Some of my conservative Christian friends are concerned about transgender people in public restrooms. I am writing this for them.
Another good friend of mine is transgender. He believes he has the right to use the men’s bathroom despite having been born a girl. I am also writing this for him.
Since they live in different states and I met them in different contexts, my transgender friend has probably never met any of my conservative Christian friends. That is a shame. I believe they would all benefit from the acquaintance.
Friendship melts stereotypes by fostering mutual understanding. In the course of my career, I have had the good fortune to live in some different states, travel to a few foreign countries, and make and maintain friendships with a wide variety of people. Those bonds enlarge my world, keep me grounded, and — best of all — make it more difficult for me to demean, dismiss or deride any group because I know and love people of many colors and faiths from all over the world and across the political spectrum.
Because conservative Christians comprise about 40% of the US population, it is quite likely that my transgender friend — a reluctant resident of the Bible Belt — probably knows other conservative Christians. I assume he is friends with at least some of them, and I hope they are as kind, decent and generous as my conservative Christian friends.
By contrast, there are relatively few transgender people—studies estimate a prevalence ranging from 0.003% to 0.3% of the population (i.e., from as rare as 1 out of every 30,000 people to as common as 3 out of every 1,000 individuals). Because their identity is widely misunderstood and often maligned, many transgender people wisely decline to disclose their status publicly. For these reasons, many Americans — including probably my conservative Christian friends — have no acquaintances they know to be transgender.
That, too, is a shame because if more people were better informed about what it means to be transgender, then that would go a long way toward demystifying this issue.
As with many controversies, all sides tend to invoke common sense en route to diametrically divergent conclusions. This is because everyone’s concept of common sense varies radically depending on their knowledge and values.
Many of the memes circulating on this issue display astonishing ignorance of both transgender issues and the basic tenets of Christianity. Consider this one:
The person pictured here is almost certainly not transgender. He may be a transvestite, the victim of a practical joke, and/or a troubled individual in need of help. Without more context, we cannot be entirely sure.
But he is clearly male. For that reason, President Obama and every other sensible person would agree that he should use the men’s restroom. The chief executive has expressed support for the right of transgender people to use public restrooms appropriate to their sexual identity. However, neither he nor anyone else of consequence has suggested the same right for transvestites.
The distinction is important. A transvestite (cross-dresser) is a man who identifies as male, but sometimes dresses like a woman. Or, a woman who identifies as female, but sometimes dresses like a man. Mere transvestites do not get sex change operations.
A transgender person, on the other hand, is a person born with a male body who identifies as female. Or, a person born with a female body who identifies as male.
Gender identification is not a casual choice. In fact, there is probably little or no element of choice involved. Neurologists have found significant differences between the brains of transgender and non-transgender people. In other words, transgender people experience a conflict between their internal anatomy and their external anatomy.
Often, transgender people resolve this conflict through sex reassignment therapy (SRT) — counseling, hormones and/or surgery — to reconcile their external anatomy with their neural anatomy. Generally, the medical and psychological community handles this responsibly. You cannot get a sex change operation on a whim. Doctors conduct due diligence to ensure that SRT is a clinically responsible decision for each patient. The considerable expense and effort involved also effectively weed out the unserious. Those who make the transition typically experience significantly greater psychological health and happiness. Very few come to regret the decision, and those who express remorse typically cite a lack of family and social support for their choice rather than an actual reconsideration of their gender identity.
After SRT, the transgender person’s external anatomy more closely matches their internal identity. Post-transition, a female-to-male transgender person generally looks like a man, while male-to-female transgender people usually look like women.
The bottom line: President Obama believes that people who look male should use the men’s restroom, while people who look female should use the women’s bathroom. This should not be controversial.
What does the Bible say about all of this?
Nothing. The Scriptures never explicitly address transgender issues.
In a few places, the Bible states that people should wear hairstyles and clothing appropriate to their gender (1 Corinthians 13:3–15, 14:40); Deuteronomy 22:5 even calls cross-dressing an “abomination.”
However, without SRT, transgender people cannot avoid cross-dressing; they must wear clothes that match the sex either of their internal or external anatomy. They cannot win; compliance with God’s law becomes literally impossible. Of course, after transition, transgender people are no longer cross-dressing; they are wearing attire appropriate both to their internal and external anatomy.
Moreover, the passage in Deuteronomy condemning cross-dressing comes in the context of a chapter that requires death by stoning for…
- Nonvirgin brides,
- Men who sleep with engaged women,
- Adulterers, and
- Rapists — unless the victim is single. In that case, the rapist can live if he pays a fine to his victim’s father and marries his victim, with no possibility of divorce.
It is not clear why some Christians insist on cherry-picking a ban on cross-dressing from this chapter while ignoring the rest of this kill-happy and rape-friendly advice.
Furthermore, it is odd that some Christians fixate on a few verses about transvestites and homosexuality when the Bible places more stress on chastity, modest attire, and the wickedness of divorce, and even greater emphasis on helping the poor. Where are the crusades against premarital sex, yoga pants, the divorce epidemic, and income inequality?
Toward a new paradigm
When a premature infant is born too weak to survive outside an incubator, we Christians do not shrug our shoulders, watch her die and call her death God’s plan. We put the baby girl in an incubator and do everything we can to save her.
When a child is born with a cleft palate, Christians do not call it God’s plan for him to live with a disfigured face; instead, we have surgeons correct the defect.
Sometimes, it takes longer to notice problems. Last year, a doctor detected a hole in my 18-year-old niece’s heart. No Christian claimed it was God’s plan for her to suffer and die. Everyone agreed she should have surgery to repair the organ. (She did, and is recovering nicely.)
Transgender people deserve the same consideration. They typically discover as teens the discrepancy between their gender identity and their biological sex. Left unresolved, that discrepancy can cause real suffering.
No one knows why God has some babies born prematurely, some with cleft palates, some with holes in their hearts, and others with bodies of one sex but brains of another. However, in every case, we have the power to help people fix those problems with our love and support. Isn’t that what Jesus would do?