February 2, 2017
Understanding Gender Dysphoria
It seems obligatory these days to begin any discussion of sex and society with autobiography. So here goes. I'm an old, white, heterosexual male who basically doesn't have a clue when it comes to understanding gender dysphoria. (But I guess the second half of that sentence was redundant with the first half.) That's why I appreciated psychologist Mark Yarhouse's book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, so much.
First, it is just very informative. With dozens of terms being used these days (transgender, cisgender, gender bending, cross-dressing, third gender, genderfluid, genderqueer, intersex and many more) it is quite confusing. Step by step Yarhouse unravels what all these mean, recognizing that definitions are constantly in flux with new terms seemingly being added weekly.
In addition, Yarhouse keeps the humanity of such people in the forefront. He doesn't turn them into projects or causes. They are simply people we should have sympathy with. Why? Because of the distress they feel due to their sense of incongruence between their psychological or emotional gender identities on the one hand and their biological sex on the other.
We need to have open, reasoned public discussions on the issues involved. But that's not what this book is primarily about. It's about people, and how we can and should engage them compassionately and pastorally. Yarhouse suggests that most transgender people don't choose to have this kind of distress. They just do. And no one knows why--neither neuroscientists, psychologists, geneticists nor sociologists. Theologically we know none of us is free from the effects of the Fall. We have all sinned and been sinned against. The world and we who live in it are not as God intended. That's our starting point.
From there Yarhouse offers an immensely helpful threefold framework. First is the integrity framework which emphasizes the givenness of maleness and femaleness biologically. Next is the disability framework which tells us that in a fallen world people will have non-moral mental health issues (anorexia, depression, schizophrenia) with a mix of social, psychological and biological factors contributing in different degrees. We should address those conditions with compassion.
Third is the diversity framework which has two forms. The strong form is taken by activists (a minority of transgender people) who believe sex and gender have no meaning in society and should be deconstructed. Adherents of the weak form don't want to eradicate gender but simply seek a place in society where their difference can be honored and celebrated.
Each of these has their strengths and weaknesses, says Yarhouse. He points us toward the goal of combining the best of all of these into an integrated framework. Such a framework would affirm the integrity of the differences between the sexes, be guided by compassion as we help people manage their gender dysphoria, and affirm the opportunity for such people to have meaning, identity and a sense of community.
As Yarhouse writes, "I know many people who are navigating gender identity concerns who love Jesus and are desperately seeking to honor him. I think it would be a mistake to see these individuals as rebellious (as a group) or as projects. . . . The Christian community faces a unique challenge in rising above the culture wars . . . as we think about how to engage both the broader culture and the individual who is navigating gender identity questions" (pp. 25, 100). His book is a tremendous resource in meeting those challenges.