Religion must provide answers to transsexuals 25 May 2014

Kai Whiting argues the Abrahamic traditions cannot ignore the challenges faced by transsexuals.

Religion and Transsexuals

Artwork by Leonar Álvarez

At some point in the average person’s life the following question will be raised: “What is the meaning of life, and more importantly, what is the meaning of my life?”

In finding the answer to such a poignant question, many will turn to their family and friends. Some in the Western world will also turn to a supreme existential being known as “God,” “Yahweh” or “Allah”. They will then proceed to their sacred book. If there is no direct answer there, such people will call a religious leader or read apologetics. There is however, one group of people that still awaits a decision. Those that, psychologically, socially and even spiritually, more readily identify with the opposite gender, despite what their biology suggests and of course what society, their friends, and their family, tell them.  They are the transsexuals.

In addressing them, followers of the Bible may quote Deuteronomy 22:5, but this warns against cross-dressing and not a medical condition.  Eunuchs are mentioned various times, but again, their issues do not correspond to those of a transsexual, because a eunuch does not show secondary male characteristics, as his testes were removed. This does not mean that he desires to be female.

Islam is arguably the only religion with specific references to transgender individuals  – the Mukhannathun. Translated as effeminate men, these people are mentioned in Hadiths such as Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 41, Number 4910. On the basis of such scriptures, both Iran and Egypt permit gender reassignment surgery. There is however much stigma attached and little discussion on transsexuality. This means people who undergo surgery still do not have the emotional and spiritual support afforded to everyone else.

In recent years, the major world religions have been responding and respectfully grappling with the issues raised by the homosexual community – maybe not as comprehensively as some may like, but there is definitely a dialogue. Pope Francis, for example was voted as the “person of the year” by the gay publication The Advocate, whilst Muslims Matters author Isa Galloway, wrote a very progressive piece on Islam and gay rights in 2012.

Sadly, this is not the case for those subjects that are important to the transsexual community. Their issues always get swept up and bracketed with, especially in Iran, those of sexual orientation. In this respect, the Abrahamic religions deal with them as LGB(T). Identifying as homosexual is on the basis of sexual attraction and desire; being transsexual, means you identify as someone who belongs to the opposite sex. They are thus, in no way the same thing.  The meaning of life for a pre-op transsexual is simple – the overwhelming need to change their physicality to match their psychology.

It is here the Abrahamic religions, on the whole, fall silent, or worse still, begin with unhelpful religious rhetoric. In the author’s experience, many leaders in their wisdom, instead of seeking God’s guidance, attack a straw man by saying “You mean to say that God put you in the wrong body? God designed you. If you change sex you are going against the will of God.” They then go on to quote the story of Adam and Eve: “male and female He created them.”

Firstly, no transsexual person will ever say “I am in the wrong body.” This is very much a media-generated phrase or even one a non-transsexual person will use, in their lack of understanding, to simplify the complexity of the condition. A trans man or woman will simply say “I am a man (or woman)”.

Secondly, in saying God designed you as you are, it is important to note that gender dysphoria occurs from the eighth week of gestation. It is a simple case of God allowing (due to the connotations of a fallen world) excessive or insufficient quantities of sex hormone (testosterone or oestrogen, depending on the sex the unborn child is set to be) to be released into the womb and an inharmonious sexual development of the gonads and the brain. This is a natural (or divine) process which determines the sex and gender (the former is physical, the other psychological) of every single individual. So, could one not interpret this case as one of God’s creations?

Thirdly, would a religious leader ever say to a person suffering from bipolar disorder that, in taking their medicine, they are going against God’s will? Absolutely not. This is not only an absurd and warped logic, but one that would cause tremendous and unnecessary suffering. A person medically diagnosed with gender dysmorphia is no different.

Lastly, saying “male and female He created them”, is not at all refuting a transsexual’s right to change sex. They are not living in a third sex. They are aligning their body to their spirit and psychology.

Ironically, most religious leaders are happy to send such people off to counselling, so that the mind reflects their body. If that were to happen, there would be screams of God providing a “cure”. But why, if the God of the Torah, Bible and the Qur’an places so little emphasis on the body and so much more on the spirit and mind (think Deuteronomy 6:5) are religious communities so hell-bent on maintaining the physicality of the body at the expense of the beauty of the mind?

This article is from Issue 7 of On Religion – a quarterly magazine that provides informed commentary and coverage of religion in the UK. To get more articles like this and support our work, please subscribe to our print magazine:

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About Kai Whiting

Kai Whiting is a British journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.

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