We all spend our lives trying to work out who we are, and often trying to hide aspects of that from others because we fear that they might reject us if they knew the true us. Multiply and deepen that many-fold and we begin to understand gender dysphoria. A person who is trans is discovering who they are and, before coming to accept that this is who they are, may well have worked out many coping mechanisms to hide or deny what they have discovered for fear of what it means to them, their families and friends, and for fear of rejection if people know who they really are.
To reveal that you are trans and live in that reality takes enormous courage and risk.
It seems to me that reconciliation is a significant part of what is needed. Reconciliation is about the restoration of relationships – with other people and also with yourself. It is about the harmonisation of what appears dissonant. It is about drawing together into a unity. I am using the word ‘reconciliation’ because I want to emphasise the positives. I am not suggesting that all relationships with a person who is trans are fractured, that there is a universal dissonance, or that there is inevitable disunity. Even as a person who is trans comes to terms with who they really are there is a restoration process taking place, there is harmonisation and there will be a unifying. That can be true for those who love them too.
The process of reconciliation probably starts with the individual being reconciled themselves to their identity.
There are excellent medical and psychotherapeutic professionals and organisations who can come alongside that person and help them to understand why they feel how they feel and what can be done about it to enable them to feel ‘whole’. Regrettably although the professionals and organisations are good, access to them is extremely patchy, at best. That must improve for the wellbeing of people who are trans.
This book is primarily about how the Christian church can better understand, support and encourage those who are trans and, because I am unqualified to speak into that arena, I am simply going to suggest that if you are in that place of discovery go and speak with your GP. If you do not get a sympathetic hearing, ask to speak to another. If you still do not receive the supportive response you need, I would suggest that you approach either the Gender Identity Development Service https://gids.nhs.uk/ (for under 18s and their families) or an NHS Gender Identity Clinic https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-find-an-nhs-gender-identity-clinic/ near you. I pray that you will receive the support and help you deserve.
Being reconciled to being trans and Christian
Questions such as ‘who am I?’ are foundational questions of faith as well as identity.
Being Trans, where that question is addressed at a deep level, is not just a physical and psychological journey, it is also a spiritual one. If a person who is trans finds that they are lost in the new landscape of their emerging identity one of the landmarks could be a (re)discovery of their identity in God. What does God think of me? While I hope that this section will explore questions of faith, it also necessarily relates to the community of faith, the church.
I want to ask you two questions:
How you think God sees you?
How do you react to these following verses?
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:13-14 NIVUK)
There are no caveats to this. You are God’s wonderfully created person. And God loves you. I mean God REALLY loves YOU. God loves you as you are. God loves you as you were. God loves you as you will be. Do not doubt this. Even if churches and Christians act in a way that seems to deny this truth, believe God when Jesus speaks of his love for every single person on this planet:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…” (John 15:9 NIVUK)
Trans in the Bible?
When I was a child I was taken to church and I can still remember being given my own Bible. It was a Revised Standard Version with a red hardback cover (which I think I was awarded for my scores in the Scripture Union Bible Exams). I would take it to church every week. On one occasion I was messing around with a friend and I clobbered him with my Bible. My parents saw me do it and I was severely chastised. I was not told off for assaulting my friend but for using the Bible as a weapon. My observation is that the Bible is still used as a weapon today. It can be used to impose a worldview and coerce people into conformity, it can be used to diminish or even subjugate others and it can be used to reinforce prejudices. Sadly, my reading, conversations and experience confirm that this is true for those who are trans. I don’t think I am overstating the case by suggesting that this is a form of what is becoming known as Spiritual Abuse (http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/what_is_spiritual_abuse). Let’s resolve not to clobber people with the Bible any longer.
One of the things that you may be asking is what the Bible has to say about transgender people. You might assume that the answer is ‘very little’ but you may be surprised.
This exploration of the biblical landmarks is not intended to be an in-depth study or theological treatise of what the Bible has to say about the many issues surrounding gender identity. There are other books, videos and people who can do this far more thoroughly and intelligently than I can in this book (you can find some of them through the organisations I mention above and the Bibliography). What I want to do is summarise the main themes that I have explored as I have looked at the Bible through my newly-opened eyes.
In doing so, let’s all admit that we come to the Bible with our own set of experiences, expectations and assumptions. If we recognise that and are willing to name them, own them and then seek to set them aside we may find that the Bible speaks to us in a fresh way. This is something God’s Spirit has been doing throughout the history of the church – for example in Acts 15 where he changed the mind of the church about whether you had to be Jewish to be a follower of Jesus, through to revealing a fresh understanding of the Bible that underpinned the campaign to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many more.
We need to be honest about this.
While most Christians would happily affirm that The Bible is God’s Word and is our source of authority, the Bible is not the only thing God has to say.
If it was, why would churches and Christians devote time and money to buying countless books, listening to myriads of sermons and attending Bible studies where we seek to understand, explain, interpret and apply what the Bible has to say in our culture and context? We should remember too that the Word is still becoming flesh as it is incarnated in us.
While the Bible speaks the Truth, it is not an expert witness to be called and cross-examined in the court of Christian conflict in order to support our interpretation of truth: interpretations need to be consistent with the whole of the Bible.
While it teaches us so much about who God is and who we (humans) are, how we can get the best out of life and how we can live together with God and one another, the Bible is not an instruction manual, textbook or a rulebook to be followed slavishly and mindlessly.
The Bible is a library that God intends to be used to bring freedom, not captivity. The same Spirit who inhabited the lives of those mentioned in the Bible and inspired those who wrote it is the same Spirit in us who helps to apply it to us today. While the Bible claims to be God-inspired (literally God-breathed) it was not dictated – it is also a human book and we diminish it if we exclude or ignore the impact of human personality and culture on the words we read. It was written about and in a context that is wildly different from our own.
There are many aspects of modern life that could not have been conceived in the minds of those whom God’s Spirit prompted to write many centuries ago. While the Bible is a timeless document it was also written in a time and culture that is not our own. Let’s be honest and admit that we already make allowances for that in some aspects of life (how many women cover their heads in church or men have long hair, despite the prohibitions for such things in Leviticus?) but sometimes we are unwilling to do so in others. While we are blessed with many translations into modern English the Bible was written in ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) that contain nuances we can easily miss. While the Bible has an overarching message of love, hope, reconciliation and forgiveness there are instances where individual verses can be taken and applied in a way that seems to ignore that narrative.
We should never use the Bible in such a way that it contradicts itself. The overall message of God’s unconditional love is the pre-eminent one. If you want to know what the Bible has to say, you must consider the big story of the Bible.
To fail to do so risks a miscarriage of God’s justice and mercy. When we focus only on a handful of individual verses for our theology while ignoring the wider sweep of history in the Bible, we risk excluding people in a way that is counter to that wider sweep. The story of the Bible is of ever-widening inclusion.
Early ‘prohibitions’ were not intended to establish an exclusive club of God’s favourites, but to establish an example of what it looks like to be in a relationship with God so that everyone else could have that too. Through the big story of the Bible we see how many who were ‘excluded’ become included (such as eunuchs, Gentiles and captured slaves…) so that by the time we reach Paul’s letters he is able to write that: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIVUK). This is a passage about the inclusion of all in God’s Kingdom, sweeping away previously-held prejudices that are identified by the binary approach Paul uses which, he says, no longer exist in Christ Jesus. Thankfully (albeit belatedly in history) Christians have caught up with that sweep and applied it to issues of justice around slavery and women’s equality. Those who are Trans sometimes discover that this is one of the areas that we have yet to apply the same grace, equality and justice.
If you look at Jesus you can see this big story enacted. From the moment of his incarnation the excluded are included: a pregnant teenager (who would normally have been sent away in disgrace) takes the starring role; foreign astrologers are given a special place in the narrative; shepherds who, by virtue of their job, were both ritually and physically unclean were given the mother of all angel shows to invite them to see the Messiah. And that’s just the beginning!
Throughout Jesus’ life he radically broke through convention and included the excluded. ‘Tax Collectors and sinners’ is a phrase often found in the Bible to describe these people. Dig behind them and you find many more: lepers who were supposed to be kept beyond arm’s length away; people with a variety of disabilities; women of dubious character or who had the status of the ignored; children who were not so much expected to be ‘seen and not heard’ so much as kept out the way; beggars; terrorists (aka ‘zealots’); people of other faiths; condemned criminals; adulterers; Roman soldiers (his nation’s oppressors); the ritually unclean; dead people (!) and many more beside. Jesus literally and figuratively embraced them all. All had been excluded. By whom? By the religious leaders of the day.
It is telling that the only people Jesus seems to exclude from the ‘Kingdom of God’ are those who are excluding others – the religious elite. He has harsh words for them. He slams their hypocrisy. He allows them to humiliate themselves by the way he answers their questions. He shreds their arguments and theology publicly when they try to catch him out. Why? I think it is because they are swimming against the flow of God’s inclusive agenda. They were busy trying to protect God from the very people God wanted to embrace and include. Today those of us who are in church leadership need to think long and hard about whether he might reserve some of those words for us if we are excluders.
Western culture (and those on which it has been imposed) since the first century AD has grown up with a binary image of gender based on the Judaeo-Christian understanding of the world, seen through the lens of the Bible. Genesis 1:27 is often quoted in support of this: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NIVUK) Doesn’t this verse have much more to say about the image of God – that all humans, without exception, are made in God’s image – than about the binary nature of gender? (Binary here meaning only 2 choices). If it was a statement about binary gender then a better reading would be: “male or female he created them”, so that there are only those two choices, but that is to corrupt the text. “Male and female” can include a whole spectrum of realities. Those who base a binary interpretation of gender on this verse need to work out what to do with people who are born intersex (with chromosomes, genitalia and sex organs of both male and female). What about those who are born without genitalia? What about those who, due to assault, illness or accident, lose their genitalia? An exclusively binary approach would seem to deny that these people could be made in God’s image. I’m not going to explore the complexities of many different gender and sexual theologies, but I simply raise the question to show how using Genesis 1:27 to establish a solely binary approach to gender is inadequate.
Despite these non-binary realities, that verse has been used in that way to suggest that people who are trans are going against God’s creation ordinance and should remain in their biological gender. To suggest that this verse could be used for this purpose seems to be theologically dishonest and is also logically untenable. Even if we accepted that the verse established a solely binary approach to gender then people who are trans are only looking to correct the dissonance they experience between outward appearance and inner personhood and would seek to identify only as one gender – their true gender. Let us not miss the reason why Eve was created – to combat loneliness. God brought her into being because “it is not good for the [hu]man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) If we read and interpret the Bible in such a way that it creates loneliness and isolation (such as that often experienced by trans Christians) we are going against God’s creation-purposes.
Is the Bible binary?
In The Gender Agenda: towards a Biblical theology on Gender Identity, reassignment and confirmation (Oasis Books, GB, 2018) Baptist Minister Revd Steve Chalke observes that while we may consider much of the Bible as the source of a binary approach to life, the Universe and everything there is a panoply of variety within it that we have missed – even in the apparently binary description of Creation in Genesis 1.
He explores the Creation narrative in Genesis 1 which at first glance seems to describe God’s creative activity in a binary fashion: day and night, land and sea, etc. However he observes that we can definitively say that this is not the whole story. While we are told of the creation of day and night, yet we know that between the two there are the shadowy and numinous periods of dusk and dawn. We are told in Genesis 1 that the waters were divided and there is land and sea. Yet we also know that there are lakes, rivers and beaches that are part of the bigger picture. We are only told of plants and animals (including fish and birds), but there are some creations, such as sea anemones that seem to be simultaneously plant and animal (yes, really!). We are told that animals are on the land, fish in the sea and birds in the air, yet there are also land animals that can swim or fly, fish that can fly or come onto the land (albeit for short periods of time) and flightless and swimming birds. There are many herbivorous animals, and there are also carnivorous plants! We are told that male and female (and we have to assume a non-genetics-based discernment of gender based solely on external physiology) were created in God’s image and there are people who are born that do not fit with the majority physiology. The point that Steve Chalke makes which I want to reiterate is that a binary approach to life is not the whole story.
Other verses (and there are only a handful) are used to try to maintain the binary approach and establish a prohibition on people who are trans becoming their true gender. Deuteronomy 22:5 contains a prohibition on wearing clothes that are for the opposite gender. There are several problems with using this verse to deny people who are trans the opportunity to become who they truly are. The first is a logic problem – people who are trans are not looking to wear the clothes of the opposite gender, they are seeking to wear the clothes of their true gender. The second is a problem of consistency. If you want to apply this verse strictly, why are the surrounding verses not applied strictly too – so that all houses are built with parapets (v.8); greenhouses and allotments are only ever planted with one crop (v.9); clothes are never mixed-fibre (v.11) and have tassels on the corners (v.12)? We have been happy to disregard these without difficulty, yet some insist on using verse 5 as an argument against accepting people who are trans.
A further problem is one of fashion. Much of western fashion has evolved in such a way that many clothes are not gender-exclusive: it was not so long ago that women were expected to wear skirts and men trousers, yet many women will happily wear trousers. Do we have to forbid women from wearing jeans? In bygone eras men have worn tights: something now mainly reserved for women. In other cultures men wear robes, sarongs and kilts that resemble skirts. So how do we understand this verse? Let’s look at the context: it seems that Canaanite idol worship included cross-dressing as part of the rituals (See Transfaith, Chris Dowd, Christina Beardsley, Justin Tanis, (DLT, London, 2018) p.163 and https://claudemariottini.com/2009/01/26/transvestism-in-ancient-israel/ for example). So, isn’t it likely that this prohibition (and the others around it) sought to establish the emerging Hebrew nation as distinctive from the surrounding tribes and nations in their single-minded worship of Yahweh? Our application today could be the principle of avoiding looking like anti-God aspects of the prevailing culture. And even if it wasn’t, we must reckon with the reality in the Bible that the only other time the Hebrew word that is used for Joseph’s rainbow coat appears is to describe David’s daughter Tamar’s ornate robe: “the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.” (2 Samuel 13:18, NIVUK) Was Joseph’s robe a woman’s robe? How does that relate to the Deuteronomy verse? It’s complicated isn’t it?
And that’s my point!
Of all the people we encounter in the pages of the Bible some people who are trans have identified particularly with Job.
This may be unexpected to those who have not experienced what people who are trans have, but a brief summary of some of the themes within the book of Job reveals much with which people who are trans identify. They too have experienced extreme loss (perhaps their sense of identity, family or friends); people can shy away from them because of their appearance; they find (God-fearing) people talk about them rather than with them and make assumptions about them; and they experience unfair blame and accusation, pain and isolation from those who should have loved and supported them. The message of hope is that those who are trans can also experience what Job found in the final chapters – reconciliation and restitution.
Surely there is nothing in the Bible that warrants the type of prejudice and discrimination that I have read and heard about from some trans Christians?
Indeed, when you read 1 Corinthians 13 (the well-known beautiful chapter about love) in the context of some of the stories I have encountered it makes me weep to see how mistreated and misunderstood people have been when they should have received 1 Corinthians 13-style love. Please let us not confuse the negative and critical attitude of some within some churches as being representative of God.
The powerful, beautiful, radical and revolutionary portrayal of God as the father in Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32) shows God to be on the side of the marginalised, the ostracised and those rejected by religion. In ancient near-Eastern culture the whole community would have known of the insult the younger son made to his father by asking for his inheritance – in effect saying, “I wish you were dead!” So, when the father threw the party in his son’s honour the wider community was invited to see that the father’s love was greater than their gossip, prejudice and tutting! The father was making a statement that his son had been reinstated. I do not want to twist the text inappropriately to suggest that this is a story of a transgender transition, but the father explained to his Pharisaical older son that it was as if he had received his son back from the dead – there had been a death and resurrection. For those who transition perhaps there is also an experience of death (the old self) and resurrection (the real identity) and for them I suggest that the Father would also throw a party to say to everyone that this person belongs here.
There are several occasions in the Gospels where Jesus sided with those who were being marginalised. Perhaps the most poignant in our context is in Luke 7:36ff, where Jesus was reclining at the table in the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman of dubious reputation gatecrashed the meal, weeping onto his feet and wiping them with her hair before anointing them with precious perfume. Those who were there were scandalised. Jesus not only defended her, he praised her and elevated her. In Mark’s account of a similar (possibly the same – Mark 14:9) event he tells those around him to ‘Leave her alone’ and announces that, “Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Jesus was far more inclusive than those around him.
A trans woman friend of mine shared with me that two passages from Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians have been really helpful to her: Romans 8:38-39 – “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Add to that Romans 9:20 – “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (both NIVUK) and you see a journey of God’s acceptance mirrored with a process of self-acceptance. Neither of these requires the endorsement of anyone else to confirm one’s identity.
It is not that being a trans Christian is merely ‘not incompatible’ with being a follower of Jesus, it is entirely consistent. You may think that the double negative amounts to the same thing, but I want to make a far more positive statement than the double negative would imply. Jesus invited those who were considered by the religious leaders to be the ‘wrong sort of people’ to follow him. He actively went out of his way to be with them, to empower and encourage them, and to ensure that God’s Kingdom was for them. That has not changed.
With a heavy heart as an ordained Minister I acknowledge that the religious leaders of our day still can exclude the ‘wrong sort of people’ while Jesus would do all that he can to reassure them of a welcome and complete inclusion.
That includes you. I believe that Churches need to wake up and catch up with the One they are following as they may be lagging a long way behind him here.
In case you think I am being overly negative (and I may be as I want to be open and honest) I will leave the last words in this section (paraphrased) to a Christian trans woman who is a friend of mine:
Being reconciled to family and friends
Another landmark for a person who is trans (and one that may feel daunting to even contemplate) is sharing their identity with those close to them. Unless you have been there yourself you cannot begin to understand how that must feel – a complex blend of the fear of rejection and not knowing how the ‘news’ will be received, anxiety about what to say and where to say it, excitement about taking this monumental step towards their new identity, hopefulness that they will be accepted, and much, much more. While I cannot and would not want to prescribe a universal approach that is appropriate for all I think there are some aspects of this landmark that are worth exploring, which I will do through asking you some questions. These thoughts and questions come from reading the experiences of people who are trans, conversations with those who have experienced this first hand, and my own personal experience. They are primarily for those who are finding out that their friend or relative is a person who is trans.
With deep sadness I have to admit that not everyone who discovers that a friend or relative is trans will able to accept that person in their true identity. There are many possible reasons for this. They may be able to articulate some, but others may be a deep felt emotion they cannot explain. Some may be based on preconceptions that they are unable or unwilling to change. Some may find it a struggle to consider the person in their true identity, especially if they have known that person in their birth identity for a long time. Those people may find themselves incredibly conflicted because they almost certainly won’t have stopped loving the person who is trans, but they also find themselves unable to respond to them in the same way as they used to. There are no easy answers and tragically it may be that some relationships will be weakened, damaged or even fractured beyond repair. I hope that the following approaches may help minimise that risk.
If someone shares this news with you ask yourself how much it has cost that person to tell you, how much they must love and respect you to share it with you.
In that moment you are standing on sacred ground. You may be overwhelmed by the news and not know how to respond (understandably) but my experience in life and ministry is that hugs go a long way when you haven’t got words and praying may give you what you lack. When our daughter and her wife met with my wife and I to tell us that she was a trans woman there was nothing that made us suspect that this is what was going to be shared. One of my responses was to say that I was “surprised, but not shocked.” By this I meant that I had not expected to be told the news, however I was not going to let that surprise to become toxic and poison the moment by allowing it to become shocking news. This news that our daughter had shared with us must have taken immense courage and went to the depth of who she is, and I wanted to show that my love for her was undiminished and honour that sacred moment in our family history.
This is not an overnight decision that the person who is trans has made to share their news with their friends and family. They will have wrestled and agonised over it for a long time beforehand, no doubt rehearsing how it might go and playing out all sorts of possible scenarios in their head beforehand. Honour that in the moment when you are told by taking the time to listen to the whole story. Once you have heard it you might have lots of questions, so this is another place where grace can be helpful. Be gracious enough to think first of the needs of the one who has told you before you unleash a barrage of questions. On the other hand, you may not know what to say, so be honest and say so, while being gracious enough to thank them for loving and trusting you enough to share that with you.
Does everyone respond in the same way to the same news?
Of course not, what a silly question. That’s true, but recognise that it’s a silly question and ensure that you don’t assume that one encounter will be replicated by the next. This is about managing your expectations as well as treating every person as an individual. This surprising vista that you will presented people with may take their breath away in good or bad ways. Some may have a million and one questions and want to talk. Others may want to be left on their own to process things internally. Some may respond with tears while others may be silent. It will help to recognise this beforehand, and also to remind yourself of it during and afterwards. Try not to read more into what people say or don’t say than is being said and if your brain insists on replaying it afterwards it may help you to find a trusted friend or a Counsellor who can help you to reflect on whether you are inferring things that may not be there. A person who is trans who is preparing to tell those who are close to them may well have concealed (or even been unaware of) this aspect of their identity from those people and it is worth remembering that reactions to the revelation may be received in a more negative way than is intended simply because of the magnitude of the revelation and unanticipated nature of it.
What is the best way to tell someone, or to be told?
There’s no ‘one size fits all answer here’. All I can do is offer some of my reflections by way of principles to consider. My personal view is that a moment like this ideally deserves the security and sensitivity that comes from physically being with those who are being told. However there may be contexts in which it is more appropriate to make a phone call or send a carefully crafted letter (you can make sure you have the words right). You’ll have to weigh up whether seeing someone’s face, being able to read their eyes and feeling their body language is more important than getting the words right. It would seem to me that ideally you would rather not be disturbed or overheard during this conversation so having it in private would seem better. Geography may preclude that, and technology may help here. When our daughter told some of her grandparents, she was unable to visit them in person so we arranged a Skype call with them (in which my wife and I participated as well) and my sister (who knew) was able to be physically present with the grandparents as well. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than many alternatives.
There may be ‘emergency’ times when a person who is trans feels compelled to share their news with someone in a less than ideal way for fear that they will hear (perhaps unhelpfully) from another source or that they may suspect something. Grace and understanding are called for from all involved if that is the case and it may take some time to work through the after-effects for someone who has been told that way.
Do you need to ask or answer all the questions immediately?
Time may be needed to process what you have been told or what has been received. Ask yourself which questions are important. As followers of Jesus take lots of time to pray. Pray with the person who is trans and for them. Pray for yourself and others who will be receiving this news. Pray for those with whom the person who is trans lives and works and for a gracious response from them too. The person who is trans has invited you to join them on their journey of discovery and becoming, which is an immense privilege however it takes considerable time. Understandably the fear of rejection seems deeply ingrained in those people who are trans with whom I have spoken and anything you can do to help dispel that fear, even if you are still processing your own responses, will be a blessing.
Recognise how long they have been wrestling with this
As a person who is trans transitions it seems that they experience a condensed period of personality formation – something that most people experience during childhood and adolescence. They may have spent many years denying, fighting against or keeping their trans identity hidden and when they are finally free to discover and express who they truly are this emerging personality will need protection. That can come from supportive family and friends, medical and psychological professionals and hopefully from a church. For some it may be that they create a chrysalis within which this metamorphosis can take place but instead of it being a physical cocoon it is a chrysalis that keeps some people at arm’s length, that apparently fervently or aggressively reacts against perceived criticism or rejection and could appear self-centred to those on the receiving end. It is really important for all involved to give and show grace to one another as there is a serious risk of misunderstanding and damage to valuable relationships at this time. What may be received as aggression is more likely to be a protective reaction as the butterfly begins to be formed within the chrysalis. A person who is trans may react more strongly or negatively than you might expect to something that you say. Grace is needed to be understanding and forgiving. Also perhaps, in hindsight, grace is needed by the person who is trans as they understand that the reaction may have caused hurt that was as unintended as the comment that provoked it.
Spend time in one another’s presence once you have been told
Relationships do not remain static. They grow closer through good communication and they grow apart by a lack of communication or poor communication. It may be ‘virtual’ more than physical if you don’t live close to one another. A phone call, text message or other social media contact helps keep lines of communication open, as can video calls. Physical distance between people is no longer an obstacle to relationship-building. If you don’t work on building the relationship you may find yourselves feeling distant from one another. Take time to enjoy doing things together as much as you used to – the things that built and established your relationship in the past may continue to be helpful and have the same benefits now.
Take time to do some new things together. One of the things that my wife did with our trans daughter was take her shopping for clothes. I found it immensely moving to hear of how they had spent time together in the women’s clothing section of a store as a practical way of affirming her true identity.
Emotions and feelings aren’t static
All those involved can feel a range of emotions and, just like stages of grief, emotions may well change over time. Emotions are not fixed, they are fluid. They are affected by any number of external and internal factors, some of which will be obvious, and others will be unknown.
Think for a moment how you felt when you woke up this morning. Did you feel the same yesterday when you woke up? How about the last seven days? Why did you feel differently? You may not be able to put your finger on it. Emotions are fluid. They are not always rational. They sometimes beyond our control – you can’t force yourself to feel happy, but you can create an environment in which you are more likely to feel happy.
Why this amateur psychobabble? It’s important when we are dealing with such an important and deep experience that we do not make an emotional response as the only or final response. It is not always a rational response. It may even be a response that seems to bypass our consciousness. I would suggest that you do not hold to tightly to them. It may change. That is true for positive emotional responses as well as negative ones. It is one reason why I have written this – to try to help you to think through things in a way that is not only emotional.
What if I feel that I am to blame?
Guilt is a possible emotional response that parents (or others) may experience as they come to terms with the knowledge that their child is a trans man or woman.
Parents of people who are trans have told me of different reasons why they have felt guilt. They may experience guilt because they did not recognise the signs earlier or because they may feel that they unwittingly made things more difficult for their child. They may feel guilt because they don’t understand and feel that they ought to. It’s possible that they may even feel guilt that their child has been born and grown up with a mismatch between their physical appearance and gender – suspecting that the cause could be their genetics passed on or something they did while the child was developing in the womb and feeling responsible for it, even though that is not something over which they had any control.
A person who is trans may feel guilt for being the one who has introduced this into the family life and experience. They may feel guilty if family members are unable to agree on the way that they want to respond. Guilt does not need much prompting to manifest itself!
I think you can divide guilt into two main categories: I think good guilt is primarily a reflex of our conscience to show us that something needs to be addressed. There is also fake guilt – guilt that we have been persuaded to take on for something which is not our fault and is beyond our control. Both types of guilt tend to turn us inwards and we often keep it secret because of perceived shame rather than being motivated to look for external help to resolve it. The problem is that all (real or fake) guilt, if left unaddressed and allowed to fester, is extremely corrosive to a person’s own sense of self-worth and to their relationships. So, if you sense you are feeling guilt (real or fake) and are unable to address it yourself, my advice would be for you to seek professional counselling help with it. (You may find it helpful for you to have a professional with whom you can process all your emotions that you experience guilt). This is not weakness. This is not failure. It is an expression of wisdom, strength and courage.
What if you can’t cope?
For some people it may be that they are unable or unwilling to accept or understand what is happening. One of the reasons for me writing these words is the hope that they might help some who are in that place at least understand more and recognise why their loved one / friend is on this journey. It’s worth reiterating that this is not a whim, nor is it a choice that the person who is trans has elected to make – any more than me being told I had an aortic aneurism that needed surgical intervention to save my life was a choice that I had chosen. I fervently believe (in case you are in any doubt or skipped the bits about the Bible) that this is entirely compatible with what the Bible has to say about being and becoming human, created with inherent God-image, and is in no way contrary to God’s will and purposes.
If someone remains resolute in their non-accepting position is unlikely that they will be changed by arguments, being bombarded by literature or shown videos. The most persuasive force in the Universe is love. Love that refuses to respond to rejection with retaliation. Love that goes out to the older brother (in the parable of the lost son in Luke 15) and invites them to join in (and never closes the door if the invitation is rejected). Showing someone 1 Corinthians 13-style love, real Jesus-like love, is costly and painful, however it may be the only thing that will slowly erode the hard façade of the one who has rejected. Remember too that they may well be hurting – they have lost a relationship with someone they have known for years and love. Grace is love in action when it is not earned and is needed in abundance for all and from all. I appreciate that this may be difficult if the person does not want to talk to you but simply ensuring that you have never closed the door on them and that they know that you are always willing to talk with them may be the best you can offer.
Is the person who is trans the same person you knew?
This situation is not like an old master painting which has been painted on top of a previous painting to reuse a canvas – here the old is not completely hidden or overwritten. What is happening is more than simply a reframing, renewing, reimagining and re-presentation. Please forgive me a little sci-fi analogy here. The Doctor in BBC’s Doctor Who is a time-travelling Time-Lord. From time to time The Doctor regenerates to become a new ‘incarnation’ of The Doctor, yet they also fundamentally remain The Doctor. Perhaps the latest regeneration where The Doctor regenerated as a female for the first time gives a greater sense of what I am trying to say where aspects of personality, experience and knowledge are brought into her new physical expression. The Doctor is simultaneously the same and new. It’s an imperfect analogy and please don’t stretch it any further or it will break, and if it means nothing to you, please ignore it. The point I am struggling to make is that we should expect that there will simultaneously be new and familiar aspects of the ‘trans personality’ as their identity is established.
Because gender is an integral part of who we are, we do the person who is trans a serious disservice and set everyone up for significant pain and disappointment if we imagine that they are the same person as before but a different gender. They will simultaneously be the same person and a different person. The memories and experiences that the person who is trans has created with their friends and family will not be erased but they may need to be reframed. That takes considerable grace on everyone’s part.
My reading and conversations suggest that there may be a sense of bereavement for some as the memories of the past are seen through the new lenses of the person who is trans’s true gender. It will be worth exploring this gently with the person who is trans as they grow in awareness of their new personhood. They may be happy for the past to remain untouched by the present and future. It is also possible that referring to their previous presenting gender identity could jar as they seek to establish who they really are. Yet for some of those around them those memories and experiences are not easily reimagined. Once again it is worth being reminded that grace is needed on all sides. And open communication is invaluable. If you are not sure about something, ask (sensitively) don’t assume.
It is also worth having an open and honest discussion with the person who is trans about memories. Those who have grown up together will have created cherished memories of that time in their life. But for the person who is trans those memories are complicated by the memories being reminders of when they were not their true self. The family need to know how the person who is trans wants to be remembered. Do they mind being referred to in their former identity when referring to the past or would they prefer that their true identity is used to refer to those times? If the latter is preferred, then it will take time and effort for everyone to learn how to retell familiar stories. The same questions need to be considered about family photos that contain images from before the person who is trans changed their physical appearance. It may be that this is too big a leap for some to take in the early days and it is possible that some will struggle to make the transition at any stage. Everyone will do well to bear with one another.
Overflowing grace is needed
Nobody who is trans should be expected to draw on endless reserves of graciousness towards others who are not being gracious. At that point I think it stops being grace and starts being Grace’s lesser cousin, Compromise. The personal accounts I have read show how important grace is because there will be mistakes along the way – the wrong name or pronoun may inadvertently be used. As the person who is trans begins to dress and present in their true gender it may come as a surprise and throw someone off-guard in the moment that they meet them for the first time. It does seem that there is a grace imbalance here in that the person who is trans probably has to exercise far more grace than others. This experience was expressed to me by a trans friend and has been a theme of some personal accounts by people who are trans in some of the books I have read. Those who accompany the person who is trans on their journey need to understand that and bear it in mind, especially as a person’s reserves of grace are not actually infinite and the person who is trans may unexpectedly respond in an apparently defensive or hostile way when those reserves are depleted.
Those who travel with the person who is trans need to show grace. They may receive negative comments from others around them about their relationship with the person who is trans. As the person who is trans begins to establish their true gender those around them will need to show grace as they accept and respond to changes in personality as well as appearance. One of the ways to maintain this grace is to remember that it will be rare that someone acts or reacts intentionally in a way to hurt others. Most people are trying their best to do their best, but we will all make mistakes. When we do, the words of Proverbs 15:1 make sense: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (NIVUK)
Being reconciled with church
Every Christian church should be a place of safety, welcome and inclusion for all. The experience of some people who are trans with whom I have talked is that they doubt this to be the case. In my experience there is little overt mention of Trans Christians in churches. It is something that is parked on the shelf in the forbidden section of the church library marked ‘too difficult to discuss’. If or when the subject is mentioned it can sometimes be in negative ways, with national reports by the Evangelical Alliance and Church of England both currently stating that it is not ‘biblical’ to change gender. The EA published Transsexuality in 2000 and Transformed in 2018, both declaring the EA view that to transition is wrong, even if the later report is designed to be more pastorally sensitive in its approach. A section of Some Issues in Human Sexuality by the C of E (2003) looks at transgender issues but also adopts the EA position. Notably in all three of these documents the explicit voices of trans Christians are silent. Because of approaches like this people who are trans may suspect or assume that they would not be welcome in a church, or that their gender identity is incompatible with the Christian faith. Sadly, they are sometimes proved to be correct.
That is not necessarily the case. There is a new landmark on the journey of reconciliation here as there are a growing number of churches that are willing to explore this and address questions of their inclusivity. Inclusive Church is a growing network of churches, groups and individuals uniting together around a shared vision: “We believe in inclusive Church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate. We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality. We believe in a Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.” (my emphasis) On their website you can find lists of churches that have formally adopted this vision and where you should receive an unquestioning welcome. https://www.inclusive-church.org/ There are also groups for trans Christians and their families such as Sibyls http://sibyls.gndr.org.uk/ where you will find a welcoming and supportive environment.
I have heard several stories of people who are trans who have found that if they are to remain in a church (either as they transition or post-transition) the church has called on the grace of the person who is at risk of exclusion. At the same time that person who is trans receives nothing but rejection, being talked about, unfounded suspicion and thoughtlessness. By way of example, a trans woman had come to faith, been baptised and become a member of a church as a widower (a presenting male whose gender dysphoria had been kept hidden from the church). When she decided to transition, she had her membership withdrawn and was asked to step down from roles she was already fulfilling in the church. Remarkably and graciously she remained in the church and is now finding the level of acceptance and inclusion she should have found when she was at her most vulnerable.
In another church, a trans woman and her wife had shared with her minister that she was experiencing gender dysphoria and intended to transition. With her agreement a process was put in place that began with the leadership team being told in anticipation of sharing this with the whole church. Two of the leaders resigned because they felt unable to accept the affirming and supportive majority view. Publicly they gave other reasons for their resignations. The trans woman and her partner felt the rejection of those resignations keenly. The trans woman told me that neither of the resigned leaders spoke to the couple at the time or subsequently – compounding the sense of rejection.
I would love to think that these were isolated accounts. Regrettably if you read many personal accounts of trans Christians they will tell of similar experiences. It is my hope that this website will be part of a changing narrative so that such experiences are consigned to the history books. I wonder whether we may even be at a place where an apology needs to be given like that given by the Baptist Union of Great Britain for the part played by their churches in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. (The Apology, as it has become known, was issued by BUGB Council in November 2007. You can read it here https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/366545/The_Apology.aspx).
Labelling someone is easy to do. However it tends towards isolating and discriminating rather than welcoming and including. Each person is an individual who is loved by God. Their story, journey, hopes and expectations are unique. While it’s important for a church to consider its stance about transgender issues and people it’s essential that they do not assume that everyone’s experience or intentions are the same. I would also suggest that, if possible, it is far preferable for a church to consider what its response is towards people who are trans before someone attends the church or discloses from within the church that this is who they are. To respond reactively increases the risk of marginalising or excluding the person. They need to do this on an informed basis, not relying on hearsay, supposition or guesswork.
You could hold a series of discussion sessions, perhaps backed by a series of sermons on biblical welcome and inclusion, and explore together what the medical science says, what the Bible says and what you believe your church wants to say concerning people who are trans. The Inclusive Church Network has a wide range of resources that could be used to help with this process, and of course it does not have to be limited to considering transgender people and issues. The Inclusive Church Network explores a wide range of areas in which churches can improve their inclusiveness. In exploring what the church thinks it is essential to recognise that there may well be a wide range of views, experiences and understanding within the congregation, and that there may be those who are personally touched by the discussions because of their own experience or those close to them. Sensitivity and grace are needed.
I wholeheartedly commend the resource Creating Sanctuary, which is designed to help people think through the experience of being an LGBT+ person in our churches. Trans aspects of the resource are being finalised right now, and the whole resource is excellent, especially as the resources allow people to hear the voices of LGBT+ people and respond in a safe environment. I should declare an interest, in that I have been involved in a small way in the enhancing of the resource to include people who are Trans, but since it’s offered free of charge to those who would like to use it I feel no conflict in recommending it.
If you prefer a book (or series of books) I recommend the excellent books Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation (Part 1 and Parts 2,3 and 4). Rev Steve Elmes explains through a fictionalisation of the experience in his own church how a church could have discussions around questions of human sexuality. He has published a guide book to help churches explore this themselves, A Beautiful Endeavour, which outlines a process that churches could follow and link to video resources to support them. (These are all self-published under Creative Tension Publications and are available from online retailers.) While the predominant subject being discussed is around discerning a church’s view of same sex relationships the process used could easily be adapted to explore a church’s view of transgender.
It may be helpful to gain a sense of the church’s view as whatever process is adopted proceeds. One way of doing this may be to offer people an opportunity to express their different views safely by writing anonymously in response to a carefully worded questionnaire. If there is enough resilience within the congregation a more visual approach is to use a ‘rainbow’ where a continuum is established from (to use terminology I will explain later) ‘embracing’ to ‘rejecting’. People are asked to stand on the continuum at a place that they feel represents their view. You could do this several times – perhaps at the start of a process, in the middle and towards the end. At each part of the process ask if some people would like to share why they are stood where they are, and if anyone has moved could they say why they have moved. This requires a level of visible honesty and trust that some people may find uncomfortable so it may not be for all. It is worth bearing in mind that this range of opinion may still exist within a church at the end of a process. That is not failure, especially if people of differing views are able to honour and respect those with whom they disagree and agree to remain in fellowship together because the unity in Jesus is greater than any disunity this may generate.
A church on a journey of exploration about their relationship with people who are trans may not know the destination when they set out. They may have a sense that they want to be more inclusive, or they may simply realise that this is something they need to consider. If the leadership of a church have a declared destination to be reached this is less like a journey of exploration and more like a route march. I wonder if that approach is more likely to lead to division, dissension and desertion than an open and honest prayerful discussion.
One of the strengths of Steve Elmes’s books is that they are based around (fictionalised) people rather than principles, although the discussions revolve around both. It is easy to fall into the trap of discussing ‘issues’ and forgetting that we are actually talking about people. I wonder if some scripted conversation might help draw out some of the key points that need to be considered to enable a church to do this.
There are likely to be different issues raised when a person who is trans joins a church compared to when a person who is known in church by their assigned birth gender is experiencing gender dysphoria and wants to transition. Someone who is not known other than in their trans identity might find it easier to be accepted than someone who is transitioning and is known to the church. That has been the experience of one couple with whom I spoke where they found the thought of transitioning within a church where they had been known for many years as husband and wife was too difficult and they joined a church in a different town where they were not known and were accepted as wife and wife. Of course, that is not always the case. Where someone transitions within a church where they are already known I would hope that they feel loved and part of the church family, and that may mean that they find it a safe and secure place in which to transition. Knowing the person may or may not make it easier for the church, individual or their family. From conversations I have had I have noticed that while, if someone is known and loved, it may be that they will be accepted more readily it also seems to be true that they may experience any negative responses or rejection far more keenly. The depth of loving fellowship within a church will make a significant difference to the experience of a person who is trans.
If a church is having to work out its approach while a trans man or woman is in the congregation, they will need to be pastorally sensitive to them during any discussion and discernment process. In such circumstances the person who is trans could feel incredibly exposed and vulnerable. They may also feel some guilt for having brought the church to a place where it having to consider this issue if the process was initiated because of the person who is trans’s presence. That emotion is understandable, but they could also see the fact that the church is willing to explore this because of them as a sign of how much the church values them and takes the issue of inclusion seriously. There may even be a sense in which the person who is trans is being prophetic by enabling the church to consider what God is saying to them when they may not have wanted to listen. A sensitive church will offer the person who is trans the opportunity to be blessed by some people who will specifically accompany them during the process, ensuring that they are not alone when key discussions or decisions are being made, covenanting to pray for and with them on a regular basis and ensuring that any decisions and outcomes are communicated thoughtfully and helpfully.
I’ll be exploring how a church may accompany a trans man or woman on their journey in the next section. However, I want to raise a few things that you may like to consider as a church which, while relevant in all situations, may be particularly relevant if a trans man or woman who has already transitioned joins the church as they will experience your church’s approach immediately.
It may be immensely helpful for a trans man or woman to know in advance what sort of welcome they are likely to receive at a church.
Websites are excellent for this as most people seem to check them out in advance of attending a church nowadays. Be clear about your welcome – the Inclusive Church Network statement of inclusion is a good example – but also please do ensure that it is honest. A church might say “We are a warm and welcoming church” and in practice some people, because of their sexuality or appearance, would find that they do not feel welcome if they attend because of the emphasis of teaching or even the attitude of the congregation. If your church is not welcoming of people from the LGBTQ+ community it’s difficult to say that publicly, and I imagine you would not want to describe yourselves as ‘rejecting’ even if in fact that is the case.
There are descriptors that might be helpful such as ‘conservative evangelical’, ‘traditional’ or even ‘Bible-believing’ which would give a clue to people who are trans looking to see if they would be welcome and included in the church. (I really want to challenge the assumption that ‘Bible-believing’ equates to conservative theology as I would describe myself as ‘Bible-believing’ even though my perspective on some issues is not traditional. But, sadly, until the phrase is decommissioned and reclaimed it does seem to be synonymous with ‘conservative evangelical’ in churches). Make sure that this ethos is true of all the church activities, not just Sunday services. It seems that more and more people’s first encounter with a church is not strolling through the doors on a Sunday but attending an activity or group at another time of the week.
Have a think about the welcome that people receive when they arrive at your church
…especially for the first time. If someone is welcomed with gender-specific language they may find themselves inadvertently (I hope it would not be deliberate) upsetting someone. Encourage people not to say, “Hello, sir” or, “Good morning ma’am” or to a group, “Hello ladies”. It’s not necessary to use a gender-specific greeting when ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ are more than enough. If it is followed by “Welcome to Upson Downs Baptist Church Toddlers, I am Barbara” that allows the person to know your name and encourages them to offer their name.
Gender-inclusive language can be used without it seeming like ‘Political Correctness gone mad’. Rather than “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen” you could try, “Hello everyone,” “Good morning to you all,” or perhaps, “Hello church.” One church I visited went further and on the welcome cards that visitors were asked to complete when they attended for the first time if they wanted to receive more information about the church or a personal visit, they are given the opportunity to say which gender pronouns they prefer to be used. Of course, that needs to be implemented once the information has been received: what may seem like a minor point to some might be the most inclusive thing others have experienced.
The question of toilets
This is one that has been raised many times in conversations with church leaders and in some of the books I have read. It is one of the moments when a person’s gender is made more obvious to others. A trans woman who chooses to use the ladies’ toilets is making a statement about her identity, however if the church has not talked about this in advance it could lead to some uncomfortable situations or even unhelpful conversations. One way around it is to make some or all the toilets in a church ‘unisex’. That way it is not an issue. If you do this, I would urge you not to do that only to the disabled access toilet and keep it labelled only as such, as one might infer something unhelpful about gender identity from that. Of course, it may not be practical or possible for some churches to carry out conversions of the toilet blocks to this extent and simply changing the signs on the doors may not be enough. In those circumstances some thought in advance and an agreement by the church that, as part of being inclusive, people will not be challenged when using the toilet may help. How a visitor learns this information is something you will have to work out for your church context. Perhaps those who are stewarding could specifically be trained on how to explain what arrangements you have, or, if you have a notice sheet or notices before the service on a screen, a discreet explanation could be included. Putting both male and female symbols on the outer door (or even a sign saying ‘Unisex toilets’) would be simple enough to do.
Another moment that may make someone feel uncomfortable is if, during sung worship or spoken liturgy (both on a Sunday and in midweek groups), there are designated ‘parts’ for men and women. Is it necessary for the song or liturgy to designate that they must be gender-specific? Could it be two sides of the room rather than a male / female split? Does it have to be explicitly said, or could people simply choose which parts to take?
A painful yet profoundly important thing to consider is around the subject of funerals. These need not be contentious occasions if a deceased person who is trans was in harmony with their family before their death. However it is possible that the person who is trans’s relatives may not have accepted their true gender. There may be requests from the family that the deceased is referred to only in their assigned birth gender, and by their given name at birth. At the same time there may be others who only knew the deceased in their trans identity or had come to embrace them as that person and who would be devastated if they were referred to differently. There’s no easy answer here other than honesty. A minister in a situation like this is not going to be able to please everyone where there are competing and incompatible perspectives and needs to let people know that this is not possible. Part of the minister’s role may be seeking to helping the relatives to consider what the person who is trans themselves would want. Perhaps, in telling their story, their trans journey could be told sensitively and openly in a way that honours the person and their family. If the division is irreconcilable you may have to accept that some people will be very upset with you, but my inclination would be to lean towards using the person who is trans’s true gender and name rather than their assigned birth ones as this is the person as they were more fully who they believed God created them to be. Where a Gender Recognition Certificate exists the person must be referred to in their new gender in all legal documents (such as death certificates) and there are associated privacy rights which carry criminal sanctions if someone’s trans nature is revealed without permission. There is a helpful document created by NHS Scotland that helps to address issues that may be faced.
If a person who is trans wants to marry the Gender Recognition Act 2004 applies. People who have been granted a full Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) are able to obtain 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. They are considered in the eyes of the law to be of their “acquired gender” in most situations. They are entitled to marry, and their gender correction is not something that can be raised as a reason not to marry them. A male/female marriage where one of the couple is trans is not a same sex marriage so churches do not need to register for same sex marriages in order to conduct that service. If a GRC has not been issued the situation is more complex.