Home » Social Issues » “On Transgender Identity” and why the SBC is wrong

“On Transgender Identity” and why the SBC is wrong

trans collage[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.

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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.
In the comments, please use ze (replaces s/he), hir (replaces him/her), and hir or hirs (replaces his/her/hers), as Alan identifies as non-binary. I can understand mistakes, so I’ll step in to edit comments that misgender hir. However, any transphobic comment will result in you being blocked immediately. 

20 thoughts on ““On Transgender Identity” and why the SBC is wrong

  1. I like the point you made saying that the SBC is referring to 48,000 of their own members. I don’t think they consider that at all. I think they have an “Us vs. Them” mentality where Christians = us and Transgender = them. If they only recognized that they were speaking to 48,000 members, then they could consider having a WE mentality and try to consider what is loving and right and generous and validating for all of us.

    • Transgender identification seems to be committed to following the same path within conservative Christianity that homosexuality followed. Unfortunately, this means that we’re in for years or decades of conservative Christians arguing that transgender Christians just don’t exist, and that people like Alan are lying about one aspect or another.

      I think it’s useful to remember when the SBC does something like this that they were a denomination which was formed explicitly to serve cisgendered straight white men and affirm their superiority over women, non-white people, etc. They were a denomination that formed exclusively to agitate for more slavery in the United States, and they have not made a fundamental change in either their theology nor their hermeneutic since then.

      As such, it’s not surprising that we then see them arguing against inclusiveness toward transgender people; those are people who exist outside the very rigid hierarchy that they have set up in their theology to assert their own superiority.

      • I want to make a quick correction: my first sentence makes it sound like following the path to homosexual acceptance is something that transgender identification or transgender persons themselves have made, and I don’t mean to imply that, but rather that acceptance of transgender identification seems to be following a similar path as acceptance of homosexual persons.

  2. I really liked the article. In addition to what you are saying, I think I’d also like to add that even outside of the maliciousness of the SBCs “stance”, many individuals are still ignorant of the fact that gender and sex are not the same thing. I work and have worked in health statistics. When we publish cancer stats, for example, we talk about males and females, in specific contrast to men and women. Most people can be readily classed as male or female, in terms of biological sex, but your point that even the term “biological sex” is kind of problematic is well taken.

    • Yeah, I think I’d argue that to even use “male” or “female” as biological terms plays into negative tropes. For example, as a nonbinary individual, I am not a man, and yet others would say that while that may be the case, I’m still “male”, which I emphatically reject. I think we need to be critical of gendering people’s genitalia!

      • Word. I don’t know that we have a practical alternative to that for the purposes of statistics, at least for the time being; many cancers are “sex” specific, pertaining to, again, for lack of a better term “male” and “female” parts, and most show significant differences in incidence and mortality by “sex”, independent of how the individuals concerned identify. So I don’t know how to best approach something like that. But I agree with your point. And thanks for responding. Sam hasn’t responded to any of my comments since I criticized her choice in Star Trek spinoffs. ;)

        • I’ve had this discussion on several occasions and my wife actually came up with the idea of having ‘XX’ and ‘XY’ issues. Then it leaves open issues of ‘XO’, ‘XXY’, etc. as being alternative options as well.

          I’m non-binary, too, and I like it. What do you think?

          • There are also many regulatory genes that are (or are not) expressed that affect gender identity. Personally, I look at gender as a continuum. If you consider the SBC party line, I believe their trans-phobia is the result of their own male privilege. If being male = having the highhest status, you are threatening their paradigm.

  3. I bet you will be particularly happy when you earn your PhD and are addressed as Dr. which is gender neutral. I am, by the way, a Christian Biologist and there are many more than two ways to express gender in the natural world and there are gay, bi, and changing gender species but we are the only species to express homophobia.
    Thanks both author and blogkeeper for your courage.

    • At the moment, I use “Mx” as a gender-neutral title, but since most places don’t official take this (although there is a move in some institutions to change this – my university, for one, allows “Mx”), it will be great to be “Dr”, so I don’t have to keep getting letters addressed to “Mr Hooker”.

      Anyway, yes, thank you for your insights as a biologist! There seems to be a shifting attitude in regards to gender in scientific circles, and it’s definitely positive for the most part! :))

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I also identify as non-binary and tend toward gender neutral or male pronouns. (Though I’ve only recently came out as thus. Was calling myself gay or queer for awhile mostly because I was afraid to be upfront with my gender identity. Talking about it is no easy thing, and talking about it in Christian circles? Well, it’s very, very rare to find a safe spot.)

    So thank you to Samantha as well for being so wonderfully supportive of people like me. Thank you.

    As for the biology side, Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden has an excellent analysis of sexuality and gender identity within the animal kingdom and within humanity. It shows, beautifully in fact, how the binary doesn’t truly exist — not as the majority seem to think it does — and there is great variation within humanity and within nature. The book has three parts to it; the first part focused upon the animal kingdom, and the last two parts on humanity. I always suggest it to my friends, especially those that tend toward gender essentialist thinking. I highly recommend it to everyone here as well.

    • It’s always great to meet other nonbinary people! In safe spaces and on the Internet, I tend to use the ze/hir pronoun set; in other spaces it’s typically “he” (and in some instances “she”, often depending on my presentation). I’m thankful that Samantha provided a space for me to express my feelings with regard to these issues, especially since, as you rightly said, it’s very rare to find safe spaces in Christian settings!

      Also, thanks for the book recommendation. Definitely going to put it on my wishlist!

  5. I first encountered transgender people when I was, i a nurse within the prison setting. Unbelievably, if a trans male had not yet had hir reassignment surgery, ze was placed within our male only prison. I came to realize that sexuality is a continuum, and that God has a rich diversity within creation. All of these transgender people became near and dear to my heart. If only the SBC and others would take the time to educate themselves.

  6. Wonderful stuff here, Alan. With regards to gender, there is always a demand for intelligibility that is pressed upon those who the current categorical system cannot define. Traditionally and popularly, identity tends towards essentialist conceptions – that there is a kernel of “you” that cannot be changed and which constitutes “you.” This contrasts with the constructivist view of identity, which claims that identity is socially constructed. Yet, this creates the very binary we see between male-female, but this time between essentialism and constructivism. Personally, I tend towards the way in which Judith Butler approaches gender: as a performative concept. Identity then is something we live and enact in the world. This approach side-steps the both binaries (male-female; essentialist-constructivist) that dominate the discourse on gender. Needless to say, deconstruction is necessary to make this performative approach possible. Thanks again!

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