During the last decade, the United States has experienced a “heating up” of the transgender debate. Unfortunately, that heat is often unaccompanied by “light.” In fact, from a recent website survey, I learned that many of my readers expressed the need to be acquainted with basic terms associated with the debate.

With that in mind, let’s start by clarifying some basic terms associated with the transgender debate. Once we have clarified terms, we can proceed to ask questions such as “What does the Bible have to say about gender identity?” “How should Christians treat transgender persons?” “How should Christians respond to transgenderism as an ideology and a movement?”

The first six terms are essential for understanding the issues and debate surrounding transgenderism:

Sex: the physical identification a person has from birth. It distinguishes male and female from one another, via qualities such as the person’s anatomical design, chromosomes, and hormones. This is the clearest distinction in the bunch, as it’s biologically based.

Gender: similar to sex, but carries social and cultural baggage with it. I’ve heard it said that you “have” a sex but you “do” or “enact” a gender. That can be overstated, but it makes an important point. While sex distinguishes between biological males and females, gender describes the group of behaviors that are typically associated with masculinity and femininity. These can vary across cultures and times. For instance, men in other countries often hold hands to show friendship; they rarely do this in the United States.

Gender identity: is a term used to describe a person’s conception of identity—either as masculine, feminine, or (recently) some other option. Since gender is more fluid than sex, the idea here is that people may choose to align their cultural behavior with a gender that does not match their biological sex. Until very recently, this only expressed itself in behaviors (like cross-dressing). But with modern technology, there is more of a push to force our biology to bow to our gender identity through hormone treatments and surgeries.

Transgender and cisgender: Within the transgender community, the key distinction is between those who are cisgender and those who are transgender . The first term refers to anyone whose gender identity aligns with their biological sex (born male, considers himself male). The second term refers to those who choose not to identify with their biological sex (born male, considers himself female).

Gender dysphoria: the psychological stress that occurs when individuals experience a conflict between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender with which they identify. They were born men but don’t feel like men. Or, similarly, they were born female but don’t feel like a woman. People who suffer from gender dysphoria do not necessarily identify as transgender, as “transgender” indicates not only the emotional experience of gender dysphoria, but also a desire to act upon the dysphoria in certain ways. In other words, a person might experience conflict within, but may not take the step of publicly switching their gender identity.

One thing many people do not understand is that transgender is independent of sexual orientation. Persons who identify as transgender may also identify themselves in various ways sexually: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, or asexual. These sexual identifications are also helpful for understanding the issues and debate surrounding transgenderism.

Heterosexual: directs sexual desire toward the opposite sex

Homosexual: directs sexual desire toward another of the same sex

Bisexual: directs sexual desire toward members of both sexes

Pansexual: directing sexual desire not only toward the traditional male and female genders, but also toward transgendered, androgynous, gender fluid, and all other genders

Polysexual: directs sexual desire toward some, but not all, possible genders

Asexual: is not interested in or does not desire sexual activity

Finally, many people are unclear on the basics of gender reassignment surgery. In male-to-female reassignment surgery, doctors transform the man’s genitals into the shape of a vagina, removing the testicles and inverting the penis. In female-to-male reassignment surgery, doctors remove the woman’s breasts, uterus, and ovaries, and extends the urethra so that the woman-now-man can urinate from the standing position.

[Note: The current post is the second installment in a five-part series, “Evangelical Guide to Transgenderism,” including an introduction, a brief explanation of significant terms, a biblical evaluation of gender identity and gender dysphoria, a reflection on relating to individuals with gender dysphoria, and a response to transgenderism as an ideology and a movement.]


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