This last week seems to have been “Transgender Week” on television. NBC News devoted lengthy segments of its nightly broadcasts to stories about parents who had determined their young children to be transgender and were raising them as such. ABC aired a 2 hour interview with Bruce Jenner in which he declared he was a woman and would be living as one for the rest of his life. In each of the stories, embracing one’s transgender reality was portrayed as brave and courageous and as the right thing to do. As a Christian Physician I was left wondering how I would respond to a patient or a parent in a similar circumstance. What would be the right thing to say?
As I ponder the question I am struck by how society’s definition of the “right” thing to say has evolved over time. In the not too distant past individuals who identified as transgender were considered to have a psychiatric condition that warranted treatment. Homosexuality was similarly considered to be a disorder at one time. What changed? Many assume that it was advances in scientific understanding of sexuality and gender identity that led to the change, that with increased understanding came more widespread acceptance.
The truth is that there have not been any major scientific breakthroughs in the area, that no genes have been isolated nor hormonal alterations identified. While it is possible that such discoveries may be forthcoming the increased acceptance of the medical and scientific communities has not been a result of traditional research. The reasons for the change in perception are primarily cultural and arise from a change in how society defines normal behavior.
Our nation was founded by people who were, at least in the large majority, religious in a Christian sense. Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, made it clear that the fundamental rights of men were a gift of God. We were “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As rights came from God so did the definition of what was right and what was wrong. Moral law was established by God, not defined by men.
Over time the emphasis drifted away from the Creator who gives rights and more to the rights that are given. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continue to be sacrosanct, but their definitions have become individualized. Happiness is now defined not as a result of doing what is right in the eyes of God but in doing what is right in the eyes of the individual. Liberty is no longer defined as the freedom to do right but as the freedom to do as one pleases. Autonomy is everything.
With this evolution of thought comes the rejection of a universal moral law. Right and wrong behavior are determined, whenever feasible, as what is felt to be right or wrong by the individual actor at a particular moment in time. Behaviors that were unquestionably wrong become first tolerated, then accepted, then embraced and then ultimately defended against those who would disagree.
In the realm of sexuality this cultural evolution can be seen in our views toward premarital and extramarital sex, abortion, homosexuality and same sex marriage. Societal attitudes toward the transgendered are similarly evolving. Attitudes toward the polyamorous are in the early stages of gaining societal acceptance. In every one of these cases scientific “validation” has followed the cultural change, not preceded it.
This is how it must be in such things, for biology can never prove morality. While saying “I was born this way” requires others to give careful consideration to the feelings of another and to proceed with caution in responding, it is not proof of goodness or rightness. There are many conditions with which people are born that are considered unacceptable and in need of correction. Medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, and mental conditions such as schizophrenia and alcoholism are not considered acceptable simply because the patient was “born that way.” If pedophilia is one day discovered to be genetic it will not be instantly considered acceptable and appropriate. Science can never prove morality and goodness.
The recognition that moral values, not scientific facts, determine societal responses to sexuality is crucial in determining how we respond to the Bruce Jenners of the world. As a Christian physician, if I am asked by a parent how they should respond to a child who they thought was transgendered my response would be different from other physicians, for my moral viewpoint is different. I would have to preface my response by addressing the basis for any response the parent could make.
I would say that how we respond is based on what we believe. The Christian worldview is that right and wrong are not determined by our feelings but by God. It is true that everyone has feelings and desires, many which they are born with and cannot change. It is also true that everyone has a choice as to which feelings they embrace and follow and which feelings they do not. The Christian view is that when we follow those feelings which are good in God’s eyes we will experience blessing, in the next life if not in this one. If the parent embraces this viewpoint they will need to get professional help in responding to their child in such a way that allows them to accept the reality of their feelings and what that means for their future, in helping their child determine God’s plan for their life and how they can live with the feelings and desires given them at birth.
The secular worldview is that right and wrong are not absolute and that our understanding of morality evolves over time. Many in our culture have concluded that multiple forms of sexual identity and desire are acceptable and good. From this perspective parents would be more apt to encourage the child to "follow their heart." I would also encourage parents who embrace this perspective to get professional help in responding to their child in such a way that allows them to accept the reality of their feelings and what that means for their future, in helping their child recognize which feelings are enduring and should be embraced and which are temporary and need not be followed.
As our societal evolution has progressed to the point of aggressively defending individual moral choices against those who disagree (in some cases to the point of punishing those who do not embrace majority thought), Christians need to be especially careful in how we respond to these situations. It seems to me that the best initial response is to say that while many may disagree, we are of the opinion that right and wrong are determined by God and not by men and that not all feelings need to be followed.
Follow me on twitter @bartbarrettmd. You can have every post delivered straight to your inbox by subscribing to the blog. Interested in having me speak to a church group or meeting? I can be reached through the contacts link on the website.