“Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits.”
Over the last year, transgender issues have been at the forefront of national news. Last year President Barack Obama issued a directive to public schools on how to accomodate transgender students in school restrooms. The debate over this action was reignited a few months ago when President Trump rescinded the directive, and the Supreme Court declined to hear a case regarding transgender students and restrooms.
Yet while these and other policy questions are important, the cultural conversation on gender identity issues requires more than good policy. It demands a gospel-centered response from the church.
Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human. Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines. If we are creatures, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits. But if we see ourselves—and the world around us—as machines, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.
This, it seems to me, is the question at the heart of the transgender controversy. Are we created, as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus put it, “male and female” from the beginning, or are these categories arbitrary and self-willed? Do our bodies, and our sexes, represent something of who we were designed to be—and thus impose limits on our ability to recreate ourselves?
Revolution in Self-Autonomy
The sexual revolution has always whispered promises of this kind of godlike self-autonomy. After a generation of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, ubiquitous pornography, and the cultural unhinging of sex from marriage and marriage from childbearing, it seems inevitable that Western culture is now decoupling sexuality from even its most basic reality: gender. If human sexuality exists solely for our self-actualization and satisfaction, then it makes no sense to impose restrictions based on something as seemingly arbitrary as gender.
Yet ultimately, this approach will not work. There are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams—reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it. Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.