“Imagine that you woke up in a world where everyone looked pretty much like you do, and you thought it was a normal world… until you realized it wasn’t. People around you said yellow was blue, and down was up. They were talking about murder and rape and stealing as though they were the right moral choices… while self-sacrifice and giving and loving were the wrong choices. You begin to realize that EVERYONE except you seems to agree, and you start to wonder if you’re crazy. You think surely someone, somewhere will say words that make sense… but it never happens. You’re able to blend in because you look similar to everyone else, but you know that every fiber of your being is an alien in this world. You know that very soon something will happen that will reveal to the world that you are not like them. You live every moment terrified of a mistake… while at the same time feeling like such a piece of crap because you are pretending to be something you don’t even WANT to be. If you can truly put yourself in that place, and feel the terror and confusion and guilt, then you can maybe understand 1% of what I live every single moment of every single day.”
This is the description of an articulate, sweet, young transgender teenager. It haunts me. And it’s been echoed, in one form or another, by thousands of young LGBTQ kids that I’ve met and listened to and cried with. It’s the reason that I can’t keep my mouth shut about this topic, even if it alienates some friends or colleagues or fellow Christians. Ignorance, even if it is covered in or excused by “faith”, is still ignorance. And it gives birth to a form of “love” that is actually much closer to hate.
So here goes. My attempt to take a scientific grand rounds presentation, and turn it into a blog post! It will be much longer than blog posts are “supposed to be,” but it can’t be helped.
It all starts with the chromosomes.
We have 23 pairs of chromosomes, of which one pair are the sex chromosomes. Two X chromosomes (XX) and you’re genetically a female. One of each (XY) and you’re a male (shown in the picture). Our DNA is the “building block” of our bodies, determining everything from our eye color to our risk of developing specific diseases. The sex chromosomes, then, are the “building blocks” of our human sexuality. While some of the other chromosomes also impact our sexuality, this chromosome pair is the biggie. Rarely, there may be an extra sex chromosome, extra parts on one or both chromosomes, or something missing from one or both chromosomes. But in general, the sex chromosomes determine whether we are a boy or girl and get the ball rolling in lots of ways.
The first thing that the sex chromosomes direct, in an unborn human baby, is the internal sexual organs. This is called the gonadal sex, meaning the boy/girl parts on the INSIDE. Boys have testes; girls have ovaries.
These inside sex organs aren’t visible to us… but my GOODNESS are they important. They produce hormones, and direct the formation of the outside boy or girl parts. The testes of boys produces mainly testosterone, while the ovaries of girls produces mainly estrogen. But the pathways of how these sex factories make hormones is complicated… and sometimes in a long pathway (kind of like a recipe with lots of steps) something gets off-kilter, and the actual hormones produced may be quite different. Even when everything goes according to plan, small amounts of the opposite hormone are released.
Next up: the internal sex organs, by producing testosterone or estrogen, then direct the formation of the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. (If you don’t think these hormones are incredibly powerful, then you haven’t experienced one of my hot flashes!!)
The outside parts are formed by the end of the first trimester, and are fairly simple… usually. If a baby has a penis and testicles, they are assigned the male gender at birth. If the baby has a vagina, they are assigned the female gender. This assignment usually happens by the medical team within moments after birth, and is finalized within the hour in the medical chart. Surprisingly to some, though, it isn’t always obvious… and a baby may rarely be born with what is called “ambiguous genitalia”, meaning we can’t tell from the outside parts whether the baby is a boy or girl. In the old days, the baby was assigned a gender based on what was the easiest to make “look good” on the outside through surgery. Nowadays, with our ongoing knowledge of what’s happening INSIDE, it isn’t nearly that simple. But that’s another topic for another day.
The other really important part of the sex hormones is to develop the brain sexuality. Now, most of us don’t really think about the sex of our brain… but there’s all sorts of things, from the way our brain is structured to how it works that bear witness to our brain sexuality. Whether we think out loud or quietly… whether or not we can multitask… even the physical size of certain structures within our brain is heavily impacted by the sex hormones. These things have been discovered through highly precise imaging, as well as functional MRI’s… and the subject could make up 10 more blog posts all on its own! But for now, just think about the age-old saying,“Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” While some of the behaviors we assign to women or men are stereotypes, and while many of us feel that we don’t fit the prototype, the truth remains that there are important, irreversible differences in brain structure based on the sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, and the hormones that they direct.
But here’s the seriously tricky part. The outside parts are formed in the first trimester, but brain sexuality finalized in the second and early-third trimester. And in between, a lot can happen… meaning they may not “match” in the way we think they should. (That’s a teaser – more about that in a minute.)
So. Once the sex chromosomes, the inside parts, the outside parts, and the brain sexuality are in place, then the next thing to be formed is gender identity.
Gender identity is our internal sense of whether we are a girl or a boy. It’s a complex interaction between our sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside parts, hormones, and brain sexuality. It is probably set in place by the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester (whenever the brain sexuality is fully completed)… but it isn’t actually expressed until a child is around 18 months or 2 years old. Expression is usually complete by age 3 – and if you don’t believe me, just TRY calling a 3-year-old boy a girl, and see what kind of response you get! Most often (but not always) it lines up with the sex chromosomes and internal/external sex organs. Gender identity is an involuntary biological response (more on that later) that is formed in utero and expressed in early childhood, and there’s no evidence that anything that happens after birth can change our gender identity. It is entirely separate from sexual orientation — apples and oranges.
The last step is sexual orientation, defined as consistent sexual attraction to either the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. Like gender identity, it’s probably formed by around the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester of pregnancy, but it isn’t actually expressed until after the sex cycle springs to life and a child goes through puberty. During early adolescence, sexual attraction may flip back and forth… but by the end of adolescence sexual orientation is generally fixed and unchangeable. Bisexual individuals aren’t changing back and forth; their sexuality is “fixed” as attraction to both sexes, with a spectrum of which sex is most attractive. (I know, I know, that’s really confusing, but I can’t help it.) Sexual orientation is also an involuntary biological response, and there is no evidence that anything that happens AFTER a baby is born can impact sexual orientation. It is separate from gender identity – again, apples and oranges.
So here’s the whole thing. Chromosomes direct the internal sex organs, which direct the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. All those things together direct gender identity (expressed by about age 3) and sexual orientation (expressed around the end of adolescence.)
The diagram looks pretty straightforward, right? But it isn’t. There are a lot of things that are confusing… especially if we haven’t taken the time to think them through. And for the most part as a society, as parents, as teachers, as churches, we haven’t taken the time to think them through. So let’s touch on some of the puzzlers.
I’ve used this term a couple of times now, and some of you may be getting mad at me because you think I’m saying that we are sexually programmed robots. You may be thinking, “I’m married, and when I see a pretty woman I have the CHOICE of whether to respond to her or be faithful to my wife!” And that’s absolutely true. And yet, you did NOT have control over whether to be attracted to your wife (or the pretty girl) to begin with. You just… were. So the attraction itself is involuntary, but you have control over what to do with it.
Involuntary biological responses are the things our bodies do without us “telling” them to. Our brain breathes for us while we’re asleep… triggers a cough if something gets stuck in our throat… regulates our temperature… and sends us to the bathroom (and MILLIONS more things), all without our conscious thought. We have NO control over the involuntary response getting started, but have at least a little bit of control over what to do with it. So… if I’m in church, and drink too much coffee and need to go to the bathroom, I can probably wait until the end of the sermon. But I couldn’t wait until next Sunday!
That’s what is so hard about telling LGBTQ people that they can choose whether or not to act on their sexuality. It’s a hard enough sell to get young straight kids to wait until marriage for sex… and we know that church kids fare the same in this area as everyone else. But telling a gay teenager to NEVER have sex with who they are actually attracted to is like telling yourself to never again go to the bathroom. Eventually, something has to give, and all the faith in the world isn’t gonna prevent a serious mess!
Things that are put into place at one time, but expressed later are also confusing. It seems for all the world like they are HAPPENING at the time that we first SEE them; but in truth the “happening” is long gone, and all that is left is for the trait to show up. There are many examples of this – simple things like eyes that start out blue and then end up brown, or hair color that is blonde in the toddler years and turns dark by adulthood. We say, without hesitation, “Just like his Mom’s hair did!” without another thought. It can also happen with much more serious things – like Huntington’s Chorea, a progressive, fatal disease which is genetically determined before birth, but shows absolutely no symptoms until adulthood. Another example, more pertinent to sexuality, is the size of the outside sex parts. These things are determined before a baby is born, and there isn’t anything after birth (barring injury or disease) that alters them. But they aren’t EXPRESSED until puberty… because before that it just isn’t yet time.
That’s how it works with gender identity and sexual orientation. Our bodies are miraculous packages, designed to provide what we need at just the right time… and so we express our gender identity and our sexual orientation at the right time, even though they were set in place while we were being formed in our mother’s womb.
In my opinion, this is the heart of the arguments about sexual orientation and gender identity being a “choice.” The age that we SEE a young person declare themselves to be gay or transgender is usually in the teen or young adult years… an age when kids make choices that are often rebellious ones. But the reality is that the only choice occurring is when and how to REVEAL their identity or orientation to others. The actual event happened long before, and has been internally “known” by the person for a very long time. But like my friend in the opening paragraph, they’ve been blending in, trying to figure out if they are the crazy ones or if everyone else is! Imagine, just for a moment, how lonely that must be. And imagine, just for a moment, whether you might finally get fed up, and just bare yourself to the world in whatever way you feel like… not particularly caring at the time if it makes others uncomfortable.
Timing is Everything
Another puzzler – and a big one. In between the formation of the baby’s outside parts in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the formation of the brain sexuality in the second/third trimester, there are hormone surges. These hormone surges can and do impact brain sexuality… but the outside parts have already been formed and are irreversible. This means that the chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside sex parts and brain sexuality may not “match” in the way that we humans (who have somewhat arbitrarily defined “normal” as what we see happening most often) expect them to. A baby might have boy sex parts on the outside, but the part of the brain that controls sexual orientation may be attracted to boys rather than girls. Or a baby might have girl parts on the outside, but a hormone surge impacts the brain at the precise time that gender identity is put into place, and that young child knows without a shadow of a doubt that he is a boy, regardless of what parts are on the outside. Why? Because his brain says so.
Imagine, just for a moment, that the very core of your brain was telling you that you were a boy, while the parts of your body you can see look like girl parts. And then, imagine that everyone you know kept saying you were a girl. Even though your brain KNOWS that you aren’t. Imagine that your parents correct you, over and over again, reminding you that you’re a girl. And they are the people who feed you and take care of you, and love you, and you have absolutely no concept for how to reconcile what they are saying with what you know inside. And then, imagine that a famous preacher that millions of people listen to – like, say, Dr. Franklin Graham – referred to transgender people as “sexual predators and perverts.” Try as I might, I cannot put myself fully in that place… but even the attempt leaves me in a cold sweat. Is it ANY wonder that transgender teens and adults face an astronomically-high rate of depression and suicide?
We’re almost done. Hang with me for a final, hugely important concept: what humans USED to know about sexuality. Here’s the diagram of what was known about sexuality when the Bible was written:
That’s it. That’s all they had, all they knew. See a penis? It’s a boy. Yay! Our family name will continue! He will grow up strong and tall, have children and grandchildren! Praise God!
No penis? It’s a girl. Bummer. Well, maybe next time. Meanwhile, let’s teach her to cook and maybe she will bear children for someone else..
End of story.
Over time, we learned more about sexuality, and we began to add in things… but the ancient history understanding was so deeply ingrained that we just sort of stuck the other things in around our old way of thinking. So now, our understanding all too often looks kind of like this:
It’s like a house with a whole bunch of additions and extra rooms, but the proportions are out of whack. It reminds me of when Jesus chastised his followers, saying, “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins.” Sometimes – most especially for followers of Christ – you have to be willing to blow up your old way of thinking and let him make something totally new out of the rubble.
Now, don’t brand me a heretic just yet. Not unless you know me well enough to know my deep love for Scripture. Not until you understand that I have memorized and kept current over 350 verses. Not unless you know that God’s word gets into me, changes me, transforms me. Before you brand me a heretic, just think for a moment about this beautiful passage:
He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12)
When the psalmist penned this, he thought the world was flat. So for our sins to be removed as far as the east to the west, he probably imagined as, I don’t know… maybe 2000 miles. That’s a long way. And when scientists started to realize the world was round, they caught LOTS of flack from people defending the Bible. But over time, we’ve learned to reconcile the two. We’ve realized that if the psalmist thought the world was flat, that didn’t mean that GOD thought it was flat! It just means that God (for whatever reason) decided to use simple human beings to speak through. He could’ve just floated the Bible down to us, but he didn’t. So the human perspective is, apparently, worth the risk.
And now that we understand a round world, what has happened to this passage? Is it rendered useless? NO — It is even better! Because now we understand that in our round world, you can NEVER get from east to west! Now we realize that our sins aren’t just cast 2000 miles away from us; no, the distance is infinite. Immeasurable. Further than we have the capacity to understand. We could walk around and around and around the earth… and never, ever catch up to them. How cool is that?
So, friends, that’s what I think is happening with human sexuality. You think it’s an abomination? Not me. I think it’s an unfolding miracle. I think God allowed our simple understanding of male and female for long enough… and now, he is ready to blow our minds with the width and length and height and depth of human sexuality.
In closing, let’s return to Franklin Graham. He is quoted as saying, “Gender identity is what an individual ‘feels’ their identity is regardless of the biological reality.” (www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, Feb. 6, 2016)
If you follow an ancient historical understanding of sexuality – if we are fully defined by the parts on the outside, and nothing else – then that is a true statement. If you take a pre-scientific understanding of sexuality, add on a few rooms, and call it done, then that’s a true statement.
But, if you choose to follow that thought process, know this:
It is medically unsupported and biblically unaddressed. The Bible never, ever says, “God created them male (which means a penis) and female (which means a vagina.)” No, we humans added our ideas of what was meant by male and female. Not God.
If a world-renowned leader and evangelist chooses to use the term “biological reality”, then it’s reasonable to expect him to have a sound understanding of what biological reality is. To fail to do so is misleading, inaccurate and irresponsible. It isn’t faith; it’s cowardice.
Fear keeps us enslaved in Egypt, while faith urges us toward the promised land. Fear worries that a human scientist will discover something that will knock God off his throne, while faith looks deeply into the telescope AND the microscope. Perfect love casts out fear… and gives us the courage to look at people and things we don’t understand with eyes wide open, ready and eager to see what God will blow our minds with next.
Remember our young transgender teenager from the opening lines of this post? I don’t believe she’s an abomination, or a mistake, or a sexual deviant. I don’t believe she’s a pervert. I don’t even believe she’s abnormal. I believe that she’s a creation of God. I believe that she is an important part of his revelation.
I believe that she is an unfolding miracle. Open your eyes and your heart, if you dare, and see her.