Grey is Not a Fundamentalist Color: Musings on Right-Wing Christian Opposition to Rights for Transgender People
I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the rash of harmful legislation aimed at trans people, including children. The sheer cruelty of some of it has been breathtaking—and this has caused me to wonder why this was happening? As a former fundamentalist, I think I may have some clues—and some warnings—about what lies at the base of these attempts to harm one of the most vulnerable groups in any society.
For those not up on their Christian church history, biblical fundamentalism is a relatively new thing. It didn't exist until the late-19th century. It developed in reaction to theological modernism, which led religious scholars to revise traditional Christian beliefs to accommodate new developments in the natural and social sciences—especially the theory of biological evolution.
Basically, fundamentalism was born in opposition to science and critical inquiry. It's important to remember this when we look at fundamentalist efforts to deny trans people rights the rest of us take for granted—and when we argue with those who try to misuse science to prop up their fundamentalist worldview.
It's also important to remember what fundamentalism does for the people who adhere to it. It's a grim way of looking at God and faith but it provides some certainty in an uncertain world. It essentially gives its adherents a checklist: Don't do these things and you will go to heaven.
In my experience, there is always more of an emphasis on the "Don'ts" than the "Do's."
Also in my experience, fundamentalism attracts two types of people: 1) Those who want to have power over others, and 2) Those who feel powerless and are searching for something to tell them how to live a righteous life. (Define "righteous" how you will....)
Fundamentalism does NOT welcome questions about theology or doctrine. It is a philosophy frozen in amber. People who ask too many inconvenient questions in fundamentalist faith communities tend to leave of their own accord or get pushed out. Those communities also tend to become homogeneous echo chambers, swirling with fear about how this world is changing in ways that threaten to destabilize their faith and threaten their salvation.
In a way, they are not wrong about the former. The latter is open to interpretation. (I do not agree. Although Matthew 25: 31-46 has some interesting things to say about the ultimate recipients of salvation. More on that another time...)
One of the most important foundations of fundamentalism—one not addressed explicitly in the Fundamentals, but there nevertheless—is a reliance on binaries. Binaries frame the fundamentalist worldview:
Grey is not a fundamentalist color.
Binaries give structure and meaning to the people who embrace them. They clear away messy ambiguities and make it easy to impose rules and maintain control. They remove the need for individual moral determinations by drawing bright lines and declaring "This is right. That is wrong." No thinking required—just...submission.
The Male/Female binary is a key one in fundamentalist theology. In a way, everything rests on it. The Male/Female binary orders human life more than any other. It sets up a hierarchy in which genitalia determine the entire social enterprise. From a fundamentalist perspective, knowing where you fit in that binary is key not only to knowing what is expected of you as a member of the human race but also to the existence of society itself.
That binary is incredibly problematic. It undergirds our collective penchant for war, in which we use young men as expendable cannon fodder—"culling the herd," if you will—and leaving a wider pool of young women for older, more powerful men. (Something that used to be more important, I suspect, when so many women died in childbirth and wives/mothers needed to be replaced…)
That binary is also the bedrock on which our capitalist economic system exists. Capitalism succeeds only because it exploits women for the incalculable amount of unpaid labor they perform as mothers, wives, and caretakers of families and communities.
It's also the most important binary in the Book of Genesis—and this is where the root of our problem lies. In Genesis 1:27, we read "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
This story is the basis for fundamentalists insistence that there are two—and only two—genders. From this story, they also draw their case for biological essentialism—the belief that "nature" (as established by God) determines our roles in the world. According to the Bible, the role of women is to have children and serve their husbands. The role of men is to "bring forth bread by the sweat of [their] brow” until they die. (Genesis 3: 16-19)
As we gear up for battle to protect our trans family and friends, it’s important to understand this: Fundamentalists NEED every word in the Bible to be literal truth. Over my lifetime, I have heard many of them say that, if they were to find that the Bible was not literally true in all particulars, they would have to discard their faith. Their need for certainty is so strong that they cannot allow themselves to consider other ways of looking at scripture.
Despite the fact that many Christian traditions (my adopted one among them) have found ways to reconcile faith and science, fundamentalists believe that accepting this way of thinking inevitably leads to spiritual death and eternal punishment—and that they will ultimately be held responsible for their failure to stop these changes. (Which is strange, because they do not usually have the Catholic view that we are saved not individually, but through the church….)
The question that plays like a drumbeat in their heads is this: "What if those people saying that the Bible isn't literally true are wrong? What if I believe them and God throws me into hell for it?" I know this drumbeat well. I lived it for the first 30 years of my life.
When your faith is fear-based, it feels so much smarter to stick with the "Don't Do List."
But that doesn't explain why fundamentalists are coming at trans people so hard with these cruel efforts to deny health care to transgender children, prevent trans athletes from competing in sports, and even threatening to remove trans children from parents who affirm their identities.
Fundamentalists lost the culture war they launched against gays and lesbians. There are still important battles to be fought around legal protections for gay and lesbian people, but it turned out that too many of us had gay people in our lives whom we loved and wanted to protect. Fundamentalists will keep trying to put that genie back in the bottle, but, short of total social collapse (which, I grant, is not inconceivable), I believe that option is no longer available to them.
But trans people are different. For one thing, there is a smaller population of "out" transgender people. Most people say they do not know a trans person, and we know that humans are biologically primed to fear difference. This makes trans people much more vulnerable to harm. Add religion into the mix and you have the perfect storm.
I believe the real issue is that trans people have become targets because not only do they not fit the fundamentalist Male/Female binary—they obliterate it.
For fundamentalists, the idea that some people are "born in the wrong body" is unthinkable.* If fundamentalists were to admit that trans people are correct about their lives and experiences, they would also have to ask themselves what other binaries are no longer valid?
This kind of cognitive dissonance is intolerable for them. They can tell themselves that gays and lesbians are just making sinful choices, but the existence of trans people (and nonbinary people) upends their entire narrative.
Fundamentalists see the acceptance of trans people as the ultimate assault on their faith. They failed in getting other people to reject gays and lesbians, but they feel comfortable that they have finally found a wedge issue strong enough to regain their political footing. They know that crying "Think of the children!" is a time-tested way of getting support from people who do not share their beliefs—regardless of whether that cry has anything to do with reality. (Spoiler: In this case, as in so many others [e.g., abortion], it doesn't.) But whipping up concern about nonexistent "threats" that trans people supposedly pose to children and cis people in general has given them renewed energy in their efforts to institute a theocratic government that will protect them from having their faith shaken or damaged. (As well as turn this nation into a version of Gilead.)
If that sounds implausible to you, I suggest you start “listening in” to online conversations fundamentalists are having about trans people. (I won’t link, but you can find them easily enough.) There is a fury in these conversations that is all out of proportion to the “issues” they hyperventilate about. They are so frightened about the existence of and acceptance of trans people and what that means for their faith that they have unleashed the cruelest legislation imaginable.
And this is why fundamentalists are so dangerous and why we must fight every battle and give them no quarter in any space. They want to exterminate trans people. Full stop.
The scariest part to all of this is that fundamentalists have found some unusual allies in their desire to essentially rid the earth of trans people. There has been alarming growth of an anti-trans coalition of leftists (including Marxists and atheists) and fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United Kingdom, but it won’t stop there. This demonstrates that trans-antipathy and hatred is not rooted solely in religion and makes efforts to put trans people outside of the legal protections the rest of us enjoy even more worrisome.
These unusual bedfellows have united under the banner of biological essentialism. And that has all kinds of potentially devastating consequences for both trans and cis people. That banner must be destroyed, buried, and the earth over it salted.
I said earlier it would be important to remember that fundamentalism was born in opposition to science. In part, that’s because you will see a lot of people trying to make arguments about how “science proves” that there are only two "sexes"/genders. This is a bad-faith argument from people who refuse to accept evolution, climate change, or basic public health and vaccine science. It’s useless to argue with them because they are fighting to maintain their worldview—to the detriment of anyone who does not share it.
But if you are active on social media, I encourage you to post scientific rebuttals to those claims—not for the people who made them, but for those who are reading and may not be well-informed. One of my favorite articles on this topic is from Scientific American: Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia. Another is The Gender Spectrum: A Scientist Explains Why Gender Isn’t Binary.
The binary was always wrong and will
always be wrong. As citizens and decent human beings, we have an obligation to fight
back. We’ve seen what happens when a powerful majority sets its sights on
destroying a vulnerable minority (Godwin’s Law be damned). If all of these
anti-trans bills are passed, Christian fundamentalists will have succeeded—not in destroying trans people, but in driving them deep underground and revoking the progress that trans people, as a group, have made toward simply being able to be who they are and allowed to live their lives in peace.
We cannot and will not allow that to happen. Understanding what’s happening and the reasons behind it can help us figure out how to fight back more effectively.
See you on the battlefield.
*I know not every trans person believes or feels this, but it is a very common narrative and a key part of the conversation among fundamentalists.
Doxy's Note: Thank you to my friends, @beep_boopD2 and @amigurumedic for reviewing this post for accuracy and sensitivity toward trans and binary people. Any mistakes are my own.
Re: my background for new readers. I'm a Christian who left the fundagelical world I grew up in and embarked on a journey to find a way to love God—something I couldn't do in the fear-filled church of my childhood. Twenty-five years ago, I became an Episcopalian. Obviously, no church is perfect but the Episcopal Church taught me to take the Bible seriously—not literally—and to use my God-given intelligence to wrestle with questions about good and evil, tradition and progress, and the purpose and place of humanity on "this fragile Earth, our island home."
Some years after I joined the church, I spent 4 years in a theological education program and 6 more years as a teacher/mentor in that program. I base this essay in my 20+ years of experiences as a fundamentalist, 10 years of theological study, the Baptismal Covenant, and a deep desire to follow the Jesus of Matthew 25: 31-46.