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Transgender–What Are We to Make of It?

By June 29, 2007One Comment

Yesterday I happened upon a story about a seven year old who is reportedly transgendered. This child was born as the sixth son in a family of all boys, but from an early age the parents noticed a difference between him and the rest of their sons. As early as three and four years old, their son consistently sought to play with “girl” toys like dolls, rejecting traditionally male toys like trucks. Then as the child got older, he became more and more intentional about acting like a girl, going as far as to wear princess dresses and other girl clothing. When the parents would use public restrooms, the little boy would always insist on going with his mom to the women’s restroom, instead of going to the men’s restroom with his dad and other brothers. Why? Because this child felt that even though he was born with the body of a boy, he was actually a girl.

For his parents, this reality was devastating. They kept encouraging their son to play with trucks and soldiers, but he kept rejecting them, instead opting to play with dolls and female dress-up clothes. So eventually, his parents came to the realization that their son was, in fact, a little girl trapped in a little boy’s body. They stopped fighting the little boy’s instincts, switched him to another school, changed his name to a girl’s name, and let him start his life over as a girl. Now, the child claims to be incredibly happy because he is finally able to live the kind of life that he has always desired–life as a girl.

I think that this story has several interesting dynamics to it, but the most intriguing element of all is the mixed message that it sends. On the one hand, a story like this suggests that gender is an extremely fluid concept. We typically think of men as having the XY chromosome and women as having the XX, but some people are born with XXY or XYY, and we don’t really have gender categories for them. Or, we hear the stories like the one about this little seven year old, a child who knew from an early age that he was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. What are we to make of all this? Can this be right? Is gender relatively arbitrary depending on the individual? Are some people born with the wrong anatomy on accident? Are these people, who don’t fit into the black and white categories of male and female, are they mistakes? Can we know anything about gender for sure?

On the other hand, this little boy’s actions contradict the idea that gender is a fluid concept. While the purpose of the story seemed to be a blurring of gender lines, the child also knew he was a girl because he defined himself according to clear gender markers. He knew he was a girl because he liked to play with dolls and wear dresses. In response to that part of the story, I would think every feminist who ever lived is rolling over in her grave. Recent feminist philosophy has taught that boys and girls should be free to play with whatever they choose. Boys should be able to play with dolls, and girls should be able to play with trucks. That being said, how do we know this child was not merely a boy who liked to play with dolls? Why is it that his enjoyment of traditionally female activites means he must be female? According to the popular thinking on gender today, that makes no sense at all, yet those traditionally female activities and tendencies served as touch-points for self-identity.

For that reason, I find that the logic behind this story collapses on itself. On the one hand, it blurs the lines of gender, but on the other hand it reinforces those lines by claiming that this child knew he was a girl because he did “typically” girl things. So which one is it? Is gender blurry, or is it black and white? Though probably unintentional, this story concludes that there are, in fact, some concrete markers for determining gender. They may not always be clearly biological ones, but they are nevertheless there.

The question then remains as to how we should respond to such situations Scripturally, and it is here that I am leaving the floor open for input, because I still remain mildly baffled. How are we to respond theologically when nature doesn’t fit into the cateogires we have constructed for it? I am not quite sure. I do think, however, we should be cautious about our conclusions. Though this story indicates that there is a definite distinction between the genders, we must be careful about how we draw those lines. In the event that a human being does not fit the parameters we have drawn up for what makes a male a male and a female a female, such as hermaphrodites, then we risk branding someone as being a biological mistake. And in doing so, we fall just short of accusing God of making a mistake.

Now since we know that God does not, in fact, make mistakes, but is intentional and particular about every precious being He creates on this earth, we must create categories for gender that can encompass the variations that God has written into creation. That is why, if nothing else, the story of this transgendered seven year old is helpful for Christians, because it reminds us of the complexities of gender issues in our world, and that we must reconcile those complexities with Scripture. If we want the world to understand that Scripture is still relevant today, then we must construct legitimate and detailed Scriptural perspectives on these topics. We must engage these issues seriously, and think creatively.

So, what do you think?

One Comment

  • jess says:

    I am ridiculously glad you posted on this, Sharon, because I saw that video a few days ago and I have been baffled by it ever since. I have a couple of things to say, but they might be totally off-base…

    First of all, I want to reference the idea of the article’s “mixed messages.” You note that “the child knew he was a girl because he defined himself according to clear gender markers. He knew he was a girl because he liked to play with dolls and wear dresses…how do we know this child was not merely a boy who liked to play with dolls? Why is it that his enjoyment of traditionally female activites means he must be female?”

    I definitely think that you have pin-pointed a tension here, but I think there’s a little more there. It wasn’t simply that the boy was drawn to things that are typically seen as female. Rather, the parents said that the child was emotionally distressed when he was unable to express himself in these typical female ways. I believe the interview even mentioned that the child had tried to commit suicide. Young boys who simply want to play with dolls do not typically become suicidal when their toys are taken away – there is clearly something more at work here. I’m just not really sure what it is!

    Another thought that I had was that this interview might not be so much about gender as about manliness. Because of the feminist movement and a variety of other factors, there is a general acceptance of “tom-boys” in society – girls who play with trucks, play sports with the guys, don’t really like to wear dresses, etc. Over generations, the definition of femininity has been broadened so that girls who do not fit in with some typical gender markers of femininity can still consider themselves feminine and express their femininity in other ways. Let me give the concrete example of female clothing. Back in the day, it was considered “unfeminine” to wear pants. Now, obviously, that has changed. However, because society has accepted that change and changed with it, we have pants that are very clearly feminine and tailored to a woman’s body. Women have appropriated a traditional gender marker and adapted it so that it still allows them to embrace their femininity.

    However, men have never really had a similar movement. It is still seen as troubling when boys eschew the traditional markers of male gender, and there is really no room for them to appropriate traditionally female practices while still maintaining their masculinity. Let me use the example of clothing again. “Real men” don’t dress too nicely, they wear loose pants, etc. If a guy puts a lot of time and attention into his clothes, and if his pants fit him a little more tightly, he can often be branded as homosexual (except usually with a more derogatory term).

    Perhaps society’s inflexibility on this issue creates a pressurized situation for men where they are more likely to feel trapped by their gender. I don’t know, I’m not a guy. And I certainly don’t know if a 7-year-old would pick up on that.

    Anyway, I know that’s not a Scriptural explanation at all, and that’s because I’m not really sure how to interpret this in light of Scripture. If anyone else has anything, please post it…

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