on this one. It is not God who created robbers, gossips, transgenders or adulterers. All mankind is born with the inborn sin nature which is passed on from Adam and Eve – so on some level, they are born that way but the sin nature manifests itself in different ways in different people. But in the same way someone who gets angry and has to resist the temptation to murder or the person who happens to know something about someone else whom they don’t like and have to resist the temptation to gossip – the person who is drawn to some deviant sexual behavior be it adultery, homosexuality, transgender or whatever they are not is some special category of sin for which they need special consideration or “understanding”. Sin is sin and it is to be resisted and eliminated and not “managed”. God did not send the Spirit to help us manage sin but to overcome it – however sin happens to have manifested itself in that particular person. Just because it has become “pop culture popular” is no excuse for the church to be soft on whatever sin that may be whether tabloids/gossip, all the free sex on TV and the big screen/fornication or the big push for what has become popular to call “equality”/deviant sexual behavior . Why some sins are put is a special category is beyond me seeing as how scripture never did – it’s grouped all together with the same consequence.

    • Robbery, adultery, and gossiping harm people. How do you define “homosexuality” and how does it harm people?

      • I accept God’s law on the principal that He is not prohibiting something just to exert His control over our lives to prove His prowess, but rather because He (as the all-knowing creator that He is) knows that participating in these things (whether it be deviant sexual behavior or gossip) do in fact hurt and harm us as well as others in the process. And I don’t have to look any further than scripture to define homosexuality as men or women giving up their natural desire for the opposite sex and acting out sexually with the same sex (Romans 1:27 for example)

        • I very much agree with that principle. And my contention is that some people are born with biological conditions that cause their natural desire to be different than the vast majority of us. I don’t think it makes Paul any less authoritative for the existence of people who are biologically not fully male or female to be unknown to 1st century Judaism just like the heliocentrism of our solar system and other things were unknown to them. He doesn’t give a prohibition in Romans 1:27. He’s providing an example of the degeneration going on around him in Roman culture. Based on Romans 1, I would presume that the deviance described in verse 27 would be confirmed by the resulting symptoms in verses 29-31. In the case of what I was doing, this was true. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true of people who are born with biology that is actually different.

          • Why do you call it biology for sexual deviation from “normal” instead of its origin being sin nature as you would call it for someone who wants to steal from others (which in some cases is called a disease when chronic) as opposed to honoring the “normal” of respecting ownership. It’s all sourced from sin nature and the healing starts at recognizing it as such, repenting of it and beginning the healing of any deviant behavior.

          • What is the Biblical basis for saying that a chromosomal difference in somebody’s biology is the same thing as the sarx that gets translated as “sinful nature”? All that I can find in the Bible regarding the damage to creation from original sin is the passage in Romans about Adam’s trespass resulting in “death.” I think a lot gets tacked onto created fallen-ness that is simply extra-Biblical speculation. I’ve never found anything in the Bible that would support saying that people have health abnormalities or disorders because of humanity’s sinful nature. My understanding is that sarx, or the flesh, refers to a way of viewing the body in which it’s reduced to a piece of meat instead of seeing it as pneuma, or spirit, in which we recognize that the body is a temple inhabited by the Holy Spirit.

          • So let me get this straight, you believe that God’s creation was in fact already flawed and imperfect and that sickness, disease, deviant sexual behavior and the like would have occurred “naturally” even if Satan hadn’t introduced sin nature into the mix and that only things like anger, stealing, murder, gossip and the like were introduced by Satan. I suggest you have far less “Biblical basis” for your position than mine. I will go so far as to state further that my opinion is that after reading the whole of scripture, having given my life over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and experienced the life changing strength the power of the Spirit has in directing my sin nature away from all deviant behavior, that to suggest that God created me that way and that a few singled out actions of mankind’s sin nature were part of a mistake God made (rather than corrupted by Satan) in the creation process is a stronger and more biblically consistent theological position than yours. Not only was the ground cursed after the fall, but we know that (for example) the physiological childbirth process was changed causing pain in childbirth. Additionally, if some sins are from the fall and others were from a mistake God made in creation, then why does He group them together with the same punishment (and I might add sourced from the same place) in Romans 1 for example. Me personally, I’m going with God’s ability to create a perfect world and that the world along with humankind is being fought over in the heavenlies for the purpose of redemption from the fall – somehow I don’t see deviant sexual behavior as acceptable in heaven any more than murder. Bottom line, you have to go with God’s inability to do a job right (creation) or Satan’s ability to corrupt God’s creation – I’m going with the latter. – But then that’s just me.

          • You’re the one putting the “flawed” label on it. I’m saying that some people are created in between male and female and that isn’t a flaw. It’s something that causes them grief because we don’t know how to deal with it, but it’s not a mistake from God that they were made that way and it doesn’t mean they have to be without a lifelong companion. I’m still waiting to see a verse that shows how Adam’s trespass changed creation on the biological level. I’m going to be sharing a guest post tomorrow from a woman who was born in between male and female and raised as a boy until she was 18. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

          • I believe Romans 1 is just one of many scriptures (portion copied below) which do in fact support my view and it is you who fail to support your position with even a hint from scripture. I have no doubt that there were massive amounts of consequences as a result of the fall. But to suggest that is the way God intended it is to call Him an inept creator. I do in fact hold hard the position that my tendencies to anger, birth defects in babies, war, hate, deviant sexual biological or other consequences are a direct result of the fall and God is in the business of healing the corrupted DNA of His creation. And I am no sooner going to excuse my anger as something to be embraced and celebrated than someone else temptation to murder or accept as God’s divine plan some sexually biological deviation from the norm.
            Romans 1 – 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
            21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
            24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
            26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
            28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

          • I’m not wanting to drag this out and I really appreciate your holding it together and keeping the conversation civil and gracious, but I still feel like you’re conflating two things. For someone to be born not fully male or female says nothing about their proclivity towards any particular behavior, though it does mean that whoever they end up being physically attracted to is going to fall outside the normal boundaries of straight and gay. I think I’m going to devote a whole blog to this issue because I believe that there’s a distinction between the corruption we inherit from the human race in terms of our *behaviors* which is what original sin has to do with, and our physical *biology*, which has never stopped being God’s good creation. How would Paul have the basis for saying “natural relations” if there were not a baseline nature that is God’s good creation untainted by Adam’s sin? I think this conversation is helpful even if we never come to agreement because it’s important to parse out the distinction between biology and behavior.

          • Like any temptation, the temptation is not the sin, acting on the deviant activity is the sin and not the temptation in and of itself – I hope we can agree on that. Science suggest alcoholism is also a biological tendency & I would still call acting out on it sin.

    • I actually wrote this post in order to make a distinction that I think you’re conflating. Being biologically outside the boundaries of normal gender is different than having the proclivity to sinful, self-indulgent behavior that we all have. What I did in my twenties was sinful. I wanted to be exotic and “pop culture popular.” And it was completely different than whatever is going on with someone who is hormonally one gender and physically another. It’s hard to disentangle the sinful hedonistic attitude about sexuality in pop culture, liberalism, etc from the sexually other people who are supposedly being “championed” by this culture. We are all born into sin. But to be born somewhere in between an XX and an XY is not sinful *for that reason* and it’s not any more or less sinful than being born fully XX or fully XY. And I think there is a holy way for a person who is in between to live that can involve lifelong monogamous companionship. I understand we probably disagree on that point.

      • I’m not saying that I disagree with you, because I don’t really but I’m wondering how this would apply to someone who is sexually attracted to children. Could we argue likewise that this person is genetically wired to be this way and can not help their preferences. Obviously, it is sinful to act on this, but i feel uncomfortable with the idea that it’s just the action that is wrong, and that that person just needs to find ways of exploring this that aren’t harmful to others. I’m inclined to want to say that the preference is sinful and that the desire could be changed by God, but I’m also aware that this may be easy for me to say when it’s not me in the situation. What are your thoughts?

        • Honestly I think that’s where Paul’s pragmatism in 1 Corinthians 7 comes in. A pedophile destroys the “good order” of a community by wrecking other peoples’ lives if he is allowed to act on his wiring. A transgender person is inhibited from the fullness of “devotion to the Lord” by the bodily alienation s/he experiences. We ultimately have to be pragmatists about these questions.

      • Once again deviant behavior in the area of sexual orientation is being given a special category in order to not offend. There is no difference in someone through deviant thinking wanting someone else’s wife or TV, or feeling deviant feelings of the sexual orientation God intended and created someone to be. Just like there would be no difference if someone was tempted to have sex with children, dogs or the dead – it is all against God’s intentions and giving in to Satan’s effort to further corrupt the perfect DNA Adam and Eve were created with that was compromised in the garden when sin nature was introduced into what was prior a perfect being. I’m not saying that people don’t have tendencies towards homosexuality, transgender or pedophilia. What I am saying is that to give into those tendencies/temptations is not different than me giving into anger, hate or gossip. They are all identified as sin in scripture and are not to be part of the life of the believer.

  3. I love what you said Morgan “it should be affirmed as part of God’s beautiful design, and people who are different should be encouraged to seek holiness and virtue within the framework of their difference” Amen!!!!

    • So should we “affirm” someone’s tendency to murder as long as they don’t “act on it” and call it part of God’s” beautiful design”????? Seriously where do you people get you definition of STANDARD OF HOLINESS??? God doesn’t change with the shifting of shadows nor does he change with the corruption of sin as introduced by Satan – He wants to redeem, correct and restore all things to perfection and holiness.

  4. i enjoyed that post very much. fair treatment and interesting perspectives. i was happy to see that mister paul was not diefied as so many automaticaly consider his words to be those of god.

  5. You are dead right about these logical questions. The whole panic over sexuality has gotten so bad that people are thinking a tom-boy will grow up to be a lesbian for crying out loud. A reactionary panic to the extreme is going on today just because things don’t “fit” people’s world view, somehow it threatens them. I similar thing happens when I mention to my fundamentalist friends this: “since you freak out when a person changes their stance on religeous issues as they age, how do you wrap your head around a person with brain damage who no longer believes or acts in belief the same way they used to?” They are so caught up in the belief of the “mind” or “soul” that they simply can’t handle the truth that those are actually physically functions of the brain which indeed change as we age and can and do severely change when damaged. The Bible was written without the benefit of medical and scientific understanding of these issues so to postulate answers from scripture regarding these questions is a gymnastics exercise that the Bible simply was not written to do. The answer that Jesus is the judge just doesn’t seem good enough to them and it saddens me because it draws an unnecessary line in the sand entirely based on their own understanding.

    • Yeah and furthermore, why should someone’s particular nuance of gender be viewed as any kind of curse or damage anyway? It should be affirmed as part of God’s beautiful design, and people who are different should be encouraged to seek holiness and virtue within the framework of their difference.

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