The church has often done a very bad job of understanding and responding to transgender issues – and the consequences have been disastrous. This matters because we’re not just talking about issues, we’re talking about people. By failing to respond to transgender issues with truth and grace, we have caused great harm and damage in people’s lives.
We need to hold firmly to what the Bible teaches and speak its truth, but we also need to do so in a way that is gracious, compassionate, and loving. The Diocese of Sydney recently published a very helpful document called A Theology of Gender and Gender Identity. It makes many helpful points, and I want to draw attention to one in particular. In the first two paragraphs, it highlights a distinction between two phenomena that often get blurred together in our thinking on this topic. The first is gender dysphoria (or gender incongruence), and the second is non-binary gender theory (the idea that gender is a spectrum, etc.). The former is a psychological condition. The latter is an ideology. A person can suffer from the former without believing in the latter. Paragraph 1.2 explains;
‘It is important, therefore, to disentangle these two discussions. This will help us to make a wise and compassionate response to those who experience genuine gender incongruence, without having to embrace the claims of contemporary Gender Theory.’
My hope in this post is to help us understand gender dysphoria so that we are better equipped to give that wise and compassionate response.
What Is Gender Dysphoria?
Strictly speaking, ‘gender incongruence’ and ‘gender dysphoria’ are distinct but related terms. Gender incongruence is a feeling of mismatch between one’s perceived gender identity and their biological sex. A mismatch between mind and body. Gender dysphoria, on the other hand, refers specifically to the psychological distress that stems from that feeling of incongruence. This feeling of distress can range from mild and periodic, to severe and debilitating.
Exact numbers are hard to determine, but best estimates are that approximately 1 in 10,000 men (0.001%) and 1 in 20,000 women (0.0005%) experience gender dysphoria. For as many as 80% of children who experience gender dysphoria the condition resolves itself by adulthood without intervention. But for others it remains throughout their life and is deeply traumatic.
What Causes Gender Dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is not something anybody chooses.
In his helpful book on this subject, Mark Yarhouse surveys the main theories of what causes gender dysphoria and examines the evidence put forward to support them. The two main strands of thought are the Brain-Sex Theory, which points to biological factors in the brain, and the Psychosocial Theory, which point to a person’s upbringing.
Essentially, these two theories are nature (it’s how their brain is wired!) and nurture (it’s because they were raised in a certain way!).
But the evidence shows that neither of these fully account for gender dysphoria. After surveying all the claims and date, his honest admission is this: “We don’t know what causes gender dysphoria.” You will hear many people confidently state that it’s simply a person’s upbringing that causes it (sexual abuse for example), but the evidence does not support that claim at all. The cause is quite mysterious, and undoubtedly a combination of many factors.
Despite this mystery, it is clear that gender incongruence and the dysphoria that follows is not something people choose. Who would choose deep psychological distress? People don’t choose to go through all the pain and difficulty of gender dysphoria.
That might seem obvious, but it’s a point that needs emphasising. Because just as Christians have (wrongly) claimed that people simply choose to be same-sex attracted, some Christians today think people simply choose gender incongruence and dysphoria. But when we believe this, we will not only fail to listen to those who are experiencing these struggles, but we will add to their pain by blaming them for the distress they’re facing. Yarhouse shares the deeply sad (and probably not uncommon) story of a 16 year old girl named Ella who came to him with her parents for consultation:
“Both her parents expressed dismay at their daughter’s claim that she was born the wrong sex. They did not know what to make of her statements that she was a boy. In a private meeting with Ella, I was talking to her about theories about the etiology of gender incongruence. At one point I shared, “I don’t think you chose to experience your gender incongruence. It sounds like you ‘found yourself’ with these experiences of incongruence at a fairly young age, and that your experience of dysphoria has increased in recent years.” She was stunned. I asked her about her blank expression. Ella shared, “My mom and dad have taken me to three pastors. All of them said I chose this – that I was sinning. All three said this gender thing was a sign of my disobedience. You are the first person I’ve talked to who said I didn’t choose to feel this way.”“
Just stop for a moment. Can you imagine how hard this must have been for her? Can you imagine how confusing and shameful it must have been for her? Instead of helping her come to grips with the psychological distress she was facing and offering support to her in walking through it, they told her she was sinning and that she chose this. If we respond the way these pastors did, we are going to chase those with these struggles away from the church.
Jesus has so much hope to offer those with Gender Dysphoria, but if we shame them into silence, we will never be able to walk with them and show them what that hope is.
Not An ‘Us vs. Them’ Issue
There are people within our churches who are silently struggling with gender dysphoria. When we talk about transgender issues primarily as a ‘culture war’ and ‘us vs. them’ issue, it makes it extremely difficult for these people. It makes them feel even more ashamed and confused.
It isolates them.
Yes, it’s true that there are people out there who want to transform society and eliminate God’s good design of gender. But they are in the minority. And if we focus on that vocal minority when we talk about transgender issues, we will end up causing serious damage to the silent majority.
Yarhouse has counselled many people who struggle with gender dysphoria, and he points out that “most transgender people I know are not in favour of a genderless society. Quite the opposite: they favour a gendered society, but they long for a sense of congruence in which their mind and body align. Most are not meaning to participate in a culture war; they are casualties of a culture war.”
So how can we do a better job at loving people in this situation? We can start by taking the time to learn about gender dysphoria, to listen to those who struggle with it, and not blame them for it. Churches need to be a safe place for people with gender dysphoria to talk about their brokenness and struggles. And not just them, but for all of us to talk about our brokenness and struggles.
Jesus said that he didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. If we claim to follow Jesus, then the church cannot be for people who have it all together – because none of us do.
We all experience brokenness and the reality of living in a fallen world in different ways, whether we’re gay or straight, cis or trans. We’re all just as broken and in need of God’s grace. And we’re all just as loved by Him.
So let’s work hard at loving those who struggle with gender dysphoria.
Taking Up Our Cross And Following Jesus
Just to be crystal clear, I am not in any way saying that loving those who struggle with gender dysphoria means embracing contemporary gender theory. On the contrary, I believe the most loving thing we can do is point them to Jesus and to God’s good design of humanity as male and female. Following Jesus is never easy, and for those who struggle with gender dysphoria – just as for the rest of us – following Jesus means taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and looking to him to find our identity rather than looking within ourselves and how we feel.
If you want a more thorough explanation of a Christian response to transgender issues, I highly recommend God and the Transgender Debate by Andrew T. Walker (you can read my review of the book here). But hopefully this post has been a good starting point so that we are better equipped to respond wisely and compassionately to those who struggle in this area.
If someone shares with you that they are struggling with their gender identity, please don’t assume they have chosen it or are sinning simply by having this struggle. Have compassion on them, listen to them, love them, and keep pointing them to Christ. Experiencing gender dysphoria is not easy, and they’re going to need your help and encouragement to persevere in taking up their cross and following Jesus.