What transgender people teach us about God, and our humanity

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human.” Russell D. … Continued

“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human.” Russell D. Moore, On Faith, Aug. 15

There are certainly more egregious quotes from Moore’s recent essay, but to focus on them would miss the larger point that there is no transgender question. The question is about how people of faith continue to grow in their understanding of our transgender brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, teachers and pastors. And it’s a growth that, make no mistake, Mr. Moore wants to shut down.

In order to grow, one must leave the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ framework behind. Mr. Moore relies on this narrow, tired and, frankly, dangerous argument to denounce transgender experience as sinful.

Now I don’t think Mr. Moore or the Southern Baptist convention lacks caring or compassion. In fact, I work Southern Baptists in our shared efforts to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in faith communities and beyond. But Moore’s argument is dangerous because it discourages a curiosity about the actual lived experiences of trans people. He’s shutting down any deeper conversation and, in the process, dampening our understanding of how the spark of the divine exists in all of us.

What would happen if rather than depicting transgender people as “fac[ing] a long road of learning what it means to live as God created them to be, as male or female,” we actually took seriously the question of what it means to be human and, more expansively, what it means to live into our full humanity? What if rather than saying that biology is destiny we actually explored the ways in which we all experience our own gender identities and expressions? What if we learned about the lived experiences of our transgender peers?

I remember riding my bike with my brother on a family outing as a child. It was hot and I took off my shirt. My mother’s face turned beet red as she loudly declared, “Little girls do not take their shirts off.” I was 11-years-old. Just the year before, I ran around impervious to such rules. No one cared. It was then that I learned gender had rules with consequences. I think often of that moment when I think of my transgender friends and colleagues.

My friend and colleague Jay Brown, a transgender man, remembers going to bed each night as a 5-year-old child. He remembers clenching his little hands and praying that he would wake up the boy on the outside that he felt on the inside. He remembers keeping that secret because, even at 5, he knew there’d be consequences.

I would wager to say we all had such moments when our gender identities were defined not by our biology, but by the dictates of our culture whether or not we are transgender.

The core teachings of Christianity are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We cannot love God fully if we don’t do the work of trying to understand who God is for each of us. When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing from Augustine to Thomas Merton there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God. We can’t love God if we don’t try to glean how God works in our lives.

Similarly, we can’t really love our neighbors if we cast off all curiosity about who they are and their experience of life in the world. And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors.

The variation of transgender experience has much to teach us. I was struck that in Moore’s piece he didn’t reference the experience of one transgender person. He’s missing an enormous diversity both in the experiences of faith and of gender identity and expression.

Experiences like that of Joy Ladin, a friend who transitioned while she was teaching at an Yeshiva University, or like Rev. David Weekley, a United Methodist minister who became one of the first openly transgender clergy members after coming out to his congregation about his transition decades prior. These experiences of faith and gender are different again from Rev. Megan Rohrer, an openly gay Lutheran pastor, whose own gender non-conformity provides a unique understanding of those on the margins, many of whom are the homeless community she pastors to in San Francisco.

To live our lives with true compassion and caring, we need to move beyond slogans and ask the deeper questions about gender and the diversity of experiences. But to do that, one must ask the right question and be open to a multitude of answers.
Sharon Groves, Director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Religion and Faith Program.

Written by

  • Christi Madrid

    “When we look at the most moving and transformative religious writing – from Augustine to Thomas Merton – there is a sense of openness and curiosity to the experience of God.” Beautifully written sentence, Sharon. It poignantly sums up a search for truth.

  • patricklmitchell

    “And finally, if we remain uninterested in ourselves – about how we come to know our gender–then we can’t really love the difference that shows up in our neighbors.”

    Part of Dr. Moore’s point, and the understanding of most–I won’t include all–Christians, is that we “come to know our gender” in the same way we come to know the color of our skin. We look. These are objective truths, not subjective, relativistic categories. That will undoubtedly draw vitriolic fire from some, but that’s part of the core issue here.

    Dr. Moore isn’t suggesting we don’t talk with or get to know our transgender brothers/sisters. He is suggesting gender is not subjective. If one holds that conviction, the conversation with those who “feel” otherwise becomes more difficult, but the conversations must continue nonetheless.

  • leibowde84

    How would anyone who isn’t “born to the wrong gender” possibly understand or know that gender is subjective. It doesn’t make sense logically to take the opinion of a man who was not troubled with his own sexual identity enough to have surgery and be, somewhat, ridiculed for his entire life because of it.

  • Dixie Suzan Davis

    Quote — What transgender people teach us about God, and our humanity—
    Oh heavens to Mergatroid, these folks can’t leave anything alone.
    There are no transgender people. You are what you are and thats all that you are. The final psychotic break with objective reality — transgender people.

  • Catken1

    Biological sex is not gender. Gender roles vary drastically by culture and society, and are not tied exclusively to biological sex.
    Why should gender be objective? Why should people be forever tied to one identity, one role, one set of expectations solely based on what set of genitalia they’re born with, when we have substantial evidence that our brains have as much to do with our gender, possibly more, than what’s between our legs?

  • Maw Kettle

    “Now I don’t think Mr. Moore or the Southern Baptist convention lacks caring or compassion”… After my husband and 4 other members of the local Southern Baptist Convention were kicked out of their home church because they stood up to the so called “preacher” when he made racial slurs and used the “N” word on several occasions, (twice from the pulpit!) and did not even receive help from the FIRST African American President of the Southern Baptist Convention, (one Reverend Fred Luter) I tend to disagree with this statement! In my humble opinion, the Southern Baptist Convention, like most other organized religions, is a farce! A money hungry business run by self righteous hypocrites!

  • leibowde84

    Well put. I think their only reasoning is “God’s will,” which shows clearly their own hubris, in that they feel confident in knowing what God is thinking. Anyone who claims this should not be given too much credit.

  • catuskoti

    Well, so much for the path of spiritual development and self-reflection that Ms. Groves urges you to follow.

    As we say in the south, I’ll pray for you.

  • daviddanaan

    Queen Dixie hath spoken. There’s nothing quite like an ignorant person determined to remain ignorant.

  • daviddanaan

    Mr. Moore is suffering from a case of ignorance, which thankfully is curable. It’s not necessary for him to substitute his own failed understanding of this medical phenomenon for that of the people who actually experience it and the professionals who work with them. He need only put aside his assumption that he already knows everything, stop talking, and listen.

    Mr. Moore asks “are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, male and female,’ from the beginning or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed?” Neither, as it turns out. Needless to say, the Bible is not a medical text. And for all of us, whether cisgender or transgender, gender is neither arbitrary nor self-willed. We now understand much more about the process of prenatal gender differentiation (how we are fearfully and wonderfully made), and one of the things we know is that neurological gender – surely Mr. Moore already understands that male and female brains are different – is one of the physiological markers of gender that develops in the womb. Sometimes one or more of the various physiological markers – genitals, internal organs, neurological structure, etc. – don’t match. It’s not that unusual, and a congenital medical condition is surely not an issue that has anything to do with “sin” or “repentance.”

    Thank you for this compassionate response to his willful ignorance. The command to “fear not” and listen is probably the most difficult to obey. It’s so much more comforting to think that we already know everything we need to know, that we are little gods who know more about our neighbors than they know about themselves.

  • daviddanaan

    Sure, it’s difficult to have a conversation in which you are pretending to know more about another person than they know about themselves. The solution to that is to stop talking and listen to what they are trying to tell you.

  • Elainebz

    Taken out of context, that Russell Moore quote sounds just about right! Only those who go back and read the article will see that the quote is egregious. The transgender question IS about being human.