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Responses to the Adventist Church’s Statement on Transgenderism

Last week during Spring Meeting, the General Conference Executive Committee voted to pass a “Statement on Transgenderism.” The statement was crafted by the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), a General Conference entity. President Ted Wilson stated that the statement had gone through 21 revisions and had been “vetted and vetted and vetted” by specialists on the topic.

Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International released its official response to the statement on Friday, April 14 which read in part:

“Kinship has reviewed this statement thoroughly and finds that, at a surface-level reading, this document professes love and acceptance for transgender people and includes a call to treat them with ‘dignity and respect.’ Nonetheless, that does not diminish the genuine harm of this clear declaration: ‘As long as transgender people are committed to ordering their lives according to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage they can be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.’  By this, the church has permitted and even encouraged the refusal of membership on the basis of gender identity and sexuality for those who cannot conform. . . . Kinship rejects the underlying message that transgender individuals are more inclined to 'biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices' because of their gender identity. . . . We encourage everyone in the LGBTIQ community—especially our transgender family—to remember this: no statement, vote, position, or proposition can take away from you the depth of your experience, your journey, your truth, and the fact that God loves you just the way you are.”

Kinship’s response can be read in full on its website.

In the days following, several transgender individuals spoke with Spectrum staff about their thoughts on the statement. Their responses are included here:

RESPONSE #1

Randi is a transgender woman born into the Seventh-day Adventist Church to lifelong Adventist educators. She is a successful professional with a family that includes her spouse of nearly 33 years and two young adult children. She is a retired U.S. Military officer who spent four years teaching at an Adventist institution. She fully transitioned after leaving church employ. She actively participates in her local congregation and has held a wide range of church offices that include head elder, Sabbath School leader, community services director, and more.

I have watched the progression of this statement over the past few years with special interest because I am a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist who is transgender and thus have a vested interest in the issue. I have spent the better part of half a century reading the science relevant to the topic, the personal biographies of many transgender people, and the writing of theologians and other thinkers relating to the topic. Further, I having worked through a deep personal struggle largely brought about by how the church relates to those who are somehow different or unique, beginning in early childhood and finally resolving at some point in my mid-30s. I’ve realized that God loves me in all of my uniqueness and celebrates the wonders of His diverse creation through the various skin, eye, and hair colors, shapes of faces and bodies, through our handedness, through or unique personalities and abilities, and yes, through intersex, gender non-conforming, and transgender people like me.

I find this statement deeply troubling and problematic. Space here does not allow for a detailed review, but the problems start with the title and the use of the term “transgenderism.” It takes little effort to know or realize that transgender people find this term very offensive. Having followed the evolution of this document, I find it troubling that BRI continues to cling to the bad science which its earlier version directly referred and the current version retains in its foundation. The body of recent science, medicine, and psychology that is available includes work by Adventist scholars at Adventist institutions, but this research seems to have been nearly wholly ignored, thus enabling the disproven work of yesteryear to dominate. This is reflected in the inclusion of the terminology “Gender Identity Disorder” (used in the DSM IV TR) to attempt to discredit or lesson the value of the current term “Gender Dysphoria” (found in the DSM V).

From the stand point of theology, the statement completely ignores the potential theological paths that fully support transgender and intersex people. The very short version of this path includes the statements by Isaiah, restated by Christ reflecting on the three distinct types of eunuchs. This also falls in line with the inclusion of the gentiles and all nations, kindred, tongues, and people we find in the long arc of Judeo Christianity and beyond who make up the group which is saved and cannot be numbered.

Next, many of the admonitions in this document, which are at best convoluted, are specifically contrary to known best practices of care for transgender people. This is cause for great concern as it creates a foundational position that causes the church to be ill-suited to minister constructively and helpfully to transgender people—children in particular.

In the fall of 2016, I presented a paper for the North American Division meetings on this topic, and I would like to include the final paragraph from that document:

The Seventh-day Adventist Church sits at a cross roads on how it relates to transgender and intersex people. The church can take one of several approaches, ranging from hostile, to wait and see, to full acceptance into fellowship. From this author’s perspective, the hope is that the Church and the Seventh-day Adventist denomination embrace a position that supports the transgender person, their families, and friends and provides a safe fully inclusive haven. I hope that the wisdom of committed Christian and Adventist scientists, physicians, and mental health professionals who are knowledgeable and studied on this topic are given sway as they are in the best position to inform our faith on this topic, just as they are given sway on most other matters of both mental and physical health. It would be welcome news to learn that we look to scripture and draw the larger circle advocated in this paper.

I believe the church’s statement is largely a failure when judged against what I had hoped for. Although I am deeply saddened, even angered, by the statement, I am not surprised by it.

RESPONSE #2

M.M. is a transgender woman and former Seventh-day Adventist living in Seattle.

I drifted away from Seventh-day Adventism as I realized the church doesn’t have a place for me, and statements like this only reinforce that understanding. I have many Adventist friends who would say, “you could come to our church!”, and I know there are isolated communities of Adventists who would allow me to fully participate in their church community, but let’s not kid ourselves—these people are going against the prevailing culture of the corporate church.

That being said, the Adventist community is a small one that I will forever be connected to. It’s an absolute part of my life. My grandfather was an Adventist pastor,  and many of my spiritual concepts were formed growing up in an Adventist family.

I’m distanced enough from the church these days that this statement wasn’t surprising; it was just disappointing. I don’t take it personally. Being Adventist isn’t a core part of my identity anymore because I can’t trust the church with that. But it makes me concerned and sorry because I know there are many trans people who  are still deeply involved in the Adventist community. When I read this statement, I imagine their discouragement and disappointment. It objectifies them as nothing more than sexual objects and assumes trans people are more sexually promiscuous than any other person. But that’s not why transgender people transition. I know so many trans people and can honestly say that on average they are less promiscuous than many of my heterosexual friends. Being trans is not about that. It's not a lifestyle choice. This is an internal crisis we’re averting. And there are medical treatments that are highly effective to help us lead normal lives.

Even if you are a trans person who is part of a loving, Adventist community that affirms you and doesn’t hypersexualize or judge you, you would see this statement coming from leadership, and there’s a dissonance there. And then there are trans people like me who aren’t out to their communities or places of work. There are trans people who are serving the church and fully committed to its guiding principles, and I guarantee you there are many that suffer in silence knowing they are completely misunderstood.

The statement is built on the idea that there are two people at the beginning of creation who are perfect, and this is the idea we should all emulate today. I don’t necessarily disagree with the story, but I think it’s really important not to assume that somebody who is born with an expression outside the perfect biblical binary— whether physical or mental—is predisposed to be more sinful because they were born that way. Nor should we advocate to prevent them from getting medical intervention that would help them live a normal authentic life. To ignore the modern approach to medicine and say that even though trans people are born with this medically verified condition that they should not undergo any type of medical treatment that will enable them to live normal lives is really hypocritical. It flies in the face of research being done—even in our own Adventist institutions, and the care being given by Adventist medical clinicians. It ignores that the treatment is effective and saves lives. Certainly, it was effective for me and my life.

So, statements like this—saying I should not seek medical treatment or live out an authentic identity—ask me to put my life at risk. I would not be here today if I followed these guidelines, and I don’t think the people who make these statements get that.

Overall, there’s just a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance as it relates to trans people. I think it’s compounded by the fact that many trans people like me don’t share their medical history with just anyone. As a result, most people out there don’t even realize they know and interact with trans people all the time. I struggle with whether someone like me should be out because I’m already engaged and interacting in society every day and just leading a normal, healthy life. But by coming out, I know I would also subject myself to the ignorance and judgment embodied in statements like this. And this comes from a source that claims to speak and act on behalf of God. I don’t know what to do. Everybody knows a trans person. Everybody does. Even if it’s incidental, it’s statistically guaranteed, but they just don’t know. Trans people are as common as people born with red hair.

I wish the church spent more time focusing on things like caring for the poor and vulnerable in our midst, and less on declarations like this.

RESPONSE #3

Rhonda is a biologist and teacher currently employed by a very large mental health organization. She is a Seventh-day Adventist/Christian ordained elder who is also a transgender lesbian, otherwise known as a “transbian.” She is married to the love of her life.  They have been together for 51 years and have two beautiful grown daughters.

A few days ago, the World Church Executive Committee of Seventh-day Adventists voted a statement on transgenderism. I am gratified that the Church is making at least an attempt at understanding our need for inclusion and desire for acceptance.

However, I do not feel included or accepted as a result of reading it. For Ted Wilson to say that, “We want them to come to the foot of the cross,” as if we had not already, immediately separates and marginalizes us to the edge of the Adventist Christian community that need “His changing grace” in order to be and feel included and accepted. We all need Christ’s “changing grace,” including Ted Wilson and all the rest of the Executive Committee.

The Committee suggests that the sexual ambiguity of intersexuality (and there are a number of varieties) may be summed up under “abnormalities,” and that this [alone] can be classified on the “physical level,” whereas the Committee classifies transgenderism as belonging on the “mental-emotional” level, and that we, transgender people, determine our gender differently “from those who determine gender on the basis of biological sex.”

The problem with such reasoning is that it is based on ignorance. They tacitly do not seem to know that there is very strong evidence of biological/genetic pre-determiners for transgenderism that has been heaping up for at least the past two decades. Additionally, to put it mildly, to push intersex or trans people to the edge of what they consider “normal” is an affront to basic human dignity and decency. Many in the mental health professions today would be hard-pressed to define “normal,” “normalcy,” “normative,” or “normality” as they apply to sex or gender. Without consulting a dictionary or the DSM (obsolete before it is printed), it is likely that no two of them would define or describe any one of these words in much the same way.

While it is true that we have “strong desires to be treated as the other gender,” we have even stronger desires to be actually appreciated and accepted as members of our identified gender by the general populace. Treatment is merely outward behavior that may or may not align with how one person or group thinks or cares for another.

The Committee makes a strong point in saying, “Gender dysphoria may, for instance, result in cross-dressing,[5] sex reassignment surgery, and the desire to have a marital relationship with a person of the same biological sex. These they considered “biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices.”

I will make the point that their point is scientifically and logically inaccurate, untenable, and out-of-date. A transgender person who wears clothing appropriate for the gender with which he/she identifies, is not “cross-dressing” but is dressing the way he/she must to be accepted as a member of that gender, and that is no more of a “life-style choice” than for a cisgender (non-transgender) person to wear clothing appropriate for his/her gender.

A trans person who elects to undergo “sex reassignment surgery” (now more politically correct: “gender confirmation surgery”) is no more engaging in a “life-style choice” than is a cisgender person who has a cancerous tumor removed. Having to remain in a closet or an unwelcome body can be even more fatal than cancer. More than forty percent of trans people attempt suicide because of gender dysphoria, and many are successful. Gender dysphoria is caused by fear of unacceptance and maltreatment by society because of our self-identified gender. That fear is very real and realistically derived as trans people, worldwide, are murdered at a rate more than seven times greater than the remainder of the LGBT community put together! Does it make logical/practical sense that we would consciously make such a “lifestyle choice” when we are so hated and violently bullied for being who we are?

As for the “desire to have a marital relationship with a person of the same biological sex,” another difficulty is inherent in defining “biological sex” itself. The largest sex organ on planet Earth is the human brain. Is it less important in defining biological sex than one’s other sex organs, otherwise known as gonads?

Sexual dimorphism is the characteristic of showing real physical differences between the two sexes. These are most outwardly evident in the gonads, body shape/size/height, adult breast size, facial hair, and other hair growth patterns and secondary sexual characteristics. But, it is important to know that there are also at least two structures in the human brain, where they are not immediately obvious, that are very sexually dimorphic: the bed nucleus of the stria terminalus (BSTc) and the sexually dimorphic nucleus. These specific brain structures display very defined differences between men and women. But, they are very similar for cisgender women and transwomen, and they are very similar for cisgender men and transmen. Therefore, brainwise (where it matters), transwomen are essentially women and transmen are essentially men, period! Regardless, a human’s sexual orientation does not determine one’s gender identification, and vice versa, and neither has to do with a “lifestyle choice,” as humans do not make a deliberate choice for either; it is a matter of genetics and biological predetermination. See this article from Harvard University for more on this.

In the GC’s statement, in the section titled “Biblical Principles Relating to Sexuality and the Transgender Phenomenon,” the Committee states that “according to Scripture, our gender identity, as designed by God, is determined by our biological sex at birth (Gen 1:27; 5:1-2; Ps 139:13-14; Mark 10:6). Agreed. But, “biological sex at birth” is a complicated affair. It is NOT solely determined by gonads or sex chromosomes. It is strictly impossible to determine everyone’s “sex” as strictly male or female by gonads and/or sex chromosomes only. Intersex people, previously noted, are a case in point. Their “biological sex at birth” is often inaccurately “assigned” to them by the physicians who deliver them. “Biological sex at birth” is very difficult to define for any group but especially for intersex people, and it is largely dependent upon many other determiners, including other genetic factors, hormones, and how those hormones are affected by the mother’s activities, poor or contaminated food and water, alcohol and other drugs, and chemicals in her immediate environment while the embryo/fetus is developing. It seems likely that at two specific times during gestation, these substances, as they are transported across the placenta into the yet unborn child’s own bloodstream, may result in a severely unbalanced endocrine (hormone) system and a pre-determined propensity for a gender identification unrelated to its gonadal development. If it is so extremely difficult to determine “biological sex at birth” for one group, it is the same for all. There is no “serious dichotomy” in claiming “a gender identity incompatible with biological sex.” Such a claim cannot be made because an accurate and absolute definition that applies to all is not possible.

The Committee states, “As long as transgender people are committed to ordering their lives according to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage, they can be members of the Seventh-day Adventist church.” To the Committee I say, “Oh my, what a graciously gratuitous statement! Thank you for your willingness to reluctantly include me as a member, but I am already a member and an ordained elder in my local Adventist church, and I didn’t need your authorization to become so. I also consider myself so ordering my life and didn’t need your prompting or encouragement to do so. Please take note, however, that my views on how to order my life according to biblical teachings, and your views for the same, may not be identical.

All biblical teachings and laws must be interpreted and understood in their historical context, as they are based on principles that are absolute, but the rules, laws,  and ordinances themselves are not. Exceptions, refutations, and changes in their application can be discovered easily throughout the Bible itself. Their application changes with time, place, and culture. Just as, “It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional,” so should it be remembered that the application of His laws are, too.

In spite of the sentence that “the Bible commands followers of Christ to love everyone,” I feel unloved. Are you, GCEC, not choosing to sit upon a high and lofty judgment throne? Perhaps that is the most important choice actually being made here.

For the Committee to make such statements about any minority group of people is to do something not only unnecessary, but it is possibly done also to soothe and placate a discriminatory majority that would encourage, laud it, and in one way or another reward it. Oh, I do hope this is neither too accurate or judgmental, but for an organization that should be mostly concerned with this truth: “The last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of His character of love,” this transgenderism statement has widely missed the mark. I feel sad and angered as a result.

 

Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

 

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