Last week, Calvin College brought Mark Yarhouse to speak about the transgender community. Christian LGBT community members raised concern. On digging further into the matter (I had heard neither of Dr. Yarhouse nor of the Regent University from which he hails), much of this concern is rooted in Dr. Yarhouse’s historical body of work. At its best, he takes a non-judgmental* approach to supporting Christians (predominantly) who are trying to reconcile their sexual identity with their Christian identity. At its worst, it stoops precipitously close to apologetics for conversion therapy, teetering on an edge (although, from Dr. Yarhouse’s perspective, trying not to go over that edge) of what is considered criminal in multiple states (although not Michigan), and what is considered clearly unethical by a preponderance of us as psychologists.
I, in turn, reached out to friends at Calvin and summarized these concerns. They very graciously had me out to tea to discuss them further. I understand (and welcome) their spirit of trying to create dialog across what they perceive as a chasm (although, in truth, we are quite able to sit at the same table, drink the same tea, and find common language with little difficulty). I also understand and accept their challenge in working with a broader range of stakeholders, ranging from their students (who are generally quite accepting) to some of their older constituents (who are, sometimes, otherwise).
Based on Dr. Yarhouse’s presentation, I cannot recommend his forthcoming book.
I went to hear Dr. Yarhouse speak, and up until now, I have been largely silent (or, as I am sometimes accused of being, “diplomatic”). I did so out of love for my friends at Calvin – and I do sincerely consider them friends – who I am very convinced are trying to do right (and good). I do so out of love for my Calvin alumni staff – anyone who knows me knows how much I love my team, and that I would make (and sometimes have made) all manner of sacrifices for them. My friends at Calvin worked very hard to make this a non-combative atmosphere for discussion, and I do appreciate that, although there are subtle nuances of these choices that are more problematic**.
I have held off because I have been balancing various other perspectives, as well, causing me to wait before I responded. I balance the very different perspective my own organization is in the process of taking towards its own mission of Christian service (one which I wholly endorse, for no simpler reason than that it is based in love), and even the wonderful things Calvin College, itself, is doing for its trans students, like a whole campus network of gender inclusive bathrooms***. I balance my duties to the LGBT community – many of whom would not be willing to even listen to this. And I balance my obligation to live my life, to be the sort of woman God made me, to be what and whom God has seen fit, to be unashamed and unabashed, to try and be a source of support and kinship for others. Again, anyone who knows me really knows how much I love the wonder of this life. In speaking now, I accept and embrace that I am doubtless to be scorned on the one side or the other, and most likely, on both. But I – we – must live our lives against what is right and not against what will receive scorn. From anyone.
Yarhouse spoke about many things. Semantically, he used marginalizing language under the apologetic of recognizing that “we won’t all agree on words.” Scientifically, it is my opinion that he misrepresented and selectively presented data – for instance, in discussing the increasingly common practice of suppression / delay of puberty medically for trans kids, he included data that indicates that young children who do not conform to their birth assigned sex have a high rate of “desisting,” or not being transgender-identified by adulthood, but he ignored data that adolescents have a much lower rate of return to cisgenderhood. He ignored large scale data on the safety and efficacy of transition. This data is not inaccessible or esoteric to the researcher – much of it is summarized in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care****, commonly considered the international, scientifically accepted, gold standard, and endorsed widely by other provider and specialty organizations (and freely downloadable – you should read it, if you have not already). He included some references to neuroscience, ignoring much of the most recent cognitive neuroscience data. There is much more that could be said about the scientific content of this lecture. But I think this is entirely not the point*****.
Rather, it is the Christian content of this lecture that most troubles me. On one level, the Christian content of this lecture was deeply problematic because it included discussion of the kind of “deadly passages” that are used, and used absurdly, in Christian discussions of LGBT people. To caution for deep pause and great consideration of scripture such as the Deuteronomy quote, “No one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord,” is to forget the gospel (or worse, to fail to understand it). But the real point that bears discussion goes beyond this kind of legalism, too.
My last blog post was a continuation of a discussion from a year ago. In some ways, this post, too, is a continuation of a prior thread of discussion. What remains from that discussion is this question of why full and easy acceptance (for me, particularly) comes from all corners of society except certain elements of the church (which do not include my friends at Calvin, or even Calvin as an organization, and which does not generally include my own church, but which are exemplified by conversations like the one led by this speaker). I am drawn back (again) to Frederick Douglass’s claim that, under the surface, there are two separate Christs – one of the Cross and one of this land. Whereas the former accepted, included, and fought for social justice, the rather, all too often, back in his day, and still today, looks for permission to hate, reasons to exclude, limitations on welcome, and the development of a Christian body that is more concerned with its organization and prosperity, than with serving God. A Christian body that uses religion not as salve, but as weapon. A Christian body that uses its senior leadership not to motivate believers to love and nurture people, but who motivates them to shun them (or, in a weaker form, to have conversations about whom and what they are still ‘allowed’ to shun). The same sort of people who cry foul that Christians are a mistreated minority (in America, no less) while, in the same breadth, fighting marriage equality.
I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. — Frederick Douglass
In Douglass’ day, it was the conflation of Christ with slavery, whereas today, this phenomenon is best seen at looking at too much of the church’s attitude towards women and gender/sexual minorities. But, the phenomenon, itself, is wholly alive. And, sadly, quite well. Although there are times when we let ourselves infight as marginalized communities, and one cannot ignore the overwhelming magnitude of the body of depradation wrought by the Christians who championed slavery, and I have no wish to pretend that I have been subjected to those kinds of horrors, still, the mechanics are the same. In those days, Christians had these very same conversations asking whether Black men were men, whether Black women were women (“like our women”). The fundamental problem with Dr. Yarhouse’s talk – and with “Christian apologetics” and the way transgender people are treated by the church – is a failure to recognize that God’s making us in His likeness is a two-way street. God is in heaven, and we are on earth, yet the reality is that merely existing is not enough to be Christlike to anyone, and failing to love, to understand, or to accept, particularly when done in the guise of Christlikeness – is morally wrong.
Early in my coming out process, once, I had a gay man tell me, presuming that I must be interested in him at all, that I could not be his girlfriend, but that I must be his boyfriend. In saying what is the point in understanding what is wrong with the lecture I went to see, I can only say simply that both he and Yarhouse miss the point of my existence entirely, and in exactly the same way. Yarhouse seems genuinely surprised that a gay Christian would perceive more in common with other LGBT people (as gay) than with him (as a Christian). He would be surprised, likewise, that I would shun this olive branch of being told that I can be accepted, not as the woman that I am, but instead, as a “biological male presenting female” or some other self-evident absurdity (again, evident to everyone except certain members of the Church). But far more than this, this line of reasoning runs the risk of ignoring the inevitability that denying what God made me, must always be a denial of God, Himself, as well.
In truth, I felt the greatest wall separating my closeness to God, all the time between when I realized the woman I must grow up to be, and when I finally let myself be her. When I finally accepted the charge to be myself, that wall – those scales – they fell away at that moment of finally accepting the full truth. In those days, I did make a lifestyle choice – one that kept me from my place as a daughter-child of the divine. I left that choice behind, and I became – am becoming – whole again. Not sin-free, not screw-up-free, because I do many things I feel unworthy of the woman I am called to be, and perhaps, most of the time, find myself generally inadequate at this and many other things. But as whole as a wicked girl like me can find a way to be.
Much as it was not my accepting the truth of who I am that kept me at arms length from God, but rather my refusal to do so, for many years, Yarhouse fails to understand that it is not now any choice of mine that prevents these Christians from being Christ for me. It is their choice. Their lifestyle. Their denial of God’s truth (or even the very small part of it that is evident in my existence) even when presented directly with it. This, I fear, is very much the same to be a disciple of the Christ of the land, and not of the Christ of the Cross, to look for excuses not to love, rather than opportunities to love. I am not the one being intransigent in this case – for being that woman is not one of my many sins. I know that I find myself bathing****** daily and hourly, in all manner of guilt that I did not do more, love more readily, work harder, be less weak, and I scarcely feel capable of being Christ for anyone, but I do not spend my time looking for excuses to not love, to not accept, to exclude, to discriminate.
Thus, the premise underlying Yarhouse’s statement is fundamentally flawed. I appreciate your desire to be Christ for me, but if you wish to call me these names, if you want to have this kind of discussion over my living body, then you’ve already made your decision not to do so. This is your decision, and neither I nor God have made it for you. And again, my fear is that anyone who makes such a decision will find themselves aligned with the Christ of the land. I won’t judge you for making this decision – it isn’t my place. But, like Douglass, I will respectfully decline to be interested in that sort of Christ.
That choice is their moral quandary. But thus, I am left with what becomes my moral quandary. Christ spent time in synagogues. He debated and spoke with elders. But he spent much more time loving people, and being out among them. I must ask myself, what is the opportunity cost of spending time (any time) trying to build inroads into the dwellings of this Christ of the land, instead of being out loving? What is the point in this dialog? What is the point of feeling the rage build up inside me, at the injustice, for all these days since that talk, and before I wrote this? Who was I not able to love, because I was too busy hurting, these last days – hurting man-made hurt? Could I not shed the tears I shed, just now, as I wrote this, for something more worthy? To me, the truth is, it is the Church that needs our prayers, with the “issue” of transgender people, not me. Save your prayers for me, please, for my million actual flaws and shortcomings, and not one of the few things that is not wrong with me.
I don’t have an easy answer to this quandary. In my feeble attempt to be like Christ, I try to spend most of my time out loving others. On most days, I am simply thankful for all the kids God has given me, for the rich work I have been given and for the surprising ability of my small hands to do even a tiny part of it. But, like Christ, I also long for a day when the structural injustice is undone, and the Church can again establish itself as a home for the broken hearted, and not for exclusionary movements.
* What, in my sister, Miss Austen’s, time, would have been called “disinterested,” when that word still meant a good thing, that a person was supporting another person out of a desire for that person’s good and not their own.
** Calvin uses – this is not unique to this event – comment cards for Q&A. The cards are moderated, with a subset being presented to the speaker by a faculty facilitator. In general, this has the significant strength of creating a more civil, and a more continuous discourse. It is also probably ultimately faster, allowing for answer to more questions and questions of more substance. In this kind of a case, however, it, unfortunately, amplifies the fact that this is a conversation on transgender Christians but not by or with us – by further silencing our already marginalized voices from the conversation. When Frank Foster, an outgoing State Representative, who fought for change to our civil rights amendment, but made a tactical decision to sacrifice the wellbeing of transgender people for the sake of a bill protecting the less marginalized (but still at risk) gay/lesbian/bisexual components of our community, only, I did feel it was my responsibility to gently raise the issue that we do, in fact, exist, and that our voices belong in the conversation about us. I do not represent trans women, or trans people, but I am one, and, if no one else will speak, I am willing. I also frequently promise not to pick (verbal) fights, and most usually, I keep my word. But, promises to behave oneself were made somewhat superfluous by the manner of the lecture.
*** Although, I do also hope the point is clear that I welcome this, but that I do not generally need/use gender inclusive bathrooms, myself, and I am content to use the women’s room like any other woman, which is also the only generally accepted policy from an HR standpoint.
**** I am a member of WPATH but was not involved in writing the Standards. As of this writing, Dr. Yarhouse does not appear to be a member of WPATH.
***** I often quote my friend, Mara Keisling, who heads the National Center for Transgender Equality, when she says that, “Science is our best friend.” So this may, especially in conjunction with my own pedigree as a neuropsychologist, for the best of readers, strike as somewhat a surprise. Do let me explain. I do think that there is science underlying my claim that I do not “identify as,” “present as,” “live my life as,” but rather, that I simply am a woman. Science that has to do with my brain. Science that establishes the safety and efficacy of transition-related medical services. Science from an anthropological standpoint that demonstrates our stable presence over time and space, across cultures, a marker of a likely biological/genetic/epigenetic phenomenon. But, for people who have not yet accepted gays and lesbians on this same ground, and who in some cases (this happened at a Christian Reformed event, held by a grassroots effort called All One Body, a few months ago) have still not come around to the idea of what they refer to as “interracial” marriage, I think a scientific conversation is really a waste of time and effort.
****** Alongside all the other more trivial, daily, guilts, of having eaten too much, of having not been ladylike enough, and so many other things.