Faith-Based Perspectives: Caitlyn Jenner and Transgender Identity (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a Dialogue Series on Faith-Based Perspectives of Transgender Identity. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

Quick Recap: Level Ground hosted a public screening and discussion of Bruce Jenner's interview with Diane Sawyer. We collected the questions that came up during our conversation and divided them into three different categories:

  1. Practical Questions
  2. Theological Questions 
  3. Subjective Questions

The third installment of responses to our questions is from Level Ground Theological Advisor, Rev. Kelby Harrison. Ordained in the MCC Church, Kelby also has a Ph.D in Sexual Ethics from Northwestern University and was a post-doctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary in Social Ethics. She currently serves as the Director of the LGBT Center at the University of Southern California. 

In our mission to create space for dialogue, Level Ground is committed to bringing a diversity of thoughtful and nuanced perspectives to the conversation about gender and transgender identity.

A big thank you to Kelby for offering her unique perspective on the following questions.  



Practical Questions

1. What is passing? 

The notion of “passing” comes from a time when African Americans had to have special paperwork in order to travel. Those who were light skinned enough to pass through the check points as white were said to be “passing.”  We now think of passing as any reception of identity that is intended but not (in some) sense “true.” A trans person can “pass” as a cisgender person; but a trans woman can’t pass as a woman. She is a woman. 

2. What does “fully transitioned” mean? 

I don’t like this phrase. Typically, I think people use it as a euphemism for gender reassignment surgery. When is identity ever complete? For anyone?

3. When is asking someone which pronouns they prefer an appropriate question? 

The more we ask it, the more appropriate it will feel. Around USC people ask it all the time in designated queer spaces. Once people have heard it asked, it becomes easier each additional time to ask for pronouns and disclose them. 

4. How can I ask without being awkward or rude? 

It’s probably going to be awkward. That’s ok. What’s wrong with awkward? Genuine politeness will keep it from being rude. 

5. How do I respond to my children when they present gender variance?

All of us have sensitivities to gender that our children will pick up on. I, for example, harbor unfair hostilities towards pink and Barbies. But, I would be supportive of my child liking both. Honestly it would be easier for me if my boy child liked them, than a girl child. In raising children, I think we should try our hardest to undo our gender expectations and support our children when they break gender norms. A parent’s support can help a child combat peer harassment better than any other kind of support. 




Theological Questions

1. Does the Bible have anything to say to the discussion of gender identity? 

Yes, but like most things it’s ambiguous. There are passages that condemn eunuchs, celebrate eunuchs, and use a eunuch as an exemplar of faith.  There are passages about gender not being important for our spiritual lives or social relationships and there are stories that suggest gender is very important (particularly in our social lives). 

2. Does the male female binary in Genesis matter to us today?

I’m not sure which reference to the binary this question is referring to. There is the Adam and Eve couple story and there is the creation account where God creates man and woman in God's image. But, I guess in both there are two genders, not many genders. We understand gender much better now through science, and we understand that there is more to gender than just the binary. But, we still honor the binary and I suspect we always will. That’s not a problem as long as we recognize there is more that we understand now. 

3. What does it mean when a person born biologically male says he has the soul of a female? What does this say about the nature of gender identity, especially related to hormones and hormone therapy? (e.g. as spiritual, psychological, biological, etc.)

I don’t know. I know that my own soul feels differently than my biology at times. I’ve had times of spiritual sickness when my body was in perfect health. I’ve had experiences in my body that felt more spiritual than physical. I know the experience of a soul struggling with trauma and flashbacks. All of this leads me to have empathy for the experience of a trapped soul with a gender that is different from a body. I think it speaks to the beauty and complexity of creation. 

4. What is a good theology of bodily modification?

I'm not sure. 

5. I’ve heard people make comparisons or analogies between the LGBT community and Eunuchs in Bible. Is this a good comparison? Is this a good place to begin a theology of gender identity? 

“Eunuchs” is a concept of a third-gender that existed in that ancient world. “Transgender” is a concept of a third-gender in the modern world. I think that is a great place to explore scriptural understandings of gender – but not the only place, or a beginning space.

6. By affirming or allowing gender transition, are we saying that God makes mistakes? 

God can create transgender people just as easily as God can create cisgender people.

7. How can the church do a better job entering into the trans/gender identity conversation?

By offering spiritual resources to trans people that bring the sacred and the community into their transitions. Community celebrations of a name change that honors the trans person’s gender identity is one such example. 




Subjective Questions

1. Do you think the media portrayal and response to Bruce (now Caitlyn) has been appropriate? 

Yes. It has been much more positive than I would have anticipated. And Caitlyn has done an extraordinary job of bringing nuance and real social issues into the conversation. 

2. Should we encourage cross dressing? 

Sure, if given the opportunity to support someone who wishes to “cross-dress.” I think we should support all people in their genuine desires.

3. Why did Bruce Jenner get married so many times to women? 

Because Jenner was sexually attracted to women and fell in love with a few.  Caitlyn has not determined (or announced) her sexuality yet, which makes sense… hormones and social transitions can alter sexual orientation. And gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, even though they intersect.

Here's a great place to start an exploration of the differences, nuances, and intersections of gender and sexuality. 

Kelby Harrison