Ever since the Vanity Fair article, Call Me Caitlyn, broke earlier this week, my Facebook feed has been filled with people's reactions to it. My progressive friends are overjoyed; My conservative friends are horrified. Opinions seem to abound about Bruce Jenner's transformation to Caitlyn – most often from people who call themselves Christians. For the most part, the conversations I've seen center around whether Caitlyn's decision to transition from male to female is right or wrong from a Biblical perspective. For example, in response to the question, “Are you guys addressing the Bruce/Caitlyn Situation with your youth groups?” in a youth pastor's forum earlier this week, most people responded by quoting Scripture.
Here's the problem: Most of the Biblical texts people quoted in answer to this question are ones used to condemn homosexuality, even though transgender issues are actually separate from issues of sexuality. Simply put, being transgender has to do with what gender a person identifies with – NOT with who they want to sleep with.
Perhaps this misconception has to do with the fact that our society commonly lumps the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) population together under one heading. Whatever the reason, the fact that this is immediately where Christians tend to go shows just how misunderstood the transgender population is. This is, I think, the part of this week's debate that's most frustrated me: People's willingness to weigh in on an issue they have very little understanding of.
To be sure, I am not an expert in transgender issues.
However, after Bruce's interview with Diane Sawyer aired, my student leaders immediately asked if we could discuss transgender issues. When I questioned what, specifically, they would be interested in talking about it, the response I got was “We know everyone's talking about it but we don't even understand what being transgender means. We just don't talk about this issue ANYWHERE.”
Since I want our church community to be a place where teens are free to talk and learn about issues that aren't being addressed elsewhere, I committed myself to learning about this issue. Having heard my students express their interest in the subject but also confess their lack of understanding of it, I also committed to including basic information about being transgender in our discussion rather than immediately trying to jump into a theological debate.
To this end, I was thankful that at the 2014 Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, I had the privilege of hearing from H. Adam Ackley, a former theology professor at Azusa Pacific University who recently transitioned from female to male. During the conference, he shared his experience as a transgender person as well as his theological understanding of what this means. This experience reminded me that it's much harder to condemn a population when we know even the story of just one person who identifies themselves that way.
Then in further preparation for my discussion with my teens about about this issue, I also read Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas M Teich. I cannot recommend this book enough for people wanting to gain a better understanding of what it means to be transgender.
Because it's easy to be side-tracked by Caitlyn's fame, when dealing with this issue with my teens, I chose to use the Bruce Jenner interview only in passing. Instead, I made the focus of our discussion clips from Laverne Cox's MTV show, “The T Word”, which features interviews with transgender teens. By watching clips from this show, my teens began to see being transgender as something that affects not just famous people, but other teens like them. This, in turn, helped create empathy in and among them and make it harder to “other” this population.
After giving teens a crash course over what it means to be transgender, we then moved into a more theological discussion, prompted again by a clip from “The T Word” in which one teen confesses being told by people that because she was transgender, she'd burn in hell. In response to this, we looked not only at Genesis 1:27, in which God creates people male and female, but also at the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. In this story, Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch – someone who according to the Jewish laws of the day, would not even have been allowed to worship in the temple. In doing so, he powerfully communicates that the good news of the Gospel of Jesus really is for ALL people. As part of our discussion of this passage, we therefore wrestled with how this passage might be good news for those who are transgender.
Without a doubt, teens left our youth ministry's discussion with additional questions about what it means to be transgender. But they (and I) also left with a greater understanding of what it means to be transgender as well as the issues that those who are transgender commonly face. In so doing, we gained greater empathy toward this population and moved the conversation beyond right and wrong.
I pray that as a society, in the days and weeks ahead, Caitlyn's story will help us to do the same. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, may we listen to her story and in so doing, may we be a little less quick to condemn and a little more quick to understand others.