What do you call a woman who was assigned male at birth?
At least that’s the obvious answer. But Russell Moore (below), president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the Christian response to a trans woman in the congregation is to begin using her birth name and incorrect pronouns, force her to present as a man, and tell all of her friends that her 30 years spent as her true gender were a mistake.
In the hypothetical situation Moore sets up in his column for The Gospel Coalition, “Joan or John?”, a woman who transitioned decades ago approaches a pastor feeling disconnected from the gospel. The pastor is horrified that “Joan used to be John,” has a 10-year-old daughter who has always known her as “Mom,” and has physically transitioned through hormones and surgery.
What’s the problem?
First, Moore presupposes that the trans person in question is suddenly guilty about their transition. Having never transitioned, I can’t speak about whether this ever happens, but the language used here seems far-fetched, especially for a person who transitioned decades ago. This made-up person also tells the pastor:
“I know the sex change surgery was wrong. I know my life is twisted. I’m willing to do whatever Jesus would have me to do to make it right,” she says. “But what would Jesus have me to do? Am I too messed up to repent and be saved? If not, what does it mean for me to repent and live my life as a follower of Jesus? What is right for me to do?”
The correct response is for a pastor to be compassionate and assure Joan that nothing is wrong with her and that she’s welcome as her true self. But what Moore considers “compassion” is telling Joan that she must begin living as a man in order to ever hope to reconcile her feelings. Joan has “played God” by experiencing her life as a gender other than the one she was assigned, and she has to pay the price.
After discerning that Joan is truly trusting in Christ (and it certainly appears that she is), my counsel would be to make sure she understands that part of the sin she’s walking away from is a root-level rejection of the Creator. God’s creation is good, and he does not create generic persons but “male and female,” in his own image (Gen. 1:27). In seeking to “become” a woman, John has established himself as a god, determining the very structure of his createdness. Part of the freedom that comes in Christ is John’s recognition that he is a creature, not a god, not a machine, not a freak.
This means the pastor should, in his role as an undershepherd of Christ, start speaking to Joan as “John” and identifying him as “him.” This will seem strange and discordant to Joan. Of course it will. What is going on in this person’s life, however, is what goes on in every Christian’s life. We’ve put on a “new man,” crucifying the old way (Eph. 4:21–24). We’re a “new creation” with the past done away with (2 Cor. 5:17). We have a “new name” (Rev. 2:17) that seems strange and mystifying, with an extended family we have to learn to love and walk with through life. In this case, of course, John’s “new” life as a Christian involves returning to his “old” identity as a man.
In this scenario, Moore is also preoccupied with the fact that Joan has “physically transitioned.” Because of this obsession, he seems to put careful thought into whether Joan should reverse her surgery. He ultimately decides that she shouldn’t — but only because he thinks it was worthless in the first place.
On the question of whether “Joan” should go reverse her “gender reassignment” surgery, I’m inclined to say no in this case. After all, no surgery can reassign gender. The surgery mangled John and sought to create an illusion of a biological reality. There’s no way this surgery can be “reversed,” only another cosmetic illusion created on top of the old one.
In other words, additional surgery would, I think, only compound the problem in this case. John should view himself similar to a biblical eunuch, someone wounded physically by his past sin but awaiting wholeness in the resurrection from the dead. He should, though, stop taking the female hormones, allowing his body to revert to its (relatively) natural state.
The issue for John is honesty, it seems to me. This means he should present himself as what he is, a man created by God as a man. This means he should identify himself as a man, and should start dressing in male clothing. This is going to be very, very difficult for him, and he’ll need his pastors and congregation to bear with him through all the massive challenges — chief among which involves his daughter.
There are so many problems with this guidance. Physical transition is considered medically necessary for many trans people, and it poses enough risks the first time around. Abruptly ending hormone therapy can have serious consequences, especially when a person has been taking them for as long as hypothetical Joan has. And dressing as a man when she otherwise feels like a woman, especially after undergoing physical changes, is bound to draw more negative attention if not outright harassment.
If her experience matches those of so many other trans people, there’s a good chance Joan already received some of that bullying the first time she transitioned — except that time, the transition was on her terms.
And finally, when it comes to telling Joan’s daughter that her mom is transgender — NOT that she’s “actually a man” — it’s a valid question, and the child’s emotional needs should be prioritized. Luckily, there are trained professionals who can help with this process, and they are generally not church leaders. Again Moore’s suggestions here seem more damaging than constructive, including his assumption that it will be a traumatic experience for the girl:
First, let me say I’m aware that “Joan” becoming “John” will wreak havoc on her daughter’s life and psyche. I think such havoc will be unleashed either way, and that honesty at this point is less destructive than continuing the illusion. The question, at this point, is not whether the daughter will have a normal life or a traumatic one. The question is whether the people of Christ will be with her through the trauma. I’d counsel Joan to tell her daughter at an appropriate (but not unduly delayed) time.
This will be difficult, and John will need his pastor there, along with many godly women willing to spend hours with this young girl. John should tell her that years before she was born, he was confused, and felt he was a girl instead of a boy, and that he’d spent the last 30 years trying to be a girl. He should tell his daughter, though, that something has changed: he was born again in Christ Jesus, and that means he gets a new start. He should tell her he loves her just the same, and he’ll always be here, but he wants her to know Jesus is putting his life back together as it was designed to be, as a man.
These judgments should be made by a mental health professional who can help Joan figure out the right time and place to tell her daughter, not by a pastor who advocates scaring a child about the reality of her family in the name of “honoring God’s creation.”
Transgender people have been around for as long as humans have been around, and the conservative church’s complete lack of empathy and compassion in these cases is despicable. Moore’s article is another example of an ignorant “authority” whose opinions are inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately?) doing harm to the thousands of trans Christians whose pastors will read this and act accordingly. Is anyone really still wondering why LGBT people are less involved in religious life?
Joan or John? Ask. She’ll tell you.
(Image via Wikipedia)