Dr. Michael L. Brown, a prominent commentator among religious conservatives, asked readers at Charisma News and The Christian Post an important question on Friday: “What if there’s something wrong with today’s understanding of transgender identity?” He attaches two more: “What if our current approach is not the best approach? What if God has a better way?” These are questions that the leaders of major religious organizations have similarly been contemplating.
Brown takes great umbrage that he’s been characterized as “a transphobic bigot lacking empathy” for his views — including his refusal to respect the name and gender of transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner. The case that he makes is that he’s not convinced that transgender identities are real: “What is the definitive test that confirms this identity?”
“For the vast majority of trans-identified people, they are sure they are transgender because they are sure, not because of a verifiable, external test, and this means that, ultimately, their perception is their reality.” This results in people identifying across a broad spectrum of genders, a consequence Brown seems to find troubling. The absence of an objective test for being trans justifies, he feels, his opposition to affirming transgender people: “Is it really so hateful, then, to suggest that we invest more time and energy and prayer to understand why some people, even beginning as little children, believe they are trapped in the wrong bodies? Is it really transphobic to say that the very best solution is to help people find wholeness from the inside out?”
He thinks there’s “a better way than celebrating transgender identity,” a way “for Bruce to find wholeness and peace” without transitioning. Noting how medical practices evolve, he hopes and prays that someday society will look back on transitioning as “utterly primitive and outmoded.”
Brown’s perspective on transgender people is not unique. The Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution in 2014 “On Transgender Identity,” declaring that “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” In doing so, the second largest Christian body in the United States took a position opposed to any form of physical transition and any government or cultural validation of transgender identities. Pastor Denny Burk defended his spearheading of this resolution at a conference in October, decrying “the notion that psychological identity trumps bodily identity.”
Though it does not outline it as explicitly, Catholic teaching also rejects transition for transgender people. In Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudato Si,” he wrote that “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary” and that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”
Brown uses unanswered questions to justify his conservative position, a tactic inherent in the other religious rejections of transgender lives. The problem with his plea and the assumption that gender transition should be avoided is that it does not actually factor in what is known about transgender people — and most crucially, what is actually best for their health and well-being. Brown may not see transitioning, including the supposedly heavy burden of taking “hormones for life,” as an ideal, but for many transgender people it is just that.
There are many important reasons why the American Psychiatric Association no longer identifies being transgender as a “disorder,” but among them is that research has found that the best way to support the mental health of transgender people is to affirm their identities. There is consensus across the country’s biggest medical organizations that transgender people are best served by policies that respect their gender identities.
Thus, Brown seems to actually be conflating rejecting transgender people with showing them compassion when he writes, “If we all agree that growing up and living with the perception that you’re trapped in the wrong body is painful and difficult, then let’s join together and find God’s best way to make you whole.” Because he rejects trans people’s gender identities, he dismisses the forms of treatment and the cultural acceptance that actually relieves transgender people’s pain and difficulty. He is actually accomplishing the opposite, reinforcing the rejection that sustains those challenges — rejection that often manifests in discrimination and violence, further limiting trans people’s ability to be well and participate equally in society.
The same argument has long been used against gay rights. Though the “Born This Way” narrative has largely won out, it’s not because science answered all of the questions about the nature of sexual orientation. The understanding of gay identities advanced in a very similar fashion, with health professionals acknowledging that gay, lesbian, and bi people had the best mental health outcomes when their identities and relationships were affirmed. Ex-gay therapy has since been largely debunked as ineffective and harmful, not only by science but in the public square. Though there are still some who believe being gay is a choice, their claims do not withstand public scrutiny.
Transgender identities seem to be on a similar trajectory toward a public acceptance that matches what medical professionals are already saying. Brown isn’t wrong that there are still unanswered questions, but in the meantime, his resistance to the answered questions is problematic. He concludes by asking, “Is it really ‘transphobic’ to hope and pray and work towards this goal” of a non-transition treatment for transgender people? Given that his question rests on the arbitrary rejection of the best known way to help transgender people thrive, it answers itself.