At its annual meeting this past June, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—one of the largest Christian denominations in the world—passed a landmark resolution on the issue of transgender rights, making its stance on trans* people an official part of the doctrine.
The resolution says, in part, that SBC’s leaders “condemn acts of abuse or bullying committed against [transgender individuals].” But they also resolve that no efforts should be made to “alter one’s bodily identity (e.g. cross-sex hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery) to bring it in line with one’s perceived gender identity,” and that they “continue to oppose steadfastly all efforts by any court or state legislature to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy.”
In other words, even as the SBC ostensibly condemns physical aggression against trans* individuals, it has resolved to support state and institutional violence against the same people.
Visibility for trans* individuals has notably increased over the last decade, with the last two years in particular ushering in a skyrocketing amount of press and media aimed at trans* celebrities. Several prominent artists—musician Laura Jane Grace and director Lana Wachowski, for instance—came out as transgender women; Emmy-nominated actress and trans woman Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine this June. And as the nation begins to look at LGBT rights with a wider lens, many prominent members of America’s conservative Christian churches have begun to shift their focus as well.
Several popular leaders of these denominations have brought transgender issues to the forefront of their rhetoric and teachings. Unfortunately, this shift in focus comes largely without corresponding education, resulting in skewed, transphobic sermons. Most famously, the president of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, wrote in 2009 about the ethical quandary that “repentant” transgender individuals posed for a pastor. Moore came to the conclusion that pastors should encourage people to embrace a gender identity that matches their assigned sex at birth and that transgender identity is, first and foremost, a sin.
In more recent years, Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, has apparently resolved to set himself up as SBC’s resident “expert” on transgender identity. Unfortunately, Burk’s writing mangles even the easiest explanations: He continuously uses “transgender” as a noun rather than an adjective, for example, and purposefully misgenders trans* individuals. The misgendering, in particular, seems to extend from a desire to “correct” others on their gender by reminding them of the one they were assigned at birth—a possible manifestation of many SBC leaders’ proposed method of “loving” trans* people.
Overall, the religious right’s recent push against transgender identity has been led by white, straight, cisgender men—and it has developed political implications outside the church. Shortly following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in June, the heads of numerous religiously affiliated organizations wrote a letter to President Obama asking for similar exemptions to his recent executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against the LGBT community in the workplace. In fact, this letter specifically objected to the idea of transgender inclusion.
One of the most notable of these signatories was D. Michael Lindsay, president of the evangelical Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Lindsay’s move in signing the letter has led some alumni of the college to return their diplomas in protest, indicating that the anti-trans* sentiment is largely a generational gap.
But Gordon is not the first Christian college to embroil itself in controversy regarding transgender students. George Fox University, a Quaker school in the liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon, also found itself in hot water with activists this summer when it refused a transgender student the opportunity to live with his male friends.
The questions of religious exemptions and the liberty to practice religion as one sees fit are complex and complicated—far too much to go into here. One aspect of this quickly moving battle for both civil rights and understanding, however, is the theological ground for rejecting transgender identity.
Simply put: Conservative Christians are standing on shifting sands.
The Bible doesn’t speak directly to transgender identity. So leaders on the religious right get around this by conflating non-binary gender with sexual sin—namely, “sexual immorality,” a vague umbrella term covering everything from sex outside of marriage to homosexual acts. Gender, in the eyes of evangelicals, determines sexuality: If you are a man, it is your God-given role to marry and bed a woman. If you are a woman, you are to submit yourself to your husband. All other deviations from this norm are sin.
Without fixed gender, one’s sexuality is therefore unstable. And fixed sexual and gendered roles are a necessity for the evangelical vision of family and church.
This series of assumptions is at the root of the evangelical fear of both marriage equality and transgender acceptance. The cultural hegemony that conservative Christian culture enjoyed for barely a generation is eroding, and with it the power evangelicals had to adapt the world to their whims. The very existence of gender outside a binary puts fear in the hearts of evangelicals because their narrow theology is dependent upon them: male and female, good and evil, heaven and hell. But since the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the topic—the most we see is discussion of eunuchs—evangelicals must figure out a way to make transgender identity a sin of sexuality, forever muddying and confusing the issue.
In an August 2014 article for 9 Marks journal, for instance, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. addresses the issue of transgender identity by addressing sexual sin, arguing that the physical body is vital “to our personhood,” and as embodied creatures of God, a fixed gender is therefore necessary for human reproduction and, in turn, playing out the creation drama in which God placed us. Mohler admits that the Bible does not speak to transgender identity; therefore he must connect it to the evangelical concept of family—that reproduction is part of God’s plan for everyone—in order to speak against it.
And in Good, an eBook recently released by celebrity pastor John Piper’s Desiring God ministry, Burk continues his quest to undercut trans* identity, writing:
We must tell the truth about what the Bible teaches about gender. Among other things, the Bible is clear that there is a normative connection between biological sex and gender identity. The ‘normative connection’ I am speaking of is not defined by the sociological observation that a certain percentage of the population experiences their own gender in a that conflicts with their biological sex. The sociological norm knows nothing of the Fall and confuses what is with what ought to be. The norm that we must insist on is the norm that is not normed by any other norm: Scripture.
Amidst that word salad, what Burk is essentially saying is that while transgender identity may occur as a sociological and statistical reality, such “realities” don’t take into account the influence of sin and the fall of man into evil; therefore, sociological facts don’t represent the kingdom of God as what should be. In other words, Burk recognizes that transgender people exist as a matter of course, but he doesn’t care because the scripture—which he does not cite—allegedly says they shouldn’t.
This is the theological basis for denying the rights of real people who survive in the real world: that they don’t match up with an eschatological conception of life without sin, and therefore should be rejected and discriminated against. Any person who is unrepentantly trans*—who does not flagellate themselves before the altar of the binary and biologically determined gender—is therefore acting in open defiance to God’s good law about gender. And sinning so openly means discrimination is the only holy response.
Such a belief is so dependent upon a number of evaporating cultural assumptions—straight marriage that will always produce children, gender and sexuality as fixed states, the idea that men are leaders and women are followers—that it’s fairly easy to see why representatives of various Christian organizations are panicked at the idea of affirming transgender identities. That affirmation, after all, would be a devastating blow for the house of cards upon which they’ve built their faith. Accepting the very existence of trans* people is an act that threatens their image of God—because God, in conservative Christians’ eyes, only created (and called “good”) male and female in a compulsory heterosexual binary.
And yet, this is precisely why trans* visibility and laws protecting trans* identities are so important. One shouldn’t have to engage in an in-depth theological debate simply to exist as the person they are. One shouldn’t have to make a theological case simply to justify why they should be allowed to hold a job or attend the college of their choosing. But this is the reality for many trans* Christians today—even if it is a house of cards, evangelicals are still fighting with all their might to keep it standing.