Why did the transgender movement catch us by surprise? And how should we respond? That’s the theme of this week on the podcast.
This week we are talking about transgender, a topic of frequent inquiry from our readers, and to help us, we welcome Rob Smith to the podcast. Rob is a theologian who lectures in systematic theology and ethics at Sydney Missionary and Bible College in Australia. He is also an honorary assistant minister at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Sydney.
He approaches the topic of the transgender revolution as a biblical theologian, as a historian of the movement, and as a pastor whose own family has been touched by gender dysphoria. It hits close to home for him.
And we are being hit by what he has called a “transgender tsunami” of gender fluidity in western culture. He has completed extensive research on the history of how we got to now. The transgender movement, as you will hear, did not appear out of nowhere. There is a backstory. And to tell it, here’s Rob Smith.
Yes. Well, thank you, Tony. It is a marvelous question. It certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. You can trace the roots right back to Genesis 3 if you want to — but certainly the modern period — and you can go back to the Enlightenment and then various developments subsequent to that. But in the 1960s a number of revolutions came together. And I guess we are familiar with the label “the sexual revolution” which is, of course, a broad umbrella. But there are a number of things going on there that really set the stage, as you say, for the transgender revolution. Let me just run through a number of aspects that are relevant.
You have got the advent of the contraceptive pill in 1961, which has the effect of severing sex from procreation. And that itself then changed people’s view of sex. It became a leisure activity and something for pleasure rather than having a procreative purpose embedded in it. And that, of course, then opened the door to increased sexual freedom in a very new and pronounced way. So, that is one factor. Also, on the medical front you have the development of antibiotics — they had been around for some decades before the sixties — but the more effective treatment of various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And a perception had therefore developed that people didn’t need to worry about the danger of STDs and, again, increased sexual experimentation.
“Severing sex from procreation changed people’s view of sex.”
So, those things are going on in the broader society and I guess you could say sort of pushed on by medical development. Alongside of that you have got various social revolutions — the feminist revolution perhaps is the most obvious thing to pinpoint here — and again, at the heart of that is a deconstructing of the way people tend to think about sexuality and gender. You have got Simone de Beauvoir’s very famous statement that one is not born a woman, but one becomes a woman. That becomes very, very important for later queer theory and transgender ideology.
You have the problem that feminists are grappling with that biology equals destiny — although they are trying to work it out to stop biology equaling destiny — and one of the solutions advocated by various feminist writers at the time was to eliminate sex distinctions. Considered that, again, a big part of the background to the transgender phenomenon.
And then, you have the homosexual revolution which is there happening again in the late 50s, 60s, and 70s. There is a broader acceptance of sexual nonconformity. You have got the idea that biological sex, perhaps, does not determine a person’s sexual orientation, and therefore it begs the question, Does it, then, in fact, determine a person’s gender? Does there really have to be this necessary connection between biological sex and gender identity?
So, all of those things, I think, are bubbling out of the sexual revolution of the 60s and paving the way for the transgender revolution.
You asked the question: Why didn’t we see it coming? Well, it was there to be seen. Interesting. One of the things I have done is sort of trace back some of the history over the last 100 years or so of the development of the transgender movement. Way back in 1964 you had the creation of the Erickson Educational Foundation, which was designed to promote both gay equality and transgender equality. And that was set up by a trans man named Reed Erickson. Then in 1966 you had a significant publication of the book The Transsexual Phenomenon as well as the famous Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco. So, there are things happening there in the 60s.
Even in ’68 you had the International Olympic Committee wrestling with: What do we do with transsexuals who want to compete in the Olympics? And they had to make a determination about that. And then perhaps the little known fact is that in the Stonewall Riots in ’69 there were transgender patrons involved in that whole episode. And so, the transgender revolution and the same-sex revolution have really been tied together in a variety of ways from the start.
But I think it is just the prominence of the homosexual revolution that kind of has obscured the transgender revolution as it were, just tucked in behind. And now that same-sex marriage is being realized in many parts throughout the western world, it is in some ways moved to one side so that the transgender movement has now stepped forward as the major point of social and legislative and other kind of engagement.
So, there you go. That is my best attempt to try to make sense of how we have got here, how this has sort of come upon us seemingly out of nowhere — but in reality, it’s not out of nowhere.
That’s a great summary of the backstory. I wish we had more time for more of the history, but I want to stay focused on the here and now. As you can imagine, we get a lot of questions on transgenderism in the inbox of this podcast. One of the most common questions, it seems, is that many Christians, so far removed from transgender impulses, ask whether gender dysphoria is itself a phantom impulse, something merely culturally engendered. Or is it real? Tangible? If so, how real is it? You are not far removed from this question. In your pastoral care and personal experience, is gender dysphoria a real condition?
Yes, let’s just be clear for the listeners about what we are talking about here. Gender dysphoria, that expression, is really the latest medical diagnostic term for the experience of distress which some people have when their psychological or emotional gender identity or sense of gender doesn’t match up with their biological or birth sex. Now, previously in earlier versions of what is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that phenomenon was referred to as gender identity disorder (GID).
But there was a move again amongst the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to try to destigmatize that disorder and now it is being normalized in society. And so, what has happened is that it is simply now the distress that the person feels that is being focused on. The person has a mismatch between their sense of gender and their biology, and if they are not distressed by it, then they don’t have any condition according to the APA. They don’t have gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria focuses in on the distress that a person may feel and, of course, most do feel if they have this mismatch.
So, I hope that wasn’t too convoluted, but it is just important to understand what exactly we are talking about. Now, is it a real condition? Well, certainly it is a real experienced condition for those who have this sense of mismatch. For me, almost, it is profoundly distressing and anxiety-producing and shame-producing and oppressive. It is an awful condition or affliction to bear. But I guess the key question looking in there is: What kind of condition is it? And this, again, is where our culture is easily confused.
One of the most confusing factors is that there is a number of conditions that fall under the umbrella of intersex, where a person is born with some kind of genital or biological ambiguity, and that certainly can give rise to gender dysphoria. Or, you can have some tragic stories, for example, of circumcision gone wrong, and then doctors making a decision to turn a boy into a girl, trying to deal with their mistake, and then this boy later on, of course, is going to have profound gender dysphoria.
So, there are those kinds of biologically created instances of gender dysphoria. But for those for whom there is no sort of biological ambiguity or any kind of intersex ambiguity, anything of that kind, then we need to ask, What is gender dysphoria for them? I think the answer is quite clearly that it is a psychological condition, not a biological or, you might even say, ontological condition. The problem is in the psychology: they feel like they are in the wrong body. They are not actually in the wrong body. It is not that you have actually got a man inside a woman’s body, or a woman inside a man’s body. But clearly the person feels as if they have been, perhaps, given the wrong body. They feel that mismatch and, as I said, are very distressed by it.
“Gender dysphoria ought to evoke our compassion because it is a horrific affliction to bear.”
So, if we understand that people really do suffer from this, it ought to evoke our compassion because it is a horrific affliction to bear. That is one of the reasons why the suicide or attempted suicide rate for those with gender dysphoria is as high as it is. So, I hope that sort of hopes. I know it wasn’t a simple answer, but perhaps it clarifies issues.
It does, yes. So is it safe to assume the biological ambiguity is the minority condition, with the psychological condition being in the majority of cases?
Yes, I think that is certainly true. It is enormously difficult to get accurate figures, but I think that is certainly the case.
Interesting. Thank you. Well, we’ve only begun. Rob will be with us all week answering a number of questions — and there are many. So what causes gender dysphoria? That’s the next question I have for tomorrow.