On June 10, 2014 at their annual meeting, Southern Baptist Convention members approved resolution #9, On Transgender Identity, written by Denny Burk. After reading the resolution, I am saddened at the apparent lack of understanding by Mr. Burk and the SBC on this topic of gender identity. Even more, I am saddened at the effect this resolution is having on our transgender friends. The Church has an opportunity to connect with those who identify as transgender and be a safe place where they can pursue a relationship with God, if that is what they desire. But to do this, the Church must get educated on gender identity. And fast.
I want to highlight one line of the resolution:
“RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, June 10–11, 2014, affirm God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design (Ephesians 4:17–18)” (Emphasis mine)
Respectfully, this is a bunch of hooey.
Yes, a person’s biological sex is defined by chromosomes and characterized by reproductive anatomy. But, for example, when we refer to a person’s sexual identity, we are now referring to much more than just physiology – we are now referring to how a person experiences his or her sexuality. Similarly, when we refer to gender identity, we are no longer strictly talking about a person’s biological sex alone – we’re talking about how a person experiences his or her maleness or femaleness.
Here’s an easy way to think of it:
Sex = Male, Female
Gender = Masculine, Feminine
While biological sex is usually easily defined, masculinity and femininity are not. The latter traits are influenced by many things, including heredity, hormones, early life experiences, self-perception, social expectations, etc. For this reason, two biological males can have two very different gender identities – two different ways of experiencing their maleness. The same can be true for two females.
Simply put, gender identity is not determined by what’s between our legs, but primarily by what’s between our ears – our brains. So if you’re a man, view yourself as a man and feel comfortable as a man, congratulations! – your brain is in congruence with your man parts. And if you’re a woman, view yourself as a woman and feel comfortable as a woman, woohoo! – your brain is in congruence with your lady parts. Your gender identity aligns with your biological sex.
But this is not the experience of everyone. Transgender people live with a degree of incongruence between their brains and their biological sex. And when the degree of incongruence is high, it can create despair, confusion and hopelessness, for a variety of reasons. It can be a terrible thing to feel like a stranger in one’s own body, and tragically some choose to end their lives rather than continue to exist in this trapped state. Others choose to embrace the gender identity of their brains, and this can look different for different people. Some live behaviorally as the opposite sex; others opt for cosmetic or sex-reassignment surgery. And there are some who live content lives amidst the incongruence, with support from family and friends.
If the Church is going to be a safe place for transgender people, it must stay relevant. Advances in science, medicine, psychology, and psychiatry have given us more information now about the human condition than we’ve ever had. The Church should not be hesitant to incorporate new knowledge into its theology – knowledge that affirms how fearfully and wonderfully we are made by God – knowledge that sheds more light on the role of the brain in gender identity – how we experience our God-given maleness or femaleness.
Here’s the bottom line: Our biological sex influences our gender identity, but it does not singularly define or determine it.
The SBC has prioritized making a point with this latest resolution that is neither substantiated by research nor influencing people for good. Rather than passing judgment on how people respond to their experience with gender dysphoria, can we seek to learn and understand? I want to know the stories of our transgender friends – I want to hear their struggles, their pain, their challenges. I want to apologize to all who identify as transgender for the way they’ve been treated by some in the Church. And I want them to know that they are precious to God. I think that’s a good place to start.