Keeping up: Transgender challenges ahead for news media and 'mainline' Protestants

The New York Times reported this week that the Donald Trump Administration is considering, for federal purposes, a definition that a person is male or female “based on immutable biological traits identified by or before birth,” supplemented if necessary by genetic testing. That would overturn a policy under President Barack Obama to recognize transgender identities.

The Times team repeatedly used the new “Mx.” identifier preferred by Jill Soloway in a lengthy October 14 feature about pro-transgender media. Formerly a married heterosexual raising two sons, Soloway now identifies as “non-binary” after “peeling off” physical femininity (breasts, clothing, hair, makeup) so that “I’m like nothing. Just human.” Soloway produces films and plans to publish a book about “gender-creative” parents who keep their child’s gender “a secret.”

Weeks before that, the Times “Ethicist” column fielded a questioner’s “moral aversion” against attending friends’ “gender reveal party” to celebrate their firstborn because that would affirm “gender binarism.” Prof. Kwame Appiah’s response deemed attendance OK assuming the parents would be equally happy if an infant girl later becomes “a boy, or neither a boy nor a girl.”

There are challenges here not only for elite media policies but for members of “mainline” Protestant churches, clergy and seminiarians. Consider Yale Divinity School’s Reflections magazine edited by Ray Waddle, former religion writer with Nashville’s Tennessean. The current issue — texts not yet posted online — blends support for the budding transgender cause with opposition to patriarchy and #MeToo abuse.

The trans movement says gender identity is “assigned” by the culture, and thus changeable, avoiding considerations of birth genitalia (Yale doesn’t mention chromosomes).

This approach is gaining. Ligonier Ministries’ biennial survey on Americans’ beliefs finds 46 percent of Millennials under age 35 agree “somewhat” or “strongly” that one’s “gender identity is a matter of choice.”

Journalists will ponder words in Yale’s “gender identity & affirmation” guide (.pdf here and note that the “worlkplace” typo in URL is needed for access). Each person’s “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun) is to be followed, and new labels observed — “transgender” not “transsexual,” “gender-affirming surgery” not “sex change,” “cross-dresser” not “transvestite,” or “cisgender” instead of “binary” male or female.

Yale’s glossary defines transgender as an expression or identity that does not conform to the “assigned” gender or “cultural norms.” A “trans man” was “assigned female at birth” but identifies as male, and a “trans woman” the opposite. Reflections notes that New York City officially recognizes 31 gender self-identities, and Facebook more than 50. Journalists should be familiar with the key ones defined by Yale.

Androgenous — “Non-binary” identity with both male and female characteristics.

Asexual — Self-identified as experiencing no sexual attractions.

Cisgender — Gender identity conforms to a person’s biological gender.

Gender nonconforming — Covers many identities beyond male or female.

Genderqueer — Also beyond male or female, or having elements of multiple genders.

Intersex — Born with an ambiguous biological gender, typically treated with surgery that trans activists consider “genital mutilation.”

Pansexual — Physically attracted to all gender identities.

Queer — A term some dislike, so used only if it’s the person’s chosen identity, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or “fluid.”

Yale liturgy professor Teresa Berger writes that some congregations have a “diversity of genders and gendered experiences,” but admits many will have difficulty with worship modes to accommodate the trans movement. In addition to older inclusive language, e.g. adding “sisters” to “brothers,” she says inclusive language for “non-binary and gender-queer persons” is needed in contexts where “traditional gender codes crumble.”

More broadly, Yale alum Angel Collie, now at Duke University and a leader in the Transgender Seminarians Leadership Cohort, insists that churches dismantle “heteronormative cisnormative” trappings and structures of “cissexism.” To welcome the “queer and trans communities,” God should be given more “gender non-specific” names (Parent, Creator, Divine), alongside verbal changes in sermons, hymns, prayers, and Bible studies, as well as renovated rest rooms.

A related or separate story topic in Reflections is the “Our Whole Lives” K-12 sex education curriculum, which avoids “rigid gender and sexual-orientation theologies.” It is produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and promoted in the United Church of Christ.

Yale alum Kate Ott, an ethics professor at Drew Theological School who questions the old “no sex until marriage” rule, favors this curriculum. It follows elaborate guidelines (.pdf here) from the liberal Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

There’d be a good feature in how parents and youths in local “mainline” congregations have responded to this instruction.

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