I would like to thank Robert Gagnon for sharing his thoughts on my Christianity Today article, Understanding Gender Dysphoria. My article sought to briefly introduce the three frameworks (integrity, disability, and diversity) through which transgender matters can be seen rather than offer an encompassing presentation. I was also calling for an integrated lens that draws on the best each of these lenses has to offer. While Gagnon is strong on exegesis, I wonder how much experience he has providing direct services like pastoral care and counseling to families of gender dysphoric persons. We need to combine exegetical clarity with practical application.
It is worth reiterating that I offer no wholesale defense of the disability framework or the diversity framework. Again, Gagnon assumes that I am a proponent of the disability framework. As I wrote in the CT article, I argue for an integrated framework that draws on the best of each of the three frameworks I described. Perhaps tellingly, the most vocal critics of my thesis have been adherents of the integrity and diversity frameworks. I believe it is inadequate for the Christian today to shout “Compassion!” or “Celebrate!” and Gagnon seems to agree with me. But he disagrees about whether shouting “Integrity!” could work. It would be an interesting social experiment but not one I can endorse. I have met with far too many individuals, couples, and families who have found such approaches emotionally and spiritually debilitating.
Gagnon also asks whether I am suggesting we abandon the cultural wars. I am for cultural engagement, although we may disagree about what form and tone that takes. My view is that if we focus exclusively on politics we will not provide adequate pastoral care to persons navigating gender identity concerns.
Gagnon states that he would not greet a visitor to his church by their preferred name. It's an amazing scene to imagine unfolding, as if the greeter for the church could somehow screen for and gather the names given at birth of those who are visitors and who may be gender dysphoric. It should also not be lost on Christians that we have to witness to our culture both with regard to teachings about sex and gender and also about how we relate to those whose experiences are remarkably different than our own—who view these topics through different and competing lenses. I prefer to offer clarity in our teaching and graciousness and hospitality in our interpersonal exchanges.
It may be helpful to note that most gender dysphoric persons do not choose more invasive procedures (e.g., hormonal treatment, surgery). Most manage their dysphoria through subtle, intermediary steps, as when a biological male or grows his hair out longer or wears light make-up. Is this a moral offense? I spoke with “Jenna,” a 29-year-old biological female just a month ago. She experiences significant gender dysphoria. She manages it by how she dresses and wears her hair, and she has some fairly good coping skills. Her family knows about her gender dysphoria and places no pressure on her to attend events that may require her to dress in a way that causes her gender dysphoria to be unbearable. Of course, as a woman, she has more latitude in how she dresses and wears her hair, whether she wears make-up, her leisure activities, and so on. While the phenomenon of gender dysphoria is rare, this woman’s experience of gender dysphoria is more typical than the Caitlyn Jenner presentation of complete cross-gender identification. Is Jenna committing a moral offense though her acts by managing her dysphoria through her expression of gender within our cultural norms and expectations for gender roles and expression? Once you enter into a discussion of pastoral care for people navigating gender dysphoria, the practical issues that surface require great wisdom and discernment.
Jenna is one of many transgender Christians who need the Body of Christ to understand the challenges she faces, to think about cultural engagement and public policy (but not exclusively about the cultural wars), and to give thoughtful consideration to how we walk with them in Christlikeness.
Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D. is Professor of Psychology and the Rosemarie S. Hughes Endowed Chair at Regent University