What’s the Deal with the “T” in LGBT?

Recently California governor Jerry Brown caused a stir by signing into law the first bill supporting “equal access” for students who identify as transgender—those who believe themselves to be the opposite gender from their biological sex. Members of the LGBT community have hailed this as a monumental success (The “T” stands for “transgender”). Others, many of them conservative Christians, have found the news much less encouraging.

Russell Moore weighed in on the topic with a thoughtful piece in the Washington Post, challenging the church to respond to complicated issues like this by simultaneously reaffirming biblical truth and holding out the magnificent grace of Christ: “All we can do is say what we believe as Christians: that all of us are sinners, and that none of us are freaks.”

In response to Moore, faith and culture writer Jonathan Merritt threw his hat into the ring, commenting that transgender issues are more complicated than most Christians assume, Moore included. He pointed to a number of research studies and statistics indicating that sex should be seen as more of a mosaic than a binary. Perhaps, he implies, the existence of those with physical and genetic sexual variations lends credence to the transgender community.

For most people—Christian or not—these discussions venture into unchartered territory. So what are we to make of all this? Pastor J.D. asked me to brief him personally on this issue, and the following is a modified version of that briefing. He thought it would be profitable to share.

I see three significant issues at play in Merritt’s critique, each of which needs to be treated separately. (I engage Merritt directly because he seeks to represent the voice of young evangelicals. While we may disagree here, I am grateful for his raising of this and other difficult issues.)

1. Genetic Sex

However things look on the outside, sex is hardwired into our DNA. But since the external manifestations of sex do not always cohere with the genetics, scientists use the helpful phrase, “genetic sex.” This refers to whether a person has XY or XX chromosomes. Genetic sex is established at conception, and is a binary. Despite advances in medical technology, there is still no way of altering this, as it is a part of our DNA. No matter what sexual reassignment surgeries people undergo, or what hormonal supplements they take, they will always have the genetic sex they did at conception.

There are periodic mutations in which individuals get other unconventional combinations (besides XX or XY), the most common of which is XXY. This is called Klinefelter syndrome, which Merritt mentions. But even though this is the most common genetic sex disorder, it only occurs in about 1 in 1,000 men—and most of them never manifest symptoms. If they do manifest symptoms, it is usually via infertility.[1]

All told, when it comes to genetic sex, Moore is on relatively solid ground. At the DNA level, there really is just male and female.

2. Ambiguous Genitalia and the “Intersexual”

Now, when it comes to genitalia, the situation is slightly different. Sometimes a genetically female child will have an enlarged clitoris (resembling a penis), or a genetically male child will lack one (or both) testicles. In most of these cases, the abnormality is minor and can be corrected surgically. This is sometimes referred to as “ambiguous genitalia,” though some people with this condition prefer the title “intersexual.”

Again, the numbers here are very small. Only 1 in 1,000 babies undergoes corrective surgery for genitalia abnormalities. Not all cases of ambiguous genitalia require corrective surgery, of course, so the number of instances may be higher—though only slightly so.

If there is a measure of gray in this discussion, this is where it is. But keep in mind that even in the worst cases of ambiguous genitalia, we are not talking about the DNA level, where gender is still clear. And note that the overwhelming majority of those who identify as transgender are not those with abnormalities in genetic and genital sex. Even the “Intersex Society of North America” admits that transgendered people “have an internal experience of gender identity that is different from most people,” not an identity based on their ambiguous anatomical makeup.[2] The word internal is key. We’ll come back to it.

3. Transgender Brain Patterns

Merritt mentions this article on the brain patterns of transgendered people as further evidence that transgender experience may be something innate. The thesis is that transgender people actually have different white matter in their brains, that the feeling of being a “man trapped in a woman’s body” is corroborated by the brain. As the research attempts to prove, we literally are looking at a male brain in a female body.

This sort of research is legitimately fascinating, even for people like me who are not neuroscientists. But on the whole, current research like this fails to prove what many want it to. The study itself seems reputable, having been published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. And even though the sample size is small (61 total people), I trust that there really is a brain difference at play here.

The issue is not with the findings themselves, but the interpretation. The white matter of the brain is not uniformly understood. As far as modern scientists can tell, the white matter specializes in connections between aspects of the brain. But it is also much more changeable than the more well-known gray matter. White matter can be treated and changed, and may even be altered based on a person’s experience.[3]

It is not at all surprising that those who feel like they are truly men, despite anatomical evidence to the contrary, would have brain features that reflect this feeling. The brain is, after all, the seat of our self-image and of all cognition. If we deeply believe something, it will be reflected in our brain activity. But this research begs the question. Our brains are not fixed determiners of our identity. In fact, the opposite is much more the case: the choices we make change the brain and over time literally change our self-identity. Even with this research the question remains: should we submit our identity to another’s lordship? The transgender community answers with a forceful, “No!” And this is where we part ways.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Merritt is right that Christian commentators rarely acknowledge the existence of the “intersexual” or grapple with the implications of genetic sex disorders. These individuals make sex and gender more complex issues than many initially assume. Our stance toward those who live in these gray areas must always be characterized chiefly by compassion.

But by piling on various strands of unconnected research, Merritt only confuses the issue. Russell Moore is right in identifying these exceptional cases as a matter of epistemology (how we know things) instead of ontology (the study of being). With the advance of science, it becomes easier and easier to identify genetic sex, so ambiguities that might have been more confusing in the past are actually less so today, not more.

(Moore is also right that the number of people involved here is miniscule. As in the case with same-sex attraction and homosexuality, the numbers are often overblown by those with a vested political interest. The exceptions certainly need to be delicately and adequately addressed, but it is misleading to begin to think in terms of more than two sexes.)

Christians argue—often poorly—that male and female are not arbitrary categories, but reflections of God’s design. Those advocating transgender rights argue that our sex is a matter of looking deep within and deciding what we want to be. Christians are rightly suspicious of such ideas, since our hearts are inclined to be deceitful, not trustworthy (cf. Jeremiah 17:9). But even practically, the weakness of looking within for our identity is demonstrated by simply substituting ethnicity in for sex: if I decide that “internally” I am Chinese, even though I lack any Chinese ancestry, am I then truly a Chinese person trapped in a white body?

The discussion between transgender advocates and the broader community needs to happen, but we must first be clear on the terms of the discussion. Those advocating transgender rights do not build their case on genetic abnormalities such as dual genitalia; they argue that self-perception is sacred and must never be challenged, either by Christian theology or physical realities. And this is a dangerous place to stand.