transforming | Reflections & Notes

Austen Hartke. transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians. Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. (198 pages)

For every trans Christian who feels alone;
for every parent caught between a rock and a hard place;
for every church and every ministry professional
committed to holding the door open–
this book is for you.


For anyone who is just beginning the journey of understanding transgenderism, Hartke had produced a really wonderful book, accessible, thorough, clearly articulated, and impassioned. If you care about the transgendered people in your spheres of influence, and/or you’re just entering into the conversation, begin here.

In the acronym “LGBTQ+,” few have actually taken the time to tend to the “L” and “Q.” It is admittedly–psychologically–far more complicated to apprehend, and is more offensive to our instinctual sensibilities. People making the jump from “hetero-” to “homo-” (or “same-sex attracted”) are doing so still within binary categories, just switching the “polarities” as it were. But transgenderism, intersex, queer, and even bisexuality feels far more volitional, blurring the clear lines that “nature” has created. For this reason, transgender acceptance will be a far more contentious struggle as it will be perceived as more of a threat to the gendered order we have made out of this human chaos. I lament this reality but speak it for the sake of coherency.

What is the way forward through this reality? Talk about it, more. Stories, education, humanity, theology… all of it. Amplify the voices and persons who are championing the beautiful gendered diversity of our humanity. Posting Austen’s book here is my contribution to these efforts. My prayer is more communities would, at the very least, come to understand deeper realities in our social universe, and truly live their convictions of love and compassion with all people. May followers of Jesus live the depth of their human tradition in which “male and female” are irrelevant categories.

Thank you Austen for your book, your work, and your voice. Your humanity is a gift to humanity.


Foreword by Matthew Vines

Introduction: Did God Make a Mistake?

“Did God make a mistake?” Personally, my answer is no. I don’t believe God made a mistake in creating me just as I am. … I think God made me transgender on purpose. (2)

Part One

1. Standing on the Edge

Most Christians in the United States today don’t have to choose between being open about their relationships or being excommunicated. Most Christian don’t have to risk being assaulted on their way to services for wearing their favorite dress, only to arrive and hear a sermon condemning them to eternal punishment. But some do. (10)

Human Rights Campaign put forward a report in 2011 that attempted to understand the reason behind the current murder epidemic. They found that, when all other factors were (17) accounted for, transgender people were disproportionately affected by homelessness, poverty, job discrimination, bullying in school, and harassment by law enforcement. Essentially, the mental and emotional bias that American culture holds against transgender individuals leaks out into real-world actions against trans people, whether that action is turning down a nonbinary applicant for a job or gunning down a trans woman in a bathroom. (18)

| When our churches support or even organically formulate the idea that transgender people are morally, intellectually, or theologically inferior, we feed right into the hatred that leads to death for an already marginalized group. (18)

…they experience a phenomenon called “minority stress.” (18)

Living every hour of your life with your guard up can take its toll on anyone, but for LGBQ+ and transgender people, the stress can be deadly. Yet Christian churches and organizations continue to advocate and fund policies that make this state of being inescapable. (19)

| If the high rates of suicide and murder for transgender people can be traced to legitimate fears of harassment, discrimination, and rejection, then the obvious solution is to create an environment in which the injured, the worn-out, and the hopeless feel safe and loved. (19)

This is where transgender Christians have been forced to live: out on the edges. They walk the fine line between acceptance and rejection, between God’s love and the church’s judgment. (20)

| But this is also where God begins to bring life out of death, because although religious affiliation in families has been connected to rejection of LGBT children, faith can also be one of the largest contributors to well-being in youth if their religious community supports them. …and so we must ask, is it time for God’s house to truly become a house of prayer for all people? Will we hear the words of Scripture, and the stories of the trans Christians in our midst, and allow our sanctuaries to become the spaces they were always meant to be? (20)

2. The Beginner’s Guide to Gender

That’s what this chapter’s all about: getting us on the same page and speaking the same language, so that we can have the deeper conversations over the meal later on. (21)

Your gender identity is your internal sense o being male, female, both, or neither. (21)

Your gender expression has to do with the way we make our internal sense of gender visible to other people. (22)

Your assigned sex, or sex assigned at birth, stems from the moment the doctor declares, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” (22)

transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. (22)

Gender dysphoria is the sense of restlessness, anxiety, dissonance, or distress that can be caused by the conflict between a transgender person’s gender identity and their assigned sex. (22)

cisgender person is someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. While the prefix “trans-” means “across” or “beyond,” the prefix “cis-” means “on the same side.” (23)

The gender binary is a social system in which it is assumed that people come in only two genders: male and female. (23)

Gender roles govern the way we’re expected to act, depending on our gender. (23)

People who are gender-nonconforming dress or act in a way that is not typical of their assigned sex in their particular culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re transgender. (23)

Sexual orientation is about whom you are sexually and romantically attracted to. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other sexuality has to do with your relationship to others, while being trans has to do with your own internal gender identity and sense of self. (23)

nonbinary person is someone who doesn’t identify strictly as either a man or a woman. (24)

Some nonbinary people like to refer to themselves as gender-queer, which can act as a catchall term for people who feel as if language doesn’t yet have the words to describe their gender. (24)

Someone who is genderfluid, bigender, or pangender may have a gender identity that fluctuates between male, female, or another gender. (24)

Agender people don’t identify with any specific gender at all. (24)

Some people have culturally specific gender categories, such as the Two Spirit people in many Native American tribes, the fa’afafine of Samoa, the hijra of India, the sekrata of Madagascar, and the muxes of Mexico. (2)

The presence of genders beyond just male and female in societies all over the world gives us a hint about how long transgender people have existed. Far from being a new trend, there have been gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people throughout human history. It would be anachronistic to say that these people were transgender as we understand that word today, but we do know that there were people who didn’t fit the gender norms of their time and who lived lives in gender roles that didn’t match their assigned sex. (25)

…gender is what’s between your ears, and sex is what’s between your legs.

…that is, your gender is mental and emotional and has to do with your personality, while your sex has to do with specific parts of your physical body, like your genitals and your sex chromosomes. …more recently we’ve found that humans may be more complex than this simplistic description allows. (28)

Up until World War I it was common to dress all children under age six, regardless of gender, in white dresses, (28) because they were easy to bleach! Then, around 1918, department stores began to suggest that parents dress their girls in blue and their boys in pink, because “pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” [When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?, Jeanne Maglaty,, April 7, 2011.] It wasn’t until the 1940s that the preferred colors switched genders in the United States;… (29)

In the end, while we do know that sex and gender are separate concepts–with gender referring to the internal self and sex referring to the external self–there is not a consensus yet on whether these two categories are entirely biological or entirely human-made. (29)

Gender essentialism is the belief that there are innate, unchangeable differences between men and women–that a man has a certain male essence that makes him who he is, and that his essence is the biological and spiritual opposite of the essence that a woman (29)  has that makes her who she is. 930)

…researchers are now coming to the conclusion that the brain of cisgender men and women are more similar than they are different, and that previous studies have been either skewed or based on too small a sample. (30)

…parts of the brain of transgender people seem to match their true gender, rather than their assigned sex, though we don’t yet know if this difference is something that exists when the person is born or something that develops over time. (31)

| For now, it appears that science can tell us something about how transgender people experience their own identity, and sociology and anthropology can help give us context when it comes to the overall human experience. (31)

3. Sin, Sickness, or Specialty?

We don’t know why people are transgender. That is, we don’t yet know the scientific or medical reason behind the fact that a percentage of humans on earth–1.4 million adults in the United States alone–have a gender identity that doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. (33)

But just as we had the story of God’s flood-ending rainbow before we understood prisms and light refraction, the fact that we don’t yet understand the science behind gender hasn’t stopped us from trying to understand our identities theologically. (33)

[Mark Yarhouse] calls his first way of understanding trans identities “the integrity framework.” Someone who holds to this framework would consider conflict between one’s assigned sex and gender identity sinful because it messes with what they believe to be the strictly male or female nature God gives each of us. (34)

The second framework Yarhouse introduces is called “the disability framework.” He explains that in this framework “gender dysphoria is viewed as a result of living in a fallen world in which the condition–like so many mental health concerns–is a nonmoral reality.” (36)

For (37) transgender people, minority stress can be grouped into four general categories: rejection, nonaffirmation, victimization, and discrimination. Those experiences bleed into a person’s inner sense of who they are, and lead to internalized transphobia, expectations of negative reactions from others, and the feeling that the person must hide who they are and what they’re feeling. (38)

The main failing of the disability framework is that it refuses to recognize the different kinds of suffering that transgender people experience. (38)

“the diversity framework”… (39) …this model “highlights transgender issues as reflecting an identity and culture to be celebrated as an expression of diversity.” (40)

…the terms “sex” and “gender” mean slightly different things to biologists than they mean to sociologists and theologians. (40)

In 1975 a biologist named E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he put forward the kin-selection hypothesis that was first used to explain why so many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people exist when most (41) LGB folks weren’t passing on their own genes directly through procreation. The kin-selection hypothesis stems from the finding that more children survive and thrive when they have LGB aunts and uncles. This is because many hands make light work, as the saying goes. Parents raising a child often benefit from having a third person around to help out, and that third person will be most available to help if they don’t have children of their own. In exchange, the LGB person who is not passing on their own genes is helping to pass on the genes they share with their sibling. Ultimately, families that include LGB members can afford the time and attention it takes to raise and nurture more kids, which benefits the whole group! (42)

| These same benefits now appear to apply to transgender people and their families within cultures that support and affirm trans folks. (42)

Part Two

4. And God Said, Let There Be Marshes

…this verse [Gen. 1:27] does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about the separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk. (51)

While the term “non-binary” has now become a simple way to refer to someone who doesn’t have a strict male or female gender identity, the term is intrinsically flawed. “To say that you’re nonbinary innately suggests there is a binary, and my whole point is that there’s no such thing. … We’ve created this formula and forced our understanding of gender into it.” [-M] (53)

[via: But gender is bimodal.]

Each interpreter has given content to the concept solely from the anthropology and theology of his own age. – David J. A. Clines, “The IMage of God in Man”

…we can’t be in right relationship to each other if we can’t see each other. We can’t be fully present in any relationship if we’re walling off part of ourselves or hiding beneath a mask. (57)

My trans-ness is only related to the image of God in me inasmuch as it allows me to naturally, politically, and morally be in right relationship with myself, with my community, and with creation as a whole. It has nothing to do with it and everything to do with it. [-M]

5. Biblical Culture Shock

Will we make space for diversity, or will we try to homogenize everyone into accepting our personal cultural expectations? (62)

While there are certain parts of Christian belief that aren’t relative–like the Ten Commandments or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount–cultural components might need to be evaluated differently.

[via: The problem is that all beliefs, and especially moral or ethical beliefs are relative, including the Ten Commandments.]

So what are we to make of the fact that this garment, the ketonet passim [כתנת פסים] is worn by only two people in the Bible: Joseph, and Princess Tamar? (68)

6. What’s My Name Again?

Names are incredibly powerful things. … For transgender people, names can take on an additional sense of meaning. They become another way in which we express our gender. (76)

Trans folks can’t realistically expect people to turn on a dime and start using a new name or new set of pronouns without any practice, but the best thing friends and family members can do to show support is to make a concerted effort. (84)

Using a transgender person’s chosen name rather than their birth name shows basic respect, as well as demonstrating that you believe them to be who they say they are. (84(

(Hospitals and clinics do not have to use the name and gender marked on your legal documents, and health-care best practices recommend always having a place on intake forms to note both a person’s gender identity and their chosen name.) (85)

7. God Breaks the Rules to Get You In

Isaiah 56:3-8

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name*
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.**
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

* (ֻונתתי להם בבית ובחמתי יד ושם)

** (כי ביתי בית-תפלה יקרא לכל העמים)

Eunuchs did not have a place in Israelite society. They were neither fish nor fowl. (95)

For transgender folks in Christian communities today, this description may be all too familiar. We still find ourselves standing on the steps of many churches wondering if we’ll be allowed in. We’re still denied ordination in the majority of Christian denominations, alongside our lesbian, gay, and bisexual siblings. (95)

| The other major connection between the eunuchs of ancient times and transgender people living today is the complexity of our reproductive relationships. (95)

Isaiah did speak an incredible word of welcome to two groups who probably never expected to be included in the new Israel. With just eight verses God had given them both an assurance of a part in Israel’s future and a place within the community in their own lifetime. (97)

What God was giving the eunuchs, through Isaiah’s proclamation, was not just a place in society, and not just a hope for a future. By giving the eunuchs the same kind of gifts given to Abraham and Sarah–a name, legacy, family, acceptance, and blessing–God was consciously associating the two stories in the minds of the people. God was giving the eunuchs a story to connect to–a story that set a precedent, grounded in divine grace. (98)

8. All the Best Disciples Are Eunuchs

The long and the short of it is that some early Christians did exactly what Jesus hinted at here, and the practice of castration as a form of religious devotion became common enough that when the Council of Nicaea was called in 325 CE, the very first rule they made barred anyone who had willingly been castrated from becoming a clergyperson. (106)

In the updside-down world of the kingdom, giving up riches and power, humbling yourself, and taking a seat at the foot of the table is just good sense. (108)

Not every Christian is born intersex, has their body changed without their consent, or feels the call to a life outside the gender and sex norms of their time. But some people do experience this call to a life in which they give up the social power they would have had as a cisgender person; a life in which they leave home and family to follow Jesus exactly as they are. (18)

Transgender Christians also give the church a model for authenticity and a new vision of unconditional love. (109)

When a church is trans-affirming, transgender Christians can show up as themselves, unapologetically. By doing that, they show everyone else in the congregation that it’s all right to bring their whole selves into the community, that nobody has to “fake it ’til you make it” as a perfect Christian. (109)

Throughout the Gospels Jesus never once heals a eunuch or uses eunuchs as a negative example. (110)

9. Nothing Can Prevent Me

Theology as a form of survival is exactly why transgender people, and particularly trans people of color, find themselves drawn into the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. (123)

This is the whole point! Inclusion is not up to us. It’s up to Christ. When the eunuch saw the water and heard the Word about Jesus Christ, and he said, ‘What’s to keep me from being baptized?’ Philip didn’t say, ‘Wait a second, let’s look at the law.’ Philip said, ‘Stop the chariot, you have heard the Good News, you have been called to be a disciple of Christ. You shall be baptized.'” (125)

For the eunuch this encounter ends in incredible, nearly unbelievable joy. …the eunuch is still a eunuch; baptism did not change his physical body or anything about his gender. None of the things that (125) made him an outsider in the first place have been changed or “fixed.” (126)

In a way, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a story about two conversations. The eunuch may be the one who gets baptized, but Philip ist he person who has to change his metric for who’s in and who’s out. Even though this story is two thousand years old, a third conversion is still taking place: will the church eventually realize that when God’s love overpowers all human distinctions, nothing can prevent us from full inclusion? (127)

10. Even Jesus Had a Body

Many trans Christians find themselves asking questions about the connections between their body and their faith;… (130)

This text is absolutely essential to understanding why the church is called to affirm transgender Christians. Here we are told that no member of the body is dispensable, no member can deem any other person unnecessary, and just because someone does decide to say someone else is dispensable or unnecessary does not make it true. (135)

Jesus’ physicality after his resurrection can be powerful for transgender Christians, especially those who often field questions about their own bodies either in heaven or after Jesus’ second coming. (137)

Body theology and the belief in God’s incarnation in Jesus are important for all Christians, but even more so for those whose bodies have been marginalized, ignored, or oppressed. (138)

Here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are–disabled and divine. In this passage, I recognized a part of my hidden history as a Christian. The foundation of Christian theology is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet seldom ist he resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. – Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability

Theology done from the perspective of marginalized groups creates a richer, more comprehensible, more compassionate Christianity. To ignore the contributions from people with bodies different from our own is equivalent to saying some bodies are not as holy as others–that some members don’t belong in the body of Christ–despite scriptural witness to the contrary. (140)

11. Life beyond Apologetics

The problem comes when LGBTQ+ Christians begin to feel as if their faith is made up of only apologetics and defense mechanisms. In a way, it’s the same problem that transgender people have when they find themselves focusing entirely on their gender dysphoria and scrambling away from all the things that cause them pain and anxiety, rather than intentionally moving forward toward what some like to call “gender euphoria”–the contentment, authenticity, and joy that you feel when you get to be yourself. (144)

When do we get to hear God speaking into our lives, if we’re focused on proof-texting our arguments? In short, it’s a good and healthy thing to recognize that the theological crumbs that we once cherished are no longer enough. We need a full, whole-grain loaf of the bread of life. (145)

…if Jesus came to bring abundant life to all who follow him, that means that transgender Christians should be able to stop spending every single bit of their energy defending themselves against those “clobber passages,” in order to concentrate instead on becoming better disciples. We should be able to move from survival practices to thriving faith. Jesus didn’t’ come to make things marginally more bearable. (148)

…”liberating the text.” (148)

Apologetics has to exist because the Bible is gendered uniquely in favor of male bodies. So dismantling that [hierarchical] structure in the text so taht it can’t be recreated in the church is important. – Taj

[Anneliese Singh] determined that there were five things that predicted high resilience for trans folks across the board: the ability to create and define your own sense of self; the recognition of your own self-worth; awareness of oppression, so that you can protect yourself; connection with a supportive community; and the cultivation of hope for the future. (150)

Too often the church is a stumbling block that catches the feet of trans people on the road to God, rather than the sanctuary that houses the fountain of living water. (151)

Isolation, to me, is what death is. – Taj

12. Does Gender Matter Anymore?

…my pastors…told me that Christians hold the church’s beliefs and creeds like one of those colorful parachutes you play with in kindergarten. Everybody takes a hold of a piece of the edge, and together we carry and lift heavy things placed in the middle. (155)

The term “Two Spirit” (also written “two-spirit”) was first coined by Native Americans and members of the First Nations tribes of Canada back in 1990 to create a cohesive English term for Native sexualities and gender identities that have existed in multiple tribes for centuries. … It also replaced the term “berdache,” which had been used by white anthropologists to refer to any Native (162) person of any tribe who seemed to diverge from heterosexual and cisgender expectations. (163)

What Paul said about gender in [Galatians 3:28] was revolutionary in that it confirmed that there was no patriarchy or misogyny in God’s new kingdom; it broke down the barriers between genders and between people of (163) different genders and God. But Paul still upheld the gender binary in the rest of his letters. (164)

Confused yet? I wouldn’t blame you! This is one of the mysteries of life as a Christian: we are citizens of two worlds at once. We’re human beings who live in a time when things like gender, class, and race are all important to our understandings of ourselves and each other; yet we’re also called to be part of a new kingdom where things like sexism, poverty, slavery, and racism no longer exist. (164)

Conclusion: The Trans-Affirming Toolbox

But what if we imagined this story a different way? What if the lost sheep didn’t wander away from the safety and goodness of the shepherd? What if it was just trying to escape the cruelty of the flock? (168)

I hope you’ve been able to read these stories and come to the same conclusion the shepherd did: that our faith (168)communities and churches aren’t complete without trans folks and their experiences. (169)

cf. Believe Out Loud

cf. Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 (US) & 877-330-6366 (Canada)

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