What Does the Bible Teach About Transgender People?

If the Bible is our guide, then God’s design for gender is a gigantic rainbow of variation, not a black-and-white conformity with sex.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

On February 18, the Kansas Republican Party passed an unusual anti-transgender resolution that is more theology than politics. Proposed by Eric Teetsel, head of the Kansas chapter of the Family Policy Alliance (the political arm of the Christian Right behemoth Focus on the Family) it is part of a national strategy to delegitimize transgender people and the concept of transgender itself, all on religious grounds.

Those, then, are the terms on which I, as a rabbi, will engage it. Because as a theological document, it is profoundly flawed.

“God’s design was the creation of two distinct and complementary sexes, male and female,” the resolution states. Nevertheless, “many have sought to normalize transgenderism and define gender according to one’s self-perception apart from biological anatomy.” After listing some of the ways in which society has done so, the resolution says “these cultural currents run counter to God’s created order and violate the dignity of every human being.”

For that reason, it concludes, “we affirm God’s design for gender as determined by biological sex and not by self-perception” and “we oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity.” And so on.

Let’s focus on two important errors in that text.

First, yes, in the Genesis story, God creates human beings of male and female sex.  But the creation story says nothing about gender. Notice how the end of the resolution talks about “God’s design for gender as determined by biological sex.” Where did that come from? What chapter and verse?

Remember, sex is not the same as gender. Definitionally, sex is about chromosomes; gender is about cultural practices. Sex is what is between our legs; gender is what is between our ears. My male sex means I can grow a beard; my male gender means it’s socially acceptable for me to do so – but not, in conservative societies, to wear high heels and makeup. Of course, there’s nothing objectively male or female about shoes and clothes; they are aspects of gender, and they are socially constructed.

Now, just because the Genesis story is silent about gender doesn’t mean the Bible is. In fact, the Bible presents clear gender roles, aligned with sex, in which women are subordinate to men. “Wives, submit to your husbands as you do the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22) Men purchase and own their (multiple) wives, may forcibly marry the widows of enemies they kill, and may hold concubines as additional sexual partners in addition to their wives.

Is this what Teetsel means by “God’s design for gender”?

Even if it is, what about those men and women who deviate from gender roles in the Bible? The patriarch Jacob, for example, is clearly gendered female in comparison with his twin brother Esau. Esau is hairy, Jacob is smooth; Esau is a hunter, Jacob “stays in the tent” (which is where women stay) and cooks; Esau is favored by his father, Jacob by his mom. And yet Jacob is the chosen one who becomes Israel, who fathers a nation.

Of course, Jacob didn’t go on hormone therapy, but the way the Bible constructs his gender identity makes it very clear that, at least until his transformative nighttime wrestling match, he is gender non-conforming.

Likewise, Deborah the Judge, who performed a male societal role. Likewise, the beautiful young David in his “armor-carrier” relationships with Saul and Jonathan. (1 Sam. 16;12, 1 Sam. 18:1-3) Likewise the Apostle Paul, who rebelled against the most fundamental gender role of his time, fathering children, by becoming celibate. Likewise the pairs of female emissaries in the New Testament, Tryphaina and Tryphosa (Romans 16:12) and Euhodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:1), who preached the gospel in ways usually reserved for men. On and on and on, the Bible presents heroic characters who vary from normative gender roles.

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If the Bible is our guide, then God’s design for gender is a gigantic rainbow of variation, not a black-and-white conformity with sex.

Second, the resolution argues that to “normalize” transgender would “violate the dignity of every human being.” In fact, the opposite is true. Societally, we recognize and affirm the dignity of every human being when we respect their profound sense of self-understanding – echoed by science, culture, and history.

Really, there are only two options when it comes to transgender people. One is to listen to what they have to say. The other is to decide that they are so deeply mentally ill that they cannot be trusted to describe their own experiences.

If the Bible is our guide, then God’s design for gender is a gigantic rainbow of variation, not a black-and-white conformity with sex.

The trouble is, the latter is simply incompatible with actually knowing anyone trans, or even watching someone trans speak in the media. It's a kind of willful blindness, coupled with an outrageous dehumanization. After all, it’s not just one or two people; it’s hundreds of thousands of people articulately describing their experiences.

Moreover, the overwhelming consensus of scientists agrees with what trans people themselves say. When trans people are able to live as themselves, they are measurably, objectively happier, healthier, and safer.

So, to hold some kind of trans-invalidating position is so counterfactual, counter-moral, and counter-scientific that it begs the question of whether it's a position at all, or is in fact a fear or prejudice. It certainly isn’t respecting the human dignity of trans people.

Here is an alternative religious explanation.

If we are to believe in “God’s design,” we must look at what God has designed. In Biblical text and most of life, sex is indeed male and female. And for the vast majority of people, sex and gender align: I am biologically male, was assigned male at birth, identify as male, and mostly present as masculine.

For roughly 0.6% of people, however, gender and sex do not align. Just as I know myself to be a man, transgender people know (and medical professionals confirm) that their gender does not match their sex, or the gender they were assigned at birth.

In the past, trans people, though not known as such, had a wide variety of social roles. In the West, most likely suffered through their gender dysphoria, or identified as gay or lesbian, or worked as cross-dressers or performers or sex-workers, living on the margins of society. Others may have expressed their gender in other ways, by being tomboys or sissies; or male florists or female soldiers, for example. Some lived according to their gender, hiding their anatomical sex their entire lives. A few fortunate ones, such as Queen Christina of Sweden, were able to live lives that look recognizably transgender today.

In some other cultures, the situation was different. In India, for example, hijra are male-bodied people who dress as women, do not marry, and have defined (and often stigmatized) social roles, particularly at lifecycle events. There are extensive records of African and Native American cultural roles held by “third gender” persons, who often cross-dressed, held spiritual leadership roles, and were regarded as rare, special beings.

This is God’s plan, then: a spectrum of gender. So what do we do about it?

Clearly, we must support trans people to “Choose life.” (Deut. 30:19)

Today, as transgender people have demanded their rights and recognition, and as medical science has evolved, a wide variety of options are available. Some opt for hormone therapy or gender confirmation surgery of various types. Others do not pursue medical intervention but present – dress, speak, act – according to their gender identity. Still others find themselves somewhere in between the categories our society promotes, and identify as “gender-queer” or somewhere along a non-binary gender spectrum.

For those of us who are not trans, we are called to listen, rather than dictate. We are called to open ourselves to the truth, not to our opinions. Love, after all, rejoices with the truth. (1 Cor. 13:7)

Remember, being transgender isn’t simply a feeling or a preference; it’s a profound, often difficult process of self-understanding. A trans woman understands herself to be female just as much as I understand myself to be male. Usually, such self-understanding takes place together with mental health professionals, counselors, and doctors. It is a moral journey.

Neither the pain of gender dysphoria nor the joy of living authentically as one’s true self are trivial matters. They are profoundly moral, religious ones.

On the one hand, if God loves human beings, then God cannot abide the pain of gender dysphoria. It is not real love to allow such harm to take place, because “love does no harm to its neighbor.” (Romans 13:10) And I cannot stand by while a society stigmatizes transgender people, causes them suffering, or creates a world in which transgender women (particularly women of color) continue to be assaulted and even murdered at shocking rates. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Gen 4:10)

Whereas, when I see my transgender friends living their lives as pastors, rabbis, artists, politicians, colleagues, performers, dads, moms, and ordinary human beings (and yes, I know trans folks who are all of these), I see the wondrous diversity of God’s many-gendered faces. This diversity, not some oppressive and artificial monoculture, is how God, nature, and humanity flourish. Truly, “the fruit of the Spirit is joy.” (Galatians 5:22)

Open your eyes, Eric Teetsel. (Num. 22:31) The truth will set you free. (John 8:32) God has far more expansive designs for gender than you seem able to yet acknowledge. So come learn the truth. Come meet some trans people. Talk to them. Or better yet, listen to them with your ears and heart open.