My heart has been pained lately.
I live in North Carolina. I’ve tried to stay quiet because I have dearly loved friends who support HB2 and dearly loved friends who have been hurt by it. I have some who think HB 142 is too much, some who think it’s too little, and some who have given no thought to it at all. (If you’re one of those, saying “What’s HB 142?” I think this take is helpful and accurate.) I love the opportunities I have to speak into multiple settings and spheres within the church about what it looks like to love families like ours, those affected by mental illness, childhood trauma, and adoption or foster care. I’ve wrestled with God and with wise friends about wanting to stay silent so I don’t get disinvited from places and tables where I used to be welcome.
But I can’t be silent anymore.
(I know my privilege was the only reason that I could be silent in the first place. That was wrong, and I am sorry.)
So what changed? I met a boy.
No, this isn’t a love story. I met a young boy who was identified at birth as a girl. This vibrant beautiful boy offered the reminder I needed. When we talk about transgender identity, we are not discussing an issue. We’re discussing people. When we get to know people instead of just talking about them as one dimensional, that’s where empathy is born, whether we share much or little in common.
On God’s word, creation, and gender differences
I became curious about gender diversity long before I met that sweet boy, though, whose identity I’m protecting by not sharing any details. I have an MAEd in special education and a few kids with disabilities, so people often reach out to me with special needs adoption questions. When you get known for that, people ask anything. I was assumed to know a basics of any category of special need. Because I’m a people pleaser and because I’m a research nerd, I’d search for answers or resources if I had none.
Then, from prospective adoptive parents considering China’s programs, I started getting questions about an area with which I had zero experience: ambiguous genitalia. I began researching, starting with medical journals. I sought first person experiences, but I didn’t find as many as I hoped. I wasn’t naïve to the realities of gender diversity, but I never had to think of it much before then, just like most people don’t think about wheelchair accessibility like our family does because of our youngest child.
After I shared the research I found with these families, I kept learning. I hungered for more information, realizing how ignorant I had been. I listened and read and watched debates, soaking it all in. I asked myself, “what if this were my child? my best friend? my neighbor?”
And then I realized my life was full of people who I assumed fit the gender binary just because I do. When I brought up this topic I was researching in a nonjudgmental way, because I didn’t know what I thought yet then, stories flowed out of people I thought I had known about their loved ones who were transgender. One friend shared with me her intersex condition, a part of her life that I never would have guessed. Each story told me that I knew non-binary people, but they just hadn’t trusted me before and I hadn’t been seeing them.
In the course of that research, here’s what I learned – from God’s word and creation – when it comes to transgender identity. I believe God created each of us and makes no mistakes. Impersonally from medical journals and personally from friends who live outside of the binary, I know God knits some of his image bearers in their mothers’ wombs with biological gender ambiguity via a range of intersex conditions. Sometimes this shows up in genetic expression (like XXY or monosomy X instead of XX or XY chromosomal presentation), other times hormonal levels from birth are different than usual so that a person with XX sex chromosomes presents as a boy or vice versa, and still other times babies are born with genitalia that doesn’t fit our binary definitions.
(Side note: Those with certain chromosomal abnormalities, as in Klinefelter and Turner syndromes, aren’t always grouped as intersex because those with the latter are always classified as female and the former male. Regardless of whether we group them in the intersex category or not, though, I think these conditions are relevant to this discussion because chromosomal gender is part of the conversation. Arguments against transgender identity often include insistence that chromosomal gender can only fit in two categories, and that’s simply not true.)
Furthermore, some children’s bodies are surgically altered without clarity, with lasting pain for some, and prior to an age of consent. Thankfully, now that medical professionals know better, they are making better recommendations, but this is still a problem. If we want to talk about child abuse in this gender identity debate, focusing on this issue would be more logical than on mythical bathroom horrors.
In the Bible, we don’t see the word intersex but we do hear about natural-born eunuchs. Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, men who had been born with genital differences, or men who chose celibacy. In Matthew 19, in the context of talking about marriage and divorce, Jesus says,
When it comes to eunuchs who were made eunuchs by others or by congenital physical differences, we find a gem of a verse we don’t quote much in church, Deuteronomy 23:1:
Seems like eunuchs were kept out of churches in the Old Testament, huh? Not exactly. In Isaiah 56,
In this passage, eunuchs are more than welcome. God bestows upon them an everlasting name that shall not be severed from them. This affirmation is echoed in two distinct places in the New Testament. First, Galatians 3:28
Then God doubles down on this affirmation with Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, found in Acts 8:26-40. First, the Lord directs Philip down a wilderness road with no reason first. Along the way, he comes across a chariot in which an Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah, and the Spirit prompts Philip to join him. There, beginning a few chapters before the Isaiah passage I quoted above, Philip proceeded to share the good news of Christ with this man. And then verse 36, my favorite in the whole passage,
There the eunuch, belonging to a group once barred from the assembly of the Lord, was baptized by Philip. Once the baptism was complete, Philip’s work was done. God had sent him down that wilderness road for this divine appointment, not to seek out those already welcome but to instead meet with a marginalized man so that they might become brothers in Christ.
(I'm sure some of you are thinking, "but what about Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:2 that speak of God creating us male and female?" That's totally true. God did create Adam and Eve male and female. That doesn't mean every human he created fits that binary. "And what about when Jesus talks about people being created male and female in Mark 10?" Again, that's true. But he's talking about a husband and a wife in that context. In all three of these passages, the gender binary is descriptive rather than prescriptive. "And how about Deuteronomy 22:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:14-15?" First, crossdressing and transgender identity aren't the same thing. The first is dressing up like another gender; the latter is being another gender. But second and more importantly, those passages are about behavior not identity, and they're entrenched in cultural norms rather than presented as absolutes. As such, none of these usually used verses work to classify transgender identity as sinful or wrong.
Given these biblical and biological realities, I can’t adhere to a belief that says God only creates us all as male or female. I don’t buy the rationale presenting the rarity of intersex conditions to mean we can ignore that diversity in God’s creation. In rhetoric and persuasion classes, we teach that disproving an always statement only requires one exception; in this case, it’s more than that, as intersex conditions – if you include chromosomal abnormalities – are present in approximately 1 in 100 births. We’re not simply talking about one exception. Using the CDC figure that roughly 4 million babies are born in our country each year, that means about 40,000 babies were born with gender-related differences in chromosomes or anatomy last year.
In other words, these conditions are rare but not so rare that they’re irrelevant to the conversation. For example, intersex conditions and atypical sex chromosomal presentation are nearly seven times more common than Down syndrome (which occurs in 1 in 691 births in the US). For obvious reasons – including stigma – those affected by intersex conditions don’t talk about them as openly as those affected by Down syndrome do, but these realities aren’t as rare as most discussions make them out to be.
I talked about this recently with that friend who I didn’t know was intersex until a few years ago. I asked her why she thought they were left out of the conversation so often.
On top of bodily and biological differences, what about the brain? Professionally and personally, I know a great deal about the diversity in neurological expressions of identity. In my own family, for example, we see that with autism and childhood trauma. (And, lest you frame either as wholly negative, I see benefits to each. In other words, I reject an ableist mentality that says neurodiversity in disability can’t create amazingly positive outcomes outside of the realm of typical.) We know our brains aren’t all the same. Why can’t we also leave room for the brain-based gender expression of some of our friends to differ from their traditional biological or anatomical presentation at birth?
So now let’s come back to HB2. That law stripped localities from the ability to provide more anti-discrimination protections than offered by the state, but it’s mostly known as the bathroom bill. It stated that people using public bathrooms had to use the facility matching the gender stated on their birth certifications. Our then governor – Pat McCrory – said it was no big deal because trans people could just have that document changed. Either he was mistaken or intentionally lying, because it’s not that simple. Across the full range of gender difference – from intersex conditions to transgender identity – birth certificates don’t always match the person’s expressed gender. Simply changing the birth certificate isn’t an option for everyone, though, as NC law only permits such a change if sex reassignment surgery has been completed.
Gender identity isn’t based in anatomy, though. Consider, for example, how you know you’re a boy or a girl. When I asked my own children that question, they – ages 5 to 10 – each spoke first about how they felt and not what they see in their underwear or what combination of chromosomes appear in their 23rd pair. That’s exactly how my transgender friends describe their identity, based in the brain and not the rest of their body. As such, surgery – while chosen by some – isn’t necessary. When I was in middle school, my mom endured health issues leading to a hysterectomy and hormone supplementation. It would be an understatement to say that process was hard on her body. Likewise, even those who would prefer a surgical approach might choose not to do so, preferring to accept their present bodies rather than enduring the procedures involved to change them. Furthermore, the hormones and procedures involved can be costly, so economic reasons often influence the decision not to pursue medical interventions. Finally, for youth who identify as transgender or experience gender dysphoria, medical interventions might not be appropriate developmentally.
Under HB2, many of our neighbors who identify as a different gender than indicated on their birth certificates can’t use the bathroom matching their identity. They have to decide to abide by this law and face the social repercussions for doing so (for example, when a transgender man – living in full appearance as a man but whose birth certificate still says female – enters the women’s bathroom, do you expect him to be welcome there?) or break the law and use the bathrooms they’ve been using all along. And if they break the law? This measure has no means for enforcement or policing.
This bill was introduced, passed, and signed in less than a day, spending $42,000 in taxpayer money on the unnecessary special session. The extraordinarily short time span from introduction to signing meant that few voices spoke into the issues present in the bill. That led to some changes being made in June, but the reality is that everything about HB2 was rushed and reactionary. The Charlotte ordinance was, even as it was passed, expected to be overturned by the state, but no immediate danger required the cost and haste of HB2.
(And most of the negative information shared about what happened in Charlotte proved to be inaccurate once I dug into the bill itself. Here’s a bit of background. When the narrative presented fits the story a little too easily, then it’s helpful to look into it all more deeply.)
This week, news outlets are reporting about the HB2 repeal. You might assume I’m happy about that, given my HB2 concerns. I’m not. This “repeal” – called HB 142 – was similarly hasty, offers no new protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and bans municipalities from creating their own protections until after the next presidential election. Can our trans neighbors use the bathroom of their choosing under HB 142? No one can answer that. It’s murky. We’re back to maybe, maybe not, which is the realm in which we existed before. Given the egregious power grabs by our GOP majority general assembly here in North Carolina, I expect to see less dignity extended from here on, so this seems like the high point under the current legislators.
Looking at HB142, I can’t imagine that businesses who pulled out of the state will be coming back. People might not like decisions like those made thus far by the NCAA, but the precedent is there. They refused to hold pre-selected championship games in South Carolina for 15 years because of the Confederate flag flying over their statehouse. They lifted that ban in 2015 after the state changed course. I hope it doesn’t take 15 years for our state to change, but I have no problem with the NCAA making decisions based on the perceived impact of HB2 and now HB142 on the fans and players drawn to their sites.
On concerns about bathroom assaults
What about the risk of bathroom assaults by those who aren’t transgender, though, and who enter the opposite gender bathroom? First, the population at risk in public bathrooms are transgender men and women. According to a paper out of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 70% of transgender people report being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. If you search for bathroom assaults involving transgender individuals, you’ll find they’re the victims, not the perpetrators.
Second, when people offer stories of bathroom assaults against women and children, read them carefully. More often than not, the incidents occur in the absence of any transgender-friendly legislation and without any attempt by the offender to be considered transgender. No one in this debate is denying that bathrooms should be safe places. But pointing at laws allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice in certain locations and then pointing to unrelated bathroom incidents (often in other locations where no such laws exist) doesn’t make for a sound argument. That doesn’t even show correlation, much less causation.
Third, if we’re concerned about men entering the bathroom to assault women and girls, then shouldn’t we be concerned about those men assaulting boys in their own bathrooms? The crimes that are real are definitely worth preventing. But as I said on Kristen Howerton’s blog, “Let’s hold accountable those who commit crimes when and if they commit them, instead of asking trans people to sacrifice bathroom safety to pay for crimes that non-trans people might possibly commit someday.
Here’s the reality: Only 10% of child sex assaults are committed by strangers. Meanwhile, 30% are family members and 60% are otherwise known to the child, including neighbors, childcare providers, or church volunteers. So boycotting Target doesn’t add up to me, which is why I wrote the piece quoted above – albeit anonymously because I wasn’t public about my rapes at that time – back in May. I shop at Target without pause. I live with PTSD from sexual assault, yet I’m comfortable using Target’s bathroom and letting my kids do so. Boycotting the store just doesn’t add up to me.
On changing rooms and school locker rooms
What about changing rooms in gyms or school locker rooms? I don’t understand the lack of common sense in most of our rhetoric about this. Why create false dichotomies? Are we really so lacking in creativity that we can only imagine two possibilities: either that every child, regardless of gender identity, needs to change in the locker room matching their biological sex or anatomy or that accommodating gender identity has to involve the exposure of opposite sex genitalia to all kids? Why can’t we figure out a third way?
I agree that I don’t want my girls to see a penis in their middle school locker rooms, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a transgender girl to be accommodated so she doesn’t have to use the boys’ locker room. (Same goes in reverse for not wanting my boys seeing vaginas but still wanting transgender boys to have a safe place among boys.) The transgender kids I know don’t want to be exposed to their classmates either, so I think this is much ado about nothing. I’ve observed situations in which transgender kids are accommodated in dignifying ways while the needs of other students are considered too. Sure, creativity is sometimes needed – especially in facilities that don’t offer much privacy in the first place – but our Creator made us in his image, which means we can be creative too. It’s not impossible, y’all.
And sometimes new facilities will be needed. I see this as a win/win. It’s a win for transgender students to preserve their privacy and allow for their full inclusion in school settings. The pushback here is often that the population served is so statistically small that their needs don’t warrant sweeping changes. But? My daughter Zoe uses a wheelchair, along with 2.2 million other people in the US. In a country of 320 million, wheelchair users account for only 0.68% of our population. In the school aged population, the percentage is even smaller. Yet we still deem her and others in her situation as worthy of the accommodations necessary to use public facilities. Back before laws were passed in favor of such accommodations, some argued that they were too hard and too much for such a small group. We’ve made progress with those attitudes, thankfully, and that gives me hope that we can make progress here too. If she can be accommodated in public restrooms, why can't trans people?
(Also, if you heard the hyperbole about the gender unicorn being used in student instruction and the rule that teachers in Charlotte can’t refer to boys and girls, you might want to fact check that. When I did, I found several sources – like this one – offering a more balanced perspective.)
On why this matters
Why does this issue even matter? Because transgender people are people. I’m a person. My husband is a person. My children are people. All of us are valued in God’s eyes, even when the world – or the church – fails to show the same.
I’ve heard detractors say all these bathroom laws are much ado about nothing, because nothing was stopping anyone from using whichever bathroom they chose before. My answer to that each time was, “do you have any transgender friends?” Because I do, and those relationships have taught me that they weren’t welcome to use any bathroom before. They each share stories of real experienced rejection or even violence in attempting to simply use the restroom. These laws weren’t birthed out of a desire to drive forth an agenda rather than solve a real dilemma.
Here’s the reality: People who don’t fit traditional gender norms face discrimination. If you haven’t seen it or experienced it yourself, that doesn’t make any of it less real. But an accommodating culture can make a difference. Among transgender youth, a recent study in Canada showed that rates of suicide consideration or attempts were significantly reduced by social inclusion, protection from bullying and violence, and parental supports.
If I've lost some of my conservative evangelical friends and readers and speaking opportunities by sharing these thoughts, so be it. I can’t stay quiet. This is worth leveraging my privilege and allowing it to take a hit for the sake of those being marginalized. I’ll put my ministry reputation on the line to say this:
(Please be clear: I deserve no applause for any of this. None. My stance is human decency. I don’t get a trophy for treating people like people instead of issues. That should be the norm.)
I expect some people to disagree with parts or all of what I’m sharing here, and that’s okay. Like I said in that last post that found me kicked out of some churches and friendships and conferences and roles I cherished, we can all disagree without being disagreeable. I’m sure of it. Many people chose not to last time, but many did and I’m better for having heard their voices.
If you agree with me, I love you. If you don’t agree with me, I love you. If you share this post, I love you. If you write a post about how wrong I am, I love you. If I have to block you for being nasty in your comments, I still can love you. If you write me the sort of threatening messages I usually get after posts like these, I will keep on loving you while I report you to the authorities.
So why is it so hard for us to say “I love you” without adding “but…” to our transgender neighbors?