[Each of the people pictured are trans men, women, or non-binary. They are, from left to right: Carmen Carrera, Balian Buschbaum, Andrej Pejic, Rocco Kayiatos, Janet Mock.]
I am incredibly excited to introduce you to my guest blogger today, Alan Hooker. Alan is a queer biblical scholar in the last year of a PhD that focuses on God’s sexuality and gender in the Hebrew Bible. As well as this, Alan is also interested in the ways in which LGBT faith communities read and use scripture, and hopes to contribute to this ongoing conversation.
It has been almost two weeks since the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution proposed by Denny Burk entitled “On Transgender Identity”. As someone who belongs both to a Christian tradition and is nonbinary identified, I get very nervous when Christians talk about transgender individuals because I have a foot in each community. Although I am not a Southern Baptist, my faith teaches me that they are nonetheless siblings in Christ, and as a denomination that claims around 16 million members it is extremely important to realize that what the SBC preaches affects a lot of people. Unfortunately we find that the recently passed resolution embodies a decidedly anti-transgender message.
0.3% of adults in the US are estimated to be transgender (though others place this figure at 2-5%), that is, having a gender at variance with one’s assigned sex; if we apply this figure, even the lowest estimate, to the membership of the SBC, it comes in at roughly 48,000 people. Though this figure is clearly only a rough estimate, we are still talking about thousands of potentially transgender members of the SBC—this is clearly not just a handful of people. It’s important to remember that each of those 48,000 people is a person who, according to many Christian theologies, has been created in the image of God. Denny Burk’s proposal then isn’t just words on a page—it is a document which speaks to those 48,000 people’s lives, and informs the other 15.95 million SBC members how to view and treat not only trans people in the SBC but in the world at large (which amounts to an estimated 15-20 million transgender people).
And what is the essential message of Burk’s resolution? That transgender people’s identities are invalid. Burk and the SBC are effectively arguing that my gender, and the gender of 15-20 million other people, is wrong biologically and morally. As a queer biblical scholar, I take issue with Burk’s transphobic hermeneutic; i.e. the way his mode of reading works to exclude trans people. The manner in which the resolution uses the Genesis text is interesting and worth critique, since anti-LGBT Christians are prone to cite these creation narratives to disaffirm queer and/or transgender people. In its opening, Genesis is cited four times. The first citation, Genesis 1:27, affirms that human beings were created in God’s image and reads: “God created them male and female.” For Burk, this passage fundamentally sets up “two distinct and complementary sexes,” with this distinction being “embedded in the very biology of the human race.”
The invocation of “biology” happens throughout the resolution and yet it is presented rather nebulously, since what constitutes the biological is never defined, despite there being six references to “biological sex” or “biological birth sex” within the document.
If by “biological sex”, Burk means genitalia or chromosomes, then unfortunately for him such a clear division between two “complementary” sexes is unsustainable (which he himself seems to admit in the resolution when he mentions potential “biological ambiguity” in intersex individuals). For Burk, transgender people have a self-perception of their gender which is at odds with their “biological sex” (considered by him to be an innate part of a person) and so he very much sees trans people as psychologically disordered.
The problem Burk faces however is that the Genesis texts don’t mention genitals or chromosomes as markers of gender, nor do the Genesis texts have a notion of what is essentially mid-nineteenth century biological essentialism. Burk has taken an ancient Israelite mythopoem and has attempted to force onto it a rather vague construct of “biology,” thus obfuscating what would otherwise be a theologically rich text. Like creationists, Burk has attempted to treat the biblical narratives as a science textbook, having assumed that the biblical authors are able to speak biological truths across different times and different cultures. I would recommend Burk actually research gender, biology, and sociology, and how various societies construct their notions of gender, before he writes definitively about it. He seems to be unaware that our white, Western christianized culture has its own ideologies of gender, ideologies which Burk seems to treat as objective and appears unwilling to question. It’s ridiculous that this SBC resolution implicitly talks about an LGBT agenda and how it seeks to “normalize the transgender experience” without being cognizant of the fact that they are the ones propping up and sustaining the anti-trans agenda that is already operational in our culture.
This persecution complex the SBC has makes them unwilling to see that, in fact, this resolution makes them the oppressors, not transgender people or activists. The way in which the SBC reads scripture is always already through an anti-trans lens, a lens which maintains the status quo. If the SBC really wanted to love transgender people and really wanted to affirm our nature as image bearers of God, they would not have written or supported this resolution which outrightly opposes gender affirmation surgery as well as the validity of our lived experiences. Although Burk wants to “condemn acts of abuse” against trans people, what he has written is abuse; it is codified trans-antagonism.
So what can cisgender (i.e. non-trans) Christians do to actually support to support trans people?
- Be open to new ways of reading the scriptures (see here and here for examples of other ways we can read the words “male and female” in Genesis 1); seek ways of reading which do not denigrate and shame us for our identities, because, like everyone else, we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the Creator’s image. Check out queertheology.com as well while you’re at it!
- Listen to our lived experiences. James 1:19 teaches us to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Think about what this means in the context of listening to groups who have been marginalized and silenced by society and by Christian communities.
- Trust that we know our own bodies better than you do. Discard any notions you have that you can be arbiters of the validity of our lives and how we live them as trans people. Reflect on 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and what it says about our bodies belonging to God. If my body belongs to God, it is not yours to comment on, judge, or evaluate.
- Recognize that we know what is best for ourselves and what we need for our liberation. Although Burk says he cares about seeking the good for trans people, his words and actions show otherwise. What does 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 tell us about how love truly operates?
- Last but not least, educate yourself. Knowledge and wisdom are prized possessions in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Start here for a simple “101,” and check out this list of resources.