"I may have sinned in what I did," said Dr. Mark Yarhouse, relaying what a man who had undergone sex-change surgery told him. "All I know is at the time, I felt such excruciating distress. . . . What would you have me do now?"
With that question, Yarhouse, a psychology professor at Regent University who also heads the Sexual Identity Institute, challenged those of us attending this week's Q Conference in Denver to consider our response to transgender people.
The annual conference — dubbed Q because it explores key questions regarding faith and culture — regularly attracts about 1,000 top Christian leaders from church, business, government and media. This year's topics include secularization, the legalization of marijuana, the refugee crisis and Muslim-Christian relationships. But, topping the list is the transgender issue.
"A lot of what we try to do with Q is look at the year of conversations that all of us are having, or needing to have," Q founder Gabe Lyons told me. "And, I think the year ahead, (the transgender issue) is sort of the place where people are . . . trying to understand if there's injustice."
Many are also celebrating transgender identity. "So, when our culture and society is lifting something up like that, we do want Q to be a place where people can really understand what's happening around that topic and conversation."
At Q, understanding the conversation almost always involves listening to those whose lives have been impacted by an issue, and this year's conference is no different.
Melinda Selmys, a married Catholic woman who struggles with feeling like a man, addressed the conference on Thursday. Her talk was intensely personal, vulnerable and, at times, funny.
Before becoming a Christian, Selmys said she was a lesbian and radical feminist "who believed feminine was the dumping ground where all the patriarchal people threw away all the qualities that they didn't want to keep." However, after becoming a believer, Selmys said her views about the feminine changed: "St. Paul's theology of strength in weakness allowed me to realize that rather than getting rid of the qualities that were feminine, it was more truly feminist to insist that they have value."
About a year after becoming a Christian, Selmys said she fell in love with a man, married, and eventually bore six children. But, after 13 years, she suddenly felt at odds with her feminine body. "I felt like I didn't belong in my body. Putting on women's clothing felt like I was dressing in drag. And, I was really fearful about my ability to be a mother to my six children."
Selmys attributed her 13 years of congruence with her feminine identity to being pregnant or nursing. But, now that she's no longer bearing children, she says her so-called "gender dysphoric" condition has persisted. Despite this, Selmys has chosen to stay married and raise her children, though she sometimes experiences extreme emotional distress.
Selmys urged Christians to be agents of healing to people with transgender issues. Yet, echoing a refrain that's become dominant in evangelicalism, she warned against promising deliverance or change — or as she put it, promising "a miracle." Instead, she urged Christians to simply express love and compassion.
"See (someone with transgender issues) as a person — not as a political problem, not as a (reflection) of the breakdown of society, but as a human being fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God."
Similarly, Yarhouse encouraged Christians to listen to people with transgender issues before making judgments, noting that there is great diversity within the community. "If you've met one transgender person, you've met one transgender person," he said. Each person's story is different.
Yet, he said transgender people commonly describe their experience as feeling like a puzzle piece that doesn't fit — or like dissonant music that can't find consonance. Somewhat surprisingly, though, he said that in 75% to 80% of the cases, this gender dysphoric condition resolves on its own. However, when it doesn't, the result is often extreme emotional trauma, and all too often, suicide.
Yarhouse outlined three common views concerning transgender issues, and said understanding and acknowledging these different views can help people avoid talking past each other.
The "integrity view," he said, holds that cross-gender identity violates the integrity, or sacredness, of God-designed male-female distinctions. The "disability view" sees transgender impulses as a handicap or "non-moral reality" that should be addressed with compassion. And, the "diversity" view holds that experiencing your gender identity differently is a trait that should be embraced and celebrated.
Yarhouse didn't exalt any one view over the other. But, in a question and answer session, he espoused that each view has its strengths and weaknesses and urged Christians to integrate them.
Also, when asked for the Scriptural basis for being against transitioning or transgender identities, Yarhouse replied: "I don't think you have the biblical clarity here."
Yarhouse didn't make any reference to creation and God designing male and female as twin representations of His image. Instead, he alleged that Old Testament prohibitions against cross-dressing, like Deuteronomy 22:5, were simply there to avoid drawing "a same-sex suitor to be in relationship with him." Though encouraging people to take the least invasive measures possible, Yarhouse expressed an openness to people cross-dressing "to manage something that is distressing to you, perhaps life-threateningly so."
This year marks the 10th anniversary for the Q Conference. And, Lyons mentioned in my interview that he increasingly has felt the need to provide leadership, not just a "neutral platform" for discussing ideas. So, I asked him what he thought of Yarhouse's seemingly morally neutral approach.
While acknowledging that abnormalities in sexual anatomy exist, he said, "I believe God made us male and female and that our glories are expressed through us understanding who we were meant to be. . . . I think if we really care about individuals and their flourishing, we want to help them become who God's designed them to be. And certainly, the gender that we're born with gives us a clue as to who God's designed us to be."
Regarding cross-dressing and other transgender management measures, Lyons said, "I think the bigger question we should ask is: What is the need that you're trying to fulfill through this? . . . Is that ultimately going to lead to you feeling the wholeness that you're trying to find?"
I agree with Lyons and believe the church can offer not just compassion to people with transgender issues, but the hope of transformation, as well. Yet, I truly appreciate the empathy both Yarhouse's and Selmys' talks engendered. Too often, we engage in the political battles over this issue and bathrooms, for example, but forget that hurting people are involved.
So, how should we respond when someone who identifies as transgender asks us, "What would you have me do now?"
The answer Yarhouse offered, I believe, was brilliant. "It seems like I'm meeting you at about chapter seven or eight of your life," he suggested we say. "But, I haven't had the opportunity to hear about chapters one through six, but I'd like to."
After listening and understanding, we may get the opportunity to share truth with a transgender person. But honestly, until we've listened and expressed empathy, whatever truth we express likely won't be received anyway.
The Q Conference continues through Saturday. I'll be discussing the conference and how to love people who identify as LGBT on Up For Debate this Saturday at 11 a.m. Central Time. We'll be broadcasting live from the studios of Focus on the Family and joining me will be Glenn Stanton, director of global family formation at Focus, and Anne Paulk of Restored Hope Ministries.