Can We Build a Trans-Affirming Evangelicalism? | Sojourners

Can We Build a Trans-Affirming Evangelicalism?

Rebecca Jane Morgan. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

There is not much that Rebecca Jane Morgan appreciates about Pat Robertson, the right-wing evangelical pastor and political figure who died in June. But one moment from his life sticks out in her mind.

In 2013, Robertson was asked on-air about gender affirmation surgeries (referred to as a “sex-change” surgery). The usually hardline conservative offered a nuanced answer.

“I don’t think there’s any sin associated with that,” Robertson said. “I don’t condemn somebody for [pursuing gender affirmation surgeries].”

Robertson held rigid binaries on gender and seemed to believe one could only be transgender — in the “wrong” body — by error. If someone had received surgery, then he was willing to consider them transitioned. Robertson’s nuance didn’t last; within a few years he returned to vilifying trans people.

Morgan is a historian and author of Gender Heretics: Evangelicals, Feminists, and the Alliance Against Trans Liberation. Morgan, who lives in the U.K., writes about the two groups most known for opposing trans people, evangelicals and “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (known as “TERFs”).

To Morgan, Robertson’s 2013 answer — even though he would later change his views — represents the malleability of evangelical views on transgender inclusion and affirmation. Morgan thinks there’s no reason to assume that broader evangelical refusal to affirm, or even tolerate, transgender people is static. And as a trans evangelical herself, she is committed to the long process of persuading her fellow churchgoers on the issue.

Morgan spoke with Sojourners’ associate news editor Mitchell Atencio about her book, taking evangelical theology seriously, and when she was born again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: Can you tell me a bit about who you are?

Rebecca Jane Morgan: In terms of faith, I would say I’m an evangelical. That has slightly different connotations here in the U.K. than it does in the U.S. In the U.K., it’s less automatically associated with extreme conservative political views.

I have a complicated background. Due to family issues, I ended up — during my teen years — in, essentially, Christian nationalism. I was part of a cult of personality that grew up around this guy called Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom here in Europe. He was this representation — despite being an agnostic — of “Judeo-Christian” values fighting back against “multiculturalism.” It’s something that causes me a lot of shame now, to know that I was part of that.

For most of my adulthood I was actually a Quaker. I had an equal and opposite reaction against the stuff I experienced as a teen. I knew I was still a Christian and I wanted Christianity without all the racism, extreme Islamophobia, etc. So, for seven or eight years, I was a Quaker.

Towards the end of that, I started to realize, “Hey, I’m quite traditional in my theology.” I felt less at ease in Quaker spaces — Quakerism is semi-Christian now, especially in the U.K. Eventually that led me to just say, “Hey, as a trans person, just because I’m queer doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to have the church community that I want, worship the way I want, and be around people who believe theologically the same way that I do.”

So, I just threw caution to the wind and went back to an evangelical church. I haven’t really looked back since.

Your book strikes me as being positive about the possibility of persuading people, especially evangelicals, while taking them seriously on their own terms. What has persuasion looked like for you as a trans evangelical?

The fundamental thing is that it’s very slow. I always expected that it would be slow. But once I made that commitment — that I’m not going to accept that anti-trans evangelicals are forever set in their ways — I started then thinking about how to break it down into little pieces, little chunks. Because that’s how persuasion works in the long term.

Getting evangelicals to understand that every trans person is different, for example. This monolithic idea that evangelicals have about the trans community — that’s wrapped up with broader ideas about “wokeness” and “political correctness,” etc. — it doesn’t survive first contact with an actual trans person. And just on that first step, I’ve been very successful in interpersonal conversations. It’s very difficult to maintain that “conniving, devious, anti-god, devil-oriented” perception of LGBTQ+ people when you meet them and they believe very similar things to what you believe.

Then you have to confront the much more difficult problem of cognitive dissonance. They understand the wonderful trans people who they know and love, and they still believe in this stereotype.

How you get past that is a bit more difficult to say. It’s a very long-term project. Explicitly anti-trans evangelical theology has been around for 40 years. It will probably take about the same amount of time to completely undo it. And for a lot of people, that’s just too long. I don’t blame people for deciding to leave the evangelical world behind. That’s a totally understandable conclusion to draw. At the same time, I admire the sort of thick-skulled people who think, “I’m just gonna keep bashing my head against the wall and see if we can change something.”

For people who remain theologically anti-trans, is there any possibility that they might also support political protections and medical access for trans people, in a pluralistic sort of way?

The way that I would approach this is to look at the empirical facts of recent events. In U.S., [look at] the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects same-sex and interracial marriages [at the federal level]. A lot of conservative Christian Republicans voted for that, including people like Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Objectively, yes, the answer is that it can exist. You can have a pluralistic approach to politics [and conservative theology].

Some people on the Left seem to believe that the only way to truly overcome … bigotry in law and society is to abolish religion. I understand where they’re coming from, but if you tether social, cultural, and political progress to abolishing religion, you’re condemning yourself to bigotry [until religion is abolished]. You’re not going to convince [House Speaker] Mike Johnson to move on every single one of these issues. But with enough time, you might move Mike Johnson — or someone like him — to the camp of people like Mitt Romney, where they understand the role of law is not to implement religious belief.

And even if all LGBTQ+ left non-affirming religious spaces, you and I are proof that LGBTQ+ people would still be born into those spaces.

Not just born. In my generation of Quakers, there’s a lot of people who are LGBTQ+, who are feminists, who don’t have any interest in ultra-conservative social morality but are gravitating to what you would traditionally describe as conservative religious groups. I’ve got one friend who is now baptized into the Orthodox Church as a lesbian. I have another friend who’s exploring Catholicism. I’m very much ingrained in evangelicalism. Being queer shouldn’t be a limiting factor in terms of deciding what you get to believe.

If you’ve had an experience — in my case — where you’ve been born again, why should you be told that you shouldn’t go into these kinds of churches? There is obviously an important caveat there, which is only if you feel that you’re not going to be in danger. But if you feel fine, or like me you’re perfectly happy putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, then go for it.

Would you tell me about your experience of being born again?

I would have described myself as a Christian for most of my adult life because I believed in the morality and values of the New Testament. But I wouldn’t say that I knew Christ.

A phrase that gets used a lot in evangelical circles is “coming to the end of yourself.” You reach a point where your ego, your earthly dreams, your ability to hold yourself up in an environment that’s constantly trying to push you down just runs out of energy.

I found myself in one of the worst mental health points of my life. And for some reason, I remembered the verse in Revelation [3:20] about Jesus saying, “I stand at the door and knock.” I started feeling this knocking. I remember thinking, “I don’t think I’m ready for this. But I’m also not in a place to turn down anything and everything.” So, I said, “Okay I’ll open the door a little bit.” And you quickly find out that with Jesus there is no “a little bit.” I remember feeling this sense that I’d never felt before that Jesus is right here in the room with me. I woke up the next day and I thought, “You’re still here.” From that point it wasn’t a choice anymore to say I’m a Christian.

In the book, you write: “Evangelicalism’s promise is that I experienced this, and you can too, and evangelical belief in this sense interplays with one’s personal circumstances.” You also quote Julia Serano’s definition of transphobia, where she writes: “transphobia is first and foremost an expression of one’s own insecurity about having to live up to cultural gender ideals.”

These quotes made me think perhaps evangelicals fear that “I experienced this, and you can too,” could extend toward them from someone outside the gender binary.

The first quote comes in the context of me trying to explain to secular readers — someone who doesn’t really know anything about evangelicalism except vague sort of stereotypes — that evangelicalism was founded during the enlightenment. As such, it’s not actually as rooted in anti-scientific thought, it’s very much rooted in an empiricist understanding of experience and collection of data. That’s where the evangelical focus on personal experience comes from.

And Julia Serano’s definition of transphobia is also very experience-based. The idea is that you’re more likely to be transphobic if you yourself feel like you’re not living up to this impossible standard of what it means to be a man or a woman.

I don’t want to speculate or do too much psychoanalysis. The more important psychological factor is the fear of the unknown. How many evangelicals just don’t know a single trans person? And this is a self-perpetuating loop. Because evangelical churches are known as transphobic — very deservedly — trans people don’t go to them, therefore evangelicals don’t meet trans people, therefore they remain unknown, and it just keeps going like that. Overcoming that fear of the unknown is the most important factor in building towards a less transphobic future for evangelicalism — and a less homophobic, misogynist, and less racist future — in many contexts.

If you find yourself in a conversation with a conservative evangelical, hitting them over the head with queer theory and postmodernism is just not gonna work. The most important thing is making that personal connection. And that’s difficult because then you have to commit yourself to ending the conversation without having convinced them.

There’s something deeply evangelical about that. I remember growing up hearing, “They might deny the Bible, they might deny your beliefs, but they can’t deny your faith.”

And no one else can tell you if you’re saved in an evangelical church. No one can tell you what God was communicating to you in prayer other than you. There’s inbuilt respect, or reverence, for a type of experience of divine will.

That’s one of the reasons, if you just look at the raw material, evangelicalism should be better situated than most Christian traditions to understand what trans people are feeling and going through. There are tens of thousands of trans Christians who, in prayer, feel absolutely no sense that their gender identity is wrong, or that their bodily adjustments are wrong.

Do you think anti-trans theologies and pro-trans theologies are both modern — in the sense that they respond to modern circumstances? Or is there something about trans-affirmation that feels more authentically Christian, in the descriptive sense?

My instinct is to say that they’re both modern. You can’t have one without the other, in a dialectical sense. They’re both responding to the specific ways in which gender nonconformity and gender diversity are manifesting in a postindustrial, late-capitalist, hyper-individualized world racked with mass poverty, depression, and health issues. They’re both responding to a very specific set of circumstances. It’s important to be aware of that.

When I think of going “back to basics” with Christianity, I don’t think of going back to political beliefs; I go back to a specific set of theological grounding points. The outworking of that is inevitably going to change, depending on cultural circumstance. So, I’m okay with saying that this is a modern thing, and these are modern circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that Christians can’t speak into the current conversation meaningfully and intelligently.

Biblical approaches to morality, social issues, and politics are all systematic. In that sense, I do believe I am returning to Christian roots. But I don’t believe the original Christians were “pro-trans.” Because that makes no sense; culturally, that would be ahistorical.

Christians who affirm same-sex marriage spend a lot of time talking about what the Bible’s instructions on gender and sexuality don’t mean. When you read biblical instructions on sex and gender, how do they inform the way you go about the world?

In general, I don’t feel like I need to have an answer, partly because the precise outworking of these moral instructions is not the heart of Christianity. It’s important, but not the foundation.

I try to understand these things through the lens of how Jesus talks about Old Testament law. When Jesus is asked by two religious leaders about divorce, they lay out this situation [and ask] if it is okay for these people to divorce. And Jesus said, “This isn’t how it was in the beginning. Did they have certificates of divorce in Eden?”

That question, that indirect response, is how I try to think about all biblical law related to sexual morality and gender and everything else. Is this how it was in the beginning, or is this a response to a specific set of circumstances?

Or, even if we assume that Paul did mean “homosexuality” in the way that we understand it now — that would be bonkers, but just assume that’s the case — that’s not the whole picture when the Bible [refers to] sexual morality. [Biblical authors] are not talking about a world in which, for tens of millions of people, loneliness has become so severe that the most meaningful social interaction they have in any given week, month, or year is a sexual hookup. Regardless of what you think about sexual morality, whether you’re “permissive” or “conservative,” both groups can realize it’s disgusting that we’ve let ourselves degenerate to that point where loneliness is that severe.

In the last chapter I talk about, trans-positive or trans-tolerant views in evangelical history. One of the ones that struck me the most is there was a Southern Baptist minister Roy D. Gresham in Maryland. He was asked by a reporter from The Baltimore Sun what he thought about what was called a “sex-change surgery” [and] I love his response, I’ll just read it: “This is an area of medical science and not morally prohibitive. It would be more wrong morally to leave these people” — in modern parlance, those experiencing gender dysphoria — “in their unfortunate situation.”

And, okay, “these people in their unfortunate situation” isn’t exactly trans-positive, but it’s not anti-trans either.