As I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store this week, I saw a news story about a five year old transgender child. It elicited a mixture of reactions inside of me. I get angry at the way that our scientistic world so ruthlessly diagnoses and categorizes everything. How many 13 year old kids today do not have some variation of attention deficit disorder? How many young children today are not in some form of occupational therapy for developmental delays and sensory disorders? (My older son does OT and my younger son is being evaluated for it.) Part of me is tempted to categorize this kid’s transgender identity with all the other diagnoses of the parenting expert industrial complex that has overtaken our society like kudzu. At the same time, I’ve met people who were clearly anatomically female and hormonally male and vice-versa. I’ve seen boys who acted completely like girls at too young an age for it to be a product of socialization. Many social conservatives assume transgender identity was invented in the sexual revolution. But what if it’s always been around among people who have lived in the shadows? What if God has created some people not male or female, but male-and-female? Jesus says that He can.
In Matthew 19, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce. In verses 4-6, he lays out the traditional understanding of gender presented by the Torah. God created people male and female. Men leave their fathers and mothers in order to become one flesh with a woman, the implication being that their genders perfectly complement one another in a way that they can be united. Several NC preachers used Matthew 19 as a text last month to preach in defense of traditional marriage, which works as long as you stop before verse 10, because that’s where Jesus’ disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Then Jesus says that his disciples should emulate eunuchs, whom he categorizes into three types: “There are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
Eunuchs in the ancient world were men who were castrated so that they could guard the king’s wives and concubines without being tempted to have sex with them. They were thus men who lacked the one definitive aspect of manhood. A eunuch who is “born that way” is definitively neither male nor female, whether it’s a hardware or software question. The use of the term signifies simply one who is incapable of impregnating a woman. Why would God create someone like that if His entire purpose in creating men and women is to marry them off and make babies with them? The problem is that Jesus’ words don’t always fit very neatly into the agenda of the Young Reformed and Restless movement to restore the “traditional” gender roles of the (Eisenhower-era middle-upper-class) family.
In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus effectively makes eunuchs the vanguard of His movement, whether they are non-gendered because of God’s choice, somebody else’s choice, or their own choice. Jesus says that “not everyone can accept” the calling to be a eunuch, but “the one who can accept this should accept it.” Of course, the implication is that eunuchs are celibate, but it’s significant that Jesus elevates to elite status a category of people who were explicitly prohibited from entering the temple in Deuteronomy 23:1 (“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord”). Jesus could have honored celibacy without equating it with a ritually unclean category of person. Instead he chooses to champion non-gendered people.
I don’t know why God creates people who fall outside of gender normality. I do sense from other stories in the Bible that God actively resists our tendency to moralize normality. When we try to say it’s a sin for someone to be born with hormones or organs that are not normal, that’s what we’re doing. The problem with moralizing normality is not only that it results in the persecution of those who are born different, but it cheapens morality as well since what we’re usually doing is designing our moral system around the purpose of validating our own default “normal” behavior. Perhaps God puts people in our lives who fall outside the norms of identity to force us to refine our moral imagination.
In any case, I don’t think that transgender identity can be reduced to a social fad. Maybe some hippie parents out there want to give their children names like Moonbeam and raise them in a “post-gender” kind of way. I’m not comfortable with that because that seems to go beyond accepting those who fall outside the norm and fetishizing difference as an ideal. If you have a boy who can’t imagine being anything other than a boy, isn’t it going to mess him up for you to try and make him into Ziggy Stardust just as badly as if he were hormonally female and you tried to beat him into being manly? Bottom line is we don’t know where other people are coming from or what’s going on inside their bodies. What we do know if we take Jesus at His word is that “there are eunuchs who were born that way.”