Every person’s journey through life is unique. It is not so much that there are many possible roads we can take, it is more that life is an open landscape on which we are all free to roam and each one of us will travel through different experiences, meet different people, learn different lessons and establish different personalities. For a person who is trans that is as true as for everyone else so it is not possible or appropriate to say that there is one journey that a person who is trans must follow.
There may be common landmarks at times, yet each person must be allowed to travel their unique route. For people who are trans who are Christians that is also true. We cannot and must not prescribe a process that they should follow in order to become more fully themselves or that their family and friends should use as they accompany them, or that a church should use when someone who is trans is part of their community. What I offer here is not a satnav with defined routes that you need to follow but a map that identifies some of the landmarks you may encounter. They are things that may be helpful to consider or be aware of, however they are not necessarily places that everyone should visit. There will be sections that may be more relevant to a trans Christian or their family and friends, there will be parts that are perhaps more aimed at those in church leadership and there will be portions that might be more helpful for church fellowships. I have not designated them as such because I feel that it is most helpful to consider all the landmarks, given that we don’t know which ones we may visit.
Most of us have grown up in a world where gender is assumed to be binary. There have been just two separate doors for the toilet – one marked ‘ladies’ and the other ‘gents’ – application forms have had two choices – ‘male’ or ‘female’ – there are still single-sex schools for either girls or boys. Science and experience are teaching us that this binary, two-dimensional approach is not merely unhelpful, it is wrong. Gender is now known to be much more varied – we are now looking at a multifaceted and precious gemstone rather than a two-dimensional picture of one. To quote from the NHS website: “We now believe that gender identity is on a spectrum, with male at one end, female at the other and a “diversity” of gender identities in between. These can include male and female, non-binary or even agender (no gender).” https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/think-your-child-might-be-trans-or-non-binary/
One of the facets of this gemstone that we are beginning to understand is that for some people their gender assigned at birth (usually defined by their visible genitalia) is not the same as their true gender. This often leads an individual to experience what is now known to be ‘gender dysphoria’, which is the experience of what can become soul-wrenching despair with life in their assigned gender. This may lead to the person seeking medical help to change their biological gender so that it matches their real gender. While Gender Dysphoria affects people differently (because we are uniquely created by an infinitely imaginative Creator) and has psychological aspects to it, it is not a psychological illness to be treated. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reclassified it (also known as ‘gender incongruence’) as a sexual health condition, not a mental health condition. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/transgender-world-health-organisation-mental-disorder-who-gender-icd11-update-a8932786.html
Gender Dysphoria is used to encompass the whole range of dislocation, confusion and disharmony that is experienced by those whose gender assigned at birth is different from their true gender. Gender Dysphoria is a diagnosable and recognised medical condition, acknowledged universally across the medical world. For example, the NHS website describes Gender Dysphoria as: “Gender dysphoria is a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there’s a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.” https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/. Someone does not ‘suffer from’ Gender Dysphoria, they experience it because of the disunity between their perceived sex and their true gender self.
It is worth pointing out here that some definitions of ‘Transgender’ include more than those who experience Gender Dysphoria. In those definitions ‘transgender’ includes a wide-ranging group such as Drag Queens, Transvestites and others. I am focusing on those who experience the diagnosed medical condition of Gender Dysphoria, sometimes also called ‘transsexuals’.
The experience of Gender Dysphoria can be harrowing. Unless you have suffered in this way it is almost impossible to understand it. The mental, emotional, spiritual and physical turmoil that someone experiences as they wrestle with accepting that their assigned birth sex is not their true gender (and all the consequences of that) is beyond most of our imagining. The consequences for someone’s mental health are profound. The incidence of depression among those who experience Gender Dysphoria is higher than in the general population, which is not surprising when you consider the fear that someone lives with – fear of rejection by those closest to them; fear of physical or verbal attacks; and even fear of an unknown future. The causality is important here – depression does not cause the dysphoria; it is an aspect of it.
A study of people who had been diagnosed as experiencing Gender Dysphoria showed that almost 90% had considered suicide and almost half had attempted it. This is frighteningly high, and considerably higher than for the general population. Other medical research reveals why this is such a strong, almost irresistible impulse – it is hard wired into people. Professors Gooren and Swaab carried out research that included autopsies on people who are trans and discovered that there is an important part of their brain structure that matches their true gender rather than their assigned birth sex.
Gender Dysphoria can be felt at an early age and does not pass – it is not a ‘phase’ that children grow out of if it is truly Gender Dysphoria. A child may dislike wearing clothes of their birth assigned gender or engaging in gender-specific games or activities. These are not definite signs that someone will experience Gender Dysphoria, but they suggest that this is a possibility.
Many who experience Gender Dysphoria will wish to receive the help of specialist clinics and through a combination of counselling, medical and surgical procedures will be transformed fully into their true gender. It is a lengthy and difficult process, and not one that is undertaken lightly by the person who is trans or by the medical professionals. Despite how it has been caricatured in some sections of society, treatment is certainly not carried out on a whim and there are many assessments and evaluations which the trans man or woman will need to endure before they are considered suitable for gender correction surgery.
A minority of people who are trans will not want to go as far as undergoing medical or surgical procedures and will want to express their trans identity either in private and/or in the safety of gatherings with other people who are trans. They may be able to cope with this limited expression of their trans identity. This may be because of their desire to please their loved ones who cannot fully accept their trans nature. This does not mean that they no longer experience Gender Dysphoria or that others should refrain from undergoing the transition. Everyone is unique. Everyone is on a journey.
There have been some legal developments that recognise transgender people and extend rights to them which may have previously been withheld. The most significant is the Gender Recognition Act, 2004. It allows people to gain full recognition of their “acquired gender” (this is the language used in the Act and reveals how far many people still have to go to understand people who are trans). People who are trans can get a Gender Recognition Certificate (a new birth certificate) that shows their “acquired” gender enabling them to adopt almost all the legal rights which are afforded to that sex, including equal marriage rights. The process of obtaining a GRC is extraordinarily difficult, with many legal and emotional hoops to be jumped through. You can find out a lot more about this and other issues at https://www.stonewall.org.uk/truth-about-trans. The burden of proof is on the individual to prove that they are entitled to one.
There is also legislation in the Equality Act 2010 which pertains to people who are trans. The following helpful summary comes from the Equality Human Rights website:
“To be protected from gender reassignment (sic) discrimination, you do not need to have undergone any specific treatment or surgery to change from your birth sex to your preferred gender. This is because changing your physiological or other gender attributes is a personal process rather than a medical one.
“You can be at any stage in the transition process – from proposing to reassign your gender, to undergoing a process to reassign your gender, or having completed it.”
“The Equality Act says that you must not be discriminated against because:
- of your gender reassignment as a transsexual. You may prefer the description transgender person or trans male or female. A wide range of people are included in the terms ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ but you are not protected as transgender unless you propose to change your gender or have done so. For example, a group of men on a stag do who put on fancy dress as women are turned away from a restaurant. They are not transsexual so not protected from discrimination
- someone thinks you are transsexual, for example because you occasionally cross-dress or are gender variant (this is known as discrimination by perception)
- you are connected to a transsexual person, or someone wrongly thought to be transsexual (this is known as discrimination by association)”
It is noteworthy that in Iran, a country that is intolerant of non-binary genders, transgender people are recognised and supported in having corrective surgery. Only Thailand carries out more gender correction operations per year than Iran. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgender_rights_in_Iran