By Brandon Redler
Showing Christ's Love to Transgender People
My name is Brandon Redler and it is an honor for me to be used by God in my role as a member of the volunteer staff of Strength in Weakness Ministries, to share about showing Christ's love to transgender people. This is a topic very close to my heart because I am a Christian who lives with transgender feelings. I was born male and felt the desire to live as a female since I was very young. From ages sixteen to twenty-two, I pursued this desire by dressing as a woman, taking female hormones, having sex reassignment surgery, legally changing my name to Desiree, and legally changing my sex to female. I did not have any interest in Christianity until I graduated college. I did become a Christian in 2009 in the Orlando Church of Christ, where I am still a faithful member today. Since becoming a Christian, my transgender feelings, as well as my same and opposite sex attractions, have not diminished in any way and it is with daily self-denial that I choose to live as God intended: in a male gender role and not romantically involved with other men. I affirm daily that I am defined by God and not by my desires. By sacrificing His son that I may live a new life and by giving me the strength to live that new life as He intended, God has shown me the incredible love that He shows to all. As Christians, we are also called to show this love, the love of His son, Jesus Christ, to all.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be like a girl. I remember dressing up in my sister's clothes and playing with my mother's makeup at a very young age. I remember that it just felt good to think of myself as a girl. As I got a little older, I felt like I needed to hide these things to avoid negative attention from my peers. I started hiding them from myself too, trying to convince myself that I could be like the other boys. This way of thinking prevailed until I became a teenager and realized that I was not okay with being like other guys. I wanted to be feminine and dress like a woman. I made friends with people who would accept me that way without question. I had a great time going around with them in public in a skirt and heels, though I hardly looked like a woman. I felt more like myself at those times than at any other. After a little more soul-searching, I realized that I wasn't okay with being a dude who looked like a lady; I wanted to be like a woman in every way. After a little research, I learned that there were many others like me and that I had options. I went with homeschooling to finish out high school and started dressing as a woman full-time and taking female hormones. I went to college where no one knew me, and I was free to be Desiree. I had sex reassignment surgery (also known as a sex change operation, or to be less delicate: snip snip, the big chop, or any of a number of other descriptions that have the potential to make a man reading this scooch up in his chair protectively) after my freshman year. I did well in school. I had tons of friends who loved and respected me. I was able to be exactly who I always wanted to be. Life was awesome.
Who would you have seen?
Let's stop here a moment and think about what it would have been like for you to meet me at that point in my life. You probably would have known all about me and my journey through life as I was always very open about it. Would you have talked to me? Perhaps I wasn't the sort of person that a good Christian should associate with. If you decided to talk to me, would you have invited me to church? Perhaps you would think there was no possible way that I would accept? If I turned you down, would you have tried to befriend me with the hope that you could encourage me to seek God someday? Perhaps there was just no chance that someone like me could ever come to God and your efforts would be better spent on someone a little more normal? This may seem dramatic, but these are the types of judgments that we pass on people of all walks of life, every day. Christians can all too easily fall into the trap of forgetting that we are all the exact same, in that we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and have received grace from Him that we did not deserve (Ephesians 2:1-5). In His mercy, God spared us from the judgment that we deserved, so who are we to pass judgment on another of His creations whose sins are no greater than ours? Just as God never ignored us, wrote us off, or gave up on us, so should we never do that to others. We are called to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22); not just some people, all people.
So, what changed to take me from living as a woman to becoming a Christian and living as a man? I had always been curious about God. Deep down, I had always wanted a relationship with Him. I just never really took the time to find out who He was. To me, He was someone or something that existed in some way that really didn't impact my life much. That’s not much to go on, so it's not surprising that my inner desire for a relationship with my creator wasn't satisfied. I was always secretly jealous of my friends who professed their faith in Christianity. They seemed to have a purpose, a higher calling to their lives. I wanted that. After graduating college, having a great job lined up, and just having everything that I'd ever wanted in general, I still felt a void that only God could fill, whether or not I really understood that at the time. I had never really read the Bible, so I couldn't say that I had given Jesus a fair shot at moving my heart. So, I started reading God's word for the first time with an open mind. I had no religious background and I had very little understanding of what it all meant, but the Bible spoke to me as the truth. I had spent all of my life defining what the truth was and I was ready to have the truth defined for me by the creator of truth. God's word was a breath of fresh air to me. At first, I was resolved that God intended for me to live as a good Christian woman, though my doubt in that grew the more I read. When I decided to choose a church to go to, I thought of perhaps going to a church that was openly supportive of transgender people living in the gender in which they feel comfortable. However, it just didn't make sense to me to go to a church like that just as I was starting to think that following God might mean living as a man. I had a friend from college who went to a church affiliated with the International Churches of Christ and he described his church as one that closely followed the Bible. This lined up with what I wanted to get out of church, so I looked up the Orlando Church of Christ and showed up one Sunday as a woman. I soon started going to all of the services and events and got to know a lot of the members. I didn't know how the church members would feel about my background so I held off on telling anyone. I didn't know if I would be accepted or shunned because of how people who call themselves Christians have treated transgender people historically. As it turned out, some of the women had already figured out what was going, on or at least had some inkling, but they never tried to get me to talk about it nor had they challenged me in any way to be open about my gender. On the contrary, they had treated me like any other woman and had made a point to include me in the women’s activities. I was invited to the beach once but ended up not going because I wanted to make plans with another friend. It's quite fortunate that I didn't go because I always wore bikinis when I went to the beach. When I went back to living as a man, that would have been a painful memory (the kind you feel compelled to wash out with acid) for all in attendance, especially for the men who were there that day.
After I had been attending church for a while, a woman from church invited me to study the Bible and I readily accepted. (Yes, that's right, I started my studies with the women; all things to all people, remember?) After a few studies, I decided that I would open up to them about being transgender and express that I was ready to do what God wanted me to do, even if that meant living as a man again. After I revealed my situation, the women were extremely supportive, humbly admitting that they did not have all of the answers for me but that they would seek help for me within the church. It was suggested that I start studying with the men because it was more appropriate especially when dealing with specific topics of sin. Brian and Michelle Santos, the minister and his wife, were incredibly supportive of me as I approached the decision to live as a man again for God. They are still very good friends to me as I continue to live out my Christianity. They had never been faced with a situation like mine, but that did not deter them from loving me and seeking resources to help me. They connected me with Strength in Weakness Ministries and Guy Hammond and I spoke a few times. With the encouragement of Guy, Brian, Michelle, and many others, I made the decision to live as a man again and Brian baptized me into Christ soon thereafter. From the beginning, I was shown nothing but unconditional love, the love of Christ, from all members of the congregation. When I started living as a man again, a very sweet lady in the church and her Family Group bought me some men's clothing without my having even expressed a need. I treasure the relationships that I have built and I am so grateful for the encouragement that they gave me to help me to make the decision I did.
When I decided to follow my feelings to live as a woman, it was incredibly satisfying. For the first time in my life, I felt truly happy about who I was and how others treated me. I felt comfortable in my own skin. My yearning to live as a woman has never subsided. It was not because living as a woman was unfulfilling that I decided to go back to living as a man. It was because I yearned for a relationship with God, developed a relationship Him, desired to live in a way that pleased Him, saw in His word that my living as a woman was not pleasing to Him, and then decided to live in a way that pleased Him regardless how I felt. I chose to deny myself for the sake of gaining something so much greater than what following my desires could bring (Luke 9:23-25). To carry this out, I decided that I would no longer live as a woman in any way. I stopped dressing in women's clothing, cut my long hair, started referring to myself as a male, stopped trying to act and sound feminine (according to what feminine was to me), and resolved to stop thinking of myself as a woman in any way. I also legally changed my name back to my birth name, Brandon, and legally changed my sex back to male. I informed my soon-to-be employer, who was expecting a woman to start work in a couple of weeks, that I would be starting work as a man; knowing that I might very well be told not to bother showing up. Thankfully, through God, there were no issues with my new employer. I made these changes in my life, not because I saw in the Bible a finite description of what a man should be like, but because I felt the need to rid myself of all of the elements of my feminine identity in order to truly embrace the male gender role that God intended for me. To hang on to any of these things would have meant I had not fully accepted God's plan for my life as a man.
So, what did I see in the Bible that made me believe as I do today; that God created me as a male and that he intends for me to live as a male? Before I could see this, I had to come to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that it contains God's commands for us as to how we are to live our lives, and that those commands are applicable to all people and unchanging for all time. It may appear that the topic of transgender is a “gray” area of the Bible, meaning that God's feelings about this topic are unclear because they are not stated as clearly and explicitly as His feelings about other topics. However, the Bible does express God's feelings about all areas of our lives, including transgender feelings (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We just need to fully consider what the Scriptures do say to hear God's heart on the matter. The first relevant reference in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:27 (NIV): “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We can see here that God created two sexes for humankind. These sexes are different and are genetically and physically apparent from birth. Aside from the Bible's discussion of how God created the two sexes, there are also many Scriptures that show God's desire for our expressed gender roles with respect to our sexes (Genesis 2:24, Genesis 3:16-19, Proverbs 31:10-31, Matthew 19:4-6, 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-25, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Titus 2:1-8, and 1 Peter 3:1-7). It is not my intention to discuss the specific applicability of any of the provisions contained within these Scriptures, but rather to present them collectively to show that God cares enough about gender roles to specifically mention them throughout the Bible in the form of instructions to various groups of people. Logically, the gender role in which God expects an individual to live is consistent with the outward apparent sex in which God created that individual. It is not very likely that God intended for some to live in gender roles consistent with their feelings but inconsistent with their sexes without this possibility being explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures. Without such explicit guidance, only our feelings themselves could lead us to conclude that we should live in the gender role consistent with only our feelings. However, Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV) says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” From this, we can see that our feelings can never be authoritative in determining God's will for our lives; only His Word as shown to us in the Bible can fill that role. We must be careful not to replace God's truth with our feelings.
There is plenty of evidence available to support both biological and environmental causes for transgender feelings, but I do not believe that such a distinction is important. There are many psychological and physical conditions with biological causes that make certain behaviors or feelings (such as anger, lust, or jealousy) more tempting, but nowhere in Scripture does God identify a different set of standards to apply to such people, provided that they have the capacity to understand right and wrong. God has the power to do anything, and nothing occurs without His allowing it to occur, so why does God allow people to be born with a predisposition that tempts them to live other than how He intended? I believe that the answer lies in Scriptures like Romans 5:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, and James 1:2-4. God allows us to go through hardships, whether temporary or perpetual, to help us see our constant need for Him and to refine our characters. He also uses our struggles to display His power when we rely on Him to overcome the adversities that we face, not necessarily by having them eradicated, but by persevering in spite of their continual existence. In John 9:1-3 (NIV), Jesus “saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'” We are all wonderfully made by God (Psalm 139:13-16) and He does not make mistakes.
It is impossible for us to know how and when God will move someone's heart. In my case, much of the necessary movement occurred before I ever came to church. God's word came into my life at just the right time, when I had already sought answers from the world in every way that I could think of and came up empty. Perhaps this will be the case with other transgender people that you encounter and perhaps it will not. This would likely not be the case for someone whom you approach before they show any interest in seeking the truth in God's word. However, with all people from all walks of life, we are called to be bold and proclaim God's true word. When you are studying the Bible with someone, there is a time to look at God’s plan for us to righteously live in the light and what it means to sinfully live in the darkness. Everyone who becomes a Christian needs to understand, and repent of, all of their sins in order to be baptized. Without this repentance, it would be impossible for the forgiveness of sins at baptism (Acts 2:38). It is my opinion and belief that, for those who are transgender, this repentance must include the acceptance of their God-given gender and the gender role in which God intended for them to live. Given this, if the topic of transgender feelings has not been previously discussed, it will need to be brought up, as gently as possible, as a part of one's studies before baptism. However, the practical steps of this repentance may take on different forms. If someone has taken many steps to live in the gender role of their choice, it may take time to unwind those things. Going from living in one gender role to living in a completely different gender role is a huge transformation of one's life. Not everyone's transformation will look the same. Someone may come to full repentance on this issue but may practically need time to go back to wearing gender-appropriate clothing (or making similar changes) due to family, employment, or other constraints. The loved ones of transgender people have grown to know them in their chosen gender role and it may be wise to go slowly, out of sensitivity to those loved ones. Should this delay baptism if that person has fully accepted God's truth and has committed to living in the gender role that God intended? This would need to be evaluated carefully to examine that person's motives, but I do not believe that there would necessarily need to be a delay. As with anyone studying the Bible, God's word will judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13).
What's a realistic time frame?
It is also critical not to attempt to rush someone into a transformation like this. Transgender people tend to go through great emotional stress in their journeys to living in new gender roles, and it will likely be even more stressful for them to return to their old gender roles. When I was studying the Bible, there was a point in time when I decided (without any pressure from anyone) that I was going to cut my long hair, which I loved, immediately after that day's study. I had come to a crossroads in my decision to seek God and was convicted by His word to take immediate action in the spirit of repentance. Without seeking to detract from my conviction, Brian encouraged me to sleep on that idea first, out of concern for the possible consequences of my making a rash decision and regretting it later. This is the kind of wisdom that we need to show when studying the Bible with transgender people. In any study, the goal is not to push someone along a preset path to salvation as efficiently as possible; rather, the goal is to show patience, kindness, and gentleness as we share God's word and how it has impacted our lives, to encourage someone to accept God's gift of salvation as we have. In studying the Bible with transgender people, patience, kindness, and gentleness are no less essential.
When a transgender person does make the decision to follow God wholeheartedly, to live in the gender role in which God intended for him or her to live, and to be baptized into the body of Christ, it is important to be sensitive about how this is presented to the congregation. That person may have been very open with the congregation about his or her transgender background, or not at all. Either way, members of the congregation will now be interacting with someone whose physical appearance may have changed drastically and will naturally have questions. In my case, I gave a few of my closer relationships in the church a head's up and then showed up at our region's midweek service one evening with my hair cut and in men's clothing, after having interacted extensively with members of the congregation as a woman. On that evening, I chose to field questions on an individual basis as they came. At the beginning of a singles’ devotional soon thereafter, I shared briefly with the group about my background and about the decision that I had made to live as a man again. A short while later, I was baptized during a Sunday service and, when I made my good confession that Jesus is Lord, I chose to share with the entire congregation that I was transgender and that I had chosen to live as a man again, as God had intended for me. In all cases, those who were in the know gave me complete discretion in what, when, where, and how I would share, or would have others share, with the members of the congregation about my background. The important thing is that I became a new creation in Christ. Everything else has a time and place to be shared, if at all.
What is a good way to interact with someone whom you know or think is transgender?
You may know a transgender person who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a male, but you feel that using male-specific pronouns to refer to that person is contradictory to your beliefs about that person's gender before God, and that by doing so, you are giving your approval to what is not pleasing to God. While we, as Christians, must certainly be careful of showing approval (Romans 14:22), we must also be sure to never let our beliefs become an unreasonable barrier between us and those who do not share our beliefs. We can be uncompromising about our beliefs without making others feel ‘put down’ in their interactions with us. This is how Christ intended for us to love all people (Matthew 22:39) and show that love as we interact with them, regardless of whether or not they share our beliefs (Matthew 9:10-13). We are further called not to judge people by the Christian standard if they have chosen to not live according to that standard (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). This principle would be very hard to apply in an interaction with a transgender person who identifies as a “he,” but whom you refuse to refer to by any other pronoun than “she.” From personal experience, I can assure you that it would be very emotionally traumatic to be on the receiving end of this. Don't you expect to be called by the gender-specific pronouns that describe you? Wouldn't you be offended or embarrassed if you were on the phone with a customer service representative and that representative referred to you by the wrong pronoun? (This happens to me on a fairly frequent basis, even today. I'm not even trying to sound like a woman anymore, so that's just sad.) If you were to correct them, they would most likely apologize and make a point of not making that mistake again. Shouldn't we extend this same courtesy to transgender people?
Another area where issues of sensitivity towards transgender people arise is that of public restroom use. Should transgender people use restrooms that are consistent with the genders that they were assigned at birth or should they use restrooms in which they feel most comfortable? This is a subject of intense debate with the chief concern being that if people were given the right to use restrooms in which they feel most comfortable, some would use this as an opportunity to perpetrate crimes against members of the opposite sex. Ultimately, those who have bad intentions have the means to act on them regardless of what washroom policies are in place. In reality, most people just want to go to the washroom in a comfortable setting. It can certainly cause more disruption if a person identifying as a woman uses a men’s washroom, than a person identifying as a woman uses a women’s washroom. I certainly don't have a neatly wrapped solution for this issue that would be appropriate in all cases but I mention it to provide food for thought. This is one of many real-life situations that transgender people encounter on a regular basis. Are we willing to let an issue like this put a barrier between us and those whom we intend to reach with Christ's message, or are we willing to get creative and explore options of reasonable accommodation?
Obviously, there are many things to consider when interacting with transgender people to ensure that we are being sensitive and loving as followers of Christ. Since transgender feelings are often misunderstood, and understanding someone is extremely helpful in showing love to them, I would like to go over some of the basic terminology currently being used in society:
Gender identity is the gender to which someone identifies internally, regardless of their birth gender.
Gender expression is how someone outwardly shows gender, which may or may not be consistent with their gender identity.
To be transgender is to feel that one's genetic sex, assigned at birth, is not consistent with one's gender identity and/or gender expression to some degree. Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe many different people. Some transgender people feel the desire to change their bodies and/or other outward characteristics to be more consistent with their gender identity and may choose to refer to themselves as transsexuals. Many transgender people refer to themselves as transgender men or transgender women. A transgender man or female-to-male transgender person is someone who was assigned female at birth but identities as a male. A transgender woman or male-to-female transgender person is someone who was assigned male at birth but identities as a female. Other transgender people feel that their gender identity and/or gender expression cannot be described as solely male or solely female (it may be a combination of male and female, both male and female, other than male or female, or none) and may choose to refer to themselves as genderqueer. Some transgender people feel the desire to dress, on a part-time or full-time basis, in a way typically associated with a gender other than the sex that they were assigned at birth and may choose to refer to themselves as cross-dressers (transvestite is an out-dated term).
Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and people who cross-dress may have any gender identity. Drag queens or kings, sometimes called female or male impersonators, respectively, cross-dress for entertainment purposes and may or may not identify as transgender.
Sexual orientation is completely different from gender identity and gender expression. Sexual orientation describes the gender or genders to which you are sexually attracted. A person may have any combination of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
All of this terminology may be confusing, but the most important thing to realize is that when someone is described as transgender, this does not specifically describe that person's gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. The best way to determine those characteristics is to respectfully ask that person, if it seems appropriate for the conversation.
Do you have a family member of friend who is transgender?
I want to take a moment to speak to those who are Christians who have a family member, a loved one, a friend, a co-worker, or some other acquaintance who is transgender and who does not accept God's truth. I know how your heart breaks. Coming from the life that I led, it absolutely breaks my heart to see others who still believe as I once did and who are not interested in what God's true plan is for their lives. However, I know that transgender feelings are but one facet of a person's life. We cannot single out any one thing that someone would need to change to fully follow God but rather we must love the whole person with the love of Christ and let our love encourage that person towards its source. It is especially heartbreaking for parents to see their children stray from the path that they believe is best for them, but trying to force them onto that path will most likely push them further away. This is not meant to make a parent feel helpless and hopeless but rather to put the matter entirely into God's hands. The best and only thing that a parent can truly do to encourage a child toward God is to love that child with the love of Christ. My parents have always loved me unconditionally and shown that love to me unconditionally, regardless of their beliefs and mine. Both as their son and as their daughter, they have loved me. Probably more than anything else, it was my parents' love throughout the years that helped me respond to God's love.
As I write this in 2015, the world-view of transgender people, particularly the American view, has changed in the six years that I have been a disciple of Christ. Transgender feelings are much more commonly understood, especially among the younger generations. In the news and in entertainment, transgender issues are brought to the forefront and are often presented in such a way to encourage viewers to empathize with transgender people and see their choices to live in the gender roles in which they feel most comfortable as healthy and necessary for them to live full and happy lives. This is the structure of today's society, in which transgender people are able to live their lives with more freedom than ever before. Do transgender people fit just as easily into the structure of our churches? Do transgender people feel confident to walk through our doors, knowing that they will be loved unconditionally? Do we even want transgender people to walk through our doors? God certainly does; and because He does, every church will be called to show love to a transgender person at one time or another, whether to someone outside the church or to someone already in the church who may have never shared these feelings with anyone before. Christians have an incredible opportunity to show Christ's love and compassion for transgender people, wherever they may be on their walk with God. It was this love that I have felt since the first time that I came to the Orlando Church of Christ. The members of this church decided that they would love me where I was at and wherever God would take me. Christians are called to always be like Jesus, who was always prepared for anything that the world threw at Him. He was always prepared to receive those that came to Him. Because God's children were ready to receive me, I once was lost but now I'm found. As Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NIV).
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