When LGBT rights first became a national issue following the Stonewall Riot of 1969, conservative Christians responded with a disastrous campaign against gay and lesbian causes. Christian leaders cited pseudo-science claiming homosexuality was a "choice," or worse, a mental disorder. Preachers regularly promoted the idea that AIDS was God's judgment on LGBT people. And money began to flow into "ex-gay" Christian ministries that promised to make LGBT people straight, but ended up making them suicidal instead.
When it comes to conservative Christianity, it seems the more things change, the more things stay the same. A national debate on transgender rights has rapidly progressed in America, and predictably, conservative Christians have once again elbowed their way to the front lines. Christian leaders make speeches, tortors preach sermons, and political activists make cable news network appearances--each armed with rhetoric intended to incite panic and stir up fear.
Sadly, their messages are just as disconnected from reality as their response to the LGBT rights movement decades ago. By recycling old tactics, conservative Christians are poised to lose the transgender debate in America.
This week, The New York Times reported on a letter from the Obama Administration urging public schools to provide access to bathrooms based on one's gender identity rather than the biological sex listed on a child's birth certificate. Conservative Christian leaders predictably rushed to denounce the move. One of them was Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who is more winsome and thoughtful than some culture warriors. His article, "The real meaning of transgender bathrooms," represents the way many conservative Christians engage this debate. It also demonstrates the three reasons they're destined for failure.
- They focus on ideology while ignoring people: When Christians talk about transgender issues, they often frame it as a clash of worldviews or ideologies. Moore's column, for example, opens thusly: "If anyone had suggested in 2009 that the new president’s administration would seek to target children’s bathrooms for the sake of transgender ideology, the White House would have ridiculed it as a crazy conspiracy theory." The framing stacks the deck so that the statement is difficult to dispute. But it ultimately makes his argument less compelling than his opponents'.
Those who have a more progressive view of transgender issues use concrete language and share specific stories. They talk about real transgender people with real struggles who experience real oppression. Narrative framing usually wins in public debates because it touches listeners' hearts.
Christians' poor framework here is identical to the way they fought the gay marriage battle. They spoke of "God's law" and "historic institutions" while progressives told stories about loving couples who couldn't provide health insurance for their same-sex spouse or pass along their shared possessions as inheritance. Rather than consider their Bible's calls to protect and defend the least of these, conservative Christians attacked some of society's most vulnerable members. This made Christians appear uncompassionate and shifted public opinion to the left. Once again, conservatives fail to remember that if your political position lacks a face, people will assume your political position lacks a soul.
- They prooftext from scripture while ignoring science: Christian discussions about transgender issues often skip over science and use scripture to prooftext their positions. Moore writes that the Obama letter violates "one of the most basic facts of science and life: that there are two sexes." But he then moves swiftly away from science to Bible verses like Genesis 1:27 to argue, "God created us as human, and within humanity as male and female." This attempts to give readers the impression that Moore's views have a scientific basis when they do not.
If Moore wants to grapple with scientific facts, then by all means he should. This would mean explaining how his strict gender binary aligns with the existence of intersex persons, for example. According to research conducted by Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University, around one in 1000 children are born with “bodies that differ from standard male or female” biology. Often for reasons we don't yet understand, many children are born with both a penis and a vagina, as well as those with vaginal agenesis, ovatestes, or genetic disorders such as Klinefelter syndrome. It is generally true, as Moore argues, that there are only two sexes. But not always. Apparently, God sometimes creates humans both male and female or neither fully male nor fully female.
In 2013, I asked Russell Moore about why he failed to mention intersex persons and he said he doesn’t believe their existence is relevant to this discussion because “only a minuscule number of cases involve persons of indeterminate gender.” Sorry, but ignoring the existence of millions of humans around the globe will not cut it. Christians can't invoke science when it suits their goals and ignore it when it doesn't.
The scientific research on gender is growing even more problematic for these Christians over time. Recent research conducted in Europe demonstrates that transgender people have significantly different brain patterns than cis-gender people. MRI scans of female-to-male transgender people, for example, resembles male brain function even though they were born biologically female. Conservative Christians argue that if a person is born a certain way then God intends them to remain that way (only applied to gender identity, of course). But Christian theology asserts that God created our minds as well as our bodies. How does one choose between the two when they do not align?
Christian arguments against LGBT rights and marriage during the late 20th century imploded, in large part, because they ignored science in favor of scriptural prooftexts. Believers once dismissed science that indicated LGBT orientation was not a matter of choice. They ignored psychology's claims that LGBT orientation was not a mental disorder and that "ex-gay therapy" was harmful. All of this contributed to conservatives' withering defeat on same-sex rights and marriage. Similar tactics used on transgender issues are doomed as well.
- They rely on fear while ignoring facts: Conservative Christians often rely on bombast to create a feeling of panic and urgency on culture war issues. They will often talk as if the future existence of Western society--or every society--depends on the matter. Moore, for example, didn't just argue that the Obama Administration's position "won't work." He went on to say it would dismantle our notion of gender and could destroy "people and neighborhoods and nations and culture."
You've heard this kind of rhetoric before. Conservative Christians spent years claiming that gay marriage would destroy all marriage, unravel Western society, and ultimately lead to people marrying their animals. Well, it is legal now, and I'm happy to report that exactly zero straight marriages have been affected by the legalization of gay marriage. Additionally, the decision did not trigger a national movement for animal marriage. (Sorry, Rover, you'll still have to sleep outside.) When conservative Christians rely on breathless doomsday predictions, they become a chorus of boys crying "wolf."
This does not mean that fear is never warranted in culture war conversations. But fear is only rational when it is based on facts. And when it comes to the transgender debate, the facts just don't fall in conservative Christians' favor.
Conservatives claim that that allowing transgender people to access the bathroom of their choice would “create major public-safety issues." They say these laws allow transgender women—whom they stubbornly call “men”—to sneak into bathrooms and prey on “mothers, wives, and daughters.”
These arguments are based on stereotypes claiming transgender people are unstable and dangerous perverts. They drum up fear by portending imminent danger to vulnerable family members and friends. But, worst of all, they are false. There is no credible data suggesting transgender people assault women in bathrooms. Of the 200 municipalities and 18 states that currently have nondiscrimination laws, “none of those jurisdictions have seen a rise in sexual violence or other public safety issues,” according to a coalition formed in opposition to North Carolina’s measures. One study of 17 public school systems that allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice found no reports of “harassment or inappropriate behavior.”
While there is no data indicating any risk to cis-gender citizens, studies show transgender people actually face the risk of assault. A 2013 study indicated that transgender people experience significant levels of harassment when trying to use public restrooms. When it comes to transgender issues, conservative Christians advocate for a privileged majority that is not currently under threat while ignoring the plight of an oppressed minority that is currently being harassed. Are you starting to see the parallels to the way Christian activists bungled the gay rights fight?
In the early 2000s I began predicting that the battle over gay marriage was already over. My conservative friends called me crazy, but time proved who was right. Because conservative Christians seem hellbent on perpetually making the same mistakes ad infinitum, today I'm predicting that the transgender conversation is over. And once again, conservative Christians will be the authors of their own demise.