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Can you be trans and Christian?

A trans rally in NYC. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty

July 1, 2019   6 mins

What does it mean to be transgender and Christian? Fifty years after the Stonewall Riots sparked the modern gay liberation movement (bearing in mind that the struggle for LGBT acceptance has been going on for centuries) – issues of gender identity, rather than sexual orientation, have only recently moved to the forefront of conversations about rights. And now, the Church is having its say on gender non-conformity. But the Christian stance is anything but uniform.

Conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention have unsurprisingly argued that transgender identity – or anything that does not conform to a binary, biologically based notion of sex and gender – should be considered incompatible with Christian theology.

Even those conservative churches, such as the Assemblies of God, that advocate for a holistic approach that does not reduce members to their gender identity, do so in the context of “help[ing transgender members] experience increasing integrity between their birth sex and their gender identity.”

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, progressive denominations, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association, not only confirm various forms of gender identification, but go as far as opposing or advocating for particular pieces of legislation in the name of expanding transgender rights.

Meanwhile, major churches such as the Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) have yet to come up with an official stance on transgender members, for the time sidestepping the thorny issue. Their silence can only last for so long.

Now, the loudest voices within global Christianity have chimed in. Last month, the Vatican released its first major statement focused on the issue of gender identity. It’s quite, shall we say, conservative: it’s entitled, Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education. This title reaches all the way back to the Bible’s very first mention of sex differences – in the very first chapter of Genesis – to take a hardline approach to sex and gender.

The new guidelines are meant to inform Catholic school teachers and professors, as well as “parents, students, school leaders and personnel” and so forth, on how to approach gender by elaborating upon the stance conveniently summarised in the title itself. Gender, in the Vatican’s eyes, is determined by biological sex, and sex is both binary – “male and female” – and immutable – “created.” Any alternative ideas work against God’s creation and help “to destabilise the family as an institution”.

The Catholic document goes further: it argues that ideas of gender as non-binary, fluid, distinct from biological birth sex, or influenced by personal choice or social construction are all part of a “gender theory” that emerged in the mid-20thcentury. While Gender Theory may sound like a course one takes at university, the Vatican’s phrasing here is reminiscent of creationists’ labelling of evolution as “only a theory.” But whereas the creationists placed science in opposition to faith, the Vatican has flipped this argument on its head, claiming that the Church has science on its side – an assertion that might be contested by many scientists themselves – and that LGBT advocates are the ones being driven by ideology.

In other words, the Holy See is not merely telling transgender Catholics that their identities contribute to the breakdown of social norms; it’s telling them that their identities don’t actually exist.

Reactions to this statement are about what you’d expect. Representatives of the generally conservative Catholic hierarchy, including those in both the US and UK, have hailed the documents as providing necessary guidance. LGBT communities and supporters, meanwhile, have condemned the official Catholic stance. New Ways Ministries, an organisation of Catholic LGBT advocates, argues that the statement “perpetuates and encourages hatred, bigotry, and violence” against members of their community.

Meanwhile, given all the chaos within the Anglican communion, which has nearly torn itself apart over issues of sexuality, you’d be forgiven for not having noticed that the Church of England released its own pastoral guidance concerning trans members late last year. Guidelines for Anglican clergy included avoiding stereotypes about gender nonconforming people and respecting parishioners’ preferred names and pronouns – seems reasonable so far – as part of an overall stance that seeks to establish the Anglican Church as one that “welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation of trans people”.

The Anglican document is in many ways the antithesis of the Catholic statement; it’s no accident that whereas the Catholic Church harkened back to the first mention of gender categories in the Bible, the Anglican bishops quote the last mention, from Saint Paul’s letter to the church of the Galatians. In case you do not remember it from Sunday School, this is the passage where Paul declares:

“As many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

The Anglican bishops not only home in on the dismissal of gender categories (among other social or identity distinctions) in this declaration, but also key in on the concept of baptism, the central ceremony of declaring membership in the Church.

This document has evoked a new controversy, because it proposes to establish an Anglican ceremony to celebrate gender transitions. The House of Bishops, having previously considered creating a new ritual to mark gender transitions, ultimately decides in this document that the Church could utilise its preexisting rituals such as Confirmation, Baptism, or Affirmation of Baptismal Faith (a sort of renewal ceremony for the already-baptised) to celebrate these transitions.

While these guidelines aren’t actually creating a “transgender baptism”, as has been reported in the press, the association between baptism and gender (re)identification has concerned some Anglican clergy.

A group within the Church known as the Church of England Evangelical Council  – one of the many to form in opposition to the Church of England’s liberalisation concerning LGBT clergy – issued a long response questioning the process, theological basis and practical wisdom of the bishops’ decision. The CEEC accuses the Anglican hierarchy of taking an issue upon which many within the church disagree and simply deciding on a position – a theologically dubious one – by fiat.

Even though the critics of both sets of guidelines are coming from opposite sides of the theological and ideological spectrums, they are both right. The leaders of the two churches have gone too far to one extreme or the other, and their resulting guidelines are painfully naïve at best and disingenuous at worst.

The Catholic document claims to want to create a dialogue while offering a stance that leaves no room for discussion with those who disagree: ‘you’re wrong, delusional and dangerous, but if you’d like to talk, I’m listening’ is not an effective opening salvo for a productive conversation.

The Vatican’s statement ostensibly calls for identifying common ground between the Church and LGBT advocates, such as combating “bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination” (leaving the door open, not so subtly, for “just” discrimination). But such calls for unity are sandwiched between much more extensive rhetoric declaring that those who disagree with the Vatican are “confused” and “provocative” ideologues who seek to “annihilate the concept of ‘nature.’”

Sounds dangerous, no? New Ways Ministries, the Catholic LGBT group, warns that the document is a “harmful tool that will be used to oppress and harm not only transgender people, but lesbian, gay, [and] bisexual people, too.”

The Anglican bishops, meanwhile, attempt to pull off a theological sleight of hand that sidesteps the controversy that would come with the creation of a new sacred rite for transgender people by instead redefining an existing holy rite for a purpose it was never intended to serve. The bishops cite Paul’s words while missing their meaning. Paul was not intending to denigrate ethnic, social or gender identities – he was, you may recall, a very proud Jew who felt called to recruit Gentiles to this new religion.

But the purpose of this passage, and the letter from which it’s excerpted, is not to highlight these difference either, but to subsume them within the shared identity of ‘Christian’ that every member takes on upon baptism. The proposal to use baptism ‘creatively’, even if well-meaning, obscures the sacrament’s primary purpose.

Maybe I should give the church leaders a break: even the LGBT community itself has often experienced difficulties and divisions in how to incorporate the ‘T’ – and both transphobia and trans-separatism have been issues within Queer circles. For organisations run mainly by straight, cis-gender men, there may simply be a steep learning curve as they figure out what to do in a newly-relevant set of social circumstances.

But beyond flaws in the specifics of each church’s proposal, both sets of bishops have made the more fundamental mistake of resorting to rules and regulations while at best only paying lip service to actual dialogue.

In this, the Holy See and the House of Bishops could both look to a smaller organisation, the Church of Scotland, which quietly issued its own document last year. Diverse Gender Identities and Pastoral Care is explicit in that it offers no theological interpretations or overarching regulations. Instead, the booklet simply allows transgender persons and their loved ones to tell stories of their individual experiences, inside and outside of the Church.

Rather than carving out rigid positions rooted in dogma or reshaping existing beliefs in ad hoc fashion, the Scottish Presbyterians have come upon a simpler but seemingly more effective way for Churches to work out what it means to be transgender and Christian: ask.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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