Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it?
Caitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?
When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5: “Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB). Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.
Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.
Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.
In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?
I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?
What do we do?
Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.
I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.
They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.
Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:
“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”
We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.
Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.
Isn’t that what Jesus would do?