Just about every media outlet in America (and beyond) is prominently displaying a photograph this week of one-time Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner, now Caitlyn. Jenner’s experience has, of course, been trumpeted for a host of reasons, but it is prompting questions and concerns for many Christians who want to express both the compassion of Jesus and the truth of his Word.
First, a word of background about terminology. Until the last quarter century or so, the term used for “male” or “female” was “sex.” Fill out an application or government form and the word next to the boxes for “male” or “female” was always “sex.” It mostly still is. For now.
Then the word “gender” began to be introduced as if it were a synonym for “sex.” But it wasn’t. Gender is in fact a grammatical term that applies to words, not people. I had a professor who always said, “Saying you have a friend of the feminine gender is like saying you have a friend in the accusative case.”
Using “gender” appealed to many as a polite euphemism, but it was the camel’s nose under the tent. The first step was to get the term in widespread use. I well remember left-wing efforts at The Episcopal Church’s General Convention to make the word normative, and it wasn’t because they had polite sensibilities over that embarrassing word, “sex.”
The second step was to redefine the term. That was done early on, but it has taken decades for the new definition to gain traction. Simply put, the redefinition is that “sex” refers to your biological make-up as male or female. But your “gender” is who you are and what you understand yourself to be; it may or may not align with your biological sex, and it may change over time. As a result, there may be many different self-expressions and Facebook now famously offers 58 “gender options” for its users.
The third step has been to ask, then expect, then demand that others recognize and affirm the “gender identity” that a person has assumed. We have seen this most recently in the tragic action of the Fairfax County School Board to add “gender identity” to its non-discrimination policy.
All this means that Jenner’s experience is part of a much larger controversy with far greater implications than one man’s painful journey.
And so, let me urge you to listen and learn and become equipped to minister with the love and truth of Christ:
1. Listen to the extraordinary sermon by the Rev. Sam Ferguson of The Falls Church Anglican, in which he shares with great sensitivity and insight about a fellow student at Cambridge who was planning a sex change operation and who, through Sam’s ministry, instead found Christ and began a journey to real transformation. Sam makes the profoundly important point that our sex—our identity as male or female—is eternal, while our sexual drives and energies are temporary for this life only (there’s no marrying, no sexual activity in heaven; Luke 20:35). And so we should define ourselves by that which is eternal (our maleness or femaleness) and not that which is transitory (our subjective feelings). Sam’s remarkable sermon can be heard here.
2. Read about the experiences not just of those like Jenner who promote the transgendered message, but also of those who know a very different side of the transgendered experience.
- Paul McHugh is the former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the first medical center to perform “sex reassignment” surgeries back in the 1960s. He explains that the failure of the surgeries to improve the psychosocial outcomes for the patients led Hopkins to stop performing these surgeries. Recent studies show the wisdom of that decision, as the suicide rates of those undergoing the surgery rise dramatically ten years after surgery to some 20 times the comparable non-transgendered population. McHugh likens the “disordered assumptions” of a transgendered person to those of an anorexic who is convinced she is fat, despite the physical evidence. McHugh’s Wall Street Journalarticle is here.
- Walt Heyer’s experience as a transgendered kid and adult who underwent surgery is here. His reflections on Jenner and the history of the transgender movement are here. And he offers some advice to parents here.
- Denise Shick recounts her heart-breaking experience growing up with a transgendered father here.
- Jean Lloyd, who describes herself as “the girl in the tuxedo,” portrays the pressures on young people struggling to understand their feelings about identity in a moving article here. She also wrote a helpful column, “Seven Things I Wish My Pastor Knew About My Homosexuality.”
3. Resist using “gender” as a synonym for “male or female” whenever possible. It effectively concedes the matter before you’ve even begun. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but be mindful that in this discussion words matter a great deal.
4. Pray to have the heart of Jesus for those who experience the pain of believing they are a “man trapped inside the body of a woman” or vice versa. And pray that they will know the transforming love of Jesus who brings life and healing and wholeness.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. John A. M. Guernsey
Click here for Bishop Guernsey's article in PDF format.