In 2014, Time magazine announced that America had reached “the transgender tipping point,” suggesting that transgender issues would become the next civil rights frontier. Years later, many people—even many LGBTQ allies—still lack understanding of gender identity and the transgender experience. Into this void, Austen Hartke offers a biblically based, educational, and affirming resource to shed light and wisdom on this modern gender landscape.
Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians provides access into an underrepresented and misunderstood community and will change the way readers think about transgender people, faith, and the future of Christianity. By introducing transgender issues and language and providing stories of both biblical characters and real-life narratives from transgender Christians living today, Hartke helps readers visualize a more inclusive Christianity, equipping them with the confidence and tools to change both the church and the world.
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About the Author
Austen Hartke is the creator of the YouTube series Transgender and Christian, which seeks to understand, interpret, and share parts of the Bible that relate to gender identity and the lives of transgender individuals. Hartke is a graduate of Luther Seminary’s Master of Arts program in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Studies and winner of Luther’s 2014 John Milton Prize in Old Testament Writing.
Read an Excerpt
Standing on the Edge
"Do they even let ... people like you ... in?"
This was the first thing my sister Madelyn asked when I told her that I was applying to seminary. Of course, she didn't mean it in a derogatory way — she was and continues to be one of the most supportive people in my life — but she was curious and concerned. In 2011, when I submitted my application to a degree program in youth ministry, I had not yet come to grips with my gender identity. I had been open about my bisexuality for about seven years, though, and I didn't relish the idea of having to get back into the closet.
This meant that when I started considering a seminary program, my discernment process didn't begin with "Is God leading me toward ministry?" or even "Would this degree give me a leg up in my career?" No, when I arrived on campus for visit days, I was seeking some more basic answers. For instance, if I brought my whole self to the study of Scripture and the building up of the church, would I be welcomed? If I opened myself to honest and authentic communion with others in the classroom and in the sanctuary, could I count on being physically safe?
Most Christians in the United States today don't have to choose between being open about their relationships or being excommunicated. Most Christians don't have to risk being assaulted on their way to services for wearing their favorite dress, only to arrive and hear a sermon condemning them to eternal punishment. But some do.
That is why, to this day, I feel just a little bit nervous when I walk into any unfamiliar church building. It's a response reinforced by years of necessary self-defense, which too many LGBTQ+ Christians have to cultivate. The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of LGBT Americans tells us that 29 percent of LGBT-identified folks have been made to feel unwelcome in religious spaces. When we consider the fact that the Williams Institute estimated the number of LGBTQ+ Americans to be about nine million in 2011, this means that roughly two and a half million people have been treated poorly by those who share their faith, simply because of their sexuality or gender identity.
That negative treatment — whether it manifests itself as hostile stares, a direct order to leave, or physical violence — doesn't exist in a vacuum. As Christianity continues to be the dominant religious force behind much of American culture, people outside church walls have begun to express frustration with the faith's attitude toward LGBTQ+ people. A 2014 study revealed that 70 percent of millennials and 58 percent of Americans overall now believe that religious groups are alienating people by being too judgmental about LGBTQ+ issues like same-sex marriage. One quarter of the people who were raised in religious families, but have left their tradition, admit that negative treatment or teachings about LGBTQ+ people was a factor in their decision to leave. With organized Christianity in America already facing a steady decline, we might well ask how the church could possibly afford to push anyone out, especially persons who desperately seek to be recognized and accepted as part of the faith.
And that's the strangest part about these recent studies: despite Christianity's reputation for anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, half of queer-identified adults claim a religious affiliation, and 17 percent consider their faith very important in their lives. What's more, these percentages appear to be getting larger every year.
How does it feel to be caught in the crosshairs between your faith and your identity, which has been declared part of "the culture wars"? For some LGBTQ+ Christians, it's a refining fire that brings about an even greater passion for mercy, justice, and a relationship with God. Gay and lesbian Christians like Matthew Vines and Rachel Murr have even written about their experiences and their journey to a greater understanding of the "clobber passages" related to sexuality. In recent years, cultural and political issues like same-sex marriage have brought lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues into the cultural limelight.
Transgender issues and identities, however, have been largely ignored during this same time period, both within society at large and more obviously within Christian circles. The writers at Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, expressed low-level apprehensions about trans issues beginning in 2008, but it wasn't until 2012 that the T in LGBT found its first big Christian news headline. A Girl Scout troop in Colorado allowed a young transgender woman to join; this prompted swift retribution, in the form of a cookie boycott by some Christians. In 2013, Dr. Heath Adam Ackley, a professor at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University, came out as transgender and was subsequently asked to leave. In May 2014, Time magazine declared the year "the transgender tipping point" and predicted that trans issues would be "America's next civil-rights frontier." This was followed by the introduction of a record number of trans-exclusionary bills in state legislatures in 2015.
While transgender visibility has increased in the past five years (the number of people who personally know a trans person has doubled from 17 percent of Americans in 2014 to 35 percent just two years later), visibility itself has not always had a positive effect. As more trans people come forward and share their stories and the struggles that they face, those who find trans identities distasteful or morally corrupt feel that they must also come forward with their own opinions, policies, and theological pronouncements. In October 2015, just three months after Olympic superstar Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) put together an event that they billed as "evangelical Christians' first-ever conference on transgender issues." No transgender people were asked to speak at this event. Instead, the largely Southern Baptist–identified speakers agreed beforehand to a statement that rejected the idea that "a human being could possess a gender other than the one indicated by biological sex." Members of the ACBC argued that gender dysphoria is a result of original sin, and Owen Strachan, the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, declared, "Even if we have never intended to choose a transgender identity, if we embrace this impulse, we are following, chasing a sinful instinct. We are in fact sinning against God."
Then, in 2016, what had previously been a predominantly theological debate, between conservative Christians and those who supported transgender justice, became an all-out battle that exploded onto the national legislative scene. On May 13, the US Justice Department and the US Department of Education sent out a joint guidance letter to all public schools, clarifying that Title IX protections against discrimination based on sex now functionally included discrimination based on gender identity. The letter stated that, in order to be in compliance with Title IX, public schools must not discriminate based on gender identity when it comes to gender-segregated spaces like restrooms, locker rooms, single-sex classes or schools, fraternities, or sororities. All schools that wished to continue receiving federal monies must be in compliance with Title IX.
Suddenly the movement toward protection for transgender people in the United States became, in the opinion of some Christians, a threat to religious liberty. Dozens of schools began the process of requesting religious exemption waivers so that they would not have to comply with the clarified ruling — a move reminiscent of the religious exemption from providing birth control won by Hobby Lobby in 2014 and the exemption from service to same-gender couples requested by a bakery in Colorado in 2013.
But these individual corporations, small businesses, and schools were not working alone. Three powerhouses of conservative Christian social action — the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family — have been instrumental in providing funding and legal counsel in support of what they consider to be religious freedom. When it comes to transgender issues specifically, each of these three organizations has had a hand in stirring the pot.
While it claims not to lobby government officials or promote legislation, the Alliance Defending Freedom — whose mission statement is "To keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family" — has created a policy template barring transgender students from school bathrooms and has offered to defend any school district that implements such a policy. This "Student Physical Privacy Act" was then used as model upon which several state legislatures built proposals banning transgender people from the public bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity.
The Family Research Council, a public-policy organization whose mission is to "advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview," has also been instrumental in influencing legislative efforts against transgender Americans. Their political action committee, the Faith Family Freedom Fund, ran advertising campaigns against Houston's proposed Equal Rights Ordinance in 2015, claiming that if the nondiscrimination measure passed, Houstonians could be fined for blocking a man from entering a women's bathroom. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council argued that including gender identity as a protected category in civil rights laws would "threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek."
This has not proven to be the case. In the twelve states that have included gender identity in their nondiscrimination laws as of March 2014, no one had assaulted anyone else through access gained to these spaces as a result of this type of policy. Moreover, the same study done on nondiscrimination laws showed that there had never been an incident where a transgender person harassed or attacked anyone in a gendered facility, debunking the idea that transgender people are a danger to others. In fact, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Williams Institute, 70 percent of transgender people have themselves at some point been the victim of either verbal or physical assault in gendered restrooms.
Focus on the Family is arguably the most well-known Christian ministry organization in the United States. In 2015 they updated a position statement on their website to contain an entire series on transgender issues, which included the assertion that transgender identities "violate God's intentional design for sex and sexuality." The statement continues,
We believe that this is a cultural and theological challenge that we must engage and win. The modern "transgender" movement is systematically working to dismantle the reality of two sexes — male and female — as the Bible and the world have always known this to be. If the transgender lobby succeeds, there will be striking consequences for individuals, marriage, family and society at large.
In this spirit of engaging to win, Focus on the Family's policy division, the Family Policy Alliance (formerly known as CitizenLink), helped implement House Bill 2 in North Carolina in 2016. This bill was the first piece of state legislation signed into law that specifically required transgender people to use the bathroom or other gendered facility that corresponded with the gender marker on their birth certificate, and blocked any nondiscrimination policy that included gender identity or sexual orientation from becoming law anywhere within the state.
These two stipulations may seem inconsequential to those who don't identify as transgender, but the stress caused by the realization that you might be arrested for entering one bathroom and harassed or attacked if you enter the other can hardly be understated. In an interview with Greta Gustava Martela, one of the founders of the transgender crisis hotline Trans Lifeline, it was discovered that incoming calls to the crisis center doubled in the three weeks after HB2 was signed into law. This law, which was later found by the US Justice Department to violate the Federal Civil Rights Act, was put in place through the direct efforts of Focus on the Family and the Family Policy Alliance. According to the most recently released IRS documentation, the FPA contributed over a third of the operating budget for their affiliate, the North Carolina Family Policy Council. The NCFPC, in turn, pressed North Carolina governor Pat McCrory to call a special session, which passed HB2 through the entire state legislative process in one day.
Many other Christian denominations hold similarly negative views when it comes to transgender identities, though the actions they take may not be as recognizably detrimental. Some take a more moderate stance or promote a form of conditional acceptance. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2014 that declares "gender identity confusion" to be the effect of a fallen human nature, and something that must not be encouraged or normalized. Toward the end of the same document it is resolved that the Convention "love our transgender neighbors, seek their good always, welcome them to our churches and, as they repent and believe in Christ, receive them into church membership." Though the statement calls for a loving response, the emphasis is placed on a required repentance, which presupposes three things: that transgender identities are themselves sinful, that a trans person can reject their identity if they try hard enough, and that trans identities are incompatible with faith in Christ.
Other Christian groups, like the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), have focused not so much on transgender identities as on a person's physical transition. The LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations released a statement in 2014 that advises pastors to discourage any form of transition for transgender congregants, and instead suggests that pastors refer trans people to a Christian therapist. In the same year, the Assemblies of God churches adopted a statement "discouraging any and all attempts to physically change, alter, or disagree with [a person's] predominant biological sex — including but not limited to elective sex-reassignment, transvestite, transgender, or nonbinary 'genderqueer' acts or conduct." While these statements do not give much direction on how to treat a transgender person who has already transitioned, they create an environment that would give any current member some significant second thoughts before coming out.
The extent to which a transgender member might be allowed to be involved in the life of the church has also been a point of dissention for many Christians. Some denominations welcome transgender people looking for a church home but deny them official membership. Others allow membership but won't elect a trans person into any leadership position. The Roman Catholic Church made the news in 2015 after the Vatican's policy-enforcing arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, determined that transgender people are not eligible to become godparents. After Alex Salinas requested to become his nephew's godfather, the church stated that being openly transgender "reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one's own sexuality." The statement went on to say that Salinas was not fit to become a godparent because "it is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather."
This was a blow to Catholics who had hoped that the church under Pope Francis's leadership would be a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ Christians. Francis himself faced criticism for what many saw as a comparison between transgender people and nuclear weapons during an interview with authors Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi in their book This Economy Kills: Pope Francis on Capitalism and Social Justice. During a part of the interview in which he talks about things that destroy the order of creation, Francis uses the following examples: "Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings. Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation." The phrase "gender theory," while having many possible meanings, usually encompasses the ways sociologists have come to understand the human experience in terms of spectrums of sex, gender, and gender expression. Francis appears to be articulating his opinion that these ranges of human experience are outside God's created order and may even be dangerous.
Excerpted from "Transforming"
Copyright © 2018 Austen Hartke.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Matthew Vines, ix,
Introduction: Did God Make a Mistake?, 1,
1. Standing on the Edge, 9,
2. The Beginner's Guide to Gender, 21,
3. Sin, Sickness, or Specialty?, 33,
4. And God Said, Let There Be Marshes, 47,
5. Biblical Culture Shock, 59,
6. What's My Name Again?, 75,
7. God Breaks the Rules to Get You In, 87,
8. All the Best Disciples Are Eunuchs, 101,
9. Nothing Can Prevent Me, 113,
10. Even Jesus Had a Body, 129,
11. Life Beyond Apologetics, 143,
12. Does Gender Matter Anymore?, 155,
Conclusion: The Trans-Affirming Toolbox, 167,
Further Reading, 193,