Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Scripture and Transgender Issues

Recently, I found myself engaged in a discussion about whether the Bible has anything meaningful to say about transgender people - and in particular, transsexuals.

For the most part, the other party in the conversation was repeating the "but it's a SIN, the Bible says so" line. However, eventually he did post a list of Bible verses that he thought were germane to the discussion. Here they are:

Gen 1:26-28; Gen 3:4-5; Gen 5:2; Gen 13:13; Gen 19:4-9; Lev 18:22; Lev 20:13; Deut 22:5; Deut 23:17-18; Deut 32:4-5; Judges 19:22-26; 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Sam 18:1; 1 Sam 19:1; 1 Sam 20:3, 1 Sam 20;41; 2 Sam 1:26; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 72:14; Psalm 139:13-16; Prov 12:20; Prov 18:2; Prov 20:17; Eccl 7:29; Eccl 11:5; Jer 1:5; Jer 9:6; Jer 9:8; Jer 17:9; Amos 2:4; Matt 5:17-18; Matt 19:4-6; Matt 23:25-28; Mark 7:22; Mark 10:6; Rom 1:21-32; Rom 3:4; Rom 3:13; Rom 3:23; Rom 8:5-8; Gal 5:3-7; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-7; Eph 5:31-32; Col 2:8; Col 3:5; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Cor 11:14-15; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 2 Cor 7:1; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Titus 1:16; Heb 6:18; James 1:13-15; 2 Peter 2:10-14, 17-19; 1 John 1:10; 1 John 2:4; 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:20; 1 John 5:10; Rev 22:15

I'll come back to this list in a little bit. First, I must lay out some of the foundations of my interpretations.

(1) I view the Bible as a whole as a historical document - one that reflects the society and era in which it was written.

(2) Because the Bible is a religious document, it cannot be assumed to be entirely factually accurate. That is to say that some stories will be deliberately exaggerated or outright fabrications in order to make a point.

(3) The modern notion of history as a reflection of documented, verifiable facts is relatively recent. The tradition of Roman historians, for example, was to "enhance" the stories of their subjects in order to further glorify them. I suspect strongly that the Roman tradition of history is reflected in significant aspects of scripture, even when they are otherwise factual.

(4) I do not dispute whether the current versions of the Bible have been correctly translated from their original forms. For the purposes of this discussion, I assume that the translation is at least nominally accurate.

The Language of the Bible and the Language of Transgender

The first point that I will make is that scripture is at least 2,000 years old, and the parts consider Old Testament are older still. This means that we would be talking about a society where the notion of gender would have been firmly rooted in the binary notion of male and female exclusively. The rare cases of physical hermaphroditism would be so rare that it is unlikely that an author of scripture would have more than a passing awareness of the phenomenon, much less integrating it with the concepts of 'male' and 'female' that would be commonly held.

Clearly, the language of scripture will not contain the modern words like 'transgender' or 'transsexual'. Further, I claim that the scripture itself cannot meaningfully be read to have any clear statements about transgender people as a whole.

Why do I make such a claim?

The answer lies in the reality that at best scripture will speak to the acts and outward symbols, but will be semantically unable to address the subtleties that underly those symbols and acts. So, for example, while Deuteronomy 22:5 proscribes cross-dressing, it does so in the context of a man dressing in the clothing of a woman. Such proscriptions are based on a very limited understanding of what it means to be 'man' or 'woman', which I will show to be deeply flawed - especially in today's world.

Let me address the notion of male and female first. I interpret this as being primarily a physiological discussion. I'm pretty certain that writers of the scripture understood male and female as absolutes. One either has a penis or a vagina, and that's about it. In the 2,000 years that have elapsed, we have learned that nature is seldom so absolute as that. We have learned that you can't even use chromosomes to determine male and female with absolute certainty - rare conditions such as mosaicism do occur naturally, and can result in ambiguity in the determination of whether an individual is male or female. Similarly, Klinefelter's Syndrome is more common, and also muddies the waters of determining someone's sex. As much as culturally we accept a binary notion of male and female, when one inspects nature closely, it is hard to claim that there is such a strong absolute.

Having shown that the obvious tests for sex are at best problematic, let's turn to the brain - the seat of personality and thought. If the rest of the body is sex-differentiated, and that differentiation is not always as clear as we might think, then we should consider the same of the brain. It's well known that male and female brains differ in some interesting ways, and referring to Zoe's collected evidence of ambiguous brain structure in transfolk, I would argue that the notion that it's exceptionally difficult to claim that someone's mind is either exclusively masculine or feminine in structure.

I think I've shown that the 'male and female' dichotomy that scripture assumes is an absolute is far from being so when we shine the light of modern science on it.

So, let's consider the Deuteronomy 22:5 proscription briefly. The concepts of 'man' and 'woman' are certainly derived from the fundamentally physical 'male' and 'female' binary that I have already shown to be deeply problematic. If the physical is so deeply problematic, then how can we possibly think that there is an absolute around 'man' and 'woman'? After all, in the modern world, I know women who are steelworkers; men who are nurses and so on; families where the woman is the wage earner, and the man cares for the children at home. It's hardly like one can look at someone's sex and know or assume their role in society.

When we consider the notion of crossdressing, we have to establish if the person crossdressing is a man (or a woman - there are FTM crossdressers out there). I'll put aside the polarizing extreme of the transsexual for a moment. Many crossdressers talk about 'expressing their feminine side', or something of that nature. Thinking about this in the context that masculine/feminine are hardly absolutes, even in the brain, one has to raise the question as to whether in fact the MTF crossdresser is in fact 'a man wearing woman's garment', or is it actually someone giving expression to a part of their being that is in fact rooted in the feminine? In other words, if the notion of man and woman are not truly social absolutes, one has to consider that such a proscription can only apply to the hyper masculine or hyper feminine. Otherwise, we walk into a world where suddenly one's apparent sex ends up defining every aspect of the individual's existence - from job prospects to hobbies - something that we know is far from so absolute.

Where the transsexual is concerned, one might in fact argue that they were crossdressing constantly before the individual transitioned to live in their correct gender. As the Garcia-Fulgeras and Swaab
paper suggests, there are in fact coherent reasons that a feminine brain may reside in an otherwise masculine body, so the interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5 in such a situation almost inverts itself in order to make sense.

Much of what my adversary referenced are the usual proscriptions against homosexuality, deceit etc. Anything that references the usual proscriptions against homosexuality, I will ignore. To equate transgender identities with homosexual identities is like saying a giraffe is a form of cat.

However, one of the references of particular interest is 1 Sam 16:7 which reads:

7: But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.

This is part of many aspects of the scripture that essentially order us to live honest lives. From the perspective of a transgender person, one might well look upon this passage as demanding that in fact they give honest expression to themselves.

Among transsexuals, there are many who express their pre-transition lives as "living a lie". While I think that such an expression is perhaps a little too simple - not unlike the 'a woman in a man's body' aphorism is overly simplistic. Certainly, living in the incorrect gender socially is a crippling experience for many. There is no doubt that most transsexuals fully and honestly believe that to the very core of their being that they were meant to live in the other gender to what was assigned at birth.

Similarly, for crossdressers and others whose transgender identity does not oblige them to transition fully, the expression of their cross-gender nature in a constructive form is an honest expression of their individual spirits.

I would argue that based on what I have shown above about the complexity and subtlety of gender as expressed in the human body that it would be quite reasonable to interpret 1 Sam 16:7 as in fact proscribing transgender people from burying their feelings and needs as human beings, rather than proscribing the expression of those needs.

Building on the notion of deceit as it applies to transgender people, we move on to Proverbs 12:20 which reads:

20: Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil: but to the counsellers of peace is joy.

and Prov 20:17:
17: Bread of deceit is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.

For so many transfolk I know, the very acts of transition and self exploration are the pursuit of inner peace. When an individual finds their place along the transgender spectrum, they almost inevitably express a sense of peace and joy. It seems to me that there is much to be said for being honest with oneself, and it is ever the more important for those around that person to acknowledge their peace, and not judge them harshly for being different.

Being transgender is not about being deceitful, it is in fact a challenge to be be honest with oneself to the degree that transgender people must be in order to overcome the social prohibitions that western society imposes that serve as powerful barriers to the inner honesty of the transgender experience.

It is difficult for those who are not transgender to understand that a transperson is not engaging in a deception, but rather is simply giving expression to their reality.

Mark 7:22 reads:

22: Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:

The inference is that the transperson is somehow engaging in these sins. Yet, such an accusation rests upon the assertion that being transgender is necessarily dishonest. I think the reality is that most transgender people are being excessively honest with themselves, and in their expression of their identity are being similarly honest. There may be a period of significant struggle during which they are coming to that honesty of self and self-expression. During this time, it is entirely possible that they may transgress these proscriptions, but when we talk about people being fundamentally honest with themselves, and in their lives, most transgender do not engage in these sins. (It is quite ridiculous to accuse a MTF transgender person of 'coveting' the feminine - they already are feminine)

Romans 3:4 is also cited:

4: God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.

This is mostly a variation on the 'man can lie to himself' routine. Okay, fine - we can lie to ourselves. That's hardly news. However, the nature of a lie is that the liar is fully aware that it is in fact a lie. The transgender people I know in general would argue that they are not in fact lying to themselves, or those around them.

Further, referring back to 1 Sam 16:7, this particular piece creates a logical conundrum. If someone is deceiving themselves, and they are unaware of it, what will God see when he looks through to the heart of a person? Presumably, if one accepts the notion of omniscience, that God would witness both the deceit and the honest intent in the person's actions.

However, I don't have any reason to believe that a transperson is engaging in any kind of deceit - either knowingly or unknowingly.


Diane Gall said...

Oh, this is really nicely done.

Thanks for this.

MgS said...

Thank you!

Thorin25 said...

I think there is more to it than just deceit. Deceit doesn't have to be the only reason it is a problem.

Here is my take on both Deuteronomy 22:5, as well as 1 Corinthians 11. I think both do indeed prohibit crossdressing and transgender expression or sex change, for us today , and I say that as a past crossdresser.


MgS said...


Quite simply, your arguments start from the supposition that the scripture has something to say about transgender people.

I'm arguing that based on an increasing body of evidence which the authors of scripture could not possibly have had access to, that the scripture does not and could not possibly have addressed those realities.

In your argument about Deuteronomy you throw out a comment about hermaphrodites being a result of being born into a fallen world.

Quite frankly, that's a sloppy non-response to a growing body of evidence that shows the human body develops in some very complex and surprising ways. In particular, the recent findings by Swaab that the brain differentiates along sex lines at a different stage of gestation than the rest of the body goes a very long ways to explaining the transsexual experience quite reasonably.

You can sit there and pontificate on the complications of interpreting biblical law, and I'm going to come right back around to the core statement that I started this post with: the language and knowledge that we have today about how the body develops and functions simply did not exist 2,000 or more years ago. The ethics and morality of that social contract did not and cannot have anything to say about something which they simply could not have had knowledge of.