Semantics, Soma and Society

Last night I started off this week’s series on transgender people.

I thought that the editors had done an excellent job reducing a twenty-five minute interview to 1 minute 45 seconds. Inevitably, in this compressed format, one is left with sound-bites. These were mine:

  • the judgement that to change gender is intrinsically evil is a ‘disturbing’ one
  • there are no theological objections to changing gender (and maybe the present Archbishop could say this as his predecessor did)
  • the Bible is a trans-friendly book (the single illustration quoted being the inclusion of eunuchs)
  • the church needs to ‘catch up with the rest of society’ by really engaging with, listening to, and supporting Trans people

It’s great to see that people are commenting on what I said, both agreeing and disagreeing.

Some of the quibbles are about semantics – should it be sex change rather than gender change? Is it right to describe this process as a ‘change’ anyway (e.g. a Trans man – female-to-male – was always a man even before his body was modified)? Such issues arise because of the format of the programme (as well as the fact that there is a range of views) which doesn’t allow time to go into these intricacies.

For example, I’m not really happy with the first sentence of the strap-line for the series, ‘Should people stay trapped in the wrong body?’ The phrase the ‘wrong body’ is too simplistic. It doesn’t express how I have felt about my own body in the past and how I feel about it now, but that’s the phrase that was chosen by the programme makers, and if the opportunity arose I would be able to explain my reservations and try to develop a more accurate expression. Maybe someone will do that in one of the later episodes, but, if not, one just has to accept that these broad – somewhat rough – brush strokes are the starting point for a richer conversation.

My reference to God’s inclusion of the eunuchs (in Isaiah 56) is another of these brush strokes; in this instance part of a much larger picture of trans-friendly narratives in the Bible. Some people have challenged this association of biblical eunuchs with Trans people today, and, of course, they are not the same, but Christian Trans people (along with intersex and gender variant people) have begun to find inspiration in the biblical stories of eunuchs/court officials (the Joseph narrative in Genesis, and the Book of Daniel, are two of my favourites). Trans people have existed throughout history and just as feminist readings of the Bible opened our eyes to women’s presence in what had previously seemed to be totally patriarchal texts, we are now beginning to recognise that the Bible is quite a gender queer book (but that’s another post).

Finally, there was my throw-away line that the Church needs to catch up with the rest of society. Of course that needs to be qualified – there are lots of things going on in society that the Church should be challenging. But the Changing Attitude line with regard to the inclusion of Trans people (as well as Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people) is that the leadership of the Church (not the membership necessarily) lags behind society, in this case the UK government, which has done much to protect Trans people, and Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people, from discrimination. For Changing Attitude this care of minorities, based on engagement and listening, is very much a work of the Holy Spirit in our time.

But even with these legislative changes individuals can remain vulnerable, and in tonight’s episode journalist Paris Lees will be talking about prejudice against transgender people as one of society’s last taboos and of the need for urgent action. 100w, 200w" sizes="(max-width: 224px) 100vw, 224px" />


  1. Erika Baker says

    I suppose just like in the gay debate transgendered people have to resort to catchy images that initially aid understanding but later also limit it – such as being in the “wrong” body. Maybe when we get to the stage where we can challenge those simple images and are heard when we talk about the much more complex realities of our lives that society has moved on yet another small step?

    • Christina Beardsley says

      Thanks for this Erica. This developmental approach sounds right and is so much more helpful than the blame game that can operate when images wear out and have to be discarded.

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