Transphobia: The Bible Is Better Than That
North Carolina’s odious “Bathroom Bill,” HB2 has been pushed out of the spotlight for the moment, while the crazy 2016 election plays itself out.
I can understand that. But HB2 will be back, and it’s still on my mind. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s at the root of the support for it. I have some idea of the politics, and the major personalities; but what’s the nub, the “bottom line”?
It isn’t the “science” cited on behalf of the law — a curdled combination of cant and charlatanry. Or the panic over predators stalking “little girls” in public restrooms, which is trumped up, and such assaults were already illegal. Anyway, we already know the cultural right has big issues over a gender binary (and male dominance), so that riling up its base about sex works to boost voter turnout. But what is its basic justification?
Many of the sources are probably buried in dim caverns of the culture’s subconscious, beyond the reach of mere mortal seekers. But not long ago I found the text that’s used as the bedrock of their crusade. Maybe it’s only a fig leaf, covering a big wad of rationalization. But at least it’s definite, and, for them, definitive.
I found it in a handbook issued by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the religious right’s anti-ACLU, which has provided the model text, the organizing chops, and the legal muscle behind the North Carolina bill and its counterparts across the country.
One of ADF’s new resources for its followers is a handbook, “Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity lawsuits” (free download here ) In it there’s a “suggested Statement of Faith” which tips the hand, It comes in three versions here. Let’s look at them:
“Gender, likewise, matters. God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female, and these distinct, complementary genders together reflect the image and nature of God. (Gen 1:26-27.)
But some individuals reject their biological sex and often present as the opposite sex. In so doing, these confused individuals reject God’s design and the person He created them to be.”
#2. Specifically Protestant:
We believe that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female. These two distinct, complementary genders together reflect the image and nature of God. (Gen 1:26-27.) Rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person.
Man and woman are created by God in His image and likeness. . . . Therefore, to reject one’s biological gender is to reject the work of the Creator and imply that God made a mistake. God does not make mistakes.
The biblical reference here is to a very short passage, Genesis chapter one, verses 26 & 27:
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion . . . .
27 So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
I’m familiar with this passage, and the striking thing for me is how much baggage the ADF shovels into it. The text is actually much more flexible (and interesting) than the ADF take on it admits.
Like many biblical texts, this one is rich and provocatively ambiguous. Note how God speaks in both plural and individual (male) voices. “Let US make man in OUR image . . .” And the Hebrew is also packed with meanings, vocalized and potential.
What’s rendered “man” here is a generic term, more properly translated as “humankind,” “people,” “anyone,” or as one writer put it, “earthling.” This new “earthling” is not exclusively male or singular, but it is of the divine “us” and embodies “our” image, potentially both male and female (and maybe more and other than that). When this proto-human is then rendered into male and female image-bearers, the key word is an inclusive “and” rather than the ADF’s asserted exclusionary “or.”
Thus these verses carry much more fluidity and ambiguity than the ADF reading permits. For ADF, God
“immutably creates each person as male or female, and these distinct, complementary genders together reflect the image and nature of God. (Gen 1:26-27.)”
Really? Or could male and female embody only two aspects of the much broader, richer creative image, which are neither “immutable” (The text says no such thing) nor automatically “complementary” (ditto).
Of course, ADF is not having it. Anything outside their strict binary frame means that “some individuals reject their biological sex,” and such “rejectors” then go on to “often present as the opposite sex. In so doing, these confused individuals reject God’s design and the person He created them to be.”
But these verses in Genesis do not declare that “either male OR female” are the only options for humans creatures; nor do they exclude, either explicitly or implicitly, any departures from these types. They don’t exclude it, or condemn, such. They’re better than that.
And while, to be sure, there’s plenty of sexism and homophobia to be found elsewhere in the Bible, there are also texts which affirm the more flexible potential of this suggestive tale of origins.
For instance, in Matthew 19, when Jesus is disparages divorce, and the disciples object, he replies:
11“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
“Eunuchs who were born that way”; Jesus is saying here that God has created some individuals outside the typical male-female frame; and that’s okay. They should be who they are.
For that matter, a few chapters later Jesus suggests that gender is but a temporary condition: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” So “genderless” presumably celibate angels also bear the image of God.
Moreover, even Paul (maybe on an off day) insists in Galatians 3:28 that for believing Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” No male or female? If that’s not “rejecting” what ADF calls God’s “immutable design,” at the least it relativizes and shrugs it off.
Again, ADF will have none of it: “Therefore, to reject one’s biological gender is to reject the work of the Creator and imply that God made a mistake. God does not make mistakes.”
Except that being born and living outside their rigid and limited frame of “biological gender” is acknowledged in scripture (if too rarely) as part of “God’s design,” within the presumably inexhaustible variety of its plural divinity. And if “God does not make mistakes,” then that variety is not a mistake either.
I don’t expect these reflections to persuade any strong supporter of the ADF outlook, common among more conservative evangelicals. Their interpretive frame, (what scholars call a hermeneutic) utterly forbids it; and their hermeneutic rules.
But it helps me in a couple of ways: For one, it sheds light on the basis of their view. Whether the deeper origins are shaped most by history, sociology, group trauma or political will to power, at bottom, behind whatever veil of constitutional contortion, or pseudoscientific posturing, there is this brief but bedrock two-verse passage from Genesis, interpreted through a strict dualistic lens that is brought to bear on it from — well, somewhere else.
But outside the range of that restrictive lens, it turns out to be a passage much different, more interesting and flexible than they would have us believe, or seem able to find there.
Moreover, such a closer view can help wrest scripture from their stifling grasp. Yes, many biblical texts are repressive. But not all; and not even Genesis 1. The Bible is better than that: HB2 is a travesty biblically, as in so many other ways.