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Navigating the transgender agenda

avatar.jpg.320x320px‘If you’re not confused, then you don’t really know what is going on.’ This saying, from the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, could apply equally well to the current debate about transgenderism. Although the issue affects a much smaller number of people than the 1.5–2% of people who are same-sex attracted, it is seen (on all sides) as the ‘next front’ in the gender wars.

The questions raised are connected (in one direction) with the debates about same-sex relations, but also (in the other) with the debates about gender roles and identity between men and women—and yet the connections themselves are not straightforward. So we would do well to have an experienced pilot to help navigate these turbulent and unpredictable waters, and Mark Yarhouse is the person we need. Yarhouse is both an academic and a clinical psychologist, and in the academic world has been a pioneering researcher in issues of sexual identity and religious belief. But he is also an evangelical Christian, and it keen to connect the realities of his clinical experience with biblical and theological categories.


This is evident in his recent article in Christianity Today where, as is common in his writing, he starts with stories of people who have experienced Gender Identity Disorder or, as it is now called, Gender Dysphoria. But, as a move of theological reflection, he then offers a three-fold framework by which we might try and make sense of these stories. In other words, he aims to give experience its place without allowing experience to simply control the narrative in an uncritical way. This move is set out more detail in his recent book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

He begins with an honest appraisal of where we are in the debate:

That has been confirmed for me as I have conducted research for this book: no one is satisfied with anyone else’s perspective on the topic of gender identity. There are considerable professional and popular divisions that have made it a virtual minefield for any author who wants to step foot on this terrain. (p 9)

But he also sets out his commitment to engaging with the real experiences of people affected:

I would like the reader to gain greater insight into the experiences of people who experience gender dysphoria, recognizing that there is no one experience that can capture the range of experiences that exist today. (p 11)


The first major chapter simply sets out the issues and the terminology, and simply mapping this out demonstrates what a biologically, culturally and socially complex phenomenon this is. For Yarhouse, this is key data in shaping a Christian response:

Given the complexities associated with these issues and the potential for many and varied presentations, pastoral sensitivity should be a priority. (p 25)

The next chapter starts to explore what a Christian response might looks, and here Yarhouse is concerned to take theology seriously. He notes the dangers of two opposite extremes of response: ‘The one hazard is to look to Scripture for answers it is not prepared to provide. The other hazard is to fail to critically reflect on the sociocultural context in which we live and make decisions about gender identity and dysphoria’ (p 30). Engaging with his more conservative readers, he looks at the ‘bogey’ texts that are often cited—but then moves on to look at the shape of the biblical drama, through creation, fall, redemption and glorification. In taking this seriously, he does a much better job than others have done in providing a theological framework in which we make sense of experience and culture.

Out of this, Yarhouse makes his key contribution: a threefold framework which he then applies throughout the rest of the book to reflect on clinical, personal and social realities.

  • The integrity framework. This prioritises biblical texts and norms, and sees transgender issues as both developmentally and morally problematic.
  • The disability framework. This takes seriously the theological idea that the world is not as God intended, and sees transgender issues as problematic developmentally, but not as a moral issue in the same way.
  • The diversity framework. In its most extreme form, this sees all issues that question gender binaries as good, since they represent diversity of human experience which should be celebrated.

Interestingly, Yarhouse seems some value in each of these, and for this has been criticised by conservatives such as Robert Gagnon, who sees any accommodation to transgender claims as colluding with self-delusion. (See also the rather hesitant review by a Southern Baptist.) Yet Yarhouse clearly wants to hold onto the insights of the ‘integrity’ position, since he values the theological perspective that this brings. What is really valuable is the way that he uses these three positions to explore possible responses to each area of discussion as the book progresses.


The next chapter looks at possible causes of gender dysphoria, and although short, it is eye-watering in its complexity, despite Yarhouse’s clear explanation. It is interesting to note how even the clinical debates on gender identity carry a large amount of philosophical baggage. The following two chapters look at ‘Phenomenology and Prevalence’, looking at how gender dysphoria actually presents at different stages of development, and ‘Prevention and Treatment.’ Yarhouse is clear here that gender dysphoria is what it was previously labelled—a disorder—and that a naive acceptance of the desire for ‘gender reassignment’ is not the only compassionate response which takes seriously the subject’s experience.

The final two chapters explore what a Christian response will look like in practice, first from a personal and then from an institutional point of view. Yarhouse returns here to his opening observations of the dangers of polarised reactions:

I see two common impulses that the church may need to re-evaluate. One impulse is to convey the integrity framework to the exclusion of the potential benefits seen in the disability or diversity frameworks. Such a church would be of little relevance to people within their own community who are navigating gender identity concerns, nor would they have much of a way of communicating and understanding concerns about identity and community that are increasingly relevant to the broader culture…

The other impulse is to convey tolerance and inclusivity—to draw exclusively on the diversity framework to the neglect of the integrity and dis- ability frameworks. We can imagine a church that is so focused on cultural relevance it loses sight of the ways in which some are pushing hard to de- construct sex and gender norms. (p 155)

In this way, though he doesn’t express it in these terms, he helpfully connects our response to this issue with questions of credibility, apologetics and mission. This still leaves us with much to do:

The Christian community has several ongoing responsibilities moving forward. These have to do with thoughtful scholarship in this area, which includes:

  1. critical analysis and engagement with the work being done in the area of sex and gender
  2. thoughtful engagement with best practices in clinical service provision to those who have been diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria
  3. listening to the experiences of faithful believers who are navigating gender identity conflicts in their own lives
  1. identifying the best way to be a faithful witness to a broader culture in which norms regarding sex and gender are eroding
  2. engaging with “convicted civility” those who are actively deconstructing norms related to both sex and gender
  3. identifying and implementing best practices as the body of Christ and, in particular, the local church in relation to unchurched and dechurched transgender persons
  4. providing sensitive pastoral care to those in the Body of Christ who are navigating this terrain

41765blgkILWhat is striking in all this is the author’s profound sense of awareness. He is acutely aware of the stories of those experiencing transgender inclinations; he is aware of different theological responses; he is aware of what is at stake within culture; and he is even aware of the impact of his own responses to all the different groups who have a stake in this. I think this is what makes early readers see this book as so valuable in shaping our understanding of and response to the issue. And it is this which shapes Yarhouse’s own response:

Certainly we can extend to a transgender person the grace and mercy we so readily count on in our own lives. We can remind ourselves that the book of redemption in a person’s life has many chapters. You may be witness to an early chapter of this person’s life or a later chapter. But Christians believe that God holds that person and each and every chapter in his hands, until that person arrives at their true end—when gender and soul are made well in the presence of God.


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23 Responses to Navigating the transgender agenda

  1. Daniel Moody October 30, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

    Very interesting, as ever. Yarhouse’s approach seems to amount to a ‘third way’, straddling God/natural law/sexual identity and Man/man-made law/gender theory.

    The question going unasked is this: what is the nature of the relationship between sexual identity and ‘gender identity’. To answer we need to know what a ‘gender identity’ is, and therefore what ‘gender’ is. Yarhouse, understandably, takes his cues from medical bodies and ‘gender theory’, and accepts their definitions without question. And yet, he is willing to follow them only so far: man-made law (and medical bodies) says Transgenderism is not a disorder. Yarhouse says it is. Law is right: transsexualism is a disorder (a sexual identity disorder); there can be no such thing as a ‘gender identity disorder’, because, for legal purposes, a ‘gender’ is self-chosen and subjective, and therefore cannot be wrong. Yarhouse needs to separate transsexualism (medical/disorder) from Transgenderism.

    • Ian Paul October 30, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

      Daniel, thanks for the comments. I am not quite clear what your point is, though. In the book, Yarhouse makes all the terminology clear and teases out the range of interrelated issues, so I don’t think he can be faulted on that.

      Gender is subjective, in that it is about socially constructed roles for the sexes. I am not clear that scripture contradicts that; those who argue that Scripture clearly defines social roles for men and women which are valid for all times are on a hiding to nothing, it seems to me. To argue that there should be cultural distinctions between men and women, so that the *sexes* are not confused, is a different point.

      Does that make sense?

    • Ian Paul October 30, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

      I should add that Yarhouse offers a detailed differentiation between the different phenomena around both transsexualism and transgenderism in the chapter on Phenomena and Prevalence, and is clear that some people who like to act in the role of the other sex don’t actually suffer from gender dysphoria/identity disorder.

      • Daniel Moody October 30, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

        If I invent a new concept (and ‘gender identity’ is new), the definitions within it have to both a) support each other and b) not contradict any known concept. All our identities (tall, hungry, etc) are facets of a fundamental identity – being some body. And, given that we cannot be somebody without being sexed, all our identities are dependent on us first having a sexual identity (tall male, etc). But our ‘gender identity’ overrides our sexual identity in law (hence boys using the girls loo). From a legal perspective the boy’s ‘gender’ overrides the very thing it is dependent upon – his sexual identity. It is like saying that paper is made from books. What, then, are books made from? If our ‘gender identity’ is superior to our sexual identity, who exactly is it that has a ‘gender identity’?

        The generally accepted definitions relating to ‘gender’ (as used by Yarhouse) both a) do not support each other and b) contradict the known concept of sexual identity. If the State thinks that ‘gender’ is “about socially constructed roles for the sexes”, it cannot bring that concept into law in a way that overrides sexual identity. But that is what has happened. Sexuality (masculinity and femininity) has historic depth, but Gender does not.

        The ‘gender theory’ brigade take the word Gender to mean a social identity defined in terms of sexual difference. Gender theory isn’t a problem as long as it stays in academia. The problem comes when an ideology makes its way into law. The State is implementing something called Gender, but in ways that contradicts ‘gender theory’. Therefore we have two things called Gender. Just to add to the confusion…

        • David Shepherd November 1, 2015 at 11:33 am #

          Daniel,

          ‘The problem comes when an ideology makes its way into law’. Spot on!

          We now have a petition making the rounds on Change.org for which the family of a transgender in-mate want ‘her’ to be transferred to a women’s prison.

          What is truly problematic is when the diversity framework that challenges gender binaries becomes a biased legal imposition on sexual identity cohesion of others.

          Imposition and accommodation are not synonymous.

          • Ian Paul November 1, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

            Yes, I agree with you. All we need now is a counter-suit from someone in the women’s prison who objects to having a legal man, convicting of violent crime, being incarcerated with women. I suspect that it won’t happen, since the women are unlikely to have the same legal support.

          • James Byron November 1, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

            She’s been moved to a women’s facility. Since I signed the petition in support of that move — owing to the fact that a woman’s prison best fits her gender, physically, lived and identified — I’m glad.

            The article contains her photo, and details of how she was treated by other inmates. She’s lived as a woman her entire adult life. Since this is a secular matter, on which theology has no bearing, I’d ask you both to reconsider your position.

            If theology must be a factor, I’d hope there’d at least be room for grace, not legalism.

          • David Shepherd November 1, 2015 at 10:58 pm #

            James,

            There are other means of protecting vulnerable prisoners. The transfer was driven by nothing more than another typical ‘knee-jerk’ attempt to head off the unacceptably high legal and political consequences that might be incurred if this vulnerable prisoner became the martyr and political face of gender diversity cause.

            There’s been no mention of theology in my arguments here, so I see no reason to reconsider my position.

          • James Byron November 2, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

            David, the “other means” were isolating her in a cell 23 hours a day. Solitary confinement has well-documented adverse effects, and did nothing to eliminate the fear she felt from being in a male prison, nor the harassment she was subjected to when she did have contact with male prisoners.

            Prisoners are segregated by gender for their own protection. Unless you’re suggesting that allowing a trans prisoner into a female prison will endanger the other inmates, what exactly is the rational, secular basis for your objection?

          • David Shepherd November 2, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

            James.

            Convicted public figures, celebrities, minorities, police informers and ex-police officers: all face considerable risk of attack from their fellow prisoners. Yet, tHey can all ask to be transferred to the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit (VPU).

            I’m sure that the Unit’s uncomfortable, but necessary isolation from general population neither eliminate the adverse effects, nor the threat of harassment experienced by any other vulnerable in-mate. So, what is the special pleading that prioritises any transsexual prisoner for transfer above all other vulnerable in-mates.

            There is nothing about gender identity disorder which should entitle transsexual convicts to be exempted from the VPU provision. Therefore, there is no rational need to exempt them from the norms of what is meant to be an impartial prison system. Partiality only attracts accusations of bias.

            Do you consider that the adverse psychological impact of the VPU makes it a completely unacceptable provision for the vulnerable, or is your concern only aroused by its adverse impact on specific Individuals and protected characteristics?

            If it’s the latter, then you’re hardly espousing a rational position yourself.

          • James Byron November 2, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

            David, as the other prisoners in protective custody are male, since gender is the cause of her vulnerability, moving a trans woman there would do nothing to resolve the situation.

            Unless you believe a single trans woman will somehow threaten a prison full of cis women, you’ve offered no justification for keeping her in a male prison.

            What about when a trans woman had had her gender officially changed? Would you still oppose her being housed with other women?

          • David Shepherd November 2, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

            James,

            You appear to believe that the vulnerability arises from the mere perception of gender difference by male in-mates, including any vulnerable ones.

            I would suspect that, however male-to-female transsexuals might perceive their re-assigned gender, there would also be a perception of gender difference among women., which could just as easily give rise to a similar threat to safety.

            There is simply no need to re-house transsexuals with those of their re-assigned gender, unless you believe that women are either incapable recognising any difference between native sexual identity and re-assigned gender, or that women are incapable of posing this threat that you attribute to mere contact with male in-mates.

            What’s your evidence that female in-mates will not react with intolerance? Hopefully it’s not your flawed assumption that the threat is eliminated by removing a person from those who don’t self-identity as female.

            Unfortunately, the phrasing of your last query is simply further ‘question-begging’. The phrase ‘other women’ assumes your assertions about gender identity to be proven, although they remains unproven and very much in dispute.

            There is no need to justify my rejection of your unproven assertions.

          • James Byron November 2, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

            Given the hostility it provokes, we can reasonably infer that trans people are sincere about being disconnected from their physical sex. We can also see that, for many, reassignment resolves the symptoms, meaning that the disconnect is not, in itself, a disorder.

            That being so, the rational position is to allow for reassignment, and that’s the position taken by the law. The alternative is plain to see, evidenced by the abuse recorded in the article I linked: a person placed repeatedly in inappropriate situations.

            If you want to abolish gender reassignment altogether, David, you’re going way beyond the scope of this particular issue, and against English law as it currently stands. If you don’t, then since there’s not a bright-line, when a person has lived their gender identity for years, exercise of discretion is essential to prevent unjust legalism.

          • David Shepherd November 3, 2015 at 12:27 am #

            James,

            You now assert: ‘we San also see thst, for many, reassignment resolve the symptoms.

            Yet, we have studies that show thst gender reassignment does not resolve the symptoms, e.g ‘Long-term follow-up of transsexual persons undergoing sex reassignment surgery: cohort study in Sweden.’ It concluded: ‘Persons with transsexualism, after sex reassignment, have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population. Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.’

            How can you consider gender re-assignment as now being able to resolve the symptoms, especially when the post-reassignment risks remain higher than the general population?

            You last reference to current English law simply bypasses the capacity of female in-mates to mistreat transgender prisoners and you’ve only given credence to my point about authorities that ‘head off the unacceptably high legal and political consequences that might be incurred’.

            Yet, you have the temerity to describe my approach to this issue as legalism.

            Others may have more patience with your bungled arguments, but I don’t.

          • James Byron November 3, 2015 at 6:00 am #

            To clarify, David, I made no comment on “the capacity of female inmates to mistreat transgender prisoners” because it’s beside the point. Obviously, any group of people has the capacity to mistreat another: what’s relevant is the risk, relative to a male prison.

            A trans woman who looks female, presents as female, and has lived as a woman throughout her adult life has several specific and substantive risk-factors in a male prison that don’t apply in a female prison. In deciding the transfer, certainty isn’t necessary or possible, merely a fair probability that she’d be safer in a female prison, while posing no threat to its inmates.

            The research you raised compared post-operative trans people not with per-operative trans people, but with the general population, and does nothing to pin down causation. Even accepting its conclusions arguendo, it’s likewise of no relevance to whether the transfer is justified.

          • David Shepherd November 3, 2015 at 8:26 am #

            James,

            So here you are proposing a female prison as reducing the ‘threat’ posed by male prisons to a feminine transgendered prisoner. Yet, you present no deductive proof of the relatively lower risk posed by a female prison. Oh, except what you call a ‘fair probability’, by which you merely hope that modern surgery and hormones are capable of significantly reducing the overt distinctions between the transgendered prisoner’s assumed feminine gender identity and the sexual identity of female prisoners.

            While the study that I cited does not compare pre- vs. post-operative transgendered patients, your claim was that ‘for many, reassignment resolves the symptoms’. The proof of resolution is to compare the post-operative state with the general population who don’t exhibit the symptoms, especially since it is the basis of your claim that the disconnect is not a disorder.

            Your focus was on the alleviation of symptoms by reassignment, but you now require deductive proof of a causal link between gender dysphoria and the unresolved symptoms described in the study..

            So, let me get this straight. While I must provide deductive proof of a casual link to demonstrate that gender reassignment does not resolve the symptoms, you need only provide an inductive guess (a.k.a. a fair probability) that a feminine transgender would be safer in a female prison.

            Your reasoning, if it can be called thst, is merely skewed to favour your argument. That’s just sophistry..

        • Ian Paul November 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm #

          Hang on: the identification of ‘gender identity’ is new, since the social scientific disciplines are new. But something having a new name doesn’t mean that it is new in itself.

          A comparative study of different cultures is what gives rise to the notion of gender, because it demonstrates that sex does *not* define role or social expectation. So I think your argument is based on some rather shifting sand…

          • Daniel Moody November 1, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

            Gender means different things to different people, which can lead to people ‘talking past’ each other. Some take it as a synonym of sex, some take it as how you have described it (something to do with the social outworking of sexual difference). But law takes ‘gender identity’ to mean a self-defined and subjective identity superior to – and therefore not determined by – sexual identity. Basically, law is claiming to have reversed the relationship between being and doing, so that what we do defines who we are. That is new, and conceptually impossible ie ideological.

            Just a couple of examples of the shifting sands that ‘gender’ is built on:

            1. If a gender identity is socio-cultural, it cannot be of concern to medicine. Hence the downgrading of ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’. But ‘gender re-assignment surgery’ is now called ‘gender confirmation surgery’ – how can a surgical procedure confirm a social role?!

            2. If a man (sexually mature body of the male sex) identifies as ‘socially female’, we need a name for that identity. The one name we should not use is Woman, because that name is already taken to denote a state of being/sex. Why one name for both being and doing?

          • Tricia November 3, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

            I think the problem as I understand it is that this person has not completed surgical procedures. Therefore the male attributes are still available. I am aware of one person who has been in the prison system a number of times over the years who had completed surgery and was housed in women’s prisons. The difficulty the authorities have is the same as being faced on campuses in America. Once you accept gender identity which is not based on reality, but on emotion and psychiatric problems, you then put the majority either at risk or at the very least discomforted by sharing private space with those who are not in reality the same sex as they are . I totally agree with David that a women’ prison is just as likely to be an unsafe space as a men’s prison.

  2. Gill October 31, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I like this thoughtful response, and its attempt to hold together the pastoral and the theological. No easy answers, but clarifying some of the questions and suggesting ways forward.

    • Ian Paul November 1, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

      Yes, and teasing out the issues is the major task here. They are complex!

  3. Anne Peat November 4, 2015 at 11:25 am #

    A letter in today’s Guardian shows that the issues of ‘gender’ are extremely complicated and not just about physical attributes or chromosomes or perceptions. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/03/man-or-woman-use-of-gender-labels-is-not-so-clearcut

    • James Byron November 4, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

      Agreed, Anne, gender isn’t clear-cut, which is why there needs to be understanding and flexibility; and where those are absent, laws to enforce the rights of transgendered people.

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