Ah, I thought, that’s it! I’d been reading some articles on identity issues, and had been wondering why the general trend seemed to be that anyone who didn’t feel comfortable in their own body should be affirmed in the gender that they felt that they really were.
Phrases such as a ‘female trapped in a man’s body,’ or vice versa, suggested there was something wrong with a person’s body, rather than with their mind. So, the logical outcome then is you change your body to fit with your mind. That’s how you are being true to yourself.
I wondered then how people could contemplate taking hormones, or undergo surgery to change their bodies. And how could parents encourage their children to go down a path that involved taking puberty blockers, and probably becoming infertile? They must be desperate to take, or allow, such a drastic course of action, I thought.
It turns out they are desperate. Suicide rates are higher for transgender people than for the rest of the population. Their condition has a name, ‘gender dysphoria’, and it affects every aspect of their lives. Their bodies constantly remind them that they are not what they want to be – the other sex.
So, to be true to their real selves, as they perceive them, they are prepared to take drastic and permanent action. Public campaigns to help people through this process, to provide facilities for them (eg toilets in schools), and also to educate people to accept that this is the right path for them, and fund it accordingly, have appeared. And if you take any other position you are transphobic.
(Some people are challenging the development of ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’, a phenomenon that is spreading like wildfire amongst adolescent girls. Evidence suggests that this is a societal construct. It’s being called a craze, in the traditional sense of the term.)
‘Finding yourself,’ ‘coming out’ – these are ways of being true to yourself
As I read more widely, I realise that being ‘true to yourself’ not only underlies ‘gender dysphoria’, but also many aspects of current Western society. ‘Finding yourself’ – through overseas travel, spiritual retreats, counselling, adventure, has long been advocated for strongly. (Today if you have money, then you can have a life-coach, or a therapist, to help find out who you are and establish an appropriate life balance.)
‘Coming out’ is a common transition for people who want to let family and friends know of their same-sex attraction; this phrase implies that by ‘coming out’ they are being true to their real selves.
But can we true to our real selves? Should this approach undergird, not only our gender identities, but all our activities?
For many people with mental health issues, acceptance of who they think they are, is an issue that needs to be addressed. The rise of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as a way of combatting the distorted thinking a person may have about themselves, means that CBT has become a widely used tool of counsellors and therapists to help people change.
There are many other approaches counsellors may use to address the dis-ease people may show in their functioning, and in their thinking about themselves. Such approaches presume that there is something wrong with people’s perceptions.
Society also does not endorse the thinking of girls (usually) with the diagnosis of anorexia. They are not affirmed in their thinking that they are fat, but they are encouraged to reset their thinking, and helped to address the issues that led to such thinking. (A multi-faceted holistic approach, may also include hospitalisation.)
Our thinking about ourselves can be wrong
It’s not only those suffering from disorders whose thinking can be distorted. In lesser ways, many of us may have either inflated views of ourselves – or we put ourselves down unnecessarily. Our perceptions of ourselves can differ according to the company we are with, the activity we are doing, and the mood we are in. We’re all capable of ‘stinking thinking!’
The Christian faith is realistic. It affirms that we are all children of God, and therefore equal in the sight of God with anyone else on this planet. That basic fact undergirds any attitude or action that we might take towards someone else. We are called to love others, as we love ourselves, as stated in the 2nd Great Commandment Jesus gave.
Sometimes loving ourselves can take a real effort – if we haven’t been loved in our families, if we see ourselves as unlovable because of what we may have done, or what people have said about us, or how we see ourselves, then there can be the need for a lot of healing, including a resetting of our minds.
That faith is also realistic in affirming that we fail in fulfilling that commandment. We know that we fail. But through Jesus we are offered cleansing, forgiveness and grace, to put things right and to move on and grow.
‘Losing’ ourselves, for the sake of others
Ultimately our lives are not our own and are to be given in service of others. It’s in humble service to others that we ultimately find out who we really are. That’s the way we do become true to ourselves, and what we were made to be.
In such an ongoing process there may be many areas along the way where our attitudes need to be changed. It takes honesty to see ourselves as God sees us. We sometimes too need the help of others to make the attitudinal changes necessary.
The Bible is quite clear that our thinking can be distorted. We are not infallible. The corrective of intelligent Bible study, prayer and good teaching, and the encouragement of friends can help us grow in grace and wisdom.
Dealing with identity issues
And that grace and wisdom is so much needed as we learn to accept and love people who struggle with identity issues – no matter how those issues may emerge. One gay rights activist, after he became a Christian, spent a considerable amount of time in counselling and prayer, and he said, “when his issues were dealt with,” to his surprise he found himself losing his attraction to guys and becoming attracted to women instead. Years later, he is married with a family.
Sadly, some people who do go down the path of transition to the gender they identify with find that when they realise their goal, they are still not ‘complete’, and they want to transition back again. The issues behind their desire to transition weren’t dealt with in the first place. Often too their voices are suppressed.
Surely, to unthinkingly adhere to an ideological agenda that encourages and affirms people to be ‘true to themselves’, without examining some of the assumptions behind people’s perceptions, is one of the unkindest things we can do, as we are withholding from people an opportunity to truly become their real selves.
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.