“Not in my backyard!” Or, perhaps more appropriately, “Not in my bathroom!” Such refrains have become alarmingly common in recent years. As the national debate about the queer community has progressed in the United States, more and more groups within that community have come into the spotlight. While at first the debate centered on the right of gay and lesbian persons to marry, the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 has pushed the topic to the margins. Two new subgroups of the queer community, transgender persons and transsexual persons, have now become the topics of a great deal of discussion. This shift was perhaps also fueled by Caitlyn Jenner’s public admission that she is a transgender woman. As is unfortunately so often the case, the new notoriety of this group has brought backlash from the conservative sectors of society that see transgender and transsexual persons as a threat. The backlash takes shape in many ways, but whether we are talking about physical violence or discriminatory policies, they all fall under the umbrella of “transphobia.” Transphobia, “the fear or hatred of transsexual or transgender people,” is often backed up with appeals to religious sensibilities or interpretations of Scripture. Such theological and hermeneutical moves are harmful, but a queer reading of the Bible provides a way forward for the acceptance of transgender and transsexual persons.
To be clear, when we discuss transphobia, we deal with prejudices against two distinct groups. Transgender persons feel as though their expression of gender does not match up with their physical sex, such as a biological male who actually identifies as female. Such persons may express their gender in a number of ways that from simply using pronouns that correspond to their gender identity to dressing in clothes associated with persons of their non-biological sex. In much the same way, transsexual persons also feel that their biological sex does not match with their gender identity. Here the similarity ends. Transsexual persons often explain that they feel they were born with the wrong sex and seek to bring their bodies into alignment with their true sex. This arduous process involves hormone therapy treatments and gender reassignment surgery. Transphobic attitudes and behaviors are directed at transgender and transsexual persons even though transphobic people often conflate them into one monolithic group.
The transphobic tendencies almost certainly grow out of an extreme commitment to heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the belief that the only proper expression of gender identity and sexual desire is that which corresponds with heterosexual identity and practice. Anything that seems to go away from this paradigm is deemed, to various degrees, dangerous or unacceptable. In the case of transgender and transsexual persons, heteronormative thought understands these people to be straying from the norm by not living into the identity of their biological sex. Thus, transgender and transsexual persons are seen as deviant. With this mentality, transphobia may not actually be a phobia, per se. Transphobic people may not actually have an uncontrollable fear of the trans community. Nevertheless, their discomfort or distaste with the trans community is still problematic, as it manifests itself in harmful ways.
Transphobia may be expressed in any number of ways, some of them more blatantly harmful than others. At the more subtle end of the spectrum are behaviors that suggest distaste with members of the trans community. Toward the harmful end are rules and regulations that seek to marginalize the trans community, a current example are the laws popping up in various U.S. states in 2016 that force trans persons to use the bathrooms in correspondence to their biological sex. At the most egregious end of the spectrum are violent attacks against members of the trans community. In 2015, 21 trans women were killed in the United States; most of them for no reason other than their gender expression. All these destructive behaviors are evidence of extreme biases against members of the trans community and fall under the heading of transphobia.
Other than misguided heteronormativity, where does transphobia come from? What arguments are used to support these outrageous behaviors? Sadly, many transphobic persons use the Bible to justify their discriminatory attitudes and behaviors. They twist biblical passages to argue that God does not approve of transgender or transsexual persons or they even state that God does not love such people. Exegetes in the transphobic camp tend to draw on passages that seem to speak of God’s intentional act of creation of each and every person. They argue that a person’s sex and gender are a part of that creation. They argue that the first creation narrative, in which God creates humankind as male and female in the image of God, implies that God intends for people to stick with the sex they had at birth. Transphobic interpreters also turn to the Psalmist’s words to back up their arguments. The writer of Psalm 139 says of God: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” These interpreters believe that God is intimately involved in our prenatal development, and so human beings have no right to do anything that would alter their bodies so wonderfully made by the Almighty. In these readings, the Bible becomes a tool for transphobic beliefs.
Yet is there another way understand God’s attitude toward transgender and transsexual persons in the Bible? Are there other ways of interpreting Scripture that queer our understanding of this issue? I posit that while people whom we consider to be transgender and transsexual may not appear in the Bible, there are other ways in which a queer reading provides a sense of God’s love and care for trans people. With regard to the two transphobic readings discussed above, no Scripture serves as a direct reproach. Yet we can queer the meanings of these texts by pointing out faulty theology. The deterministic view of human development evident in these interpretations requires that God is intimately involved in every aspect of every embryo’s development, not just their gender. The conviction that God determines our sex and mandates adherence to that assignment logically implies that God chooses which embryos develop normally and which will be made to bear neonatal deformities or diseases. Such a God seems harsh and unloving, and it is no wonder the transphobic interpretations are not usually run to their extreme ends.
Broadening our views on Scripture, perhaps there is hope in the case of biblical eunuchs. While eunuchs are not transgender or transsexual in the way these terms are commonly used, they are indeed men who have ceased to be fully biologically male. Either through choice or force, they have been castrated. At several points, the biblical witness affirms that these trans men are welcome in God’s covenant community. Trito-Isaiah, in speaking of God’s welcome of all faithful people, writes:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘YHWH will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says YHWH: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3-5; NRSV)
Not only are eunuchs welcome in God’s house; they are celebrated! Likewise, Philip welcomes the Ethiopian eunuch into the nascent Church. He goes on not only to live a Christian life but is responsible for the spreading of the gospel in his homeland! Trans people are thus not aberrations to God’s community but its vital members!
Thankfully, we can find a queer reading of Scripture showing that God welcomes and affirms members of the trans community. We must further give thanks that not all churches engage in transphobic behaviors. In recent years, “Christian communities have begun to offer protective and blessing sanctuaries to transgender Christians.” These kinds of moves, such as welcoming trans persons into membership and providing safe places for them to seek shelter in times of need, are a public witness that often emboldens more trans people to enter the life of that faith community. Thankfully, there are witnesses in the Church who recognize that God’s grace extends to all people. Let us pray that their witness serves to help defeat the scourge of transphobia.
An anonymous student
 “transphobia, n.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/382363?redirectedFrom=transphobia& (accessed May 01, 2016).
 Mitch Kellaway and Sunnivie Brydum, “The 21 Trans Women Killed in 2015,” Advocate, January 12, 2016, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2015/07/27/these-are-trans-women-killed-so-far-us-2015
 Cf. Genesis 1:27.
 Psalm 139:13, NRSV. N.B. This style of interpretation of this passage generally ignores the later statement that God forms human beings in the depths of the earth – clearly the writer of the Psalm does not have a scientific or consistent understanding of embryonic development and God’s place in it.
 cf. Acts 8:26-40
 James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, “Transgender Lives: From Bewilderment to God’s Extravagance,” Pastoral Psychology 63, no. 2 (April 2014): 181.
 Ibid., 182.