Transgender and religion — Transgender people regularly experience negative reactions from people with a religious background. Or they are struggling with their transition, because of their own religious convictions. I personally experienced both during my transition from woman to man. The question of whether or not a transition was allowed in God’s eyes has kept me from my transition for a long time and the question still continues to bother me.
Hoping to answer my questions, I asked other trans people about their experiences with faith and their religious environment. I also talked with a fellow transman who has a background in theological studies.
The story of Gé (46), information specialist
“I was born in a Christian family and went to a reformational secondary school. When I left for university, I felt more room to create my own identity. I took a boy’s hairstyle and wore trousers. I also studied my faith better, by reading more and talking about it with others. I learned to read the Bible in a way different from the one I was taught at home.
I first encountered the word ‘transsexualism’ at the age of twenty. When I understood what the word meant, it was a huge relief: I recognised this! Followed by the burning question: what now? I saw absolutely no possibility for me to transition. That was partly because of my faith.
My knowledge increased, but that didn’t mean I discovered what God thought of me.
I regularly went to our church with my mother until I turned 35. Although I’d officially changed my name six years earlier, I still wore a skirt to that church.
Sometimes friends asked me; ‘how can a rational person like you believe?’. I couldn’t explain it myself. Something was lit inside me when I was younger; and that flame has never died. Despite the storms I’ve been through. I didn’t feel it necessary to ask permission for my transition at church. I didn’t want to cause a stir.
At one point I could no longer combine my feelings and going to church services in a skirt. I didn’t go with my mother anymore. I talked to my mother about it and she said “You could wear trousers?”, but I didn’t want to appear different to others or attract questions.
When I’m with them for a weekend, my father and I stay home and listen to the church service where my mother is. I still go to that church for large events like weddings or funerals. The people there would accept my gender, but I’d rather not be asked about it.
At the age of thirty-eight, I underwent a hysterectomy (operation where the uterus is removed). A long period of doubt preceded this. In the end I thought: God bless this procedure. That meant a new attitude for me, a turning point in my life. Unfortunately, the operation brought complications. People asked me: don’t you see this as a punishment from God? But that’s not the image that I have of God. It’s human nature think in action and reaction. God’s logic, however, could work differently. You quite often read that God punishes people after certain actions or occurrences. There are also plenty of examples in which this doesn’t happen as well.
For years I was hindered by thoughts based on a text in the Bible book of Matthew:
” If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me continuously.”Bible Book of Matthew, Verse 16:24
I interpreted it as: ‘if you want to follow Jesus, then suffering is part of it’. I thought I had to make peace with how I was born and accept my personal pain of gender dysphoria. I still think that pain is part of being Christian. However you can deal with this in different ways. I thought I wasn’t allowed to transition. Eventually I couldn’t suppress the want to do something about it. I still don’t know if God supports my decision, but I probably will never get clearance on it.
A very special Child
The Story of Jolien (24), sculpture artist
“My parents chose a Catholic primary school for me because it was close to home. As a child, I was often occupied by Jesus and God. Probably influenced by my school. I thought something was wrong with me, so every night I prayed “Please, can I wake up normally tomorrow?” It was a constant struggle. I did not feel welcome within the Catholic faith, as trans-feminine child, seen as a boy. At school it was never really said that homosexuality was ‘not okay’, but that’s what it came down to. Whenever children talked about it, this was ignored by our teachers. If homosexuality was already a taboo here, what did this mean for me, as a trans feminine child? I got the feeling that God hated me.
I had to change in a broom closet for gym class
I started to transition when I turned eleven. There were parents who struggled with this and they complained to the school management. They probably felt that a transition wasn’t allowed in the Bible. They thought it was weird and scary: ‘They wanted to protect their children’. I should’ve been protected against their children who were bullying me. I wasn’t allowed to go to the student WCs at school anymore. I also wasn’t allowed to change my clothes in the boys or girls rooms for gym class. Instead, I had to change in a broom closet on my own.
My parents didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t tell them all the details of the bullying at school. I was afraid that they would worry about me. I was afraid that if they knew the truth about how the other students treated me, I’d no longer be able to go to school on my own. They didn’t stand up to the school board. They thought it was safer for me to be treated differently than the other students. This created the image among my classmates that I was a very strange child.
It wasn’t much different at school camp. I was allowed to sleep with the girls, but I had to change clothes in the teachers’ hut. I didn’t do that in the end. The girls had no problem with me changing clothes; that helped me. Their parents had a good relationship with my parents.
It was mainly a father, also a teacher, who was extremely negative about me. He gossiped about me to other parents, he rallied other parents to complain to the school management. He also said things like “That child is perverse. That child is dangerous. ” As a child you think that what an adult says or does is true. So I almost believed this as well.
I looked at the world, my body and science
Around the age of thirteen, my parents contacted Transvisie (the patient organisation for people who have questions about gender identity) and they visited a group for parents with transgender children. Unfortunately, during my transition, that group didn’t exist yet. It would’ve helped me at that time if there’d been an adult who could have informed the school and the parents better. Fortunately, there’s now better education on transgender issues.
During secondary school, I started distancing myself from Christian belief. I found more connections with nature-based religions. They made me feel welcome.
In the Christian faith and other religions based on one God, the starting point is always that humans are placed here on earth by a creator with an intention. I noticed that when I looked at the world, my body and science, we are just part of this planet.
It’s a pity how faith can often cause division instead of connecting people. And it is unacceptable that we’re stoned or murdered in many places in the world because we’re transgender. The reason for this, in my view, is the influence of patriarchal monotheistic beliefs like Christianity and Islam. Many hypocrites use faith as a justification to sow hate. I don’t feel welcome in my transgender identity within those types of religions for this reason.
“A woman is not to wear what is appropriate to a man, nor is a man to put on a woman’s garment, because anyone who does this is detestable to the LORD your God.”
Bible Book of Deuteronomy, 22:5
How to deal with religious pressure
Interview with Martijn (54), coach
Martijn studied theology at a Catholic institution. When during the final stage of his study he began his transition, he noticed that his teachers reacted negatively. Often not even with theological reasons, but with remarks such as ‘you shouldn’t operate on a healthy body’. At the same times an assessment was carried out by the bishops, to judge if the educational program was true to the Catholic doctrine, and to check if all the teachers were properly married, and not living together out of wedlock, or practicing homosexuality. Martin figured he had no chance of being hired as a researcher, seeing how after transitioning he would be a gay man with a trans background. When his thesis proposal kept getting rejected for undefined reasons he’d had enough, and dropped out. After which he resigned from the Church. Finding a sense of purpose is still important to him, but he doesn’t feel connected to institutionalized religion.
What does the Bible say about transgender people?
Nothing. Transsexuality is a concept from the 19th century, just like homosexuality and other variations in sexual preference and gender. That isn’t to say, that in the time of the Bible, people never existed with the feelings we would now call transgender. A way to express those feelings probably did exist, just not in the way that we express them now. Words like ‘gender identity’ didn’t exist back then. You can’t put those words or concepts back into a different time or culture.
What to think of references to “A woman is not to wear what is appropriate to a man, …” ?
This quotation from Deuteronomy 22:5 deals with temple rites in “The Promised Land” rather than daily choices of clothing. Other cultures and religions than that the “chosen of Isreal” were polytheistic. Monotheistic religions like Judaism were extremely rare. The various writers of bible books probably felt that they had to justify the choice of one God. The bible is written in times of patriarchy where there was a strict definition of roles and behaviours expected from men and women. The reversal of roles was rejected and even looked down upon as being heathen. The same way polytheistic religions were. The commandments in Deuteronomy are supposed to act as an affirmation of monotheism. This bible text has also left spores in our culture, as being openly transvestite (wearing the clothes of the opposite gender) was forbidden until 1983. Another interpretation of this is that for someone in transition, men’s or women’s clothing is not clothing of the opposite sex at all, but of the desired gender. Furthermore, it is striking in a broader sense that these kinds of commandments are so emphasised in strict religious circles, but other commands are not. I would consider this as being too selective in text selections from the Bible.
Does it matter how you interpret the Bible?
Apart from the different translations and versions of the Bible, it certainly makes a difference whether you take the Biblical stories literally, or whether you consider the cultural background of that moment. It also matters whether you see the book as ‘the truth’ or as a collection of stories with many truths that can inspire you to a certain way of life. It surprised me that the strict Reformed churches, where the Bible is very well known, stick to Old Testament laws. In the New Testament there are texts to be found, such as Galatians 4: 4-11, Colossians 2: 16-23, Hebrews 9:10, Romans 13: 8-10 and 1 Timothy 4: 1-5, which emphasize that the laws from the Old Testament applied until the coming of Christ and then after his arrival only the commandment of Love applies.
God created man and woman?
You can interpret that in different ways. I interpret that as follows: God created Adam, which means ‘human’. So Adam does not literally stand for man. But for the primal form of ‘human’. Eve is not just a woman, but rather a kind of primal mother who passes on life to all generations.
Does God allow us to change our bodies?
There is nowhere in the Bible that says this shouldn’t be allowed. We don’t ask this in other surgical interventions such as a cleft lip, an open back, or in cosmetic surgery if God allows it?
People who think that God will punish transgender people: nonsense?
God is a god of love, that’s what Jesus teaches us in response to the punishing of God in some of the Old Testament stories. The name Jesus also means: He who frees.
What if your own parents reject you because of their religious convictions?
Perhaps you can ask a pastor who thinks differently about transgender people to talk to your parents. If a pastor doesn’t help, you may wonder whether you want to or continue adapting to your parents or not. That might mean separation. This decision will be more difficult if you have constraining circumstances like living under the same roof or being financially dependent.
What if you experience rejection and exclusion at school or in your immediate environment?
Your personal safety has priority. Try first to talk with a pastor, coach, or mediator or anybody else able to help. You need a network of social support. In the Netherlands it is illegal to discriminate people on the grounds of their gender. Based on this you could go to the police or to seek help from institutions fighting discrimination. The point is however that it can be hard to prove discrimination based on religious grounds, and these cases are rarely prosecuted, as long as hate is not encouraged. If your safety is in danger, leaving that environment behind is probably the only option.
Writing this article on transgender and religion helped me to realise that we need confirmation while we search for ourselves. Important people in our lives and institutions like the church can influence our choices. But ultimately only we ourselves can decide what we do with our lives.
In addition, read the story of Simon: a personal essay about their intersecting religious and genderidentities: ‘OMG, Joods en ook nog queer?’
Want to read more? Dutch historian Alex Bakker’s autobiographical novel (translated in English), My untrue past, exposes his transsexual perception process. The writer was born the youngest daughter in a Protestant family in the Dutch province Drenthe.
On the English website of the Dutch Stichting Wijdekerk you will find many personal stories and information links.