Christianity,  Culture

Some Shortcomings of Modern Views on Gender Identity

Carl Trueman has some trenchant observations about the shortcomings of modern understandings of gender identity. The public response to the recent and tragic suicide of Josh “Leelah” Alcorn is a case in point. It seems that anyone who refused to acknowledge and affirm Alcorn’s transgender identity is being blamed for the suicide—which is why so much vitriol has been aimed at Alcorn’s Christian parents. Trueman writes:

That dominant narrative is arbitrarily selective and highly unstable. Indeed, its own logic gives no reason why we should single out gender identity as special. There are many people convinced that they are somebody or something which their bodies are not. There was the extreme case of Cat Man. For him, his humanity was something to be overcome by surgery. That society found him weird and egregious no doubt contributed to his sense of alienation, despair, and eventual suicide. Then there are people who have xenomelia and want perfectly healthy limbs amputated. Are parents who impose on their offspring the normativity of the species assigned to them at birth to be dismissed as unsupportive, unloving, and cruel? Are those who deny a child with xenomelia the right to have his arm amputated unfit to be parents? If my neighbor sincerely believes he is Napoleon trapped in the wrong body, does kindness and love mean that I have to affirm him in this belief? And if not, why not? And if bodies are out of bounds as evidence, what else can I use to make my case? I think these are legitimate questions to ask of the advocates pressing the transgender issue.

I highly recommend that you read the rest of Trueman’s piece. He goes on to point-out that activists often appeal to “objective scientific fact” in order to endorse transgender identities. He rightly exposes the fallacy of deriving “oughts” from what “is.”

An enormous case-in-point is the example at hand: What are parents supposed to do when a child reports transgender feelings? According to the gender revisionists, the only proper response is to affirm those feelings. Otherwise, parents risk driving their children into a suicidal depression. Some argue that affirmation might include delaying puberty through hormone therapy or even surgically refashioning the child’s body to match his gender preference.

But we have to ask the obvious question: Why is it permissible to surgically alter a child’s body to match his perceived gender but it is considered hateful (or perhaps even bigoted) to try and change his perceived gender to match his body? If it is wrong to attempt to change a child’s gender identity (because it is fixed and meddling with it is harmful), then why is it morally acceptable to alter something as fixed as a biological body of a minor child? [1] It is not self-evident why attempting to change the one is okay but attempts to change the other are not. The double standard here is obvious. It reveals that we are dealing with an ideology, not a cold hard look at “objective scientific fact.”

But I would add one more problem with activists who cite “objective scientific fact.” The very authorities that they cite often do not support their case. In other words, before they ever get into the “is ought” fallacy, they often mischaracterize the “is” part of the equation. To insist that parents affirm transgender feelings in their children ignores the fact that the vast majority of children who report such feelings grow out of them. This fact is clearly reported in the “bible” of psychiatry—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. [2] A recent study in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry summarizes the consensus on this point:

The prospective literature on gender dysphoric children shows that gender dysphoria in childhood does not irrevocably result in gender dysphoria or GID in adolescence or adulthood… The results unequivocally showed that the gender dysphoria remitted after puberty in the vast majority of children. [3]

To be sure, there are children who persist in these feeling into adulthood. But the “vast majority” do not. Depending on which study you look at, 73% to 98% of children who report such feelings grow out of them.

If this is what the scientific authorities are saying, why are the activists saying that change is harmful? Most of these children change with no intervention. Why are attempts to help them resolve these issues early necessarily harmful? More importantly, why would anyone physically alter a child’s body through surgery or hormones when their gender-confused feelings are usually temporary? Some argue that parents might suppress puberty until the child is old enough to make their own decision. But even this is not without problems. Mark Yarhouse and Erica Tan observe, “Criticisms of puberty suppression range from concerns about the effects on bone-mass development to brain development, to… comorbid mental health issues not being resolved.” [4]

Again, there are obviously some children who persist with transgender feelings into adulthood. No one disputes that. And certainly we need a compassionate and loving response to those children who do persist with such feelings. I’m simply questioning whether “objective scientific fact” supports the narrative that activists are advancing with respect to children.

Christian parents would do well to keep all of this in mind and to remember that their assignment as parents includes raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). It means teaching their children to embrace the identity God has given them—that God created them in His own image as male or female (Gen. 1:26-27). Parents must love their children unconditionally and be willing to walk with them if they experience a sense of alienation from them their own bodies. This can be a painful, difficult road to travel. But that pain is only intensified when false gender ideologies enter into the mix.


[1] James M. Kushiner, “Why Is Reparative Therapy Illegal for Boys but Gender Surgery for Girls Not?,” Mere Comments, August 30, 2013,

[2] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 455.

[3] Thomas D. Steensma et al., “Desisting and Persisting Gender Dysphoria after Childhood: A Qualitative Follow-up Study,” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 16, no. 4 (2010), 2.

[4] Mark A. Yarhouse and Erica S. N. Tan, Sexuality and Sex Therapy: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 331.


  • jms515

    Pride..Not to continue passing the blame, but I find it interesting that this whole ideal of affirming one’s believes even if I think is sinful is our lack of understanding the doctrine of sin. Not that I expect those that do not follow after God to begin to want to understand, but I find it interesting in the church where we should be addressing our lack of understanding and we are not. What we are addressing is being a victim. Everyone is a victim and because everyone is a victim, sin is water downed along with the gospel.

  • Christiane Smith

    Hi DENNY,
    first of all, thank you for addressing this painful case . . .

    part of the problem is that some Christian parents will adhere to the first part of your advice without adhering to the second part . . . the first part, this:
    ” to remember that their assignment as parents includes raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). It means teaching their children to embrace the identity God has given them—that God created them in His own image as male or female (Gen. 1:26-27)”

    the part they forget (or sadly, don’t know how to do effectively, which is the more likely case) is this advice:
    “Parents must love their children unconditionally and be willing to walk with them if they experience a sense of alienation from them their own bodies. This can be a painful, difficult road to travel. But that pain is only intensified when false gender ideologies enter into the mix.”

    The role of the Church must include not only ‘doctrine’ and ‘sacred Scripture’, but also to address the ‘journey’ of the family so that Our Lord’s Presence in their midst is felt as ‘The peace of the Lord’. . . in this way, the Church IS responding by helping parents come to listen with compassion and patience and love to the pain behind what the child is telling them. The concept of this being a ‘journey’ is valuable because it implies that there will be an extended period of time that the family faces together and that all of THEIR NEEDS are met with the patience that comes from their sacred relationship with Christ Himself. There is no place in the pain of Christian lives where Christ will not come as The Great Physician. The Church’s message needs to openly validate this truth as core to the Good News.

      • Dal Bailey

        I looked, I didn’t see anything like that.

        1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV / 43 helpful votes

        Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

        Best I could find.

      • Christiane Smith

        Hi JAMES,
        thanks for the thought-provoking question . . . in my own Church it is said that we become ‘the prodigal son’ every time we search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.
        I know a lot of parents don’t (or sadly, can’t) love their children ‘unconditionally’ . . . and I also know that a lot of Christian people wonder just what ‘unconditional’ love is, and how it relates to them and their interactions with others, even the ones closest to them

        I think the part of sacred Scripture that, for me, comes closest to answering your question is Christ’s parable of The Prodigal Son . . . located in St. Luke’s Gospel.
        Perhaps Our Lord’s beautiful parable can provide you with some further insight into a biblical response to your question, James. I hope it helps. God Bless.

  • David Shane

    And where are the people who claim that merely teaching your children about religion is some kind of child abuse when these other parents want to put their children under the knife?

  • Daniel Moody

    I enjoy Denny Burk’s and Carl Trueman’s commentary on Gender, but there is a missing factor – man-made law.

    Transgenderism is not the manifestation of an ideological approach to something named ‘gender’. Rather, Gender is the name of a purely legal ideology, through which we are denied access to legal recognition of the physical reality of our body. To the State, we are now mere states of mind (‘Gender identities’) – hence why the State permits ‘Gender reassignment’ without surgery, diagnosis or medical referral. And hence why the State permit us to change the body so as to accord with the mind, and forbids us from changing the mind so as to accord with the body.

    Gender is ferociously evil.

  • Dal Bailey

    Reading the article, had the parents did some exploring on this issue, they might have formed a better way to deal with it. However, the child was also somewhat obstinate with his desires. Demanding counseling which probably affirmed his “Feelings”

    However, it’s all too late for the child and his parents. But maybe this will help other parents deal with this thorny issue in the future.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Perhaps this issue is more metaphysical than scientific? Suppose a form of substance dualism is true and that the formal features of the body are organized and structured by the causal powers of the soul. The organizing effect is not perfect, however. People can be born blind, without limbs, or without a brain for that matter (anencephaly). And perhaps people are born with male bodies when they should have been born with female ones. The same resources we use to answer the problem of anencephaly can be used to answer the problem of transgender: there is, for all we know, a morally sufficient reason that God has for allowing such things to occur. The “problem” I speak of here is one that relates to natural evil, not moral evil. People who are transgendered are not morally evil as such; rather, they suffer the misfortune of being born into the wrong sort of body–something they often report.

    This would change the pastoral attitude towards such people significantly. It invites, though it does not require, the possibility of selective surgery that would make one appear female if one identifies as female by virtue of their introspective knowledge (the same source of knowledge that gets the argument for substance dualism going). It allows us to take seriously the claims of transgendered persons that they feel as though they are in the wrong sort of bodies, and that their experience is not necessarily delusive. There may be some reason to believe they will grow out of it, but there very well may not. If not, then the kind of attention given to people who identify as a member of a sex in contrast to their bodily sexual features must preclude a hermeneutic of suspicion. That, at the very least, is what transgendered persons do not want to endure from their loved ones, and should not have to if their feelings are persistent.

    • Denny Burk

      Adam, I can think of at least three problems with this argument:

      (1) You can be a dichotomist without being a dualist. I mean that we can embrace the biblical truth that there are material and immaterial aspects to our humanity, but we still need to affirm with scripture that we are one person. Our material and immaterial aspects are a unity in some sense. It is only the Fall and death that would make them at odds with one another.

      (2) God’s will for us as sexual being is revealed in part through our biology. Genesis 1-2 reveals a sexual binary that has a normative connection to gender roles. In other words, we are not the sum total of our fallen attitudes about ourselves. We are who God says we are.

      (3) Sex-change operations do not make a person into the other sex. They merely alter the appearance of the body in an attempt to relieve the psychological turmoil that many transgender people experience. The surgeries are not without risks. They often have many painful complications. And still, many of those who undergo such surgeries do not achieve the relief from turmoil that they are seeking. But even if the were, such procedures would still amount to suppressing the truth of who God made us to be as male and female.

      So I recognize that many of our transgender neighbors experience deep psychological distress. And that fact should call forth our love and compassion. I do not believe that embracing a fictional gender identity or surgically modifying the body is the way to relieve that distress. God intends better for them.

      • Adam Omelianchuk

        Thanks for your reply, Denny. With respect to (1), I agree, you can be a dichotomist without being a dualist, but how one maintains personal identity in the intermediate state after death and before the resurrection without being a dualist is hard to make sense of. With respect to (2), I would like to hear how the “is ought” problem (assuming it is a problem) is avoided; why do facts concerning our biological form imply that they must be our metaphysical form? Genesis does reveal a binary, alright, but it doesn’t support the biological approach to personal identity. And if we are what God says we are, and he says that I am a woman, then I am woman despite how I appear to others, so that point is no problem for the view I am suggesting. I share your concerns about (3), though I don’t know enough about to conclude that they “still amount to suppressing the truth of who God made us to be as male and female.” For all we know, it may very well be a way (perhaps a bad one) for revealing the truth of who we are.

        One problem I see with my suggestion is that it is hard to believe that souls are gendered, and if they were, their causal powers should not bring about their opposite biological forms. But I think it is worth thinking about. Maybe an ETS paper in the making!

  • Sandra Stewart

    My understanding is that the “and” is an inserted word in Gennisis so it is “male female”, this alos leaves out
    Gal 3:26-29
    26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
    The bible also mentions those that are intersex, the born that way, and current thinking among some researchers feel that because of the nature of transgender etiology, genetic an epigenetic, it comes under that heading.

  • Michele Liberrio

    please let me know if my comment on morphologic sex being able to be changed, normal females with a Y chromosome, and the MT vs JT case was deleted or if it as not even posted and if you would rather me post my comment on my blog as a separate open letter to Denny Burk. Thanks.

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