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A little empathy, please, on the issue of transgender

OPINION | Justine Toh

Monday 31 August 2015

This piece is written in response to an article published by Eternity in July by Jereth Kok titled ‘A medical perspective on transgender’. 

Jereth Kok’s recent article in Eternity, a medical perspective on matters of transgenderism, highlighted the importance of empathy and for Christians to carefully engage with the issue. He is right, which makes it a pity that his two main points fell short on both counts. It goes to show that it’s possible to be both right and wrong at the same time: we can be ‘right’ about tone and about upholding biblical norms of maleness and femaleness, and yet wrong if we lack love as we go about speaking and thinking on this issue (1 Cor 13:2).

First, Kok claims that apart from transsexuals who genuinely feel their gender mismatches their body, a “great many” people’s transgender identities are a product of choice and being exposed to liberal ideas on university campuses. Apart from the obvious question—how does he know?—this throwaway line about choice in the face of sexual ethics and gender identities that flout biblical norms (and the suggestion that someone is gender non-conforming because, essentially, ‘all the cool kids are doing it’) is profoundly unhelpful.

Not only does it undermine the deep-seated struggles of people who experience gender dysphoria but it also muzzles any legitimate critique of our culture’s often rigid gender norms that people should question—including Christians who want to be faithful to a biblical understanding of sex and gender!

Not only does it undermine the deep-seated struggles of people who experience gender dysphoria but it also muzzles any legitimate critique of our culture’s often rigid gender norms that people should question…

Second, I’m not convinced Kok’s discussion of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is helpful, particularly in his claims that it can only produce “demeaning caricatures of maleness and femaleness.” (Does that hold for transgender model Geena Rocero? And what if future surgical developments are refined to the point that all transsexuals are able to successfully ‘pass’ along with her?)

The substance of Kok’s argument, however, is that SRS fundamentally fails because it does not “scratch the surface of…biological sex.” But surely it’s common knowledge that SRS is ‘cosmetic’ inasmuch as it’s about enabling the person to live in the gender role they identify with—it’s not a wholescale biological switcheroo that involves, for example, a male being kitted out with female DNA, ovaries and a uterus. I imagine that the post-surgical transsexual individual continues to be well aware of the fundamental impossibility of achieving biological fe/maleness (assuming that this was their goal in the first place)—and so I don’t see how helpful or empathetic it is to stress the “cruel and sophisticated myth” of the success of SRS as if everyone actually believed what Kok claims they do on this account.

No one doubts transgenderism—and surgical interventions to (cosmetically) transition someone from one sex to another—pose very complex and difficult questions for Christians. While I, like Kok, am keen to uphold biblical norms about maleness and femaleness and would always want, as a first principle, to preserve the integrity of our given bodies rather than seek to surgically modify them, I think it is equally as important for us to not only seek to be empathic but actually be empathic—and to do so in a way that demonstrates that it is possible to be compassionate without compromising our convictions. Otherwise, our attempts to engage with this issue will be stunted from the start, and we may find Hamlet’s cutting rebuke to his friend will apply equally to us: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

Read our first article on transgender by Tess Holgate: ‘Gender bending? Transgender not as black and white as you might think’. 

Comments on this article are now closed.

3 Responses to A little empathy, please, on the issue of transgender

  1. Lindsey says:

    Thank you, I have just been looking for information about this topic for ages and yours is the greatest I have discovered so far. But, what about the conclusion? Are you sure about the source?

  2. Graham Mack says:

    Thank you for this perspective Dr Koh.

    Another factor to consider in the concepts of maleness and femaleness, and transgender, is intersex people (formerly called ‘hermaphrodites’) – people born neither fully male nor fully female. Most intersex people are more one sex/gender than the other, but there are people truly intermediate with male and female genitalia (they used to be called ‘true hermaphrodites’, but I don’t know what they’re called now).  I saw an assertion once that approximately 1 in 60 people have physical or physiological characteristics that put them outside the fully-male and fully-female binary (eg. atypical levels of some hormones), but I don’t know if that has been verified.

    It’s possible some trangender people are intersex people.

  3. Polly Seidler says:

    empathy yes – these people need extra love and care. Even so, it is important for people to be informed before making decisions to have surgery. read the stories of people who have had gender-realignment surgery. US man Walt Heyer was in Sydney in 2011.  His book “Paper Genders: Pulling the mask off the transgender phenomenon”  (2nd edn, 2011). Walt Heyer who at about 40, had a sex change and then regretted it and 10 years later changed back! He shares the stories of many people who have had sex changes and regretted it and realise that the operation didn’t really fixed their underlying gender hassles.