This is one person’s interpretation of theology and how Christians should respond to transgender identity. There are also many, many, examples of Christians welcoming members of the trans community. Jenner herself identifies as a Christian and has at times been a regular church attendee. But these reactions also point to the challenges ahead as transgender issues—and individuals—become a more prominent part of culture.
“Many evangelicals, and probably most Americans, [believe] that sex and gender are the very same thing,” said Sara Moslener, a professor at Central Michigan University who studies religion and sexuality. Outside of the LGBT community, many people haven’t had significant exposure to transgender issues. And for those who look to their church and faith for guidance on sexuality and gender, Biblical teachings don’t necessarily speak to the complexity of transgender identity. “When evangelical Christians look at the Bible, they go to the creation story and say this is the story of Adam and Eve, this is how God created it,” Moslener said.
These first-principle disagreements about the nature of gender and sexuality might stay contained within their respective spheres—some culturally conservative Christians will reject the choices of Caitlyn Jenner and her transgender peers, while many other Americans will choose to celebrate them. But from a legal perspective, the challenges are just beginning. In a panel discussion at a conference on religion and politics I attended this spring, John Inazu, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said transgender issues pose “conceptual challenges” to both liberals and conservatives: Equality for transgender people is a question of identity, not sexual practice. “This plays out in institutional policies that are down to how many and where the bathroom is going to be and who plays on the sports teams,” he added. “These are all binary decisions, and they’re zero sum, in some sense.”
In other words, refusing to call Caitlyn Jenner “she” isn’t just a question of etiquette or philosophy; it could have real implications for how policies are created in everyday communities. This is about being able to find a person at the DMV to change an “M” to an “F;” letting transgender girls join Girl Scout troops, creating protections against harassment and unequal treatment; and making sure people can get adequate medical care during a gender transition, if they so choose, and after.
And in some cases, it may be about preventing irreversible tragedy. Late last year, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen from Ohio, committed suicide. In a note she posted to Tumblr, she wrote about her conservative Christian mother’s reaction to her desire to start transitioning to a female identity: “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
“I’m not against anybody. I’d just like for somebody to bring their brain to work some day and not leave it on the bed stand when they show up to govern,” said Huckabee about recent ordinances concerning gender-neutral bathrooms. There is a difference between allowing people to hold their beliefs and allowing those beliefs to shape public policy; and there is a difference between holding beliefs and mocking those who believe differently. The adjustment period on this issue will be complicated. And as the response to Caitlyn Jenner has shown, it’s only just beginning.