He or She? How Should I Refer to Transgender Friends?

Audio Transcript

A very common question we receive is reflected in a question from a podcast listener named Ruth, who asks: “Pastor John, how should we respond when LGBT friends want us to refer to them by a different, opposite-gender name, like when a female asks everyone to now call her by a male name? Should we?” Samantha likewise asks: “In light of the Bruce Jenner interview and other celebrities pushing LGBT agendas, how should a Christian treat a person who identifies under one of these labels? Should I treat a transgender person as the gender they chose or the one they were born with?”

Before I give three guidelines that I thought of that would guide behavior in specific response to those questions, I really do need to lay the foundations here because we are assuming some things that would not be assumed by a lot of people and we need to give an account for why we assume them. I am going to argue from the Bible that, even though the world considers gender distinct from sex, the Christian should be in sync with the biological genetic sex — and there are biblical reasons for that.

Manhood and womanhood are understood and intended in the Bible — that is, intended by God our Creator — that our sex is biologically or genetically identified. Of course, the biblical authors didn’t know anything about genetics, but I am throwing it in because we do and it is in sync with biology, which they did know. There is vastly more to the meaning of manhood and womanhood than biology and genetics in the way we relate to each other, but not less. In other words, manhood and womanhood are glorious, personal realities that transcend genetics and biology, but are never intended to be severed from biology. And one of the clearest ways to see this reality in the Bible is that there are so many references to “male child” or “female child.” I looked them up just to make sure. This fact is so obvious that people wonder, Why are you even arguing? But we need to.

In other words, before children were old enough to express any gender-specific behaviors or desires or preferences, they were identified as male and female. And this identity defined their lives — for example, sometimes in matters of inheritance and other ways. There is no thought in the Bible of the possibility that the sex biologically identified could change because of its rooting in biology. Therefore when Genesis 1:27 says, “God created us male and female,” there is every reason to think that this included our biological, genetic nature at the root of all the other transcendent aspects of male and female personhood. So we have a pervasive, biblical warrant to say that God wills for our sexual identity to be of one piece with our biological, genetic identity. Now that is my biblical premise.

And let me just mention an exception. We all know that there are very, very rare situations of heart-breaking biological anomalies where the anatomical sexual organs are ambiguous or compromised. In those cases, we face very unusual challenges. And if I were a parent to a child who was born in that situation, I think I would ask for genetic testing (which you couldn’t do generations ago) and opt for surgery that suits the child best for what his genetics say he or she is and then raise him or her with that expectation. But that is very, very rare. And we are talking mainly here about clearly identifiable sexual organs at birth through life that should define the trajectory of the sexual and gender life and understanding.

Now how does all that play out in our culture? Even short of surgery we are being asked in Minnesota to treat boys as girls who want to be treated as girls and vice versa so that it determines what team they play on in high school — the girls’ team or the boys’ team — what locker room they use and what restrooms they use. We are being asked to call Bob “Mary” and Sally “Jim.” And this will make obedience to Jesus in the coming days increasingly costly for us. So now, finally, here are my three guidelines:

1) In one sense the names Sally or Jim are culturally arbitrary and we can name our kids whatever we want. We can name them after cars or planets or Greek virtues or Grandma. And calling someone by that arbitrary name that their parents may have chosen or they may choose halfway through life may not imply agreement with all that that name was created to signify by the person.

So if I had a neighbor next door to me, which is very feasible, who was biologically male and everybody knew it and he introduced himself to me as Sally — if I met him for the first time and I saw him the next day, I might avoid calling him anything, but I would probably default to Sally. I probably would until there was a relationship that would go deeper to see whether I could be of any help. So that is one concession I am going to make because of the arbitrary nature of names. And then it is going to get a little more dicey and divisive.

2) However, if in the office where we worked, I was compelled to identify every so-called transgendered person by the pronoun they preferred in all of my emails, or conversations — suppose in emails and conversations I had used “she” for he or “he” for she — or I would get disciplined in the office, at that point I would say to my superiors, I cannot treat he’s as she’s and she’s as he’s. I cannot buy the whole package. I would be lying to call a he a “she.” I am not lying to call a male “Sally.” That is a culturally arbitrary weird fluke. But I am lying if I say about a true Jim who wants to be called Sally, “she.” And it would be contrary to my understanding of sexuality and I would start looking for another job.

3) The same thing applies to bathrooms, locker rooms, and hotel rooms where women identify as men or vice versa. I would refuse to have a roommate who said she was a man, even though I share a room in my travels with my assistant all the time. He is a man and I know he is a man and that is a perfectly normal thing to do. But if they insisted that I share the same bathroom, share the same locker room, or share the same hotel room, I am looking for another job.

So in summary, then, the question is: Are we forced to call them a name that they prefer, which I am probably going to submit to in the short run at least, or are we forced to identify them as a different sex than they really are? Naming may have a certain ambiguity and arbitrariness to it, but the language of he and she and the use of bathrooms and hotel rooms does not. And I will draw a line and say, I will not call he “she.” I will not call she “he.” And I will not intrude on the sexual privacy of a person of the opposite sex or walk into a situation where they would intrude upon mine.

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