Monday, August 20, 2007

Religious Hard-Liners and Gender Identity

Every so often the various 'bots that I have out there sniffing for content dredge up a good one. (I suspect it's similar to dredging a silt bed in a river - every so often the dredge pulls up something more interesting that mud)

For some reason, churches appear to only just be starting the process of trying to address the concept of transgender clergy. Why this is just coming to light now is a bit of a puzzle to me, but that's more church business than anything else. (Frankly, a little like ordination of women, I view it primarily as a matter of religious doctrine, but very telling as to just what kind of a grip on reality a church has collectively)

However, it was the wording of the announcement on the UMC article, as well as this post that got me thinking.

The UMC article mentions the following:

Though the United Methodist Church bars self-avowed practicing gay clergy from appointment and does not support gay unions, the Book of Discipline says nothing about transgender clergy.

During discussion around Phoenix in the Baltimore-Washington executive clergy session, two requests were made for the bishop’s decision of law. The first asked whether a name change based on a change of gender identity should be listed in a category which requires no discussion or approval, or whether it should be placed under another disciplinary area that requires consent and recommendation by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. The second asked whether transgender persons are eligible for appointment in The United Methodist Church.

In his ruling, Bishop Schol wrote that "There are no paragraphs in the 2004 Book of Discipline that prevent transgender clergy from serving in an appointment."

Okay, the Methodist faith is decidedly legalistic in its approach to things, that's fine by me. To be honest, my perception is that to date, the Methodist church has been generally pretty reasonable about things, and only some rather narrow minded University administration officials who fired Julie Nemecek have blotted that record.

It also seems to me that what I've seen of the United Methodist Church in the States is similar in many respects to the United Church in Canada, which has been pleasantly willing to adapt to the changing world in which we live.

and then there's what happens when literalism trickles into the hands of people seeking simple answers to situations.

In response to the UMC announcement the author of "No Religion, Just Jesus" blog starts off as follows:

So why are they even having to "consider" what to do about this situation? This is clearly perversion.

Perverse? How so? Unfortunately, the term "perverse" has a plethora of meanings:
1. the act of perverting.
2. the state of being perverted.
3. a perverted form of something.
4. any of various means of obtaining sexual gratification that are generally regarded as being abnormal.
5. Pathology. a change to what is unnatural or abnormal: a perversion of function or structure.

I'd have to guess that our author is thinking predominantly in terms of definition 4, although perhaps 5 might be more applicable. However, in order for transsexualism to qualify as "perversion", we would have to show that it was "unnatural" - right?

There is a broadly made claim implied by many that transsexualism is "unnatural" in part because its treatment can involve surgery, and largely because of the misguided perception that the condition is primarily about sex (I'll get to that in a bit). However, surgery is used in a variety of situations which do not raise the objections of the religious. Surgical intervention is certainly human, but it is hard to claim that it is "unnatural", and therefore immoral. (Or is it now "unnatural" to intervene surgically to save a life or to help a burn victim be able to live a more natural life by reconstructing their features?)

That means that we must then address the question of the psychological and emotional roots of transsexuals. Unfortunately, because of the emotional nature of the subject, we are confined to the narratives of transsexuals, and the diagnosis of their psychologists who deem that they are are not clinically delusional. One of the common themes among transsexuals is a "knowledge" of their status that often goes back to their earliest memories. This suggests that there are "pre-socialization" factors that influence gender identity. This is, of course, far from conclusive - merely anecdotal evidence that suggests the picture is far more complex than can be explained away by "mere choice" (and thus treated purely as a matter of personal "morality").

But, at this point, I must raise a question - what about intersex conditions, or for that matter left-handedness (which at one time was thought to be the mark of the devil)?

These are quite normal, naturally occurring variations in humanity. Being left-handed is no more a "mark of the devil" than is a birthmark or other genetic variation. Similarly, the Intersex represent a rare, but nonetheless valid variation in humanity. (I won't go into the politics surrounding the treatment of intersex people - that's quite a topic in its own right) If someone can be born with any of a myriad of combinations of genetic variations - including physiological intersex conditions, it seems to me that it is equally likely that a few "feminine personalities" WILL be born in male bodies.

Biblical claims that God made people "male and female" are clearly not factually true when there are children born who are ambiguous either physically, or internally (chromosomal), and we do not accuse those individuals of being "unnatural", and therefore "perverse" - at least in the sense that I suspect is often used by those making scriptural arguments.

However, let me take the question of "perversity" apart a little further here. The entire notion of transsexuality being "perverse" is derived primarily and fundamentally from the common (but incorrect) assumption that it is related to homosexuality.

Although I won't call Wikipedia "authoritative" in these two subject areas, the articles on each draw an important distinction:

Homosexuality can refer to both sexual behavior or attraction between people of the same sex, or to a sexual orientation. When describing a sexual orientation, it refers to enduring sexual and romantic attraction toward others of the same sex, but does not necessarily involve sexual behavior.


Transsexualism is a condition in which a person identifies as the gender opposite to the sex assigned to them at birth.

In my view, this distinction makes arguments which derive from sexual proscriptions in books like Leviticus and Corinthians (I think), which speak against male homosexuality are suspect when applied to transsexuals.

Now, one might argue that a transsexual is really just "cross-dressing writ large", and therefore proscribed by several parts of the scripture that speak against cross-dressing. I do not accept cross-dressing proscriptions as extrapolating to transsexuals - because it is arguable that a transsexual is in fact cross-dressing long before they transition, and is not cross-dressing afterwards as they become at home in their new social role. (Remember, clothing is primarily a function of culture and socialization) If, as the transsexual narrative claims (and we cannot disprove it), that someone is "born in the wrong body", then one would be obliged to admit that the transsexual was in fact "cross-dressing" by living in their pre-transition gender. {if that sounds slightly mind-bending, it's supposed to ... the very dilemma that transsexuals find themselves facing is mind-bending in the extreme}

You can contort scripture all you want, but the simple fact is that at the time that Biblical scripture was written, the very concept of a transsexual simply did not exist. Cross-dressing certainly did, and the proscription itself may simply have arisen out of a desire to provide a justification for punishing a man who sneaks into his neighbor's women's quarters and sleeps with one of the harem. (Remember, at the time of the old testament polygamy was not unusual, and often women and men had separate sleeping quarters) Essentially, it was a way for a "head of family" to maintain procreative control over the women he married. Viewed in this light, the proscriptions involved take on a very different light, and are in fact more likely a direct social consequence of the societal structures of the day.

Further, it seems to me the height of disrespect to tell someone that their personal experiences are "invalid" - in the absence of significant clinical evidence to the contrary, it seems to me that we are obliged to accept the transsexual narrative.

Returning to our blogger, she writes:

If we have the mind of Christ we do not have to be tolerant to the things of this world. God gave us a standard, and that standard is the Bible. If anything goes against that standard, we do not have to "like" or be tolerable of it. Yes, God loves the sinner, but He does not love the sin.

Wow - that's quite a leap in my books. Basically, if the Bible doesn't talk about it, or perhaps even condemns, this position self-justifies hostile discrimination against someone who is a peaceful, law abiding member of society. The "love the sinner, hate the sin" line is a cop-out - no different in my books to saying "some of my best friends are but ...", and yet this very kind of reasoning is used to justify justify using some amazingly inappropriate language when talking about transsexual / transgender rights.

All that aside, I don't have much problem with whatever a specific church decides as a matter of faith. However, I do think it is reasonable to question the reasoning used for the condemnation of others since it so often leaks out into other more secular aspects of the discourse - such as politics and protection under the law.

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