Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in A Changing Culture.
Transgender, gender fluid, gender queer, transsexual: Almost weekly, it seems, new words emerge to describe and express a diversity of gender experience and expression well beyond the traditional female/male, woman/man binaries. Are those who do not fit the traditional gender binaries suffering from a mental disorder, or are they expressing perversity or something to celebrate? Struggles and arguments on this question reverberate throughout modern society. In the midst, Christians often stand bewildered, wondering how to respond. Knee jerk, oversimplified reactions abound in both the secular and Christian media, and those who experience gender dysphoria can be deeply hurt in the crossfire.
While there are plenty of excellent (and not-so-excellent) books and other resources to help Christians think through issues of sexuality and sexual orientation, gender dysphoria has received far less attention. In Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, professor, clinical psychologist, and evangelical Christian Mark Yarhouse has provided a much-needed, thoughtful, serviceable resource for Christian families, churches, and communities. In the midst of a cacophony of competing perspectives, his voice stands out as compassionate, wise, balanced, and sane. Yarhouse acknowledges the complexity of people's experiences of gender dysphoria, accurately outlines the current state of the research, and situates both in the context of evangelical Christian theology. What he does not do is take seriously the possibility that traditional conservative evangelical theology might have something to learn from those who challenge the reality and appropriateness of a binary view of gender. However, by refusing that challenge he has created a "safe space" for evangelical Christians within which he presents a different challenge: To get comfortable with the complexity and lack of knowledge around gender dysphoria and to focus on humility, listening, and being in relationship with those who struggle with dysphoria.
Yarhouse begins with two chapters introducing readers to the complexity of sex and gender and an outline of evangelical Christian perspectives on these topics. The next three chapters summarize the scientific and clinical dimensions of gender dysphoria, from potential causes to prevalence to prevention and treatment. In the final two chapters, he provides concrete suggestions for Christian individuals and institutions as they wonder how to respond. Throughout, he emphasizes the complexity of gender diversity, the many as-yet-unanswered questions about cause, and the importance of recognizing that people do not choose to be gender dysphoric. Stories of real people dealing with gender dysphoria in the context of their Christian faith and faith communities put an important face on the issue, and give life to the theories. The writing is conversational but also academic in style. The book could have used more careful copy-editing to catch errors and awkward sentences; however, the overall points get through despite these distractions. Some readers may struggle with the technical language in the three chapters on cause, prevalence, and treatment; however, each chapter has a concluding section that summarizes the main points in a more accessible manner.
I have followed Yarhouse's work for many years, and find this to be one of his most nuanced. While continuing to hold to the traditional evangelical perspective that God's intention for creation is a clear female-male binary, he gently scolds the many Christian communities who send a message of exclusion and sinfulness to those who are dealing with a complex issue that has no simple solutions. Particularly helpful is his identification of three different lenses through which people consider gender issues--integrity, disability, and diversity--and showing how each has value and limitations for the Christian. He also clearly lays out how to use these lenses when dealing with real people in their real struggles. His clinical experience, wisdom, and compassion shine through as a guide and a model for humility, grace, and relationality.
One of the most moving and powerful moments in this book, for me, is a quotation from a friend of Yarhouse's who deals with gender dysphoria. It captures the spirit of the book well. She says,
This central paradox in Christianity allows us to love our own brokenness precisely because it is through that brokenness that we image the broken body of our God -- and the highest expression of divine love ... It's also always struck me as particularly fitting and beautiful that when Christ is resurrected, his body is not returned to a state of perfection . but rather it still bears the marks of his suffering and death--and indeed that it is precisely through these marks that he is known by Thomas. (pp. 59-60)
Some readers may be disappointed that Yarhouse does not provide clear, strong answers about what is "right" and "wrong" about expressions of gender diversity and various approaches to its treatment. His challenge to get comfortable with the messiness may be strong meat to some. Others may be disappointed at his unwillingness to consider that traditional evangelical Christian theology around sex and gender might well need some revision in the light of current knowledge and understanding. He outright rejects any consideration of transgender experience as something to celebrate and learn from. His dismissive attitude toward those who hold what he calls the "strong form" of the diversity lens, those who suggest that we need to deconstruct and challenge the sex/gender binary, seems oddly closed-minded given the open tone of the rest of the book. There is some excellent, thoughtful work by deeply committed Christian scholars that actively engages the challenge to the sex/gender binary (e.g., Megan DeFranza's Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and work by Margaret Farley and Lise Sowle Cahill). That Yarhouse does not even acknowledge this work, yet does choose to cite uncritically the divisive and controversial work of Paul McHugh, is troubling, and also puzzling, given that he acknowledges throughout the book that a rigid adherence to stereotypical expressions of femininity and masculinity is a source of great pain for the gender dysphoric person, something that Christians need to recognize and relinquish.
Given the complexity of gender dysphoria and the rapid changes in knowledge, theories, and recommendations from mental health professional organizations, all of which Yarhouse acknowledges, I expect and hope that this book will be released in a second edition in roughly the next five years.
In writing to Christians about sexuality and gender, it is impossible to please everyone. Yet Yarhouse has produced a book that should be of service to virtually all who are interested, personally or theoretically, in this topic, and are not already foreclosed. I know that I will be recommending it widely.
Reviewed by Heather Looy, The King's University, Edmonton, AB T6B 2H3.
by Mark A. Yarhouse. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 191 pages. Paperback; $20.00. ISBN: 9780830828593.
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|Author:||Yarhouse, Mark A.|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2016|
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