Talking to My Family About Transgenderism
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J Alan BranchJ. Alan Branch is Professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Seminary, where he has served since 2001. Since coming to MBTS, Dr. Branch has served in a variety of roles, including Vice President of Student Development (2001-2008). He is a regular presenter at the Evangelical Theological Society, and frequently contributes to both Baptist Press and the Missouri Baptist Pathway. In addition, he served as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserves from 2009 to 2013 and served a tour in the Midd...more
How do I talk to my family about transgender issues?” J. Alan Branch gives direction for families, affected by confusion and brokenness over this issue, in how to lead with truth and grace.
Talking to My Family About Transgenderism
Bob: This is Bob Lepine from FamilyLife Today. We are, again, going to be dealing today with a very sensitive subject—the subject of transgenderism. For people, who are experiencing gender dysphoria, is there an alternative to hormone blockers and gender-reassignment surgery? Alan Branch says there is.
Alan: At some point, we just have to stop and say, “Wait a minute! How many surgeries are we going to do? Isn’t it a better game plan to say, ‘We understand you feel this way, and we grieve with you. We know it hurts, and we love you; but let’s find a way to try to embrace the image that God gave you. Let’s find a way to embrace that. You’ve got a fight the rest of us don’t have, but we love you. We’re going to be with you through this, but we’re not going to mutilate your body to achieve this goal’?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 3rd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What does it look like for us to respond to the issue of gender confusion or gender dysphoria with both grace and truth? We’ll talk with J. Alan Branch about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Ann, you grew up in a house full of brothers.
Ann: I did.
Bob: And there were times, as you were growing up, where you kind of wished you were a boy.
Ann: I said those exact words to my mom. I was out playing football. I think I was nine years old—eight or nine.
Dave: Let me tell you—this girl can play some football.
Bob: Is that right?
Dave: I’m telling you.
Ann: I was the only girl playing with all the neighborhood boys. I thought I was really good; [Laughter] I don’t know if I was.
Dave: She was.
Ann: But I thought I was. I remember coming in, because somebody didn’t want me to play—one of the boys—they didn’t think I was as good. I walked in the house; I was mad. I told my mom, “I don’t want to be a girl! I want to be a boy! I don’t know why God would make me a girl, because it’s dumb being a girl,”—you know that kind of talk.
Ann: I was glad that my mom didn’t freak out. I felt like I wasn’t like most of the girls; I wasn’t the girlie girl. I was more of a tomboy; I liked all the things the boys did. I didn’t like thinking about the pain of childbirth; and I just thought, “This is terrible. Boys have it so much better.”
My mom’s reaction—I’ll never forget it—because she just sat, and she listened. She said, “Oh, honey, I used to feel like that once in a while.” She said, “But then, when you get older, and you have kids, and you do these things that boys can’t do,” and “You’re going to be amazing at being a mom, or a wife, or a career, or whatever it is you’re going to do—you’re going to be really good at it.” That just settled my heart; that was it. But as I got older, I never even thought about it.
Bob: You have to wonder, “If you had that feeling as a child today, and gone on YouTube, and found the videos”—I mean, we’re talking about the issue of transgender today. This is a whole different era for boys and girls to start to be figuring out, “What does it mean to be a boy or a girl?”
Ann: I think it would be very confusing, and I wasn’t confused in that day. I was just mad in the moment, and I wanted to beat all the boys; but today, it could make it very confusing for so many kids.
Dave: I mean, when you—I mean, we all do—but you search for truth: “Can somebody give me truth?”—your mom was able to do that.
Ann: We believed in Jesus, but I wouldn’t call us a Christ-reared family in terms of biblical teaching. If someone would have brought the Bible to me, I would have been hungry to know what God said. I wonder if more people are than we realize.
Bob: Well, we’ve got Alan Branch joining us today on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back to the program.
Alan: I’m so glad to be here.
Bob: Alan is a professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City and has written a book on this subject that’s very helpful. It’s called Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Both Science and Scripture.
Ann: Alan, I’m interested—I mean, this isn’t a light topic—how did you decide to tackle this?
Alan: Well, part of it is that God’s called me to teach at the seminary. This is a huge issue in the culture. It’s/I feel like part of my responsibility is serving the body of Christ and serving my denomination to answer these issues.
We’ve encountered folks in life that experienced either same-sex attraction, somewhere across the LGBTQ spectrum, or in particular, had family members that wanted to say they were transgender. I have a buddy—now, we’re both veterans—and sometimes, we go eat at Cracker Barrel together. He has a brother that, now, identifies as a woman. These are real people—people we go to church with. Their family members are saying, “What do you do?” So to try to bring something to the body of Christ that is helpful and gives people a way of thinking and, at least, a grid to think through these things and [answer]: “How do I talk to my family member that says their transgender? What do I say? What do I do?”
I think the central verse—I do want to make sure we mention this out of Affirming God’s Image—there is a reason why the book is titled that. It comes from Genesis 1:26-27, so all humans are made in the image of God. Then the next verse, though, is very interesting; it’s Genesis 1:27. It says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female, He created them.” Our sex, being male or female, is not an accident.
I talked about this distinction between sex and gender that secular people make. The Bible doesn’t really make that distinction. The Bible just assumes that you are going to act in an appropriate ways that match your sex. It’s not a bad thing to be born a boy; it’s not a bad thing to be born a girl—it’s a very, very good thing—so we want to affirm the image of God. We want to affirm what God has done, so that’s why we called the book Affirming God’s Image. Some of the things we’ve talked about for parents, at a very early age, affirming the children: “It’s so good God made you a boy,” and “It’s so good God made you a girl.” That’s where the idea of Affirming God’s Image comes from.
Bob: As we talk about this, I’ve had this question come up as I’ve talked with people about this—they say, “What about intersex people?”—people who have genital confusion is about the only way I know how to describe it.
Alan: I’m so glad/I’m really so glad you asked that. So let me/let’s talk about that. First of all, some of the listeners may not know the term Bob just used. Intersex refers to someone who has ambiguous genitalia—the popular term is intersex—the technical term is disorders of sex development. Transgender activists frequently use this as evidence. What they want to say is—they want to say, “Ah! Look, the existence of people with a disorder of sex development proves that gender is very fluid; it’s not a binary. This gender binary you’ve been trying to force upon us is just wrong.”
Well, I think there are some very important differences between modern-day transgenderism and disorders of sex development. Let me give them to you. First of all, a disorder of sex development can be clearly diagnosed. Usually, they are some genetic problem that is taking place, and they can trace it down to the gene. That’s very different from modern-day transgenderism; modern-day transgenderism is all subjective—
Alan: —“Well, this is how I feel.” “Okay, I’m trusting what you’re telling me; I have no objective diagnosis,”—we need to be clear about this. There is no way that you can do a genetic test and look at a baby, genetically, and say, “Aha! This baby is going to be transgender,”—the science has no predictive value about that. There is no way you can do a brain exam and say, “Aha! This is a transgender brain,”—the science has no predictive value. We’re all basing this on subjective evidence, which is a major, major distinction.
One of the key points in ethics is you want to treat different cases differently. A DSD [difference in sex development] is a different issue—disorder of sex development is a different issue from transgenderism. All of us deal with effects of the fall in our body; right? Kids with a DSD deal with it much more profoundly, much earlier, so they need our grace and our mercy; but that doesn’t mean that gender is not binary. In fact, the gender—this is a case where the exception proves the rule—the only reason we know that these kids have a DSD is because the rule is: “The gender binary, male and female,”—
Alan: —so the exception actually proves the rule.
Dave: Now, you have been studying this for—how many years?
Alan: Oh, you know, for the last five years, I’ve really made an intensive study of transgenderism.
Dave: You know, when I was reading your book. I’m reading things I’ve never read—
Dave: —even the surgery and how that—
Alan: Oh, yes; it’s painful.
Dave: —I mean, quite a chapter—
Alan: It’s brutal.
Dave: —to read. What about the results? I mean, as people take hormone therapy or they go in and have surgery to change their—
Ann: —reassignment surgery.
Alan: Yes, that’s right.
Dave: —reassignment surgery—what are the results? I mean, I don’t know.
Alan: That’s a great question. First of all, usually, what they’ll tell you—someone who has had gender-reassignment surgery—is/they will usually say they are pleased with the aesthetic results afterwards, because they look differently. They are usually pleased with that; but the data on the other comorbid psychological issues that go along with transgenderism—here is what you need to know. Transgenderism has a whole bag of other problems that come with it—depression/suicidal ideation—are very, very common.
Let me go ahead and tell you about this.
Ann: —even after the surgery?
Alan: Yes, it’s common after the surgery. This/let me explain what’s going on. Here’s what is happening. The secular people will say: “Well, yes; people who have transgender identity have a higher level of suicidal ideation. Here is why; preachers at churches are saying things about sin, and that gives people guilt. They self-internalize the guilt, and they loathe, and they hate themselves.”
Well, there was a huge study, coming out of Sweden. You will not find a more transgender-affirming country in the world than Sweden. They were looking at about 300-plus folks, who had gender-reassignment surgery—this is 2011, I believe it was—they were looking at what were the mental health outcomes after they had the surgery. What you found was: they were pleased with the aesthetics of the surgery; the suicidal ideation didn’t go away; the mental health problems didn’t go away. They were not in Southern United States/the Bible belt; they were in Sweden. What you find is the comorbid mental health issues, that the surgery is supposed to fix, is not fixing the issue.
Bob: Yes; in fact, there is a book that has come out recently by a left-leaning, gay-affirming, non-Christian—and I bring that up only to say this is not somebody, who would be in our camp—but she’s written a book called Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze that Is Seducing Our Daughters. She’s looking at the data—
Bob: —and saying, “Boy, there is something going on here, where girls, in particular, are being seduced into hormone replacement therapy and surgery.”
Alan: Right; the other issue is puberty-suppressing drugs; this is brutal. These drugs were developed, years ago, to address kids who have precocious puberty. There are some children, for reasons we don’t know, they go through puberty really, really early ages; and it’s not the best scenario, because you want puberty to happen at the right age, where they can emotionally process things. Some drugs were developed in the early ‘80’s to suppress puberty for those kids.
I want to be clear; the drugs were developed for a morally-permissible use. Well, some folks in Holland started saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Some of these kids that are transgender—what if we gave these drugs to them, and we just kept them from going through puberty?” The idea is/they say, “Part of the problem/he anticipatory burden of going through puberty is too great for these transgender kids. They don’t want to go through these changes in their body, so we’re just going to suppress puberty.” What they’ll tell you is this is completely reversible and that this gives the child to make up their mind if they want to embrace transgenderism or embrace their birth sex.
The data shows that’s not what happens. If they start taking the puberty-suppression drugs, they go to transgender. I mean, it’s overwhelming data. Let me just tell you—that’s a bad idea. Children have lots of anticipatory burdens about a lot of things in puberty; but to suppress puberty—and for the boys who want to become girls—it gets very vicious. Let me explain what happens in gender-reassignment surgery. This is why puberty suppression is such a bad idea.
The physicians will take the boy’s genitalia, and they will invert it into his body to create an artificial girl’s genitalia. However, a boy who has been through puberty suppression, his body doesn’t grow as large as it normally would; and there is not enough material there to do that. So then, what happens is they have to go and bisect a piece of the colon or of the intestine and use that to create an artificial female organ. This is brutal surgery; it’s extensive—all in the name of an expansive notion of transgender identity.
Now, at some point, we just have to stop and say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t it a better game plan to say, ‘We understand you feel this way, and we grieve with you. We know it hurts, and we love you; but let’s find a way to try to embrace the image that God gave you. You’ve got a fight the rest of us don’t have, but we love you. We’re going to be with you through this; but we’re not going to mutilate your body to achieve this goal’?”
Dave: Now, I found it interesting—and maybe, I’m understanding this wrong in your book—but it sounded like, when doctors even presented that to the person coming in, like, “Hey, this is how it’s going to go, and I would discourage it,” it seemed like you were hearing/they said, “I still want to go ahead.”
Alan: If we’re trying to understand transgenderism, these are real people; and we don’t want to objectify them just as some sort of object. These are not/these are human beings.
Alan: Some of them are, honestly, brothers and sisters in Christ, who experience gender dysphoria for whatever reason; okay. The challenge is—if someone knows, up-front, how brutal the surgery is, but they still want to go through it, that should give us some idea of how terrible this distress is.
Ann: They are desperate.
Alan: They are desperate; yes. That should cause us to have mercy and to show kindness. Now, the world says, “Well, if you really want to be kind and merciful, then help them through this surgery.” We’re saying, “No, no; that’s not the merciful and that’s not the kind thing to do; but we do love you, and we don’t hate you. We want to be kind to you.”
Bob: I’m thinking about parents, who are raising kids, who aren’t experiencing any kind of gender dysphoria. But here is what they are experiencing: at age 13, or 14, or 15 in their school—if they are not pro-transgender—
Bob: —they are cancelled; they are haters;—
Bob: —they are outcasts. How do we help our sons and daughters understand that it is loving to say, “This is not going to be good for these people. I think this is wrong, because it’s going to hurt them and hurt them for the rest of their lives.”
Alan: Well, truth is never popular in many cases; right? What we want to do, as Christians, is share the truth in love; and our demeanor does mean much. I think part of the challenge we have—particularly in America, when it comes to issues just like you described, Bob, about “How do we stand for the right thing in the right way and endure the fact that we are very unpopular for it?”—it is we have a bit of challenge because this country had such a rich Christian tradition, where Christianity was celebrated as a good thing; but we’re living in a day today, if you get saved, “Oh, well, you joined the haters”; right?
Alan: I think what we have to teach our kids today is, frankly: “You are now stepping into what Christianity is like for the rest of Christians outside of the United States around the world. Christians in Iran already face this. Christians in China already face this for other reasons—it’s not for transgenderism—but it’s for other reasons.”
Teach our kids that: “If you’re going to live for Jesus, here is the truth: ‘Yes, you can have a victorious life’; here is the truth: ‘The world is not going to be happy. Part of being a Christian is loving your enemies. We never have the liberty to be unkind; we never have the liberty to respond in hatred. We just have to tell our friends, “I love you; I care for you. Jesus loves you. I know you are mad at me; I’m not mad at you, and I care about you.”’”
Ann: I think, more than ever before, we have to have these discussions with our kids/with our families. We are in a culture now that we have to know where we are, where we stand, what God’s Word says; and we have to disciple our kids and love them. I love that you’re teaching our kids/that we’re teaching our kids: “We need to love people better, but also be firm in our stance in our biblical worldview.”
Alan: That’s true. It’s true for churches as well because, listen, ministry is messy. I believe in evangelism, and I want people to share their faith in Christ; but sometimes, we forget that, when somebody gets saved, God doesn’t immediately take away everything at once. Life can be really, really messy. Ministry is messy. If you are going to minister to people anywhere across the LGBTQ spectrum, it’s going to be messy. They are going to have questions you didn’t have to deal with before.
I think the best thing that could happen for some churches is, right now—they are arguing about the color of the carpet; or how we should do church government; or the preacher preaching too long, or expository, or topical—they are grumbling about these things. What they need is for somebody, across the LGBTQ spectrum, to get saved and to come to church; and at Bible study, say, “I’ve got a question. I feel like I’m still a male, but I’m a female. What do I do with that?” I mean, they are not going to be worried about the church governance anymore. [Laughter]
Ann: The carpet won’t matter.
Alan: Right; it won’t matter. But in all seriousness, ministry is messy just like that. Jesus came into a messy world; so the church comes into all this mess, and we reach out to people in their brokenness.
There is a fabulous Japanese art form, where they take broken vases, and then they glue them back together with gold. Something that was broken is now more valuable when it’s put back together than what it was when it was in its original state, because of the beautiful art form.
Well, this is what Christ does with people’s lives. Across the LGBTQ spectrum—and especially, people who have gone through gender-reassignment surgery—what do you do?—they’ve gotten saved, and they kind of want to join the church. Well, God can take that brokenness and bring beauty out of it; the gospel is sufficient for that.
Bob: Beauty from ashes—
Bob: —is what Isaiah says. That’s the glorious truth of the gospel.
Ann: And it may be messy—
Alan: It’s going to be messy.
Ann: It may not be a step by step: “Oh look, they are totally perfect now”; it can be messy along the way.
Dave: I mean, you’ve said it; I think it’s key that we lead with grace.
Dave: You’ve got to have truth and grace. I think they are not going to listen to truth—I mean, they/anybody—unless we lead with love/lead with compassion. You’ve been so compassionate every time you’ve talked about this. That’s where you have to start—that they feel loved by the love of Christ, that they would be interested in knowing, “Is there a truth that I’m not seeing?”—“Yes, it is here”; and “Both are equal,” and “It’s actually possible to be truth and grace.”
Bob: Here is how we’ve got to coach and train our kids—because stop and think about it—every parent, when your child is eight/nine years old, you want your kids to have friends—friends that they can connect with. They want to have friends and want to be popular. When you recognize that the rules of friendship and popularity today may require compromise to your faith in order to have friends and be popular, you can’t be a Christian.
Now, what do you care more about—that your kids follow Christ or that they have friends?—here’s what we’ve got to be able to sit down with our kids and say, “You know what? Late elementary/middle school, these are going to be very hard years. What’s going to be in your heart, more than anything else, is you’re going to want the other kids to like you. There may be things that you believe/that we believe, as a family, that your friends are going to say, ‘You can’t believe that; you can’t follow that and be popular.’” You’ve got to prepare them for what’s ahead.
Ann: We have to disciple our kids, and we can’t be passive in it—
Ann: —because the culture and social media/they are discipling our children.
Alan: That’s right.
Ann: And it all starts with relationship. It’s not: “Here are the rules, and here is what we’re going to do.” It is: we are loving them; we are talking to them; we are teaching them God’s blueprint and God’s plan; and “Man, we can be the light of the world.”
Bob: Alan, this conversation has been so helpful/so good. Thank you for the book. Thanks for being here and for coaching us on all of this.
Alan: It’s been a great honor to be here, and I want to remind everyone that is listening that the gospel is sufficient for these things.
Bob: Yes; thank you.
I hope our listeners will get a copy of your book. The book is called Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book by J. Alan Branch is Affirming God’s Image: Addressing the Transgender Question with Science and Scripture. Order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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