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In the Beginning ...
Why This Book Was Written
It was October 2013, and I had just finished my PhD in Practical Theology, officially graduating on September 25. As part of our celebration of the official end of my doctoral program, my oldest child had planned to come home from college for the Columbus Day weekend. About a week before Columbus Day, we found out that work would prevent the trip home. We were disappointed at not being able to see our daughter, so my husband, my younger son, and I decided that we would visit instead. I emailed the news, but the email I got back was not what I expected. It had an attachment, labeled "letter, v.3." In the body of the email, our daughter said her dad and I should read the letter together. That is a statement guaranteed to raise the anxiety level of any parent. Fearful and concerned, I read it first, wanting to prepare myself for whatever we needed to deal with. I then went to get my husband, and I watched while he read it. Neither of us said anything. We didn't discuss the letter — for us, there was really nothing to discuss. I sat down at the computer and began to compose a response. It began with, "We love you, we have always loved you, and we will always love you, whether you are our son or our daughter." It ended with, "Now call us — we need to talk about what all of this means." When I finished, my husband (always the editor) made a few changes in wording, and we sent it. Such was our formal beginning as parents of a trans* child — although we had actually been the parents of a trans* child for almost twenty years, we had had no idea before that email.
In many ways, our family was extraordinarily lucky. We had a great deal of support. We lived in Massachusetts, one of the most trans*-friendly places in the United States. We were a part of the Episcopal Church, one of the more open and welcoming of the Christian denominations. Our background was privileged: while many of those who identify as trans* are people of color, we were European American. We had health insurance that, while not covering all transition-related costs, was required by the state of Massachusetts to cover some of them. Our close family members were, for the most part, accepting or at least neutral in their responses, and our church family was very accepting as they watched the long-haired girl in skirts become a young man with a beard. The combination of all of these factors meant our eldest child was spared some of the trauma common to trans* people in our society. In addition, I had done a great deal of studying about gender issues, most recently in my PhD work. I had friends and associates who were gender-nonconforming. I knew more about gender issues than most people who had not dealt with them personally (with themselves or with a close friend or family member). I knew what some of the issues were likely to be, something about the path of transition, and perhaps all too much about the dangers of identifying as trans* in our culture.
Being of an academic turn of mind, my first step was to immerse myself in anything I could find that would help me to understand my child's experience more deeply, so that I could be more supportive and a better advocate. While there is still relatively little theology written from a trans* perspective, more is being published all the time. Unfortunately, much of the earlier theological work assumed that trans* issues were simply a subset of general LGBT issues. Although gay and lesbian writers often included trans* people as a minor category, the issues are distinctly different. While I think I would have had no issues with whomever my children were attracted to, it was quite a shock in some ways to discover that I had been mistaken about a critical part of my child's identity. Gender identity, at least for me, was more challenging than sexual orientation.
My first reaction was, "How could I have lived with him for so long without knowing who he really was? How could I have not known that he was male? How could I, who thought I knew him well, have been caught by surprise by his announcement?" Since gender is such an important category in our culture for identifying who people are, it took a while before I could accept that I knew many more important things about my son than his gender. But I was puzzled. Many books describing common trans* experiences talk about how early the sense of being wrongly identified can arise, often as young as three years of age. I had read stories about children insisting upon being addressed by their proper gender or refusing to wear the clothes of what they identify as the wrong gender. We had seen none of that. Our son never insisted that he was male until he came out when he was nearly twenty. He had liked horses, as many girls do; he had a huge collection of plastic horses, and his stuffed animal collection was equally large. He was also into arts and crafts and music. On the other hand, he had not liked frilly clothes or the color pink as a child, but I hadn't thought much about it. After all, I don't like frilly clothes or the color pink either, and I did not consider that to be unfeminine. He liked outdoor activities, but many girls do. He was uncomfortable with the way his body changed during adolescence, but few adolescents are entirely comfortable with the process. All in all, I was rather proud that I was raising a girl who did not feel obliged to adhere to what I considered outdated gender conventions. I wanted my daughter, as I thought of him at the time, to be free to choose what to like and to wear, and I was proud of "her" individuality.
Perhaps I was blinded by what was in front of me. I suspect that if I had held more rigid gender roles, I might have seen these deviations from them differently. If my husband and I had been intent upon upholding traditional gender roles, we might have come more quickly to the realization of "what was wrong with him," which is how he expressed that feeling of discomfort in his own body — what is called dysphoria. As far as his father and I knew, nothing was actually wrong with him. From adolescence onward, however, he felt that there was something terribly wrong, but he wasn't sure what it was. Since he couldn't identify and express what he was feeling, he kept quiet and tried to fit in. The time of illumination came for him in his second year of college. When he went to a meeting of his college's 100 Percent Society (a society for everyone, no matter what gender orientation or identity), someone asked him what pronouns they should use for him. He recalled it was like being hit with a lightning bolt. He had never realized he could have a choice about the pronouns others used to describe him. Those words finally unlocked what was going on within him.
While I fully supported my son in claiming his own identity, I found myself grieving. I had enjoyed having a daughter, or at least the illusion of having a daughter. I felt a keen sense of loss. Although I much prefer reality, and I would much rather have a relationship with my real son than my illusory daughter, I did have to deal with my own grief. I also found myself feeling very guilty. Over and over again, I tried to figure out how I could not have known that my oldest child was a boy. Surely I should have seen that something was wrong. Surely I should have realized how much he was struggling. If only I had seen it earlier, I might have been able to support him better in his struggles. I felt a failure, not because my oldest child was trans*, but because I had not been able to support my son when he most needed support. I had not been able to help him to claim his true identity.
Most of all, I found myself confused by language issues. Although my son chose a new name similar to his previous one, making that transition relatively easy, changing the cursed pronouns was not nearly so simple. We use pronouns without thinking about them much; after almost twenty years of using one set, I did not find it easy to switch to another. At the beginning, it required a great deal of concentration. In fact, I found myself changing every female pronoun to a male one in order to try to get it "right," which left me identifying all kinds of women as "he." In some ways it was easier to do it right when my son was around, especially as he began to change physically. When he was away, however, it was far too easy to slip into old habits. Perhaps the hardest thing to change was using pronouns when I was talking about historical events. When my son was young, we had used female pronouns, and when I talked about an event in the past, those old pronouns came back to haunt me. For example, should I use male pronouns when I talk about what my son did in Girl Scouts? I eventually managed to do things such as excise the "Girl" from "Girl Scouts," but until I did, I kept tripping all over myself, getting stuck in the middle of stories I no longer knew how to complete without revealing things I did not feel comfortable revealing in casual conversations.
What was I to do with people who knew that I had two children who were ostensibly a girl and a boy? When should I explain, and when should I let it slide? When should I correct people who refer to my eldest as a girl or by his childhood name, and when was it not worth it? How much should I say to people who were not close friends or family? For the story was really my son's story to tell, even though he usually left it for me to deal with when we were together and this issue came up. In a world and a culture fixated upon identifying people first and foremost by gender, how do you cope when your child does not easily fit society's understandings of what it means to be male or female?
Those were my early struggles. Although I can't say I have succeeded in banishing all of the issues that were raised in the first days of my son's transition, I have become a lot more comfortable talking about what has happened and explaining my family configuration to others. The number of books and other resources available to help families and other allies in this work has expanded dramatically in the last few years. There is a lot of advice on explaining gender identity to those who are curious and confused. There are resources about appropriate (and inappropriate) ways of responding to someone whose gender is unclear or puzzling. Issues common to trans* people have become more visible, as gender-nonconforming people and their allies have worked to try to make our culture a safe and welcoming place for all people. While many of the trans* people I know think that Caitlyn Jenner was far from an ideal public model for trans* people, her very public coming out did increase the level of conversation about what it means to be trans*. Through lots of study, work, and talking with trans* people, I have come to a much deeper understanding of gender identity than I had when my son first told us that he was trans*.
As I worked through some of those initial struggles, however, theological issues began to raise their heads. Many trans* people are rejected by their religious communities, and often those who are rejected by their families are rejected on religious grounds. Religion has been one of the strongest supports for traditional gender roles and gender norms, too often punishing those who dare to step outside of their prescribed identities and roles. Joan of Arc, who led the French armies to victory and was captured by the English, was eventually burned alive, not because of her role in war (for it was the French who eventually condemned her, not the English), but because she went back upon her promises, including the promise to wear women's clothes. Although Pope Francis has been willing to be more compassionate toward gays and lesbians, in a recent question-and-answer session in Krakow, Poland, he described the teaching of children about transgenderism as ideological colonization and quoted Pope Benedict, who called gender transitioning a "sin against God the creator." Although he publicly embraced a trans* man who asked if there was still a place for him in the church, Francis has stated that the teaching of gender theory (which he defines as the idea that one can change one's God-given gender) is like nuclear weapons: a step toward the destruction of God's creation. While Francis believes that Jesus would not abandon trans* people and the church should provide pastoral care for them, he also believes that those who transition are committing a sin, just as are homosexual people who are not celibate. For Pope Francis, and Roman Catholic theology in general, gender remains a strict binary, with each gender having a prescribed and complementary role. To challenge that binary is, therefore, to challenge God's design. Many other religious groups also believe that it is impossible to change one's gender in ways that do not correspond to one's biological sex. They see their role in the way that Pope Francis does: helping people to come to peace with their gender dysphoria. However, there are many Christians who have moved away from a strict binary understanding of gender, embracing an understanding that acknowledges that gender identity falls on a spectrum.
Unfortunately, the reluctance of many Christians to see the gender binary as cultural rather than God-given has made the lives of many trans* people very difficult. Many homeless youth are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans*), and have been thrown out of their homes due in part to these theological beliefs. According to the Williams Institute, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Of these youth, a disproportionate number are trans*. Of those surveyed, about 40 percent of trans* people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes (a rate about nine times the national average) and, as noted earlier, trans* people also have a much higher rate of unemployment. Even among those states that forbid job discrimination against those who are gay or lesbian, few have similar protections for those who are trans*. Too often, those who have little knowledge of the research around gender identity or acquaintance with trans* people think that trans* people don't really exist. Many religious leaders will claim, as Pope Francis does, that trans* people have been deluded by others who tell them that they can choose to be whatever gender they want to be. Few trans* people, however, think that gender identity is a choice. The choice they actually have is not in choosing what gender they are. Their choice is between whether to be honest about their gender identity or to hide in a cloak of societal respectability. As gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have also discovered, there is a cost in pretending to be who you are not. For trans* people, that cost is higher than for most. They are not merely hiding who they are attracted to; instead, they have to hide who they really are. That need to hide, or else face extreme prejudice and violence, makes the tragically high rate of suicide understandable.
I could — and did — affirm to my son that I believed that all people were made in God's image and likeness, and beloved by God. However, I realized that I had never really thought through the issues the experiences of trans* people raise for traditional theology, and how the experiences of trans* people might broaden our theological understanding and enrich our understanding of God. As a practical theologian, I believe that our understanding of God is influenced by our context and our practices. How, then, is our understanding of theology different in a context in which there are people who do not fit the idea of traditional gender binaries? Even trans* people who identify as either male or female challenge the immutability of gender. Those identifying as non-binary challenge the very idea that gender is a duality. What does it mean to understand gender in a way that affirms that it cannot be contained within a simple two-gender system based upon the appearance of genitals or even chromosomal makeup? What does it mean to understand that the primary determinant of gender is not the nature and type of genitals but may be brain chemistry?
Early in the process, I searched desperately for resources that would help me to answer these questions, but few were available. Even now, several years later when more has been written in the area of trans* theology, what I was looking for — an in-depth discussion of theology for trans* allies — still does not exist. As the trans* community focuses upon issues of survival, which is a necessary first step, trans* theology is still very much in its infancy.
Although I had initially hoped that someone else would do the work for me, I found myself feeling the need to help others through this minefield. As a parent of a trans* man and as a theologian, I could not avoid the theological questions. I needed to make sense of it for myself, if not for my son. Over the last several years, as I have seen the ways in which Christian theology has been used to oppress or even to deny the existence of trans* people, I knew that I did not have the luxury of remaining silent. So it was that I began to think about writing the book that I wished someone else had already written.
Excerpted from "Beyond a Binary God"
Copyright © 2018 Tara K. Soughers.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 In the Beginning ...,
CHAPTER 2 The Need for a Theology for Trans* Allies,
CHAPTER 3 Made in the Image and Likeness of God,
CHAPTER 4 Describing a Non-Binary God,
CHAPTER 5 Toward a Theology for Trans* Allies,
EPILOGUE Through Fear to Hope,