Culture At Large

Two truths to consider regarding transgender identity

Karen Swallow Prior

All this talk about bathrooms is, of course, not really about bathrooms. Perhaps we need to stop using public restrooms as a cover for what’s really at the heart of the bathroom debate: transgender identity.

In order to make any progress in what has turned out to be — ready or not, like it or not — a national conversation, I believe all participants in the dialogue must acknowledge two indisputable truths:

1. Gender dysphoria is real. Real people experience it and live with it.

2. Culture cultivates. And a culture that cultivates something, by definition, produces more of it.

According to Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist and author of Understanding Gender Dysphoria, professional diagnoses of gender dysphoria are as rare as 1 in 13,000 males and 1 in 34,000 females. Yet he also notes that as many as 1 in 300 people report some semblance of gender confusion. (Also relevant to the bathroom debate are intersex people, those born with both male and female sex characteristics. This reportedly occurs in about 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 2,000 births.)

If gender is a social construct, then so too is transgender identity a cultural phenomenon.

But another point that cannot be ignored, one that is in tension with the facts above, is that at least some of the transgender phenomenon is cultivated by culture. If gender is a social construct, as some would have it, then so too, to some extent, is transgender identity a cultural phenomenon.

A recent interview with several gender non-conforming people attests to this. One of the interview subjects acknowledges forming an identity out of “rebellion against a world that stigmatizes and shames who I am.” Together, those interviewed dispute the prevailing narrative that transgender identity necessarily stems from feelings of being “trapped in the wrong body.” Rather, they seek to resist the male/female binary altogether.

If our culture continues to cultivate this notion that the male/female binary is oppressive and confining, then the time will come when some Christians will look back nostalgically on the good old days of transgender identity, because recognizing such an identity at least affirms a distinction between the genders. In fact, in some corners the male/female duality has already been exploded. As Jacob, in the interview mentioned above, says of young people today: “Those spoiled brats who grew up with Tumblr are lucky! They have like 20 different labels for their gender identity by the time they’re 15.”

Often, those of us who express concerns about what the culture is cultivating are dismissed with charges of making “slippery slope” arguments. But recognizing that culture advances ideas and that ideas shape people is not a fallacy — it’s a fact. Even the notion of identity as something that is constructed (by the self) rather than bestowed (by birth) is a modern social construct.

Christians who want to follow Biblical teaching in these matters must hold these competing truths — that gender dysphoria is real and that culture cultivates — in tension. We can meet those experiencing gender dysphoria in ways that will either help or harm. The same God who created us male and female is also a God who sees and cares for the outcast and the hurting. Those of us who are in Christ find our identities first and foremost in Him, not in our gender or our politics. Regardless of where we fall on transgender identity, we are called to act as salt and light, not cradle or bludgeon.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Home & Family, Sex