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Today, while many denominations and faith groups struggle mightily over issues of sexuality and faith, few have even scratched the surface of the many questions surrounding gender identity. Yet questions around our notions of gender have the potential to be even more difficult than issues of sexuality, because the debate around gender identity is much less about how we behave, and far more about who we are.

Gender identity is distinct from -- and more basic than -- sexual orientation.  One's sense of being male or female precedes one's affectional attractions. Who we are is more basic than what we do or to whom we are attracted.  It is, therefore, in many ways a more explosive and dangerous issue for churches and communities that value homogeneity.

Several years ago, I faced the ordeal of having to defend my own ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  This challenge came because I decided, after twenty-three years of ordained ministry as a man, to change my gender.  After sixteen months of contentious discussion and debate, in October 1996 the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta voted to sustain my ordination, making me the first mainline Protestant minister to undergo a gender transition and retain ordination.

All my life, I had pursued what appeared to be a normal life pattern in the desperate hope that no one would see the terrible truth about me -- that I wanted to be female.  This desire seemed against all reason, and against all that seemed right and good to me.  I couldn't explain these feelings, but I knew they were from the very core of my being.  I prayed for deliverance from these strange longings, but none came.

As a young person, I was heavily involved in the church, and was elected to my presbytery youth council, where I was encouraged to pursue the professional ministry. I was a member of my high school wrestling team and participated in many traditionally male hobbies like carpentry and electronics.  Yet I could not shake this sense that the reality of who I knew myself to be was inconsistent with the male body into which I was born.

I spent enormous resources in trying to become the man that the church and society wanted me to be.  I married at a relatively young age, hoping in vain that this would finally "answer" some need in me and free me from my gender burden.  I not only entered psychothereapy, but also became a therapist myself, trying to understand and deal with my situation.

I struggled with depression, burying myself in work and responsibility in order to hide from the terrible truth within.  I applied myself most diligently to the task of living and working as a male, and succeeded for many years.  I even convinced myself that I could hold the truth within me for a lifetime, that I would die with my secret still intact.

But the depression and denial took their toll on my health. Eventually, I lost my marriage, not because of my "gender problem," but because of my willingness to deny the truth and thereby destroy my self-respect and the respect of my partner. Finally, I decided I could sustain the lie no longer.

 

Ironically, in the years since I decided -- at great personal cost -- to end my deceitful life and devote myself to living a life that feels more authentic and truthful to myself and before God, I have often been accused of deceit.  I've been told that my actions are a denial of both Scripture's clear teaching and the goodness of my own creation.  That I am lying to myself and to God. That I am bringing shame on the church, and confusing other Christians who might be struggling with their own sexual identity.

These charges are often infused with an anger I've found difficult to understand. I've wondered why my decision seemed to spark such violent opposition. Many times I've felt like I had to defend myself from the existential rage of my accusers more than from any real theological argument. It's as if the reality of who I am, a reality that clothes my own soul, threatens the very foundation of what we believe.

But as I've wrestled with these questions, I've come to recognize that this anger is not only the anger of my accusers, or the anger of my church. For a long time, this was my anger as well. I spent the best years of my life wringing enough energy from myself to carry on as a husband, father, and minister against a personal reality that seemed wholly unacceptable not only to others, but to myself and God as well. It seemed that I had beene xcluded from the realm of heaven, that God was playing some kind of cosmic trick on me.

For most of my life, I thought I was alone in these struggles. But over the years I have learned that many others experience the same intense conflict between traditional gender expectations and their own sense of who they are.

Those whose gender identity does not fit easily into the rigid categories our culture has proscribed are referred to as transgender or transgendered.

 

I am not so arrogant as to believe that God somehow made me transgendered to "teach the church a lesson." But I do believe that God uses our lives to work out God's purposes.  And I believe the church's struggle with me -- and with others who are transgendered -- parallels the church's struggle with itself. In a sense, the church has also been struggling with a gender change. The reality of transgender forces the church to confront this, whether it wants to or not.

Reconsidering the Old Testament understanding of sexuality has helped shed light on this for me. In the ancient world, the male sex organs were viewed as sacred in ways that transcended all other aspects of human biology. In the sex act, the male was believed to deposit a complete microscopic human being into the woman's womb for safekeeping while it grew, nourished by the mother, to the size necessary for birth.

Naturally, as the source of all life, men were revered. And this ancient "scientific" view fit nicely into the strong patriarchal culture in which men were the center of social and religious life. Like many ancient patriarchal cultures, the ancient Hebrews viewed women not only as second-class citizens, but actually of a different order altogether, lives worthy of ownership and use by men.

But the movement away from this patriarchal world begins in the earliest chapters of our Scriptures. Both creation accounts that come to us through our Hebrew forebears in Genesis say something radical for their time. Both stories, in different ways, place men and women next to each other, either by treating them together ("He created them male and female") or making a clear biological connection between the bodies of men and the bodies of women (Adam's rib).

In Jesus, God once more confronts patriarchal cultural and religious attitudes. Women, before viewed only as value property subject to the will of their owner-husbands, were seen by Jesus as human beings worthy of respect. In his discourses with the Pharisees about divorce, Jesus continued to drive this point home. Even more profound is Jesus' friendship and valuing of women in his ministry.  And in spite of Paul's early teachings onf amily life, the early church clearly began to count women among its leadership.

Today, two millenia later, we still struggle with patriarchy. In spite of ourselves, many -- perhaps all -- of us continue to hold the status of men above the status of women.

Nothing has illuminated this for me more than my own transition from the social role of male to female. During the first few months after I began living full-time as a female, I had a problem bumping into people. At first I thought it was simply a kind of emotional dizziness that had come from finally allowing myself full expression of my true identity. But I bgan to notice that my collisions were almost exclusively with men.

It took much self-analysis before I realized that men and women navigate public spaces differently. Men tend to walk directly toward their destination, and women tend toward the more circuitous route. I realized suddenly one day, after another such collision (again with a man), that men take precedence over women in public space. The same man who might hold open a door for me in one situation would walk right into me on the sidewalk. I realized that men have the right of way! Having navigated most of my life as a man, I simply was navigating like a man in public while men were expecting me to navigate like a woman. Hence we collided!

My entire life has been filled with the struggle, often with God, about the difference between what I looked like -- how I was treated by others -- and what I felt like on the inside. My own patriarchal feelings contributed to my sense that is was somehow shameful that I felt like a woman and wanted desperately to be one. I knew for certain that I would become a miserable outcast were I ever to reveal my terrible truth.

But throughout history God has been calling people away from the ancient myth that man and women are somehow of different substance and therefore profoundly different from each other. God has continued to lead us away from the prejudice and ignorace to which we all are victim, toward the light of truth.

The church, an institution characterized by its strong patriarchy (in spite of being the Bride of Christ), has entered a time when it must truly face the deconstruction of gender as we have known it. And my request that the church recognize my transgendered reality comes at a time when we as the church are disoriented by our own transgenderism.

 

As people of faith continue to come to terms with the reality of transgender -- and the many different varieties of gender expression in our midst -- there will be challenges ahead. Many welcoming churches have caually added the "T" to their public statements of inclusivity for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, without realizing that the issue raised by transgendered persons are different in many ways. Churches that have learned to tolerate differences in the expressions of affection that ocur in the privacy of the bedroom may find it more difficult to understand and accept public expressions of ourselves that do not match cultural expressions.

Questions about gender, and the deeply held myths that surround it, are certain to raise fear and anger within the church. We are accustomed to minding our bodies; we are much less comfortable embodying our minds. Transgender reality calls this into question, and may become the center of the struggle in years to come.

The truth that we transgendered people live is a truth that the people of God are struggling to understand. I have never really been a man, and I know I can never really be a woman. I am transgendered and will always remain so. My hope is that the church, too, will recognize its transgendered nature and discover more fully God's love for us all -- not because we are male or female (or anything in between), but because we are all God's children.

©2001 Erin Swenson.  Originally published in The Other Side magazine, May-June 2001, Vol. 37, No. 3.  Provided as a part of TransFaith on-line with permission from the author.

This article is one of four available in the study guide, The Other Side on Transgender.  You may be interested in reviewing the others as well.