In this video, Baptist pastor Mark Wingfield speaks about his experience of spending several months studying issues around transgender people. He then wrote an article: ‘Seven things I’m learning about transgender persons.’ The article had, at the time the video was recorded, been read by over a million people. Over 450 people had responded in writing or by phone to it. A number of these were transgender persons, and their friends and families. Mark Wingfield was then moved to meet some of these transgender people face-to-face, and valued friendships were forged. ‘They were shocked that a Baptist pastor would sit down and listen to them. I was shamed to hear their stories of repression, and persecution, and rejection.’
Mark Wingfield has a passionate message for us. ‘We are guilty,’ he says, ‘of the sin of wilful ignorance, and the sin of silence.’ He wants the Christian church to move from indifference to compassion with regard to transgender people. He wants us to extend a warm welcome, to get to know them, to listen to their stories, to understand the pain and rejection that many of them have experienced, and to offer reassurance when they ask, ‘Does God still love me?’ One trans couple said to him: ‘We have looked for four years for a church that would welcome us as you did.’
I want to register my wholehearted agreement with Mark Wingfield up to this point. The churches (I’m speaking especially for and to the evangelical churches) have a huge amount of work to do when it comes to understanding, extending a welcome to, and ministering to the needs of, transgender people. (To say nothing of the welcome that they might extend to the rest of us, and the ways in which they might minister to our needs!)
So, if the main message is, ‘Christians ought to show more and better love towards transgender people’, then Mark Wingfield is dead right.
Despite this deep level of agreement (heartfelt conviction, even), I believe that Mark Wingfield’s argument is flawed in a number of ways. The effects of these flaws is not only that the issues will be misunderstood, but that even with the best motives in the world, the practical outcomes will not always be God-honouring nor, in the long run, beneficial to the parties involved.
Some of the problems are overt, and others are covert.
1. Overt issues
(a) Causation. Mark Wingfield says that his eyes were opened by two members of his congregation – one a pediatrician and the other a geneticist. They informed that a great deal of gender identity is formed in the womb. One outcome of this is that some babies are born ‘with ambiguous genitalia’. In most of us, there is a congruence between ‘anatomy, chromosomes and brain cells’, whereas ‘in some people, anatomy, chromosomes, and brain cells don’t line up, creating a different gender identity.’
I don’t know if Wingfield has accurately reflected the advice given to him by his medical friends. I’m certainly happy to allow for considerable simplification of medical information in the context of a popular talk. But I have to say that Wingfield’s presentation is misleading. The mention of babies born ‘with ambiguous genitalia’ is largely irrelevant, because such intersex conditions are rare and in any case bear little relationship to subsequent gender identity. And to suggest that issues with gender identity are due to non-alignment of ‘anatomy, chromosomes and brain cells’ is both over-simplistic (even for a popular audience) and over-confident . The fact is that there is no scientific or medical consensus on causation in this area. The most that can be said of prenatal biological factors (especially hormones – not mentioned by Wingfield) is that they may influence (but cannot be said to cause) alterations in gender identity.
(b) Suicide. The sobering topic of suicide is mentioned three times in this short talk. Mark Wingfield quotes (with approval) the view that ‘transgender people have a 40% suicide rate, as compared to the national average of 3-8 per cent.’ [Actually, his headline figures refer to suicide attempts, not suicide itself; this is a serious enough error, but I’ll let it pass]. An 8-year-old transgender child, ‘Claire’, is described by her mother as having just had her first bout of suicidal ideation.
The effect (intentional or unintentional) of such an emphasis on suicide is to say to the reader or hearer: ‘Don’t you dare criticise this trans person for their lifestyle choices, because if you do so, you may drive them to kill themselves.’ This feeds into the oft-repeated mantra: ‘I’d rather have a live daughter than a dead son.’
To be fair to Wingfield (and his source) these kinds of figures for attempted suicides are often quoted. But the nature and quality of the research from which these figures are derived are highly contestable. Please see here for a more extended discussion.
(c) Misplaced optimism. The impression given by Mark Wingfield is that if only people were allowed to transition (if they wanted to), and everybody else would simply let them get on with their lives, then everything in the garden would be rosy. As a mother says of her 8-year-old trans daughter (‘Claire’): ‘She looks forward to when she grows up and becomes a Mommy.’
Wingfield climaxes his argument with the story of ‘Claire’ (cue applause). But the sad truth is, this child will never be able to bear children of her own. What she does face, however, is the possibility of the chemical and surgical mutilation of the healthy body that God has given her. I don’t find that a reason to celebrate. I think it’s a tragedy. (By the way, surgical procedures for ‘gender reassignment’ are by no means straightforward. Female-to-male surgery is especially difficult.)
2. Covert issues
(a) Theological non sequiturs: The talk draws on the power of story – Mark Wingfield’s story, and those of some of the trans people he now counts as his friends. But human stories, however powerful, do not provide a secure basis for Christian thinking. The talk is almost completely devoid of biblical or theological reflection. To be sure, the ‘image of God’ is mentioned several times. A mother of a trans child says: ‘My loving God did not put my daughter on this earth as an example of how not to be, or as how we should not parent. She was put on this earth to show the wonder of his creation.’ Wingfield (perpetuating the myth of biological determinism) says: ‘I’ve got to believe that just because someone received a different hormone, or a different chromosome, or a different enzyme, does not mean that they receive any lower dose of the image of God.’
We gladly affirm that every person is created equally in the image of God. But it does not follow that God therefore accepts every identity that people choose for themselves. The trans person can indeed say: ‘I bear the image of a loving God just as much as anyone else.’ But there is a balancing statement which ought to be added (and which Wingfield does not even hint at): ‘We all bear the terrible effects of humanity having defaced that image; we are all both the victims and agents of sin’. We should therefore not take it for granted that we can affirm any and every self-identity, whether that self-identify involves the body image of a person with anorexia, or of an individual who feels that they are ‘a man trapped in the body of a woman’.
(b) Gnostic dualism. Wingfield says: ‘Almost every transgender person I have met has told me that from their earliest awareness…they knew that something was different about them. They knew that the anatomy they presented on the outside did not match who they were on the inside.’
The idea here is that a person can feel that although they have the body of a man, they have the mind of a woman (or vice-versa), and that the way to resolve this is to change the body (by clothing, hormones, or surgery). This is to regard the body as some kind of expendable shell which houses the ‘real me’, and to posit a mind/body dualism which is deeply unbiblical. It was possibly against a background of such Gnostic dualism that the apostle Paul wrote: ‘Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19f).
(c) Perpetuation of a false dilemma. Mark Wingfield says that, after he published his article, he received hundreds of comments, 95% of which were positive. He adds: ‘there were a few cranky people. There were a few who wrote to say that I was the tool of Satan, or that I clearly did not understand medical science as it was written in the 1950s [laughter].’ He says that one mother of a trans girl was told by a relative, ‘This is a result of the darkness of the world, and Satan’s influence.’ He laments that large number of trans people, who are people of deep faith, have been rejected, expelled, kicked out, churches and other communities of faith.
I do not deny that Wingfield received a lot of very positive responses. Nor do I deny that he received a few ‘cranky’, insensitive, or even hateful comments. But he leaves us with the distinct impression that there are only two options: either you welcome, accept, and affirm trans people and all their desires and choices, or you are an ignorant bigot. It does not seem to have occurred to him that there might be a middle position, one which a significant number of thoughtful, caring, Christians would wish to occupy. That there might be, in other words, those who wish, with him, to extend a compassionate welcome for trans people but who cannot affirm some of their beliefs and lifestyle choices.
A few months ago, I preached from the early chapters of Genesis on the subject of God’s good plan for men and women. Although I don’t think I mentioned transgender people specifically, I certainly had LGBT people more generally in mind when I identified, as part of the church’s ‘unfinished business’ the following two items.
How can we (I asked):
- extend a welcome to everyone, even when we cannot affirm everyone’s lifestyle?
- develop an environment of grace and healing for those experiencing guilt, anger, resentment, uncertainty or loss?
I pray now, as I prayed then, that we might be guided unflinchingly by God’s truth, and energised by God’s compassion, as we seek to pursue that agenda.