There was a time when I didn’t know what transgender meant. I can remember, more than fifteen years ago, my mum explaining to me about a radio documentary where she’d first heard about a man who felt they’d been born in the wrong gender and had become a woman. At the time it felt highly unusual.
Fast forward fifteen years and the transgender phenomenon has exploded into the public consciousness. Across the media and our public institutions, we’ve rapidly adjusted our understanding of gender to include those who have been born into one gender but identify with the other (or indeed identify with no gender at all). Alongside this, we’ve witnessed the increasing frequency of fictional transgender characters on our screens on shows like EastEnders, Hollyoaks, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and of course, the comedy-drama centred around one father’s transition to womanhood, Amazon’s Transparent.
But, as trans voices have become more prominent, so too an increasing number of prominent thinkers have spoken out against the transgender phenomenon. Some of the strongest opponents have come from within the feminist movement. Germaine Greer famously suggested in a BBC interview in 2015 that trans women, ‘are not women’ and in fact do not, ‘look like, sound like or behave like women’ . Those who share Greer’s position claim that biological gender does exist and that there is such a thing as being male or female which ultimately can’t be changed, regardless of how you feel.
We can see this reaction in some of the public backlash against the wider implications of the transgender movement. In the UK, there has been a strong negative reaction from some parents to new gender-neutral uniform policies and opposition to the moves from some retailers to sell only gender-neutral clothing for children . Late last year when a teacher was suspended for using an inappropriate pronoun to describe a girl who had transitioned to become a boy (‘misgendering’ him), Conservative politician Norman Tebbit summed up the mood of those doubters: ‘It seems to me this is a mad world when someone is disciplined for stating a biological fact’ . Despite the pervasive message on social media that this view is only shared by a small handful of conservative ‘bigots’, there is a significant minority who reject the transgender ideology.
In situations like this I find that, as a Christian, I am sometimes asked how Jesus would respond to this debate. Christians are seen as some of the most traditionalist and intransigent voices on these issues, and we can often come across as intolerant and unkind. But, for me, the question is as personal as it is moral, because it affects people who are loved by God, so I’m challenged to consider how Jesus would respond to transgender friends.
Unfortunately, understanding how Jesus would respond to a specific individual is not as easy as it sounds. Jesus did not hold back from proclaiming profoundly challenging moral teaching to his listeners. But, he often focused the emphasis of his teaching according to who he was speaking to. This wasn’t inconsistency but rather an acute understanding of each individual and an intention to speak to their unique desires and motivations. For example, Jesus met a woman who had been married five times and was living with another man at the time of their meeting. Even though Jesus implicitly challenged her about this aspect of her life, the overwhelming sense she walked away with was that this man understood and loved her .
So, when I’m considering how Jesus would respond to my trans friend, my first realisation is that he would demonstrate his love for them, rather than simply making a moral declaration. Whilst the issue of defining gender is a philosophical and ethical question which requires an answer, the most important thing is that Jesus loves transgender people like he loves everyone else. He loves them deeply, to the core of their being.
And yet I think Jesus would also speak into the conflicting views that pervade our society around gender. Jesus’ view that people have been made by God, either male or female , would automatically be dismissed as mere bigotry by some, but it doesn’t come from a place of hatred. Actually, I would argue that when Jesus challenges our choices, it doesn’t negate his love. Rather, it’s a reflection of the idea that if you love someone, you want them to be the best and fullest expression of their true selves.
Ultimately, this is a question of personhood and identity. Do we define ourselves merely by our own perceptions of who we are or is there a deeper and fixed means by which we can know who we are? It seems to me that the deep confusion experienced by so many around their gender is a direct result of us collectively and individually determining our personhood according to how we feel (our own self-perception). Without any central meaning in the universe (which only exists if you have a belief in God), we have no other means to define ourselves. And the problem with determining your ‘truth’ by how you feel is that no one can ever question it. This feels dangerous. Especially when we know our own self-perception is flawed. For example, consider the person who struggles with an eating disorder, who despite being underweight, can’t shake the idea that they’re fat and ugly. Or the person who can’t look in the mirror because of the size of their nose.
As a Christian, I can rest in the knowledge that I don’t have to try and ‘work out’ who I am, rather I know the fixed and firm foundation of my personhood is centred on God—being made in his image and welcomed into his family. This can be a difficult and challenging truth to grapple with. But as we lay down our own preconceptions of who we think we are, thoughts that are tossed about by the waves of our experience, we can know incredible joy in understanding the core of our personhood that goes far beyond our gender. It is the joy of knowing we are loved.
At the root of the desire to change your gender is a profound sense that something is wrong with your body and your assigned gender. It just doesn’t feel right. I can imagine the woman who’d been rejected by five men probably felt things weren’t right with her. Jesus understood what she had been through and understood her pain. He didn’t condemn her for promiscuity but offered the one thing that would ultimately satisfy her and bring her wholeness and joy, regardless of what happened to her body from then on. Jesus met her in her pain and offers to meet us in our pain, whether we’re trans or not. He would say, let me heal your pain, let me show you who you really are and make you the person you were truly meant to be. The Bible tells us we are poor shadows of truly flourishing humanity, but fixing the body isn’t the solution. Only by fixing the inside can we be whole.