If you’ve been on social media lately, then you’ve probably been inundated by bathroom talk. Even if you haven’t – even if you’ve been living under a rock - its hard to avoid the recent storm swirling around the HB2 bathroom law. Why this sudden explosion of controversy? Why this recent obsession over who can relieve themselves where?
And what are we, as Christians, to make of it?
According to the available statistics, only between 0.2 and 0.3% of the population identifies as “transgender.” This is a very small percentage of the US population. Why then all the sudden brouhaha over bathroom laws for a fraction of a percent of our nation?
I think the there’s a very good reason for it. In fact, I think most people understand that this latest, cultural skirmish about gender and bathrooms is more than a political disagreement over public safety or even discrimination. Conservatives and liberals alike recognize it, even if only intuitively, as a symbolically significant conflict of two radically opposed ideologies. We’re watching a dramatic clash of a new order against the old.
The old order is epitomized by the binary signage on our current bathroom doors: Men’s Room and Women’s Room. It is either/or. It is anything but genderfluid or genderqueer. It is gender-discrete, gender-concrete, and gender-given. It reinforces the traditional presupposition regarding gender as well-defined and biological sex as normative for our personal identities. To use the modern parlance, it signifies a cisgender tyranny of heteronormativity.
On the other hand, the vigorous efforts of the LGTBQA community to change the bathroom laws marks a significant step toward publically codifying a new order, which proposes a seismic shift in our conception of gender and anthropology – that is to say, what it means to be human. This isn’t merely a move to protect the civil rights of individuals who may experience a form of gender dysphoria. This is an ideological revolution. This is why so many Christians have opposed these changes with such adamancy and sometimes, unfortunately, anger. The classical and Christian conception of man as male and female is being thoroughly deconstructed in a matter of a few decades.
But then there’s another question. How should we as Christians respond to this new battle in the culture war?
Do we boycott Target? As Aaron Wilson has cogently argued, this is both a shortsighted and finally ineffectual strategy.
Do we throw our lot in with the rest of the cultural progressives, and support the newly proposed changes to bathroom laws out of “love for neighbor”? That too is shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating, as I hope to briefly show.
First, we need to understand that there are many different kinds of “transgender.” This requires patient listening (reading) and careful thinking.
Psychologist Mark Yarhouse writes: “Transgender is an umbrella term for the many ways in which people might experience and/or present and express their gender identities differently from people whose sense of gender identity is congruent with their biological sex.” Under this term could fall the psychological phenomena of Gender Dysphoria in its various expressions (e.g., autoandrophilia, male-to-female androphilia, autogynephilia), intersex, transsexualism, transvestism, drag queens and drag kings, third gender, genderqueer, and countless forms of gender bending.
As strange as it sounds to heteronormative ears, intersex persons are born biologically or genetically gender ambiguous. In some cases, gender must be selected or “assigned” by parents, in concert with a team of health care professionals. Granted intersex cases are very rare (0.1-0.2% of the population), they are real nevertheless. We must account and care for these individuals who are no less created in the divine image.
Similarly, we need to compassionately understand the phenomenon of Gender Dysphoria (formerly, Gender Identity Disorder). This diagnosis represents a relatively small number of self-identified transgender individuals. Only between 0.005 to 0.014 % of adult males and 0.002 to 0.003% of adult females have Gender Dysphoria according to the DSM-5. And most children clinically diagnosed with this condition do not continue to meet the criteria as they enter adolescence (97.8-70% of diagnosed males and 88-50% of diagnosed females ultimately embrace their birth sex). My own sister identified as Andrew, wearing my clothes, cutting her hair short, and adopting typically masculine role-playing and games. This persisted for two years (age 4-6). But in the second grade she happily embraced her “assigned gender” as Becky, while still maintaining a tomboyish bent. If you met her today, I don’t think you’d question whether she was socially well adjusted. Nevertheless, Gender Dysphoria is a very real and often very painful experience – particularly in cases of early-onset.
As disciples of Jesus, who loved the perceived “misfits,” the alienated and the ashamed, are we not called to compassion, hospitality and generosity toward such persons?
Moreover, we also need to recognize that many of the supposed gender norms of our culture are in fact social constructs. You may be aware that the pink and blue colors that we “naturally” associate with female and male, respectively, were actually at one time reversed in American culture: pink, with its reddish hues, was considered masculine and strong, while baby blue was soft and feminine. Typical masculine hobbies (e.g., hunting, carpentry) or feminine interests (e.g., fashion, design) are more often than not mere personal preferences. This is to say, we as Christians are not opposed to all deconstructing of society’s gender norms. After all, many aspects of our culture aren't only artificial but fallen and flawed.
Consider the example of Christ. If we acknowledge that, despite some popular depictions to the contrary, Jesus wasn’t effeminate, neither was he stereotypically masculine. An honest look at his life and ministry challenges some of our current gender norms and expectations (as well as those of his own day).
In short, Christians should at points be “gender benders,” as disciples of Jesus.
As we make our way through the transgender labyrinth, we need to sort through such distinctions as inter-sex individuals and those suffering from early-onset Gender Dysphoria, from, say, transvestic fetishism, or from men experiencing late-onset autogynephilia (such as Bruce Jenner appears to illustrate) or from those who simply self-identify as genderfluid for political or personal reasons. This would significantly reduce the percentage of the transgender population we ought to be concerned to protect and honor with our public bathroom codes – as most of us are not particularly keen on changing such laws for the sake of accommodating sexual fetishes or eccentricities. But distinguishing these differences also offers much-needed clarity on an issue where ambiguity seems to be the preference, resulting in an obfuscation of the facts. We must make such moral distinctions in this debate.
Secondly, we need to ask the question: how do we love our transgender neighbors like Jesus? The answer is not (necessarily) embracing their preferred gender identities. As John Reid writes, “when we accept people for who they want to be, we neglect the people that Jesus made them to be.” If this is so, how do we attend to the people Jesus made transgendered individuals to be? How do we attend to the people Jesus made us to be?
The truth is that transgenderism in general and Gender Dysphoria in particular is a definite and severe brokenness. As Dr. Yarhouse writes, “the desire to be the other sex is itself a reflection of distress, a conflict that resides within between one’s somatic or phenomenal self and one’s psychological or emotional experience of oneself vis-à-vis one’s gender identity.” Though we may celebrate some of the gender-bending aspects and traits that a transgendered individual expresses, we do not celebrate their brokenness as those “uncomfortable in their own skin,” as though they were not really broken in their divinely engendered selves. We are all severely, sexually broken.
The demand to be tolerated in the bathroom of one's opposite-assigned-gender is fundamentally a refusal to own one's brokenness (just as the fundamentalist’s holier-than-thou posture is a refusal to own their brokenness). Instead, this human brokenness must be renamed and redefined as one’s valued uniqueness. Transgender persons must be more than tolerated, we're told. They must be celebrated. The conclusion: the heteronormative gateposts must come down. All the world must conform to our subjective sense of identity - and we must be entirely welcomed in it. No one is allowed to turn us away or even bat an eye.
What drives this vehemence? What provokes this passionate pursuit of acceptance? I think the self-evident answer is shame. And our very human cry for love.
With our sexual brokenness comes profound shame. No one escapes it. We’re not the way we’re supposed to be. We’re not comfortable in our own skin. And no amount of affirmation or displays of self-righteousness or pride parades will prove enough. We ache for a love that covers us – that re-integrates us.
But there is an answer to our cry, to our demands for embrace – to graciously relieve our shame and replace it with delight. It is found, unbelievably, in our Maker (who we’ve spurned). It is found in God, who, in the person of Christ, has tenderly drawn near to us.
As we read the Gospels (e.g., John 4:1-42; 8:2-11; Luke 7:36-50), we see Jesus love broken people very differently than we expect God to love. He loves the sexual outcast, the notorious sinner, the secret pervert (you and me) - not by denying or redefining our brokenness, but by naming it, loving us compassionately nonetheless, and welcoming us to find rest and healing in Him.
As Jesus’ church, may we follow His lead. May we own our brokenness in His presence and receive His wholeness in exchange. May we then offer the same to our broken world.
 By way of comparison consider agoraphobia, the neurotic fear of public places or situations - making use of a public bathroom potentially traumatizing. Even with medication, this can be a debilitating condition. Roughly 0.8% of the population suffers from this anxiety disorder. That’s nearly 4 times the number of people who identify as transgender. But where are the protests and demands for new bathroom laws to accommodate this larger portion of our population?