On Sexuality, Target, the Church, and True Courage

If there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout human history, it’s that human beings have a great propensity toward fearing that which is different.

And if there’s one thing we see evidenced throughout Church history, it’s that Christians are really good at justifying and legitimizing that prejudice by claiming it is God’s will.

The fact we are so quick to ascribe to God our own discrimination and bigotry is cause enough for mourning and repentance. But watching the pain, destruction, and death it causes as it is played out in real life is a million times worse.

Laws regarding transgender people – and specifically their use of public restrooms – have been all over the headlines the past couple of weeks. And the Christian response to these laws and headlines have largely been predictable and awful.

Those who claim to follow Jesus have sadly flocked to sign petitions and join boycotts over bathroom policies — as of this writing, over a million people have pledged to not shop at Target because the store decided to be inclusive and tolerant. (Given the history of success of Christian boycotts, I guess we can expect Target to soon become the world’s #1 retailer.) Like all knee-jerk reactions, however, people decrying transgender rights – especially in the name of God – simply do not understand what they’re opposing.

The initial reaction most people have is something along these lines: guys have penises and girls have vaginas. Somebody who has a particular body part and claims to be the other gender is gross and weird; therefore, it is wrong and we should fight against “normalizing” such behavior.

It seems pretty cut and dry. I’ll readily admit: up until a few months ago, that was how I viewed the issue as well. Then, I did a crazy thing: I actually started listening to people’s stories. I heard and read their experiences. And suddenly, “transgender” was not an “issue” any longer – this became about people.

It’s so easy to be against an idea. It’s infinitely more difficult to be against a person.

The Church does a phenomenal job of holding these sorts of discussions at arms’ length, of ensuring we don’t personalize them too much. It’s a lot like how the military trains soldiers, actually: dehumanize the enemy, and you have a lot easier time taking them out. For instance, it’s so comfortable to sit back in our privilege and say gay people shouldn’t be allowed to express their love through marriage; it’s a hell of lot harder to sit across from a gay couple, listen to their story, see the love they have for one another, and tell them they don’t deserve to be able to marry one another.

The same is true with transgender rights now as well. Dudes “pretending” to be chicks (or vice versa) instead of what they “really” are is gross, and therefore is wrong. Nobody should do it. But once you shut up and start listening to people and their stories, things begin to look a lot different.

(Side note: when it comes to discussing the transgender journey, we need to drop phrases like “pretending” and what somebody “really” is out of our vocabulary. Stat.)

After hearing and being affected by people’s stories, I went and checked out the science that explains what many of them are experiencing. Guess what? There is an actual, scientific difference between sex, which is biological, and gender identity, which is how people identify themselves. Biological sex and gender identity develop separately from one another in the womb. Hormones affect the development of reproductive organs in a fetus at different times and in different ways than they affect the development of gender identity in the brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the two end up in the same place. Every once in awhile, they don’t – and as a result, someone’s sex doesn’t match their gender.

(Another sidenote: this is known as gender dysphoria — and not every transgender person experiences it, but it is a useful place to begin our discussion and understanding.)

If we can understand this, it might stop us from the crude, snide, and mocking comments that have infuriatingly become the norm in the discussion on the “Christian” side of things.

In fact, we could say that gender dysphoria is no different than, say, depression — there isn’t something “wrong” with someone; this is simply something that happens to people. It should not be stereotyped or crudely joked about.

Which makes it all the more maddening and shameful that Christians are doing just that. I had multiple Christian friends over the past week or so share an article from a Christian satire site which mockingly intones, “Target Announces Senior Discount For Anyone Who Self-Identifies As Age 60 Or Older.” Not only does this article betray the author’s lack of understanding, and completely misrepresent the transgender community by inferring that they simply choose which sex to be for personal gain, it invites us to have a laugh at the expense of an oppressed and hurting group of people.

The more I saw this shared on Facebook the more sad I became.

I have wrestled with this topic for a couple years now, ever since meeting and talking to two transgender women in our church (both of whom were born biologically male), and I have come to this point in my own understanding: I see nowhere in Scripture proclaiming that being transgender is a sin. And I certainly do not see anywhere in Scripture that says using a bathroom based on your gender identity is a sin. Oh, sure, there’s the verse from Deuteronomy that says women can’t wear men’s clothes — but not only are we not under the Law any longer (let’s put this verse up alongside the ones about not wearing clothes with more than one kind of fabric or the ones about having to put tassels at the corners of your clothing and see which ones we want to pick and choose), folks who quote this verse don’t ever examine the purpose for this law or the cultural considerations that went into codifying it thousands of years ago.

The best anyone has ever done explaining to me why being transgender is a sin is this: gender is fixed at birth and transgender people are choosing to not be who God made them, therefore they are sinning. Even that philosophy is rich with irony, though: transgender people would say all they are trying to do is to embrace their gender identity and to be who God made them to be.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somewhere in some hidden book of the Bible God clearly said that accepting your gender identity was wrong and being transgender was a sin. (Again: nowhere have I found where the Bible says this.) But what if it did? Would that make the jokes and the mockery and insults – the awful, horrific insults – shared in the name of Jesus any more okay? Would that make it okay to call transgender people monsters? Sexual predators? Deviants? To tell them that God detests them?

I cannot force myself to believe that response is the way of Jesus or the dream of God for this world.

To make matters worse, we hide our bigotry and fear behind a banner of supposed child safety. Christians sadly make the claim, either implicitly or in many cases explicitly, that “transgender” = “child predator” or “rapist.” I want us to pause and really let the hurtful nature of this argument sink in for a moment.

There has been no increase in public safety issues in cities with anti-discrimination laws that protect transgender people. On top of that, a coalition of 250 organizations who work with sexual abuse survivors are begging people to stop using that argument. It is nothing but fear-mongering divorced from reality. Besides, we all know how much criminals care about the law. (I find it ironic that the same people who say we can’t pass gun control because criminals would get guns anyway fail to see the same argument here that criminals will enter restrooms whether it’s legal or not.)

Beyond that, it’s pretty clear opponents of anti-discrimination laws haven’t really thought this thing through anyways. For instance, I can’t understand why somebody would want to force a person like Brae Carnes, who was born biologically male but identifies as a woman, to use the men’s restroom:

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And I can’t understand why somebody would want to force Michael Hughes, who was born biologically female but identifies as a man, to use the woman’s restroom:

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(Irony alert: opponents of anti-discrimination laws would undoubtedly try to stop Michael from using the women’s restroom, when it was their own bigotry that forced him into the women’s room to start with.)

Brae deserves to use the women’s room. Michael deserves to use the men’s room. And infinitely more than that, both of them deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Sadly, a lot of Christians these days appear to be incapable of such a simple, foundational thing.

What makes this all even worse is watching Christians congratulate themselves for these sorts of responses. I’ve seen so many replies that essentially pat someone on the back for their “courage” (this seems to be the word du jour) in taking an anti-transgender or anti-gay stance — and not just for taking that stance, but for belittling, attacking, and demeaning other human beings.

That’s not courage. There’s nothing courageous about hate.

Standing “against culture” by attacking and mocking a group of hurting people isn’t courageous. And before you say, “disagreeing with somebody doesn’t mean you hate them,” what we’ve witnessed from Christians the past couple weeks goes far, far beyond a simple disagreement. It goes straight to an utter lack of compassion, a lack of desire to even listen or know or understand, and a complete disregard for somebody else’s dignity and humanity.

You know what is courageous? Standing up for love. Standing up for equality. Standing beside people whose suicide rate is ten times the general population because of the shit that gets dumped on them – including and especially from “Christians” – and loving them. Helping them. Welcoming them. Accepting them.

Young people who are transgender are oftentimes bullied to the point they end up hating themselves so much they try to kill themselves. (So yeah, tell me again how teenage boys just say they’re transgender so they can get into the girls’ locker room — it sounds like a real party to be transgender.) You know what takes real courage? Coming out as transgender. That’s courage. Christians should be leading the way in protecting those on a transgender journey. Instead, we’re oftentimes the ones causing the most pain.

Look, it’s simple: one of the foundational themes of Scripture is a choice between life and death. That choice is presented a host of times throughout the pages of this story. In the Torah, God lays out the choice: “Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil… I have presented you with life and death… therefore, choose life.” Through the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years later, God lays out the same choice: “And here is what you are to tell this people: ‘Adonai says: “Look! I am presenting you with the way of life and the way of death.'” The book of Hebrew Proverbs is full of contrasts between choosing life and choosing death. We are specifically told that our words carry the power of life and death. The story of a Tree of Life and a Tree of Death in the Garden, and the death which Adam and Eve chose, is reimagined through the lens of Jesus all throughout the New Testament. This choice of bringing life or bringing death is a central tenet of our faith narrative and who we are as a people.

How incredibly sad, then, that we have willingly and zealously chosen the way of death – bringing death both figuratively and literally, and too often physically – when it comes to gay and transgender people.

Once again, the Church has chosen bedroom (and now bathroom) issues as a hill to die on. When will we move on from our obsession with sex and truly just love people? We’ve gotten really, really good at saying, “I love you, but…” I love you, but this is a sin you have to change before I will fully love you. I love you, but you can’t have the same rights as I do. I love you, but I cannot accept who you are. I love you, but only if you conform to my preconceived notions.

I’m so ready to instead just say, “I love you.” Period. Or, perhaps, “I love you, whether…” I love you, whether you identify as a male or female. I love you, whether you choose to transition or not. I love you, whether your biological sex matches your gender identity or not. I love you, and that means I will walk with you in this struggle as far as you want me to. I love you, and I support your fight for equality and a life free of bullying and abuse and pain. I love you and accept you and there is no “but.”

And to those of us who claim Jesus, I’m begging you: choose life. Bring life. Stop talking, stop hurting people, stop mocking, and listen. Learn. And love.

Vaginas Need Not Apply

A study by Pew Research came out recently which highlighted an eyebrow-raising statistic: in four out of ten families in America now, moms (as opposed to dads) are the primary or sole “breadwinner.”

When that study first made headlines, I thought to myself what an interesting snapshot of our culture that was. Those who watch culture (as I like to do, because I’m a nerd) knew something like this was coming. Women have outnumbered men in terms of college graduates for a while now. This latest recession that we are still trying to claw our way out of has disproportionately affected men, whose job losses have been exponential compared to those of women. Our economy is slowly shifting back toward a more self-employment, barter-style economy and away from a corporate, “work-for-the-man” based economy.

All of those factors coming to a head at once (plus some others I’m sure we’re not even aware of yet) led us to where we’re at now: in 40.4% of families, moms bring home the bacon. Back in 1960, when Pew Research began tracking this statistic, women were the breadwinners in just 10.8% of families. Over the past 50 years, that percentage has been steadily rising, with a recent extra boost upward from all those trends noted above. So I found the study interesting… and then moved on to the next headline.

Others, however, couldn’t move on and found the results a reason to panic. Take for instance, this panel of Fox News contributors (all male, one might point out), who apparently think this marks the end of the world as we know it:

Um… what?

Huh?

……

What?!?

Just listen to the phrases these men are using to describe women who actually (gasp!) make money:

Concerning and troubling statistics… watching society dissolve around us… disintegration of marriage… something going terribly wrong… bad for marriages… catastrophic issue… breakdown of family structure… undermine our very social order…

Wow.

No wonder Fox News’ viewer demographics skew heavily toward older males. There were a bunch of old guys sitting in their recliners who were probably – sadly – nodding right along with this commentary. (And after that four-man diatribe, it’ll be a wonder if any women will watch Fox News now.)

My favorite part of that video was Erick Erickson’s little pseudo-science rant:

“I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science, but liberals who defend this and say this is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and other animals – the male is typically the dominant role. The female is not the antithesis, is not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a ‘smart’ society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships.”

So that’s the actual argument at the heart of this? That men have to bring home the bacon because it’s against the very laws of nature for a woman to make more money than a man?

You’ve got to be kidding.

Not only is his assertion demonstrably not true in nature among “other animals”, it is also horribly and subversively demeaning and oppressive to women (and I do not use that word lightly). By declaring the male “dominant,” you are inherently declaring the female inferior or weak and propping the door wide open for abusive relationships. Although chauvinists like Erickson would never admit to doing that, the rest of his explanation bears out that attitude. “Complementary relationships” means that women can’t support their families, can’t make money (or at least can’t make more than their dominant male spouse), and really ought to be in the kitchen making their men a pie, dammit. Otherwise something “catastrophic” and “terribly wrong” (like women being empowered and using their talents) will occur!

Women, stay at home and quit making money. The very fabric of civilization depends on it.

I had to shake my head when I saw that video – but it wasn’t just that video. Much to my amazement, a lot of folks were inexplicably getting angry and panicked about that Pew study. And sadly, it wasn’t just in political circles, either – many Christians bemoaned the results of that survey as proof of what a spiritual wasteland America had become.

Apparently, it is now sinful… or against God’s sovereign plan… or an affront to His created “order”… that moms could make more money than dads. Christians were out in force decrying society and assaulting fathers for allowing this to happen. Clubs were brandished. Sack cloth was torn.

And I was left with my head spinning.

Is this argument really happening? I mean, really? I guess I should have expected it, since in Genesis 3 God clearly says to women:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children;
And you will remain at home and take care of them,
Never leaving the abode to participate in the workplace.”

Oh, except those last two lines aren’t actually in there. Oops. That must have come from the “Church Trapped in Modernity” Standard Translation. Apparently a lot of Christian leaders are using that translation, however… like the seminary professor who said men who are stay-at-home dads are “man fails”. Or the prominent evangelical leader who teaches that men who stay home with their kids are “worse than unbelievers,” are not “real men,” and will never have the respect of their wives. I read a blog the other day about a man and wife who made the decision to have the husband stay at home with their kids while the wife worked. They were literally shamed out of their church – told they couldn’t fellowship there any longer because they weren’t following God’s plan for families.

You have got to be freaking kidding me.

It’s as if all the problems facing society and the church today could be solved, if only women would stay inside where they belong. And what, I wonder, is the solution if folks believe that this truly is a problem? Are husbands supposed to smack down their wives’ desires to get jobs? Are husbands supposed to demand that their spouses quit their jobs? To just put their big booted feet down and put women back in their place? Are employers supposed to advertise, “Job opening! Vaginas need not apply!”

How far are you willing to go if the very fabric of society depends on this?

This past Sunday, I retweeted Ed Stetzer, a great writer and leader, who said this: “If the 1950’s come back, many churches are ready.” I think he hit the nail square on the head in so many ways. These gender roles that we cling so desperately to, these roles which cause no shortage of panic and dread and fear-mongering among the faithful, are not grounded in Scripture. They are grounded in cultural modernity.

Men work. Women stay home. That’s the way God ordained it. Except for the much-touted woman of Proverbs 31 who buys and sells real estate and makes and sells fine linen, or course. Oops. And except for Lydia in Acts 16 who set up a shop and sold fabric… and except for Rachel in Genesis 29 who was a shepherdess… and except for Deborah in Judges 4 and 5 who was a military commander and political leader… and except for Priscilla in Acts 18 who was a tentmaker… except for, except for, except for.

Maybe the Church universal needs to realize it’s high time to divorce ourselves from a glorified version of the 1950s and reunite ourselves with the narrative that God is telling. Maybe it’s time to recognize the beautiful reality that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, just human beings created in the same image of God, gifted with the same spiritual gifts, and called to use them for the same Kingdom. Maybe it’s time we unleash people rather than oppose them, to set free rather than oppress, and to embrace skills and talents rather than squelch them. Maybe it’s time to realize that many families have a necessity to have both mom and dad work outside the home, and quit judging them and making them feel bad for that. Maybe it’s time to fling the windows and doors wide open for men and women and allow – no, encourage! – them to find fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.

Even if you pointed to Genesis 3 for justification of these absurd “gender roles,” as nearly everyone who argues in favor of them does, you have to realize one key fact: what the author of Genesis is outlining there are the results of a curse which has befallen creation. This is the same curse that Jesus has come to liberate us from, to free his creation from. So instead of being hell-bent (language chosen intentionally) on perpetuating a curse, shouldn’t we instead desire to set things right? To join Jesus in that work of redemption?

At one point in our marriage, my wife was working as a speech-language pathologist – and making way more money than I was. I even stayed home one day a week to watch our kids while she worked. Contrary to popular belief, our spiritual lives were not suffering, we were not apostate, and our marriage wasn’t falling apart. The fabric of society was not being torn apart, and I’m pretty sure the sun even still rose in the east every morning. It was great to see her find fulfillment in utilizing her graduate degree that she worked so hard far and help people, and I was so proud of her.

Currently, my wife stays home with our two kids, doing a job infinitely more difficult than I do in my office every day. And you know what? It’s great to see her find fulfillment in working hard to raise our boys, and I am so proud of her.

At some point in the future, she will probably go back to work, and when she does, she will probably make more than I do then as well. And that fact is not going to cause the four horsemen of the apocalypse to descend from the skies and “society to dissolve around us.”

So moms and dads, I encourage you to find and embrace freedom. Work out whatever arrangement works best for you and your families… and know that Scripture does not hold women hostage in the kitchen, despite the best efforts of the those who are so enamored with what Ward and June Cleaver were doing sixty years ago that they are missing what Christ is doing today.