Have you heard someone use the word “transgender,” but you’re not sure what that means? Or maybe you think YOU might be transgender, and you want to know how that might connect to your faith. Well, you’ve come to the right place! Let’s talk about being trans.
What does “transgender” mean?
“Transgender” is an umbrella term used to describe all kinds of people who have gender identities or expressions that don’t match the sex they were assigned at birth.
That’s kind of a mouthful, so let’s break it down.
* Someone’s gender identity is their internal sense of being male, female, or both, or neither! It has to do with how people perceive themselves, and is formed by both nature and nurture.
* Someone’s gender expression is the way they show their gender identity to the rest of the world. It’s about how we dress, how we style our hair, the way we speak, and the way we use body language.
* Someone’s assigned sex is the label they were given by the doctor when they were born. Think about how doctors on TV always say, “Congratulations—it’s a boy!” or “You have a little girl!” Someone’s assigned sex is determined by their external genitalia, which the doctor glances at before making the announcement. The problem is that external genitalia is only one part of a person—the doctor doesn’t check the baby’s chromosomes, or hormone levels, or internal reproductive organs, and the baby’s too young to know about the gender identity that will develop over the years. It’s possible that not all of these pieces will be easily classified into “male” or “female” boxes as the person grows.
Sex and gender are both made up of many different pieces, and for some people, these pieces all match. If a person is born and the doctor declares, “It’s a boy!” and that person goes on to feel and identify as a boy, and to dress and act in a way our culture defines as masculine, then that person is cisgender. Cisgender just means that all the pieces of your assigned sex and your gender identity match.
But say that a person is born and the doctor says, “It’s a girl!” and as that child grows up, they start expressing themselves by preferring masculine clothing, and they start telling their parents that they really are a boy inside—then this person may be transgender. Being transgender means that your gender identity pieces and your assigned sex pieces don’t all fit inside one box, and that’s totally okay!
There are many ways of being transgender. There are people who were assigned female at birth who identify as male, and there are people who are assigned male at birth who identify as female, but there are also people who were assigned one sex but don’t feel like either male or female. These people may identify as agender, or nonbinary, or genderfluid—all words that mean that their gender identity is something other than strictly male or female.
Sam Dylan Finch, Everyday Feminism, “Transgender 101: A Guide to Gender and Identity
to Help You Keep Up with the Conversation” (2016)
Nicholas Teich, Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue (2012)
Believe Out Loud, “Trans 101 for Faith Communities” (2012)
How do you know if you’re transgender?
Figuring out your gender identity can be a difficult process, since there aren’t any tests that you can take that will give you a definitive answer. As we said in the entry on questioning, the first thing to do if you think you may be trans is to remember that you are loved by God—gender identity and all! Then, you may want to do some research, and maybe read or watch the stories of other trans folks, and how they came to understand their gender. Everyone’s process is different!
In the case of younger children, psychologists and pediatricians say that there are three keys to figuring out if a child is transgender: it’s very likely that a child is transgender if they are consistent, insistent, and persistent about their gender identity. That means that they consistently assert their gender identity over time without much fluctuation; that they are insistent upon a certain gender expression, even when faced with disagreement, and that they are persistent about choosing a certain kind of gender expression, not letting up when faced with obstacles.
But people don’t always figure out their gender identity as children—some of us don’t fully come to understand it until we’re in our teens, or our thirties, or our sixties!
What makes people transgender?
So far, as with sexual orientation, we’re not sure what causes someone to be trans. What we do know is that gender-diverse people have existed for thousands of years—basically since the beginning of human history! For instance, King Ashurbanipal of Assyria spent most of his life presenting as female, and wearing traditionally female clothing. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt also subverted gender norms by dressing in traditionally male clothing, and even wearing a beard, which was a traditional symbol of the Egyptian pharaohs! Many cultures around the world have included groups of people who fall outside the gender binary, and we know about many long-standing third-sex groups, such as the hijra of India, Two-Spirit people in many American Indian tribes, and the fa’afafine of Samoa. No one knows exactly what might cause someone to be transgender, but we do know that it’s not a new trend.
LGBTQ Nation, Transgender History: Trans Expression in Ancient Times
Is being transgender a mental disorder?
Nope! Even Western medicine and psychology are catching up and realizing that gender identity isn’t something that needs to be fixed. The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been updated to reflect the fact that transgender identities themselves aren’t the problem—the problem is the dysphoria that transgender people feel.
How many transgender people are there? Are there more trans men or trans women?
Estimates on the number of trans people in the world vary widely, because there just hasn’t been enough research done to give us an exact percentage. In the United States Census, for instance, there’s no way of identifying your gender identity, and so all estimates from the United States government are made based on the number of people who have changed their first name or their gender marker with the office of Social Security. Add to that the fact that 71% of transgender people tend to hide their trans status out of fear of discrimination or physical harm. Given all this, it’s hard to nail down the exact number of transgender people in the world, but the best estimate is that, at least in the United States, about 0.3% of people—or, one in every thousand—is transgender. However, real numbers must be larger than this, since studies based on name and gender marker changes don’t include trans folks who can’t or won’t make this changes, nor do these studies include nonbinary trans folks who choose not to transition medically.
When trying to find the percentage of trans men, verses the percentage of trans women, we are again stumped by lack of research. While it might seem that there are more trans women in the world (that is, people who have transitioned from male to female), this is based on 1) the fact that trans women are more visible in pop culture, 2) that most medical and psychological studies over the years have focused on trans women, and 3) that Western society is less accepting of feminine men, and therefore more trans women are forced into coming out in order to express themselves authentically. In reality, it’s likely that the numbers of trans men and trans women are about equal.
NY Times, The Search for the Best Estimate of the Transgender Population (2015)
Do all transgender people transition socially or medically?
Transitioning, either medically or socially, is entirely up to each individual person. Social transition might include coming out to friends and family, changing your name and/or pronouns, changing your gender expression, etc., while medical transition might include taking hormones or having surgery. Some transgender people choose to only socially transition, while others choose to medically transition as well. We also have to remember that transitioning looks different for male-to-female (MtF) and female-to-male (FtM) folks than it looks for genderqueer and nonbinary people, who choose to transition not from one end of a spectrum to another, but instead from the sex and gender they were assigned to a different gender that accurately represents who they are. When we talk about transition, it’s more accurate to imagine a whole constellation of different genders than it is to imagine one line that people walk back and forth across.
Does transitioning or being transgender affect your sexuality?
In some ways, yes, it can. For instance, if a person who once identified as a lesbian comes out as transgender and identifies as male, that person might begin to identify as straight, instead. His attraction to women hasn’t changed, but the word he uses to describe himself might.
Sometimes the act of socially or medically transitioning can effect someone’s attraction to others. Some trans people find that their attraction to a specific gender wanes or gets stronger after transitioning, and this may stem from a change in hormone levels, or it may just be that the transgender person is becoming more comfortable with themselves, and therefore is opening up to possibilities they hadn’t let themselves explore previously.
However, we do have to remember that, while sexuality and gender identity may affect each other, they are two different things. Being gay does not lead to becoming transgender, for instance.
What does the Bible have to say about being transgender?
Surprisingly, not much! The two verses that seem like they may have anything to say directly relating to trans folks and gender identity are:
Deuteronomy 22:5 – A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (NRSV)
Deuteronomy 23:1 – No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (NRSV)
Both of these verses need to be understood in context, and interpretations over the millennia have changed drastically. For instance, Deuteronomy 22:5 was once used to try to keep women from wearing pants, but now we don’t think twice about ladies putting on a new pair of jeans. The items of clothing that we consider to be men’s or women’s depend entirely on the culture we live in, and so it’s practically impossible to try to enforce this verse within the context of global Christianity. Most Christians now consider Deuteronomy 22:5 to be part of the Mosaic Law that we no longer follow, like the prohibitions against mixed fibers or eating shellfish.
Deuteronomy 23:1 is a verse that, if read literally, would not only apply to trans women who transition medically, but also to any person designated male at birth who experiences any accident or injury that effects their genitals. The ancient Israelites realized this during their period of slavery in Babylon when many of their young men were castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. When God’s people returned from exile, the prophet Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord that changed the game and welcomed eunuchs and other people cast out by Deuteronomy 23. You can read the full text of God’s welcome through Isaiah in Isaiah 56:1-8.
My friend / family member / parishioner is trans. How can I be supportive?
There are lots of ways to be supportive to trans people you know:
* Use the name and pronouns they ask you to use. Some trans people choose to change the name and pronouns they use to refer to themselves. They may want you to use a different name and pronouns, too. Depending on how long you’ve known the person, this can be hard to re-train yourself to do! Respect what they ask you to use and apologize if you make a mistake.
* Keep their privacy. Realizing that you are trans, and coming out as trans, can be a long and difficult process. A lot of people don’t understand or can even be aggressive and hurtful towards trans people. If someone has confided in you that they are trans, let them be the one to tell others.
* Read up. Beginning here is a great start. Check out some of the other resources listed! Knowing someone who is trans is a process in learning, and it’s OK to admit that you need to ask questions and do research to understand more. If you’re interested in educating your worship community further, check out TransAction: A Trans Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions from The Institute for Welcoming Resources.
* Be respectful. You may be full of questions. Many trans people are faced with questions about their gender, their sexuality, and their bodies every day. It may be exhausting for the person you know to answer all the questions others have. Be willing to listen when they want to share their story, but give them space to work through their own experience as well.
Further Reading – Online Content
Austen Hartke and Allyson Robinson, “Transgender and Christian: the calling & gifts of transgender believers” (video)
Mary Elise Lowe, Dialog: A Journal of Theology, “From the Same Spirit: Receiving the Theological Gifts of Transgender Christians” (2017)
Austen Hartke, Sojourners, “7 Answers to Questions About Transgender Realities” (2016)
Bishop Gene Robinson, “Transgender Welcome” (2016)
Stephanie Mott, Huffington Post, “Transgender in Right Relationship With God” (2016)
Eliel Cruz, “7 trans Christian voices worth hearing” (2015)
Nicole Garcia, “Finding Faith in Jesus as a Transgender Christian” (2015)
Allyson Robinson, The Most Radical Preacher in America by MSNBC (2014)
Justin Lee, “A Christian perspective on transgender people” (2014)
Becky Garrison, Believe Out Loud, “Trans 101 For Faith Communities” (2012)
PFLAG, “Faith in Our Families”
Nick Stevens, New York Times, “Transgender Today”
Queer Theology, “Transgender and Christian?”
Further Reading – Books
Christina Beardsley, This Is My Body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians (2017)
Megan Defranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (2015)
James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (2013)
Lisa Salazar, Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life (2011)
Justin Tanis, Trans-gendered: Theology, Ministries, and Communities of Faith (2003)