Four observations about the transgender debate

“But beyond this, my child, be warned: the writing of many blogs about Caitlyn Jenner  is endless, and excessive devotion to blogs about Caitlyn Jenner is wearying to the body.”

That’s pretty much what I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would say after the most recent internet eruption of opinion about Bruce Jenner’s decision to transition to being Caitlyn Jenner. I find it wiser and more helpful for my own equilibrium to wait a while, read some of the best pieces and reflect on what’s been said. Here are four observations about the transgender debate:

Transgender is the new frontline for progressive politics

This may disconcert feminists or gay activists who are still fighting for their cause but they don’t get to set the agenda, the media does that and, my guess is, is that in the hive-mind of the modern media the battles for gay rights and gender equality has been decided. There may be individual battles and cases here and there of interest but the searchlight has moved and focused its gaze on the transgendered.

But back to the transgendered, no matter what one thinks of the people involved, it is clear that governments are already legislating in their favour. Australia in this case is leading the way and others will surely follow suit. It seems that armed only with a vague notion of ‘rights’, western governments are, within the space of about 50 years, completely redrawing the legal basis of society. It is unlikely that anything Christians do will change this other than to lose bruising battle after bruising battle.

I wrote that in January 2012, so this should come as no real surprise or shock. As Christians we need to rapidly get familiar with transgendered terms.

Feminism vs Transgenderism

This will be a fight worth watching because no longer will it be progressive vs traditional, tolerant vs bigot but two differing wings of progressive politics.

A couple of years ago I made this comment on a blog about gender

We live in an age where ‘who you really are’ is not determined by the body you have. So how do I know my daughter is a girl and not a boy? By what she plays with? What she shows an interest in? How she reacts to stuff? Feminists would mostly be very upset by how transgender (male to female) describe how they ‘knew’ because it generally reinforces the stereotypes they’ve been trying to undo.

The case of Caitlyn Jenner has thrown that issue into stark contrast and commentators have been quick to pick up on it. Daniel Davis says,

Transgenderism is unavoidably based on a kind of gender essentialism. It recognizes gender identities as being associated with certain socially accepted norms. What does it mean, for example, that Jenner’s “gender” is female? It means that he gets a sex change. It means that he poses in traditionally female attire for the cover of Vanity Fair. It means that he reaffirms traditional gender norms, even as he attempts to flee from them.

The most interesting of them all the essays I have read was Elinor Burkitt’s essay in the New York Times, What makes a woman? She writes,

As much as I recognize and endorse the right of men to throw off the mantle of maleness, they cannot stake their claim to dignity as transgender people by trampling on mine as a woman

The problem is encapsulated neatly in her closing paragraph (although the whole thing is worth reading).

Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

Interestingly Ms Burkitt received many favourable comments yet there was much outrage on the Christian blog Threads when Alistair Roberts took that point to its logical conclusion that,

Turning a man’s genitals inside-out, giving him some fake breasts, and altering his facial appearance does not a woman make.

The transgender debate will have consequences for the church

Firstly, you can expect that the liberal wing of the church will continue to follow suit and it’s likely that their case will follow the same patterns that Tim Keller identified in the debate over the homosexuality.

Secondly, it will throw a spanner in the works in the debate about God and gender. You won’t find a better summary of this than that offered by Steve Holmes an egalitarian Baptist theologian.

If we accept the redefinition of sex that a responsible reading of the experience of trans people forces on us, then the old arguments for rejecting the maleness of God are no longer available to us. We once had a good theological argument for insisting that God is not male; if we take seriously the identity of trans people, that argument falls.

I do not suppose very many people will like this conclusion (it offers two options: be trans-affirming and accept that God must be male, or hold on to the denial of gender in God and reject the reality of trans peoples’ lives.

Interesting. What will be more interesting is to see what arguments will then be presented to solve this conundrum.

The third consequence will be to further marginalize the church in western society over the next generation. The strong cultural tides in this direction have not peaked or begun to ebb and we would be naive to think they have. There is something decidedly non-progressive and instead ‘shrill, censorious, unreal, demanding compliance, punishing dissent.’

Damon Linker points out that there are two competing moral visions. One is ascendant (the new morality of rights) and one in decline (the Judeo-Christian morality of ends) and that,

The morality of rights judges the very act of making a moral judgment in terms of a morality of ends to be harmful — and therefore an act of cruelty, injustice, and even evil.

As a result the holding of traditional (and I would argue Biblical) Christian view on gender and sexuality will continue to marginalize the church and attract criticism.

This will change things

The campaign will generally focus on the individual’s rights to choose their own identity and that will affect public policy.

This is about being able to find a person at the DMV to change an “M” to an “F;” letting transgender girls join Girl Scout troops, creating protections against harassment and unequal treatment; and making sure people can get adequate medical care during a gender transition, if they so choose, and after.

Even though the benefits of surgical sex change operations are contested and even though there may be better ways of helping those who struggle with gender dysphoria.


This debate has a long way left to go especially in the church because we’re always five years behind everyone else but also in the mainstream. Just don’t say nobody told you.

Photo by Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors

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