“Gender” refers to one’s felt, and societally constructed, sense of being male, female, or somewhere in between. As understood by a generation of psychologists, sociologists, and other scientists, it is distinct from sex, which has to do with biology, genitalia, and genetics. Put roughly, sex is between your legs. Gender is between your ears.
Not so, the Southern Baptist Convention said this week. An expert team—no, wait a minute, an entirely unqualified assembly of 5,000 people who know nothing about gender—just voted to deny decades of scientific studies, as well as thousands of transgender people’s own lives. Nope, they said, gender is about your junk, and transgender doesn’t exist.
As easy as it is to ridicule this resolution, and ridicule it I shall, it is also a sustained, informed critique of contemporary understandings of gender. Somebody has read their Judith Butler. And as such, it bears closer inspection, if only because it may be a harbinger of conservative attacks to come.
Of course, for the Baptist Convention, this was a matter of theology, not rationality. It says right there in the Bible, “male and female created he them.” And God don’t make no mistakes. If you’ve got a penis, you’re a man, plain and simple.
Interestingly, the Baptists omitted from their resolution the biblical verses that talk about “eunuchs who are born so from their mother’s womb” (Matthew 19:12) and contemporaneous Jewish discussions of people we would today call intersex (BT Hagigah 4a).
The Baptists also omitted discussion of other ways in which the soul (or the brain, if you want to be materialistic about it) finds itself at odds with the body. Is coloring one’s hair also an affront against the Divine? Is wearing glasses?
But let’s set aside theology. What’s most interesting about this resolution is how much it understands about the transgender experience—but how much it still misses the point.
On the one hand, the Baptists are quite up to date their estimate of the U.S. transgender population (700,000), the reclassification of transgender from a disorder to a dysphoria (dysphoria is a mismatch; disorder is a pathology), and the scattered, limited progress trans folk have made toward gaining access to health care and being treated according to their felt gender rather than their born sex.
There is no hysteria here about cross-dressing men lurking in bathrooms, a motif endlessly repeated by right-wing nuts, as recently as last week, despite its total idiocy. (Since when do male sexual predators need the cover of law to cross-dress, enter women’s restrooms, and commit acts of violence? They seem to be doing just fine without such stratagems.)
And while the litany of pending legislation is a bit hyperbolic, it’s not fantasy, either. Trans folk aren’t coming to seduce your kids, according to the Baptists’ resolution. They’re just asking to be treated as human beings, not discriminated against, not marginalized, and not be fruitlessly “converted.” All of which is too much for the Southern Baptist Convention.
So far, so good—sort of. But then the resolution goes astray, very subtly, but also very severely.
In a novel theological gesture, the Baptist Convention ascribes trans people’s “perceived conflict between their biological sex and their gender identity” to be part of the “brokenness and futility” caused by the Fall. Got it? Eve ate the apple, therefore you experience gender dysphoria.
Yet the next line of the resolution states, “We affirm God’s good design that gender identity should be determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” Wait, what? Gender dysphoria is an existential condition resulting from humanity’s fallen nature, but God has decreed that it not be so? Isn’t that a contradiction?
And where in the Bible is “gender identity” used as an analytical category in the first place? (Hint: nowhere.)
From there, the resolution unravels. It conflates sex and gender, saying “male and female” are “embedded in the biology of the human race.” But that’s about sex, not gender. Then it says masculine and feminine roles are distinct in the Bible. Fine—many (though not all) transgender people yearn to take on their felt gender role. Ironically, it’s been well-observed that many trans women, for example (again, many, not all) tend to dress, act, speak, and otherwise present as exceptionally “feminine,” more so than most cisgender—i.e., non-transgender—women. So none of this has anything to do with real transgender experience.
And finally, what refuge does the Southern Baptist Convention offer the transgender person, who for their entire life has felt ill at ease in their own body and who, according to our best statistics, are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than a cisgender person?
“We invite all transgender persons to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the gospel.”
Well, there’s a great idea. “Pray the Gay Away” hasn’t worked for 30 years. The major ex-gay organizations have disbanded. So let’s try that method with trans people…sure, that’ll work. “Hold Hands to Can the Trans,” anyone?
And for good measure, the resolution goes on to oppose the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, oppose affirming psychological counseling for trans folk, oppose protecting gender-variant people from discrimination, and oppose hormone or gender-reassignment surgery of any kind. Because if someone’s considering trusting in Christ, it’s always good to experience legal, familial, and institutional persecution first.
We’ll probably see more resolutions like this one, combining thoroughness and incoherence. As they were by gays and lesbians, conservative Christians are threatened by transgender people for the same reason they were threatened by Galileo: Because the world just isn’t the way their traditions say it is. Gay people exist; they love people of the same sex. Trans people exist; they experience their gender as different from their sex. It has always been this way (cf. Queen Christine of Sweden, Joan of Arc), and no amount of persecution, past or present, can change that fact.
Conservative Christians also are threatened by transgender people because the hierarchies of male and female are essential to the forms of social control their ideologies seek to promote. Patriarchy is powerful, but it is also fragile, and transgender people confound its simple dichotomies.
None of that, however, refutes the facts. Scientists, you see, are experts. They don’t have political agendas—at least they’re not supposed to. They’re not always right, but their methods are clear and objective. They’re supposed to review the thousands of case histories of children and adults suffering from gender dysphoria and the thousands more of successful gender reassignment, and tell us what the facts are. Whether those facts match the cosmology of an Iron Age text is not their problem.
But it is ours. Essentially, the Baptists’ document states, “We don’t like the effects of transgender reality, so we’re simply going to deny that it even exists by misquoting the Bible instead of engaging with the evidence.” It is a radically anti-science, anti-rational position, albeit couched in calm, even analytical terms. Like Galileo’s interlocutors, the Southern Baptist Convention wants to send us back to the Dark Ages, when the Bible was the only guide to the world.
If they would keep this agenda to themselves, I wouldn’t mind. It would help us all if everyone who disbelieved in science would just stop using it. No cars, no medicine, no microwaves, no phones—just unplug from everything science has given you and leave the rest of us alone.
But that is not their agenda. By taking positions on public, secular law that are based on non-rational misreadings of sacred text, the Baptist Convention’s resolution is harmful to the idea of democracy itself.
Not as harmful, of course, as it is to transgender people who find themselves trapped in communities ruled by this cruelty and ignorance. As for them, I agree with the Southern Baptist Convention that we should pray for their well-being. Indeed, God help them.