Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

The Transgender Tipping Point

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2014 Jun 09

A recent cover of Time magazine featured the transgender star of the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black and the words “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.”  Inside was an article titled “America’s Transition.”

Not surprisingly for Time, the author’s bias was thinly veiled:  “Almost one year after the Supreme court ruled that Americans were free to marry the person they loved, no matter their sex, another civil rights movement is poised to challenge long-held cultural norms and beliefs.”

That certainly sets a tone.

But she’s right.  Mainstream acceptance of homosexuality and the legalization of gay marriage virtually demand the acceptance of almost any other lifestyle. 

And first in line is the “T” in LGBT.

Recently, California allowed students to use bathroom facilities in accordance with their gender identity.  The luxury retailer Barneys featured trans models in a recent ad campaign.  A memoir by Janet Mock on her transition from a man to a woman became a bestseller.  This fall, students in Huntington Beach, California, elected a 17-year-old trans “girl” as their homecoming queen.  Over a dozen states have instituted policies that allow students to play on the school sports team that aligns with their gender identity.  Just this past week, sex change surgery was approved for Medicaid.

How should a thinking Christian...well, think about this?

Let’s begin with some definitions.

A transgender person is someone who identifies with a gender other than the sex they were “assigned at birth” (to use their phraseology).

An older term, transvestite, refers to someone who wears the clothes of the opposite sex (“trans” meaning  “across” and “vest” referring to vestments or clothes).

A transsexual  is someone who seeks medical intervention to pursue the gender they identify with.

But increasingly, the term transgender is the umbrella term for them all.

None of these, it should be noted, seem tied to a particular sexual preference.  It is frequently explained that sexual orientation determines who you want to go to bed with and gender identity determines what you want to go to bed as. 

In 1980 the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association listed transsexualism as a mental disorder.  That entry was later replaced by what psychiatrists called “gender identity disorder.  In 2013, it was later modified to mere “gender dysphoria,” which is simply discomfort with the gender a person is living in.  Quite a progression in just over three decades, moving from something to be cured to something to be enabled.

So how many transgender people are there?  Not many.  As in 0.5% of the population.

The heart of the transgender argument is that sex and gender are two separate concepts.  Sex is biological, gender is cultural.  Gender is defined as the “behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.”  In other words, the attitudes, actions, dress and sensibilities that go with being a boy or being a girl.  Or as an NPR report on the matter put it, gender is the “cultural expectations” that come with a particular sex. 

This suggests that gender is distinct from the nature of sexuality.  While the differences inherent between the sexes are beyond question, the growing movement seems to be toward the removal of gender from the cultural equation.

But should we go along? 

In his book Taking Sex Differences Seriously, University of Virginia professor Dr. Steven Rhoads writes about an incident that took place in 1966.  A botched circumcision left one of two male identical twins without a full male organ.  A leading sex psychologist at Johns Hopkins University persuaded the parents to raise that toddler as a female.  They completed the castration, constructed what appeared from the outside to be female genitalia, and called him Brenda.  They raised him as a girl, and even gave him female steroids to mimic female pubertal growth and feminization.

All seemed to be well.

Time magazine called the case “strong support” for the view that masculine and feminine behavior can be altered.  A 1979 textbook used the case to discuss how human gender identity was flexible and plastic, and how being male or female was the product of social learning and conditioning.  Numerous psychology and sociology texts cited the case as proof that sex roles are basically learned.

But people didn’t follow the case through to the end. 

Even with the injection of female hormones, the absence of male hormones coming from testicles, and being raised as a female, Brenda did not turn out as Brenda.  In the early 1990’s, a team of researchers caught up with the boy who had been turned into a girl to see how “she” was doing.

They found that “she” was no longer Brenda.  “She” was now David – working in a slaughterhouse, married to a woman, and the adoptive father of three children.

At the age of 14, Brenda decided to start living as a male, and at 15, was told that was indeed what “she” had been born as.  She then announced that “she” had always felt like a male and wanted to become one again.  Brenda was given a mastectomy, male hormones, and constructed genitalia.

When researchers dug further, they found that the first time Brenda had been put in a dress, he pulled it off. 

When given a jump rope, he wanted to tie people up with it or whip them with it.

At nine, he bought a toy machine gun when he was supposed to buy an umbrella.

His toy sewing machine went untouched because he preferred to build forts and play with dump-trucks.

He was never interested in make-up, but instead wanted to shave with his father.

On a trip to New York, he found himself attracted to the Rockettes.

He even felt the urge to urinate standing up.

From this, researchers at Johns Hopkins felt they should go back and study other children who had undergone similar operations; boys who, for whatever reason, were born without full male organs, had then been fully castrated, and raised as girls.  Of the twenty-five they were able to locate, ranging in age from five to 16, every single one exhibited the rough-and-tumble play more characteristic of boys than girls.

Every single one.

Even at their early age, fourteen of them had already declared themselves to be, in fact, boys – against everything in how they had been raised. 

From this, and scores of other studies, Rhoads concludes that instead of thinking that the difference between the sexes is something learned, or imposed by society, it is rather something larger, something deeply rooted, in our very nature.  It’s part of who we are. It’s not a role that we take on; it’s the very nature of our being.

This isn’t about what might truly be, to use the term no longer in vogue, true Gender Identity Disorder.  That would be something to be treated.  It is about maintaining that gender and sex, in a healthy psychology, is not something simply between our ears, but between our legs.  Sexuality is not like a favorite color – something to be chosen, or a preference – it is hardwired into our being. 

But that is precisely what our culture wishes to ignore.

One of the great questions in all of human thought is “who am I?”  The answer is fast becoming, “I don’t know.”  It is as if our embrace of plastic surgery has led to a sense of being plastic ourselves, stripped of any sense of innate worth or identity.  If human beings have no fixed or permanent essence, if we are “plastic” – subject through technology to alteration, enhancement, mutation, control - then we may do what we will with ourselves. 

And so we have.

And in so doing, seem intent on removing every particular in the fabric of our created being. 

C.S. Lewis once wrote of the desire to take control over all nature, even human nature, and declare our independence.  With full control over ourselves, we will have “won” the ultimate battle.  But what is won?  Nothing.  This led to Lewis’ prediction in a 1947 essay that “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man.”

He seems to have been more prescient than he imagined.

James Emery White



“America’s Transition,” Katy Steinmetz, Time, June 9, 2014.

“Sex change surgery approved for Medicaid,” Daniel James Devine, World News Service/Baptist Press, June 2, 2014, read online.

“The End of Gender,” Linton Weeks, National Public Radio, June 23, 2011, read online.

Steven Rhoads, Taking Sex Differences Seriously.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

James Emery White, The Church in An Age of Crisis (Baker).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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