In God and the Transgender Debate, due out next week, Andrew T. Walker has written a wickedly dangerous book. He has repackaged the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra — used to condemn the gay community for decades — to help evangelical Christians reject transgender people in exactly the same way.
As Director of Policy Studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Walker’s anti-transgender stance is neither new nor surprising. Nevertheless, the way he sugarcoats his condemnation in love and compassion throughout this book is shockingly nefarious.
The promotional materials for God and the Transgender Debate explain that it’s not designed to be a medical or psychological study, a political manifesto, a theological treatise, nor a book that is “harsh, judgmental, or critical.” And yet, of course, it is all of these things. Walker’s most crucial justifications for rejecting transgender identities hinge on misreadings of scientific research, his recommendations to readers have profound political implications, and he relies entirely on his conservative theology to justify a very harsh approach to responding to transgender people. He might not think it’s harsh, but it is.
Walker acknowledges that the Bible does not actually mention transgender people. His argument, instead, is rooted in pure creationism (yes, that creationism): God created Adam and Eve as male and female, and to question whether He got that right is to rebel against Him. “To misunderstand, blur, or reject the Creator’s categories for humanity doesn’t just put us in rebelling against the Creator and creation — it puts us at odds with how each of us was made,” Walker explains. “When someone rejects this blueprint, they are not merely rejecting a thousands-of-years-old text. They are rejecting Jesus.”
What’s particularly devious about Walker’s approach, however, is that he does acknowledge the validity of gender dysphoria as a real psychological phenomenon. He correctly understands that trans people often experience a struggle when their body and identity don’t match the gender they know themselves to be. But he believes that “brokenness” is a consequence of “the fall” — Adam and Eve’s sin that cursed all of humanity — and should not be catered to. Thus, according to Walker, being trans is not inherently a sin, but embracing that gender identity by transitioning is a sin.
If that reasoning sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. All of Walker’s main arguments mirror religious arguments against homosexuality, but with “gay” swapped out for “trans”:
- Gay/trans identities are subjective and not “empirically verifiable.”
- It’s not a sin to be gay/trans, but acting on it is.
- People who are gay/trans can be saved through faith in Christ, even if it’s a lifelong struggle.
- Churches should welcome gay/trans people, but expect them to abandon that lifestyle if they plan to stay in the church community.
- “Someone can embrace a transgender identity or find their identity in Christ, but not both.”
- Same-sex marriage/transition is “impossible.”
A single thread unravels
Though the rhetoric is the same, the devastating psychological consequences for transgender people are far more apparent. This is especially true given that Walker’s arguments are largely built on a single scientific assumption about transgender people that he gets completely wrong: the belief that trans people don’t actually benefit from transitioning.
Experiencing that feeling does not mean that feeding it and acting upon it is best, or right. The impulse to live out an identity at odds with our biological sex is to indulge fallen desires that our heart believes will bring peace. But internal longing for peace does not mean that finding peace is possible through breaking the boundaries of human limitations and rejecting the way we have each been created.
It is a little-reported fact that people who undergo sex re-assignment surgery do not, statistically, report higher levels of happiness after the surgery. That is, acting on the desire to live as the opposite gender to the one that accords with biological sex does not bring peace to a heart.
In a footnote here, Walker cites Paul McHugh, the infamous Johns Hopkins University psychologist who believes trans people are mentally ill. McHugh made this argument in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, basing it entirely on one particular 2011 study out of Sweden that, he claimed, showed that trans people still had high rates of suicide years after undergoing surgery. But that’s not what the study found.
Indeed, the author of that Swedish study, Cecilia Dhejne, has repeatedly — including just recently on Reddit — rebuked attempts like McHugh’s to distort her results to suggest trans people don’t benefit from transitioning. As Dhejne explained to The TransAdvocate, her study didn’t actually evaluate the effectiveness of surgery, and even her results show that the higher suicides rates disappeared for patients who received their surgeries after 1989. “If we look at the literature, we find that several recent studies conclude that [World Professional Association for Transgender Health] Standards of Care-compliant treatment decrease[s] gender dysphoria and improves mental health,” she corrected. In other words, there is a consensus that transition is what best helps trans people.
Dhejne also observed: “What we’ve found is that treatment models which ignore the effect of cultural oppression and outright hate aren’t enough. We need to understand that our treatment models must be responsive to not only gender dysphoria, but the effects of anti-trans hate as well.” But Walker absolves himself of this responsibility, dismissing the impact massive rates of anti-trans discrimination and stigma can have.
Stopping just short of repeating McHugh’s belief that trans people are inherently mentally ill, he implies that trans people are to blame for their own suffering. Responding directly to a hypothetical question about whether “Christian teaching is harmful” to trans people, Walker counters, “Is the emotional distress caused from identifying as transgender the result of not being affirmed, or is it a feature of the underlying emotional and mental difficulties that come with gender dysphoria, which are not solved by embracing a transgender identity?” He concludes, “It seems far more likely (albeit that it’s unpopular to say) that emotional and psychological distress stem from gender dysphoria, not from the failure to feel affirmed by one’s community.”
An empty promise
It’s no surprise that Walker relies on McHugh almost exclusively throughout the book for his medical references. McHugh is one of the only anti-trans “experts” conservatives ever cite because he’s one of the only who exists. The rest of mainstream medicine, including all of the major medical organizations, support therapeutic responses that affirm transgender people’s gender identities and help them to transition as is necessary. Contrary to McHugh’s convenient misinterpretation of a single study, it’s what decades of research have shown actually supports the wellness of transgender people.
Walker doesn’t mention any of this, because he isn’t primarily concerned with trans people’s mental health. He suggests anti-depressants should be “a far more reasonable and less invasive” way to help people struggling with gender dysphoria because it will allow them to conform to (his interpretation of) the Bible. “I would counsel you,” he advises, “to search for a Christian counselor or psychologist who is a trained expert in mental health, but who also refuses to embrace all the ideological underpinnings that come with transgenderism.” In other words, he recommends trained “experts” who disregard their own fields’ expertise.
“Your life will be very very hard,” he acknowledges. “The Christian life is hard — but not forever.” It’s a life of “finding joy in the struggle” because it “liberates individuals to experience their truest self, as made in the image of God.”
Walker also has the gall to suggest that transitioning hurts other people. “If your highest ‘value’ is to avoid doing anything that harms others, then it is worth considering the third parties (parents, spouses, children, siblings) who are hurt by someone’s rejection of their [own] birth sex and their upbringing or their marriage vows,” he scolds. “The argument that ‘It doesn’t hurt anyone’ often ends up simply being ‘It doesn’t hurt anyone who agrees with me,’ which is not the same thing.”
The underlying claim here is that it’s not fair to Christians like Walker to have to be forced to choose between loving someone for who they are and staying true to their faith. Thankfully, he’s considerate enough to tell parents not to kick their kids out of the house for being trans. After all, “abandoning your child because he or she rejects your faith’s teaching is just as bad as your child abandoning his or her birth sex.” That’s right, he thinks transitioning is as bad as abandoning your kids.
And he’s still otherwise dismissive of transgender kids. “So for a four-year-old,” he offers, “we should not read too much into things if a young child says they’d like to be the opposite gender.” Likewise, for teens coming out as trans, Walker advises, “One thing worth saying is that how you feel is not necessarily who you are.” These responses are incredibly dangerous, as studies have repeatedly found that family acceptance and affirmation is one of the most crucial factors in protecting trans kids’ mental health.
Walker also recommends that parents teach their kids in the same fashion not to accept their transgender friends. “We don’t need to be mean to these people, and we must never consider them weird or freakish because they’re made by God in his image,” he dictates in a script for such a conversation. “But we need to remember that God made them to be a man or a woman, with a male body or a female body, and so how they feel about themselves is not what God wants for them.”
And if schools have transgender-inclusive policies, Walker echoes Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” in simply calling on families to remove themselves from those environments. “The increasing support for transgenderism inside public schools is one demonstration of how problematic such schooling can be for the hearts and minds of young children.” He thinks — falsely — that children do not have the “emotional and psychological maturity to grapple with all that is being taught” and also warns that children espousing these anti-trans beliefs will be “treated with hostility and made to feel second class.”
It’s telling that there are no trans voices in the entire book. Walker mentions encountering trans people in occasional group settings, but it seems questionable whether he actually has ever met and built a relationship with a trans person. Based on what he shares, he either knows nothing or cares little for what transgender people experience and what actually helps them live their lives. The book is merely an exercise in using religious beliefs to justify rejecting the legitimacy of transgender identities.
A reader might come away from God and the Transgender Debate feeling like there is a compassionate way to advise a transgender person away from transitioning. They would be wrong, and the consequences would be devastating.