The Religious Right’s New Target: Transgender People

One of the most frustrating, and often infuriating things about religious conservatives is their stubborn penchant for dividing the world into either/or categories. People are either straight or gay, white or black, male or female, religious or atheist. And of course if you’re on the right side of the dichotomy, you’re on the right side of God. Anyone else is at best inferior and at worst, a sinner damned to hell.

We see this kind of thinking in a Washington Post On Faith post by Russell D. Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore tackles California’s new law protecting the rights of transgender students, allowing them to freely use bathrooms or locker rooms they feel fits their gender identity.

Moore emphasizes that Jesus tells us we are born “male and female” and the existence of transgender people “who feel alienated from their identities as men or as women” is simply the result of the “fallen” nature of our world—since we, as humans, are alienated from God because of our sinfulness that we inherited from Adam.

Really, it’s enough to make you scream. Instead of, oh, I don’t know, turning to science to explain why one person’s brain feels differently about gender than another person’s brain, evangelical Christians keep referencing an unscientific book that knows absolutely nothing about gender variance and modern discoveries about biology and the brain.

Honestly, it’s not an affront to God to look for sources written later than 3,000 years ago by a bunch of guys who were mostly concerned with proving and spreading their own religious view of the world. God does, indeed, intend for us to use our brains, and when modern science can clearly show that transgenderism has biological origins (and isn’t caused by a “fall” or “sin”), it must gall God for us to keep referring to ancienttexts to deny the findings.

But, male and female (and the supremacy of the male part) is the dichotomy that underpins the entire conservative Christian worldview. What most on the religious right don’t understand, and frankly are most offended by, are male-to-female transgender people. I mean, who would want to give up the right (and privileged) side of the dichotomy to enter into the left (and clearly inferior) side? To want that must indeed be “sinful” since you’re going further away from God than closer. (This, by the way, is why the religious right is most offended by gay men whom they see as playing a “female” role, while lesbians are of little concern.)

The fact is, we are not all born into that male/female dichotomy. Science is continuing to discover that differences in the brain can account for why someone feels like they are “trapped in the body of the wrong sex.”  Spanish researchers have found differences in the white matter of the brain between transgender people and those who are not. Patricia Churchland, in her new book Touching a Nerve, takes the reader on a short tour of neurological differences that can occur during fetal development. She points to differences found, at autopsy, in the subcortical area of the thalamus called the “bed nucleus of the stria terminalis,” or BNST, which is usually twice as large in males as in females. For female-to-male transgender people who have been studied, “the BNST looks like that of a typical male,” she writes.

But, the religious right could never be accused of letting scientific facts get in the way of that “you’re a sinner going to hell” story.

“The transgender question means that conservative Christian congregations such as mine must teach what’s been handed down to us, that our maleness and femaleness points us to an even deeper reality, to the unity and complementarity of Christ and the church,” Moore writes.

Which gets it completely wrong. The conservative church has been teaching “what’s been handed down to us” for far too long. They taught “what was handed down to us” about people of color, about women, about gays and lesbians, heck, even about left-handed people being “of the devil.”

Here’s an idea for my conservative brothers and sisters: Instead of teaching “what’s been handed down” to you—namely the condemnation of people of which you disapprove (like people of color, women, gays and transgender people)—how about:

“Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater …” 

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)