Some conservatives have made mocking remarks about Caitlyn Jenner, but their attitudes obscure deep, meaningful questions about the meaning of gender.
The two little letters carry a world of significance: he. Amid the wave of reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she is a transgender woman, and her upcoming cover story in Vanity Fair, pronoun use has become a symbol of deep cultural divisions: Calling Jenner “he” versus “she” has important implications for the speaker’s understanding of gender identity.
Sometimes, as Megan Garber wrote on Tuesday, pronoun awkwardness is a matter of confusion or lack of education; even well-meaning media outlets have made mistakes in covering Jenner’s debut as a woman. But some reactions, particularly from conservative Christians, have reflected skepticism about the deeper claims of transgender identity.
Matt Walsh, an often polemical conservative Christian blogger, wrote an article for The Blaze headlined, “Bruce Jenner Is Not a Woman. He Is a Sick and Delusional Man.” The charismatic Christian magazine Charisma News ran a story called “Celebrating Confusion: The Crisis of Bruce (Not Caitlyn) Jenner.” The pastor who ministers to the members of the ultra-conservative Duggar family, who star in the reality-television show 19 Kids and Counting and are currently experiencing their own share of media attention, said about Jenner, “What’s remarkable about this is the world is applauding.” And speaking more broadly on transgender issues earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said, “Now I wish that someone told me that when I was in high school that I could have felt like a woman when it came time to take showers in PE. I’m pretty sure that I would have found my feminine side and said, ‘Coach, I think I’d rather shower with the girls today.’”
Although many of these statements have come from conservative evangelical Christians, there’s evidence that those in other denominations are also inclined to reject transgender identity. On Wednesday, the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, responded to the news of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover at a conference, saying, “The clear biological fact is that a human being is born either male or female.” According to David Gibson of Religion News Service, “Cordileone said a friend recently pointed out to him that a major university advertised housing ‘for a grand total of 14 different gender identities. … I’m sure even more will be invented as time goes on,’ he said, prompting laughter from the audience of about 200.”
Understandably, these kinds of responses have prompted anger and hurt and condemnation from the LGBT community and beyond. There’s a strong element of tone-deafness, even trolling, in calling someone who goes through this kind of vulnerable, public transition “sick and delusional.” But these negative reactions also suggest an important difference in understandings about what gender identity and sexuality actually mean—and indicate how difficult it will be to reconcile transgender identity with the beliefs of certain Christians, both culturally and politically.
After Jenner revealed her struggle with gender identity in an interview with Diane Sawyer, the head of the ethics organization of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore, wrote, “We do not see our transgendered neighbors as freaks to be despised. They feel alienated from their identities as men or women … In a fallen universe, all of us are alienated, in some way, from who we were designed to be.” But this empathy was accompanied by a statement of belief: Rejecting your gender, and particularly taking hormones or undergoing sex-change surgeries, does not fit with the Southern Baptist understanding of theology.
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