Two of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever been given both came from members of the Christian clergy. The two events were twenty years apart, and both nuggets of guidance were offered without any solicitation from me. The first happened when my then girlfriend was discussing with her Catholic priest what she should make of her transvestite partner (which was, at the time, the most accurate way of describing me). The priest asked if he could see me, and, for no other reason than that I wished to appear magnanimous, I agreed. During the meeting that followed (which was over tea and biscuits at the priest’s house, as I recall), he told me that I should think of my transvestism as I would the death of a good friend or dear relative. Just as with bereavement, I would occasionally experience a profound longing to spend time in the company of the dearly departed, but I must accept that this was no longer possible; I needed to be content with memories of happy times spent with the deceased, and to revisit these recollections in times of anxiety and depression, instead of upsetting myself by yearning for something I could no longer do. More recently, while I was being shown the sights of my new home city, my guide took me to Radu Vodă Orthodox monastery in the centre of Bucharest. During our visit, my guide started talking with one of the resident preoţi, and, very soon, I was beckoned over. After an initial exchange of pleasantries (Did I like Bucharest?, What did I think of the church?, etc.), the preot – apropos of absolutely nothing – told me that I was welcome to join their congregation, but I would need to abandon all pretence at being a woman in order to do so, and return to the body and social role that I had originally been granted by god. Both incidents have stayed with me not merely because of the utter worthlessness of the advice I was offered in both cases, but because, when both priests met me, my gender (or my sartorial habits, in the case of the earlier encounter) were all they could see: to them, it was my defining characteristic – a barrier to further interaction with me that they could not overlook. They felt it was their duty to ‘fix’ my gender identity by convincing me to give up any attempts to blur or change it. My wishes were completely irrelevant to them, but the strangest aspect of both episodes was the priests’ obvious belief that it was their ecumenical responsibility to broach the subject with me, even though I had attempted to make no issue of my gender identity, nor expressed any wish to talk about it.
There are a small number of very specific issues that are ordinarily of no interest to anyone except those whom they directly affect. Abortion is one; gay marriage another; and, of course, gender nonconformity comes in a close third. These three topics excite the interference of the religiously inclined in a way that is completely illogical, wholly unwarranted, and irritatingly unwelcome. For the zealot, however, ‘correcting’ someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity – and dictating what they should and should not do with their own bodies – is considered a doctrinal obligation; interference in other people’s basic right to live the way they want to, be who they want to, and fall in love with whomever their heart chooses, is held to be scripturally sanctioned. Perhaps precisely because I am not religiously inclined, I would begrudge no-one whatever version of the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas they need to believe in in order to come to terms with the ultimate futility of existence, but I do find it odd that a transgender person would seek to join an organisation that requires them to subscribe to a belief-system that is fundamentally opposed to their very existence; that cannot look past their gender identity in the way it defines and treats them; that disapproves or pities their lifestyle choices; and which believes there are – and, indeed, ought to be – cures for their compulsions, behaviour and preferences.
Although my formative experiences at the nexus of religion and transgenderism occurred in domains of the Christian faith, transphobia in one form or another is by no means unique to that religion. Whatever its origins and causes, gender nonconformity can have the effect of wonderfully complicating your life. Should you wish to complicate it further by trying to join a club that will only accept you on the condition you give up the one thing you’ve been wrestling with since you were old enough to tie a curtain around your waist and shuffle around in your mother’s shoes, then I think it is worth taking a long, hard look at what the major world faiths have to say about their aspiring transgender converts. If, after this, you still fancy taking communion, fasting for Ramadan, or sitting crosslegged whilst chanting Om, then (for want of a better phrase) god help you…
None of the sacred texts of Buddhism assert that transsexuality should be prohibited, and they do not contain any explicit guidance for devotees regarding what their attitude to gender nonconformity should be. Accordingly, it is difficult to distil any consensus on this subject from Buddhist teaching, although transgender issues are usually treated synonymously with questions of sexual orientation and behaviour. The Eight-Fold Path (which provides Buddhists with direction for achieving enlightenment) has a branch entitled The Five Precepts – five problematic aspects of contemporary existence, of which Buddhists are encouraged to ‘be aware’ in order to guide their morality, understand the suffering that can result from unethical behaviour, and help them make appropriate decisions. The third of these urges Buddhists to be aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct:
“I undertake the training to refrain from using sexual behavior in ways that are harmful to myself and to others. I will attempt to express my sexuality in ways that are beneficial and bring joy.”
For a Buddhist, the physical modifications that are usually part-and-parcel of gender transition (such as taking hormones and undergoing surgery) are considered acts of hedonism and ascetic masochism. To transition from one gender to another violates this third precept; it invites suffering because it entails the pursuit of an egotistical goal.
Because concepts of charity and pacifism are at the heart of Buddhist dogma, underlying disapproval of gender transition almost never translates into overt criticism of, or discrimination and aggression towards, transgender people. Buddhism does tend to insist, however, that true transsexuality can only be truly achieved via genital surgery. Within Buddhism, people are either male or female: because nature is similarly organised into binary male and female categories, gender fluidity or indeterminacy is considered anathema. Buddhist countries (most notably Thailand) do, of course, contain conspicuous transgender populations. These groups tend to be ghettoised, however, and, as in the case of Thailand’s kathoey (or ladyboys, as gawpers call them), their exclusion from mainstream economic life usually forces them into prostitution and side-show freakery.
At first glance, it would appear that, of all the world’s major religions, Hinduism takes the most enlightened and tolerant approach to gender nonconformity. In Hinduism, the concept of a third gender is enshrined in doctrine, and describes any biological male (regardless of their external appearance) who is thought to have feminine essence dwelling inside them. Hindus believe that transgender people are such by nature – that they are, in short, born that way – and they are therefore accorded a special, semi-divine status in Hindu society. Crossdressing dancers are integral to a number of religious ceremonies; some are believed to have the power to heal or to curse; and transvestites are often invited to perform blessing-rituals at the inauguration of festivals and public buildings. To add further to its trans-friendly credentials, Hinduism does not repeat the erroneous assumption of most religions that transgenderism be equated with homosexuality, and Hindus appreciate that gender nonconforming people can experience sexual attraction that is as varied as anyone’s.
But every silver lining, unfortunately, has a cloud. The ‘problem’ of trying to simultaneously accept transsexualism whilst being unable to openly condone it is solved by Hindus in a similar way to Buddhist practices: by insistence on the segregation and ghettoization of transgender communities. Members of the third gender suffer enormously under Hinduism’s insidiously racist caste system, and are expected to limit their social interaction to people of their own kind; to live in designated neighbourhoods; and to undertake forms of employment that are just as euphemistic as they sound – floristry, domestic service, hairdressing, and (ahem) massage. Members of the third gender are not considered to be fully male or female, but, by definition, to exist somewhere in between, or as a combination of both. They are not, accordingly, expected to behave like ordinary women or men, and are thus prohibited from participating in normal life. Unless you are exceptionally superstitious or unnaturally easy to please, it should come as no consolation – as you awaken in your slum every morning and set out for a job that is a glorified form of slavery or prostitution – that people who are richer and more powerful than you think you might be able to do magic tricks.
Of the six principal world religions, the only one which is absolute in its condemnation of gender nonconformity is Judaism. Other faiths may prefer an expression of benign disapproval of the transgender lifestyle to open hostility, but the god of the Old Testament is a jealous and vindictive one, who is unequivocal in the ire he directs at those who refuse to conform to the traditional gender binary. The passage from the Hebrew bible most often quoted in the context of the transgender debate is, of course, chapter 22, verse 5 of the Book of Deuteronomy, but it would be a mistake to think that transsexuals and transvestites are the only group singled out for god’s disapprobation:
“A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai. (Deuteronomy, 22:5)”
The prohibitions and diktats set down in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy appear frightening and bizarre when viewed through modern eyes. To make sense of them, it needs to be remembered that they were originally written in times of severe population crisis: the tribe of Moses was in very real danger of dying out, and it was felt that a set of instructions were needed in order to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. Thus, commandments were laid down regarding masturbation, menstruation, incest, sodomy, sexuality and gender with the aim of maximising procreation and encouraging propagation of the species. Thus, God’s punishment of Onan for “spilling his seed upon the ground” rather than using it to inseminate his widowed sister-in-law; the enforced segregation of menstruating women ordered in the Book of Leviticus; the immense popularity of incest in the families of Noah and Abraham; and God’s annihilation of two entire cities because some of their citizens liked it up the chuff; were all motivated by increasing the birth-rate. Any sexual activity that wasted opportunities to make babies, or which risked the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, was strictly forbidden. Pregnancies caused by incest were considered better than no pregnancies at all, and women who were on their period needed keeping out of the way in order to ensure that productive sexual activity could continue without any danger of infection. Any men who were wasting time poncing around in frocks needed the lord’s reminder to get busy filling up the gene pool.
Followers of mainstream Christianity tend not be openly hostile towards transgender people: the teachings of the New Testament have mitigated most of the fire-and-brimstone fury of the books of Moses and his cronies. Whilst the second half of the Christian bible reverses many of the edicts of its older counterpart (such as those regarding menstruation and the wearing of clothes woven of mixed fibres), the condemnation of homosexuality and transvestism does not get a repeal, and so the attitude of Christians to gender nonconformity tends to be one of pity and tacit reproach. Christians don’t hate transgender people: they feel sorry for us, and want to help bring us back into the light by curing us of our improper desires.
The chief reason Christians get in such a flap over gender transition is that they hold the notion that our body was fashioned by god very dearly, and to express the desire to change what was beneficently granted us by the lord is to suggest that god makes mistakes. That it is possible to be dissatisfied with – and to reject – god’s design is beyond Christian comprehension. God is infallible, and the desire to change sex is considered so heretical that Christians will ascribe a transsexual’s motives to psychosis or delusion. There are some Christian sects, chillingly, who still blame gender nonconformity on demonic possession, and who miss the barbarity and ignorance of the Middle Ages to such an extent that they will attempt to ‘treat’ gender dysphoria by means of an exorcism.
In 2007, Iran became the unlikely runner-up for the coveted title of ‘country performing the most sex change operations’ – second only to Thailand. That year, official statistics estimated that the number of transsexuals living in Iran was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, and the government was providing grants of £2,250 per patient to cover the cost of surgery, with further money available for hormone therapy, and loans for transgender people to start their own businesses. Iran’s apparent transgender bonanza should not be taken as evidence that the country had reached a state of such cultural magnanimity that the belief that no-one should be a prisoner in their own skin had been enshrined in law: in fact, state sponsored sex change operations were a radical solution to the country’s cultural inability to accept homosexuality. The Quran does not specifically state that gender reassignment is a sin, whereas it does explicitly condemn same-sex love. In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death: using sex change surgery to bring the appearance of offenders’ bodies into line with the twitching of their loins was considered by many to be a more palatable alternative to execution.
In Islam, there are no specific guidelines on gender nonconformity, apart from that, when considered side-by-side with homosexuality, it is thought to be the lesser of two evils. That said, Muslims generally only consider someone to be transsexual if their genitals have been altered to approximate their preferred gender role. Eunuchs, as a case in point, have an important place in Islamic culture, but (as they are within the Buddhist and Hindu faiths) members of the mukhannathun are expected to live in social segregation, and to seek employment only as musicians, dancers and entertainers. Genital mutilation seems a particularly high price to pay for a measure of tolerance.
The attitude of Islam to gender transition depends on the individual’s reasons for making the change. For male-to-female transsexuals, a clear distinction is made between the mukhannath min kalqin (who were born hermaphrodite, or with innate feminine traits; who did not bring gender nonconformity upon themselves, and who, therefore, need feel no guilt or shame about their gender identity), and the mukhannath bi al-takalluf (that is, men who act like women for immoral – i.e. sexual – purposes, and who have chosen to be that way, rather than being blighted by femininity at birth). Provided they do not intend to ‘use’ their gender nonconformity for profit or sexual gratification, the min kalqin are godly; because sexual gratification defines their motives, the bi al-takalluf most certainly are not.
Either way, the preoccupation in Islam with the state of people’s genitals to determine gender makes a little sense when placed in its historical context. In the same way that Moses was faced with the challenge of ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people, so Islam has lived through a time when it was extremely useful to be able to categorise the reproductive functions of its populace. In an age before hormonal, chromosomal and sociological indices of behaviour and identity, the quickest way to ascertain and dictate someone’s social role was to inspect the contents of their pants. The more efficiently you could pigeonhole members of your community, the quicker you could send the men out to till the land, and the more efficiently you could ensure the women stayed at home to raise the children. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why the belief that genitals should dictate social roles – and that there can be good and bad reasons for gender transition – continue to enjoy such sway.
One of the principal tenets of Sikhism is that adherents should refrain from modifying their bodies in any way, as to do so is to insult god’s creation. Sikh scripture does not specifically legislate about gender nonconformity, so attitudes towards it within Sikhism have to be largely extrapolated from the conviction that people are created the way they are according to a divine plan, and from the belief that god does not make mistakes. People may not know god’s reasons for making them the way they are, but their trust in his intentions should prevent them from changing their appearance. Tattoos, therefore, are considered taboo; committed Sikhs will neither shave nor cut their hair; and cosmetic surgery is, of course, a complete no-no.
Sikhism does not exclude the existence of a third gender, however, and the hijra community are often ascribed mystical powers which they are called upon to utilise in the service of bestowing blessings at weddings and birthing ceremonies. By now, it will come as no surprise to learn that, as is the case in Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the hijra are expected to live in segregation from ordinary society, and, as a result, are often forced to resort to employment that is, even if it isn’t called such exactly, little better than prostitution. Membership of Sikhism’s third gender is also conditional upon the genitals an individual possesses, and, therefore, most hijra are either eunuchs, people born hermaphrodite, or individuals who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery.
Anyone who attempts an internet search of the beliefs of the world’s principal religions regarding gender nonconformity, is quickly led – as I discovered whilst researching this article – to a variety of discussion forums regarding what the attitudes of the faithful ought to be towards this subject. Some of the contributors to these on-line discussions are simple-minded folk who merely want to be told how to think; who, evidently, lack confidence in their instinctive response to transgender people, and need the security of knowing the nature of prevailing wisdom before they are willing to commit to an opinion. More often, however, these chatrooms are populated by people who have experienced a kneejerk response, but need to have it validated by their fellow adherents. This would be harmless if the people concerned needed nothing more than a word from the wise to correct a prejudicial or discriminatory gut-reaction, but, alas, the majority of intellectual traffic flows in the opposite direction. People who err on the side of compassion and generosity of spirit – who, because they are reasonable, intelligent human beings, couldn’t really care less how someone wishes to present their sexuality or gender – find themselves being instructed to show disapproval and outrage:
essentiallydecentperson84 • 2 days ago
I have a really good friend/trusted colleague/beloved family member, who has changed/is changing/wishes to change, their gender. I really like them, and would like to stand by them and show the support and respect that a loyal friend/colleague/relative should. I have no issue with transgender people per se, but, because I subscribe to a laughably anachronistic religious doctrine, a small voice at the back of my mind tells me I should disapprove. Should I have a problem with it/them?
deuteronomy22:5 • 1 day ago
Unfortunately, our religion says that your friend/colleague/relative is committing an egregious sin by choosing to pursue a disgusting lifestyle habit that spreads evil and disease. In an obscure section of our sacred texts (written in a language so ancient that it is probably the product of an enormous number of translations and retranslations – as well as seismic shifts in the social and political contexts that originally gave rise to them – and which have rendered the original meaning of those texts almost completely obscure), it says that anyone who has/is/wants to change their sex is the bastard offspring of the unholy union of a sea cucumber and some bellybutton fluff, and that they should to be cast into isolation from their peers and forced into demeaning, low-paid work. We know this because a group of dusty scholars with an alarming lack of contact with contemporary society (and, let’s face it, a whole bundle of shocking sexual proclivities of their own) believe that one possible interpretation of the aforementioned ambiguous phrase legislates specifically against transgender people. Either them or the gays; I forget exactly. So: no, you should not support your friend. If you really, really, really have to do something nice for them, then you may, at best, offer them your sympathy, but we would prefer it if you urged them to find a cure for their filthiness that basically involves the suppression of their feelings. Please note that I am giving you the benefit of the doubt regarding your claim to be inquiring about a friend/colleague/family member, and I am not assuming that this is a thinly veiled enquiry about your own prurient and shameful inclinations.
This synthesis is not an attempt to critique the behaviour of groups and individuals who like to pass off as religious dogma what is essentially nothing more dignified nor sophisticated than reactionary prejudice, personal stupidity, or bigotry born of fear and ignorance. What I have attempted to do is to summarise what the holy books of the world’s major faiths dictate to their followers on the subject of gender nonconformity. By doing so, I have identified five themes that recur, in one form or another, in religious teaching about transgender people. These are:
- An expectation that transgender groups be separated, segregated, and operate in the margins of mainstream social, economic and political life.
- An obsession with the genitals of members of transgender communities, and an insistence that gender be defined according to which set of private parts a person possesses.
- A disapproval of body modification, from which follows the belief that gender transition invites suffering on the individual undertaking it.
- A conviction that gender nonconformity is an aberration, and that transgender people require treatment and cure.
- A distinction between ‘good’ (who were born that way) and ‘bad’ transgender people (who are only transitioning for kicks).
Feel free to print out this handy, easy-to-use guide to the dominant attitudes of the six most popular faiths. Next time you are passing a church, temple, mosque, gurdwara or synagogue, and fancy popping inside for a religious fix, simply whip this pocket-sized taxonomy out of your handbag and discover in seconds the extent to which you will be welcome, and what the dedicated will be thinking when they look at you. (You could always, of course, choose not to be religious at all.)
Is all this half-baked, ill-informed theologising blasphemous? Possibly. Whilst some people may find my synthesis of religious attitudes to sex and gender heretical (or even offensive), it can’t be argued that I haven’t been inclusive. As Eddie Izzard once said when he used to be funny (on his 2002 Circle tour):
“Blasphemy; Blas for you; Blas for everybody in the room.”