In an ABC interview last night with Diane Sawyer, former Olympian and step-patriarch of the Kardashian family Bruce Jenner confirmed his transgender identity and said that he* is in the process of transitioning from male to female. For many Christians - and, for that matter, non-Christians - the topic of transgender identity is a complete unknown. What questions can we ask that can help us formulate a grace-filled, Biblical theology on this matter?
The interview revealed Jenner to be deeply shaped by a religious upbringing that translates today into a pervasive spirituality. He described his experience of wrestling with how God created him: “I’ve tried to explain it to (my kids) this way: God’s looking down, making little Bruce … and he says, ‘What are we going to do with this one? Make him a smart kid, very determined.’ He gave me all these wonderful qualities. Then at the end when he’s just finishing, he says, ‘Wait a second, we’ve got to give him something. Everyone has something in their life they have to deal with.’ God looks down and chuckles a little bit and goes, ‘Hey, let’s give him the soul of a female and let’s see how he deals with that.’”
The more we understand about transgender identity, the more it appears that gender dysphoria, or the experience of feeling as though your gender does not match your biological sex, is innate. If so, is there a theological basis by which to distinguish our response to gender dysphoria from our response to other physical conditions?
Jenner spoke at length about the difference between gender identity and sexual identity: “I’m not gay. …It’s apples and oranges. There’s two different things here. Sexuality is who you are personally attracted to, who turns you on, male or female. But gender identity is who you are as a person and your soul and who you identify with inside.” With what theological framework do we approach gender identity and how does this differ from our approach to sexual identity?
Gender expression is culturally constructed - it varies from place to place and from time to time. In Scotland, men wear kilts. In ancient Rome, men wore togas. Expected roles change as well. If gender expression is dependent on the culture, what can we say about the uniqueness of the genders?
Jenner identifies most strongly with the woman he refers to as “she.” Pronoun and name choice is important to people. How might the decision to respect the pronoun and name choice of a transgender person communicate grace and love?
Jenner’s children and family largely express support. One son suggested, “I feel like I’m getting an upgraded version of my dad.” Jenner went to great lengths to reassure his family that he is still the same person, just living what he believes to be the true version of himself. To what extent is one’s identity consistent, regardless of the gender transition one may make?
Jenner shared his struggle with Deuteronomy 22:5, a verse used in some Christian communities to forbid women from wearing pants. Where do we look in Scripture for Biblical approaches to gender and transgender identity?
Jenner’s life has included marriages to three different women. Jenner’s struggles with his gender identity contributed to the unraveling of each marriage. His experience is not unique in this. How do we approach transgender identity in a way that supports and celebrates marriage?
Like many transgender people, Jenner’s story included depression, years of confusion and suicidal thoughts. The interview highlighted the physical violence experienced by some members of the transgender community. How can the church be a safe space for people struggling with gender identity? What steps can we take to provide healing?
These questions are by no means comprehensive. Yet I hope they can begin to move us toward a thoughtful, Scriptural, grace-filled understanding of gender and transgender identity.
*At the time of the interview, Jenner had not yet determined if he will take a new name or identified a different pronoun that he prefers, which is why I’ve used masculine pronouns to refer to him.
How can the church be a safe space for people struggling with gender identity?