As I’ve briefly mentioned in my article on female submission, my personality is not generally that of a submissive female. I tend to take on and be comfortable in more dominate roles in relationships. Growing up, I have also been chastised for being too unfeeling or harsh in disagreements, and too logical and cold in debates. I remember talking about (in the “female only” time at youth group) how women should be meek and quieter. As a result, there was always this sense that I wasn’t quite right.
So when my friend, Claire, and I discussed her sense of being associated with the wrong gender, a small part of myself could relate. I don’t feel nearly the level of discomfort being female as she did being male, but it was enough to compel me to empathize with her experience. And yet, more than I even did when another (male) friend told me about his boyfriend, I felt awkward, like this was something to keep hushed up in Christian circles. This is honestly a bit frightening to me. On this site in particular we’ve talked recently about homosexuality, and we’ve discussed female equality, but this subject hasn’t been broached, and I feel that, in particular the trans-gender/transsexual population may be some of the most marginalized in our society.
Part of the discomfort has to do with the idea that someone is somehow “born wrong.” Believing that God is present and loving, I’m not sure how I could come to terms with the idea that our Creator would allow people to be born in the wrong body. I feel constrained by space here, so I’ll save the complexities of this for what I hope will be a lively discussion in the comments, but basically I feel like, when confronted with someone physically male (or female) who identifies with and wishes she was related to as female (or male) there are only a limited number of ways we can think about it:
- This person is deeply confused and needs to somehow learn how to be a better male (or female) or somehow people in their life failed to teach them how to be male (or female), so now they are choosing to live the wrong way and need to repent and find healing in this area.
- Because of the fallen world people can be born wrong and it isn’t ideal and not anyone’s fault, but still a result of sin.
- There is nothing wrong with the way people are born; there is something wrong with our culture’s rigid gender norms that does not allow trans or intersex people to feel comfortable in their own skin.
I don’t think we have gone far enough in accepting that gender is more than private parts, but a set of cultural roles and norms that aid in our understanding of how we ought to relate to each other, and expect to be related to. As my friend says on her facebook profile, “gender is the syntax of nonverbal communication.” We don’t choose what our bodies look like, nor do we choose and create from scratch our own identities, but we do, as a culture, choose to associate certain identities, roles, and customs with a specific body type (or at least in this culture it is directly tied to a specific body type). In my discussion with Claire, I felt that most people could relate to the idea that they don’t always do or feel what boys or girls are supposed to, and the totalizing experience of this is what trans people have to deal with. Basically, I felt like Claire exposed the way our social gender constructions can oppress us.
People who feel that they wholly don’t fit our gender rules are in the minority, but that doesn’t mean they have to be shamed or marginalized. For example, within Native American culture this reality was accommodated and even esteemed. A third gender, the two-spirit, was a male or female who often cross-dressed and could take on the other gender’s role. Though I wouldn’t advocate simply adopting the Native American practice and creating another gender, I can’t help but be impressed with the way they honor someone who would be so deeply marginalized within our own culture.
As we’ve been engaging the subject of gender and sexuality on Jesus Radicals (beginning with the article presenting a view on homosexuality), and consequently as I’ve been reflecting on the people I know who are gay, lesbian, or transgendered, I can’t help but feel like transgendered individuals, and GLBTI people in general, clearly exist within a marginalized, broken place not of their own making.
Considering the conversation with Claire, and dealing with my own anxieties relating to gender, I feel like this is a place where she suffers as a result of our society’s insecurities and sinful, narrow construction of normal gender identity and sexuality. More because I feel a small sense of being able to relate to her, than because of any particular virtue on my part, I also feel a special sense of commitment to valuing her identity, her personality and intellect. Her courage in acknowledging her struggles and suffering is both frightening and inspiring to me.
Furthermore, as a follower of Christ, I want to identify with people like her. I don’t abstractly love her, she is my friend, and I want to her feel comfortable in her own skin, not only because I love her, but because rather selfishly I think the same issues relate to me being comfortable in my own skin. I long for the disconnects between cultural assumptions, her body, and her experience to dissipate, so she can be related to in a way that makes her feel loved and at peace, and so that her personality can be fully understood and realized without precondition.
I struggle when writing this article to not try and speak to all people and so really speak to no one, but I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on this topic or to feel perfectly confident my understanding of the rightness or wrongness of gender-roles. What I feel strongly about is the sense that regardless of what anyone thinks about the morality of cross-dressing or homosexuality, or any other GLBTI lifestyles, that we can not ignore the way our culture and the church in particular has caused their suffering. In light of this, I can’t see any other Christ-like act than to repent and learn, particularly from brothers and sisters who have been hurt, how to love each other the way Christ loves us. As we continue this discussion, this has to be at the heart of how the Church embodies Christ to GLBTI people in general.
Sarah Lynne Gershon is a former member of the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis and recently moved to Colorado with her partner Brett and son Alasdair. She has her BA in Anthropology and a minor in Human Rights. She is particularly passionate about issues of freedom of gender and sexual expression. Sarah went on to practice massage and aromatherapy and is currently a member of a healing co-op which promotes a holistic model of health.