Definition: “of or relating to people who have a sexual identity that is not clearly male or clearly female”—or, more fully: “of or relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transgender, accessed 24Feb2015).
With such a serious and antagonistic divide in both society and churches, there are few places you can turn to find a respectful and humble discussion of transgender or LGBTQA issues. LGBTQA designates Lesbians, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning (or Queer in a general sense), and A-sexual.
In February, 2014, Facebook displayed 56 gender options (including nertrois and two-spirit, cisgender and androgyne). Response to such a wide variety of options from young and old was largely positive. (Many young people are rejecting any labels or creating their own.)
Not long ago, two genders were seen as sufficient for pretty much any form or sign-up page. But as trans or transgender people—umbrella terms encompassing both people who feel at home as member of the opposite sex of their birth, and people who feel their gender can’t be reduced to male or female—have become prominent and more vocal in America (and) the language is bending to accommodate more possibilities (Britt Peterson, 9March2014, “He, she, and ze: As the transgender community grows in prominence, the language struggles to keep up,” The Boston Globe, K2).
We are not sure how many transgendered there are in the United States. Estimates a few years ago were about 400,000. Today, some estimate the number to be nearly 700,000 or 0.3% of the population.
In the 1960s, endocrinologist Dr. Harry Benjamin established a 6-tiered scale of gender confusion: from stage one, of the cross-dresser, to a final stage 6: where with hormone treatment and surgery a person has completed the process of gender change. There is continued debate around this process—and reports of some who regret their change. Others have accepted some of the process (breast removal, for instance), but who conclude they want to be more than just a man or a woman.
Continued calls to me and questions from conservative students in my classes provide anecdotal evidence of a growing community of transgendered people, claiming confusion, discrimination, and actual abuse. Our responses to such inquiries must recognize the wide spectrum of gender confusion among youth and adults.
For example, a phone call from a Greek Orthodox friend just interrupted my writing, with a story of a 14-year old Greek Orthodox girl who has just attempted suicide in despair over her gender confusion. The girl’s gender confusion probably combines with other issues she is facing in her early adolescence. Sympathetic and open pastoral support and holistic concern for both children and parents is needed, as well as counseling and understanding and accepting support groups.
My grandsons went to elementary school with a boy who was sure he was meant to be a girl. Parents finally decided this was not a whim, and school administration and students made sure “she” was acceptable and belonged through the process. After graduation, her parents found a high school in the region that had three other transgendered students.
You might add here the situation (past, present or looming) which brings you to this topic. Persons and their experience/stories cannot be separated from this difficult and complex subject.
A realization of the broad spectrum of sexual differences amongst the transgendered will provide further introduction to such a difficult discussion, particularly for those who lean strongly toward conservative and critical opinions. Along this spectrum is the situation of Intersex or Gonadal Intersex. The often-used term, hermaphrodite, is a mythological term, implying a person both fully male and female—a biological impossibility yet still a used term (http://www.isna.org/faq/hermaphrodite, accessed 24Feb2015).
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical female of male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem in between the usual male and female types—for example a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening (http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex, accessed 24Feb2015).
Recognition of this undeniable condition may help those—whose homophobia doubts the reality of different gender or sexual orientations—take seriously the claims of those who say they are gay or transgendered—any possible exceptions, not with standing.
Obviously, there is much more to this discussion, but further study should begin first with meeting, relating to, and hearing the stories of those who are struggling with gender confusion.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What is your story, and what brought you to this article?
What was your reaction to the stories and perspectives of what you have read here? What criticisms or suggestions do you have to contribute?
What influence does your own faith or secular perspective have on your opinions and reactions to this topic and to transgendered people?
How have you seen people handle this topic well or poorly?
How do, or how would you, deal with transgendered youth in your church and youth group, who are despairing of the struggle and afraid of family, peer, and church reactions?
Pluralistic, secular societies are dealing with this phenomenon in one way—tending rather quickly toward legal acceptance of such individual choices. Churches, on the other hand, are dealing with deep differences regarding the threat of such changes to tradition and their view of Scriptural authority.
All of us are being forced to deal with the struggles of children, grandchildren, relatives, friends and teens in our churches (and other faith institutions) who are questioning and needing to resolve their sexual identities.