Transgenderism is currently among society’s most controversial topics. Especially in Christian circles, the moral and theological implications of this phenomenon have been a major point of contention. But the distinction between transgenderism (and gender theory) and the person who has or wishes to transition is, according to Drs. Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky, not given enough attention. As much as those with a teaching vocation ought to critique the theoretical errors of gender theory, to assume that this is an adequate means to minister to trans people is naive and likely to be ineffective.
In their new study Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth, Drs. Yarhouse and Sadusky—both Evangelical clinical psychologists—offer a wide array of clarifications, distinctions, and pastoral insights based largely on their clinical experience with gender atypical teens. The book begins with the warning to parents and pastors to avoid responding defensively when a teen confides to them that they are gender atypical. A lesson in theological anthropology is not likely to help them get to the root of their discomfort with their identity.
In order to be able to listen, understand, and help the teen, they suggest first learning about the language that the teen is using to describe what he or she is experiencing. They begin with the distinction between gender dysphoria and “emerging gender identities.” Gender dysphoria, to which Yarhouse dedicated his previous book, is a neurological condition in which a male perceives himself to be female, or vice versa. Variations of this phenomenon “have existed throughout history,” and is what most people think of when they hear the word “transgender”. They emphasize gender dysphoria’s neurological basis, and that it ought not be equated with willful rebelliousness or wanting to follow trends.
Emerging gender identities or gender diversity (which include genderfluid, genderqueer, agender, and bigender) are fairly new concepts which express something beyond feeling one’s body to be incongruous with his or her identity. These identities construe gender to be more broad than male and female, and thus perceive the male/female binary to be a source of oppression. These identities find much of their origin in the writings of gender theorists like Judith Butler.
Yarhouse and Sadusky’s historical genealogy of transgenderism provides further clarification, tracing the line from when it was understood to be a result of moral depravity, to a pathological condition, and then more recently to a politically charged identity. From this historical view they zero in on what they deem a false dichotomy that has emerged in contemporary debates: the increased awareness vs. social contagion theories. The former holds that one’s gender identity, be it cisgender, trans, or gender diverse, is essential to who you are, and that the recent surge of people identifying as non-cisgender is due to growing awareness and cultural acceptance of non-cisgender experiences. The social contagion view sees this surge of people “falsely” perceiving their gender identities to be distinct from their bodies as the result of the popularization of trans narratives in the media.
Yarhouse and Sadusky suggest instead taking into account the multiple layers and factors behind a person’s trans identity. To do so, they point to philosopher Ian Hacking’s framework, known as the “looping effect,” which considers how “changing ideas change people, and how changed people necessitate further changes in ideas.” “People’s behaviors change in response to how they are categorized…reactions may be behavioral or conceptual or affect identity insofar as assumptions about the self and the condition are shaped by mental health nomenclatures. This shaping can come from many sources, including mental health experts, broader societal views, and taken-for-granted realities.”
Hacking accounts for five factors within a given looping effect: classification, people, institutions, knowledge, and experts. Yarhouse and Sadusky insist that this kind of framework allows parents, pastors, and counselors to appreciate the way a teen construes his or her experience, while also being better able to identify the root cause of the gender incongruity (be it actual dysphoria or other issues).
This framework also allows important questions to be raised about the authority afforded medical experts in these matters. Why are so many doctors prescribing gender blocking hormones and sex-change surgeries? “Something like crowd curation is happening in response to young people navigating gender identity questions today.” Yarhouse and Sadusky point to the rapid change in narratives, first distinguishing cisgender from trans identity, and now from trans to emerging gender identities. “Experts who might ordinarily be relied on as curators have turned to children with transgender and gender diverse experiences for guidance, making these children the curators of their own gender possibilities.” Rather than helping young people to sort through and possibly resolve the lack of congruence between their bodies and perceived identities, doctors are now responding to demands of patients as if these were transactions between retailers and customers.
They propose that many young people who don’t perceive themselves to be like other boys or girls are now identifying as trans because it’s one of the only narratives made available to them to make sense of their experience. Whereas the boy who played with dolls used to be deemed more sensitive than other boys, and the girl who like rough and tumble play was told she was a tomboy, they now are more likely to hear that they are not a boy or a girl, but perhaps are really trans or non-binary. Though these could indeed be signs of gender dysphoria, it’s possible that they just may happen to have different personalities from the dominant stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. They note that this lack of identification with dominant gender stereotypes can be a source of enrichment for others, for it forces us to question the basis and real value of those stereotypes.
They also point to the sense of identity and community that come along with calling oneself trans. It’s likely that many of these young people lack the resources to answer questions like “who am I?” and “where do I belong?” Identifying as trans or gender diverse provides one with almost built in answers, especially considering the wide array of resources made available through the internet and social media.
The second part of the book offers practical advice revolving around the theme of pastoral accompaniment. “This posture signifies that we want to understand where a person is, enter into their present experience with them, and commit to journey with them regardless of where they go from here.” Yarhouse and Sadusky offer several examples from the lives of their own clients, and categorize the typical responses of parents and pastors into three theological frameworks. The “ultra conservative/fundamentalist” position “prioritizes a theoretical theology of gender grounded in Scripture without considering the impact and costliness of this theology for those on the fringes.” The “liberal” position “emphasizes so highly the importance of walking with people that it might treat as irrelevant the moral and ethical implications of a person’s decisions for fear of casting judgement.” And lastly the “orthodox” position, which the authors are partial to, “says we need not throw out theological considerations but that we must not exert all of our energy into categorizing the morality of gender identity.” They continue, “even if you think you have all the theological and ethical answers,” they recommend pausing to reflect on “the ‘how-to’ of sharing them.” They turn to the example of Jesus himself, who “struck a balance between asserting moral truths and inviting to relationship with those who question or even rejected these moral truths.”
Their image of accompaniment upholds the forging of an intimate, trusting relationship, rather than articulating and engendering obedience to moral rules, as its ideal. They assert that this reflects the ideal of Christianity more broadly—entering into relationship with Christ and coming to recognize the truth of one’s identity in Him, rather than abstractly applying a set of rules to one’s behavior. This begins with listening. Half of the struggle of gender incongruity is feeling that no one understands or wants to hear about what you’re feeling.
Being able to listen to someone’s experience doesn’t necessarily preclude challenging the conclusions they come to, nor refraining from condemning false doctrines. It’s a matter of what, how, and when it is said. For example, a pastor who is working one-on-one with a trans teen will want to first establish a foundation of trust before questioning why he or she has chosen to identify that way. Whereas a professor teaching in a theology class is in more of a position to critique the false foundation of gender theory, while still maintaining a sense of sensitivity and respect for those who identify as trans. That being said, the anthropological vision provided by Genesis and the rest of Scripture indicates that the gender binary ought not only be culturally normative, but is a rich source of meaning and beauty within the broader context of God’s creation.
When it comes down to the decision of whether or not to cross identify, Yarhouse and Sadusky recommend counseling teens to wait until young adulthood, since most cases of adolescent gender dysphoria eventually resolve themselves. If the dysphoria is not resolved on its own or through counseling, they recommend the least invasive decisions possible, starting from cross-dressing, and if needed, hormone therapy. They draw the line at surgical changes in light of such a decision’s ethical implications, as well as the research indicating that numerous people who transition eventually will want to identify with their biological sex again.
The last and most compelling suggestion offered is developing “a robust theology of suffering.” Christian anthropology recognizes the inherent unity between body and soul. The rupture of unity brought on by gender dysphoria is a source of deep pain and suffering. They lament how the ultraconservative and liberal approaches downplay one of the most essential aspects of Christianity: the Cross. These attempts to cover over the messiness of suffering lose sight of Christ himself, “who is certainly not alien to suffering and to the human feeling of being forsaken by God.” The Christian community ought not only pray for, but with those experiencing dysphoria. Carrying the cross together can become a source of enrichment for everyone in the community. Identifying with Christ’s suffering body and sharing the cross with Him and the rest of the Christian community can become “an entryway into some of the elements of identity and community” that draw teens to the trans community in the first place.
They also note that service to others can be “an outlet to cope with the ache of distress.” The corporal works of mercy can be a meaningful way for people who experience suffering in the body to begin to discover their true identity in Christ. “Many of us find,” they continue, “that when we wrestle with God, we can enter more fully into the wrestling of others that is inherent to the spiritual life, becoming more driven to serve them and to find transcendent meaning in the process.”
Yarhouse and Sadusky’s extensive clinical research, fidelity to the doctrines of their faith, and profound sensitivity to the experiences of trans and gender diverse people have allowed for them to offer this integrated approach to a complex and often divisive issue. Compromising neither their beliefs nor their professionalism and commitment to the person, their study distinguishes itself from others that fall into simplistic reductionism. Further, this study offers something for everyone, be it for those more sympathetic to the transgender cause who are looking to make sense of the apparent clash between trans experience and orthodox Christianity, or those whose mission it is to uphold truth who are unsure of how to share it with those who feel confused or alienated by Christian doctrine. Their nuanced and practical insights based on wisdom from theology, psychology, popular culture, and lived experience will prove to be a valuable resource for parents, pastors, and counselors.
Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth
by Drs. Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky
Brazos Press, 2020
Paperback, 256 pages
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