Transgenders: “One Father of Us All”

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By Dan Clendenin

At church on Sunday a transgender teenager made me think of four other transgender people I’ve known. I don’t know these people well, but they’re enough on my social radar that I think about them a lot. Three of them are very much church people. One, Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who wrote a book on Christianity and evolution, contributed a guest essay to JwJ.

And now there’s Caitlyn.

The summer after my junior year in college, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. He was the quintessential man’s man — complete with an appearance on the Wheaties cereal box and the moniker of “the world’s greatest athlete.”

This past April, in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, Jenner came out as a transgender woman and changed her name to Caitlyn. She was sixty-five years old. In June she appeared in a cover shoot for Vanity Fair by Annie Leibovitz.

The world’s greatest athlete thus became the world’s most famous transgender person.

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Caitlyn also identifies herself as a Christian who votes Republican.

It’s unfortunate that her story is wrapped up in so much melodrama, much of it of her own making, but that was inevitable given her fame, three marriages, multiple reality shows, and a net worth of $100 million.

Sadder still is the default response of human nature to something Strange or Foreign or Other — fear, shaming, and scape-goating. Transgender people have experienced way too much violence and discrimination, along with cheap jokes by late night comedians.

Christians have participated in these denigrations. In her book See Me Naked, Amy Frykholm tells the stories of nine “sexual exiles” who have had to live in the “wilderness” beyond the walls of the church because of our unhealthy views about sex and the sacred.

This doesn’t have to be. After all, there’s a lot of complicated sex in our sacred Bible. And if you don’t take the easy way out by moralizing or sentimentalizing, these texts make for difficult reading.

Adam and Eve in the shame of their nakedness. What a profoundly archetypal story!

Lot’s drunken sex with his two daughters in Genesis 19.

Gang rape and mutilation in Judges 19.

Solomon’s thousand wives and concubines in 1 Kings 11.

A woman who burned through five marriages in John 4. Which reminds me of the time I laughed when a friend told me that his mother had been married five times. Then I realized he wasn’t joking. I felt horrible.

A woman caught in the act of adultery by the religious police in John 8.

A prostitute who fondles Jesus’s feet in Luke 7.

“A man sleeping with his father’s wife” in 1 Corinthians 5.

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In Revelation 14 sex is both dangerous and dirty, for heaven is populated with men who have not “defiled” themselves by having sex with women.

It would be easy to make this list longer. I honestly believe that if our gospels were written today, they might include a Jesus Story about a transgender person.

The readings from 2 Samuel 11 and Psalm 51 about David’s adultery show why this is so. This is arguably the most famous story about sex in the Bible. David had at least eight wives and ten concubines. When more than enough wasn’t enough, he took one more woman, Bathsheba, and murdered her husband Uriah.

Given that ancient peoples often divinized their kings and sanitized their faults, it makes you wonder why the narrator included this unsavory story. In the parallel version in 1 Chronicles 20, the author omits David’s adultery.

Now, here’s the real shocker. Our own Christian story begins on page one of the gospel of Matthew with the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew burnishes Jesus’s credentials by name-dropping Abraham and King David — next to Moses, the two most important people in all of Jewish history. His genealogy lists forty-two men in three sets of fourteen generations each. All nice and neat.

Matthew then includes five sexually suspicious women in Jesus’s family tree. Tamar was widowed twice, then became a victim of incest when her father-in-law Judah abused her as a prostitute. Rahab was a foreigner and a prostitute who protected the Hebrew spies by lying. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow. Bathsheba was the object of David’s adulterous passion and murderous cover-up. Then, of course, there’s Mary the mother of Jesus, who was unmarried and pregnant.

Matthew repurposes these salacious stories so that they become part of salvation history. God’s revelation of love and redemption of the world in Jesus depends on the stories of these women.

And the same is true for me, and you, and everyone. God takes every aspect of our Little Stories, including all their sordid details, and integrates them into his Bigger Story of love and redemption.

Two months after Caitlyn came out, my wife and I watched the PBS Frontline show called “Growing Up Trans.” This 84-minute documentary follows a half dozen prepubescent adolescents and their parents, allowing them to tell their own stories in their own words, without any prompts or responses from a narrator.

Remarkably, the film avoids being either sensational or sanguine. These families face a very complex set of circumstances with difficult choices and limited options. They deserve our deepest respect, unconditional compassion, and full support. They are very brave people.

Medical treatments like puberty blockers and cross sex hormones can be very expensive, have limited research support when used for children, and have uncertain side effects. Some treatments are irreversible.

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The kids describe their experiences of bullying, loneliness, sleeplessness, suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety. Some can count on their families and friends for support. Others cannot.

We shouldn’t pathologize transgender persons. Gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder, to use the controversial medical parlance, isn’t a mental illness. It’s not a choice. Rather, it’s a deep disconnect between a person’s anatomy and their psychology, their biological sexuality and their gender identity.

What transgender people need is not more spectacle and judgment but more compassion and understanding. The church ought to be in the vanguard of such a movement.

We are, after all, says Paul in Ephesians for this week, “one body.” What a loaded metaphor!

We all have “one God and Father of us all who is over all and through all and in all.” In the story of Jesus, God sums up or recapitulates our own stories, which is to say, he repurposes “all things, things in the heavens and things upon the earth.”

He did this with Bathsheba and King David. He can do it for Caitlyn. And he’ll do it for you and for me.

Image credits: (1) Hyperallergic.com; (2) Pinimg.com; and (3) PhotoBucket.com.

See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.

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