Transgenderism and Religious Narratives

National Public Radio recently aired a series on children who suffer from what some psychologists call a gender identity disorder, also known as transgenderism. The children believe they have been born into the wrong biological body. It is not that the child wants to “become” a boy or girl, but that the child is certain he or she is in the wrong physical body. Parents describe what it is like to raise a child with gender identity disorder. Along with tantrums and other behavioral problems, one describes a two year old son’s refusal to take off a dress; another explains their two year old son’s obsession with a tea towel used to simulate girl’s hair. As these children get older, they become more uncomfortable with “male” things and male friends.

The NPR series looks at the ways parents have chosen to treat this situation. The most popular approach is exemplified by Dr. Ken Zucker. Zucker’s strategy is to remove all “feminine” things (clothing, toys, even the color pink) from male children who have this disorder. On the other end of the spectrum, there are doctors like Dr. Diane Ehrensaft who see Zucker’s approach as unethical. Ehrensaft does not see the child’s crisis as a “disorder” in need of a cure. She instead encourages the parents to allow the child to live how she/he chooses.

Recently a controversial new treatment has become available to children with gender identity issues. At the onset of puberty, children receive a hormone-blocking injection that prevents them from maturing sexually; boys will not get facial hair and girls will continue to grow taller. Then, at the age of sixteen, the teen may choose to take hormones of the opposite sex. This will cause sterility, but also the physical changes the patient wants. Males taking estrogen begin to develop breasts but do not develop Adam’s apples; girls taking testosterone do not develop breasts. The person is almost indistinguishable from someone born into that biological sex.

One listener called in and responded that it would be cruel to think that a creator would deliberately put people into the wrong bodies. But perhaps it is the religious grounding of our culture that makes us think there are only two types of bodies to begin with. Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor of biology and women’s studies, has long argued that the two-sex, dimorphic system we use is not sufficient to accurately encompass the range of human existence. In her work, Fausto-Sterling has shown that absolute dimorphism does not exist: “Chromosomes, hormones, the internal sex structures, the gonads and the external genitalia all vary more than most people realize.” Not surprisingly, brain researchers investigating male transsexual brains have now demonstrated that even at the level of brain structure, purely “male” and purely “female” does not exist. Fausto-Sterling’s suggestion was to use five sexes instead of the usual two. She notes with surprise that this suggestion created a great deal of controversy among groups such as right-wing Christians.

As a scholar interested in religion and gender, I did not find the controversy at all surprising. The implicit dimorphism of the story of Adam and Eve deeply conditions our understanding of the possibilities of our species. But consider the cases discussed in Serena Nanda’s book Gender Diversity. From the part-male, part-female “berdache” or “Two-Spirit” people of North American Indians, to the well-known hijras (“not-male, not-female”) of India, her book examines how narratives of these cultures provide a space for people outside the binary gender divide. In some cases, it is the religious narratives themselves that provide this space. For example, there is the Thai Buddhist origin story of three original sexes/genders and the epic of the Mahabharata where the hero, Arjun, lives for a time as a eunuch-transvestite.

As I listened to the NPR program, I was powerfully affected, not just as a sympathetic human, but also as a religion scholar. I wondered if these children would ever know that it is not that their bodies or minds are “wrong,” but that the narratives of our culture are too limited for their bodies, their minds, and indeed, even their fantasies.

Ann Fausto-Sterling, “The Five Sexes, Revisited.” Sciences 40, no. 1 (July/August 2000): 18-24, 19.
J.-N. Zhou, M. A. Hofman, L.J. Gooren and D. F. Swaab, “A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality.” Nature 378 (1995): 68-70, 68.
Serena Nanda, Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations (Waveland Press, 1999).

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.