Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Gospel, Homosexuality, & the Future of Marriage Conference: Denny Burk on Transgender Issues

To read about Rosaria Butterfield's talk at "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage" conference, click here. To read about Albert Mohler's talk, click here.

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission hosted a national conference entitled "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage" in Nashville, TN on October 27-29. In an earlier post, Republic of Gilead shared quotes from Albert Mohler's talk, in which the retrograde flavor of the conference was apparent. In this post, I'd like to share quotes from Denny Burk's talk, "Is There a Slippery Slope? A Gospel-Centered Assessment of Gender Identity, Transgender, and Polygamy". Burk sought to delegitimize transgender identity as something pathological and beyond the pale of God's will, all while praising complementarian gender roles as God's alleged plan for humanity.

Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College (a branch of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), opened his talk with a prayer in which he asserted that "everyone, all of us, feel deep conflicts and groanings because of fallen nature." It quickly became clear that Burk was largely dismissive of transgender identity. At the 5:48 mark, he described society's evolving notions of sex and gender as a situation in which "a person is whatever they think themselves to be".
"We're living in the middle of a culture right now that has been, not for the last decade, but for the last decades been in an enormous transitions in terms of our understanding of gender and sexuality, and this transition presents us with a challenge. The spirit of the age has redefined gender as a spectrum with no normative connection to a person's biological sex, so in this way of thinking ... a person is whatever they think themselves to be, as long as it's sincerely held and felt."
At the 6:46 mark, he claimed that the "biological realities" of sex and gender have been dismissed in today's world in favor of a "self-perceived" perspective on gender.
"Gender is more or less self-perceived and self-determined not by the biological realities that the Creator has embedded into every cell in our bodies, but by psychological realities that people feel powerfully."
At the 7:25 mark, Burk explained that the "slippery slope" in the title of his talk referred to the unknown ramifications of LGBTQ progress and evolving notions of gender.
"We call it a slippery slope simply because a revision of sexual and gender norms has implications beyond the original revision. And so, while  many people in our society are beginning to accept ... the revision on gay sexuality, same-sex sexuality, it's not at all clear to me yet where we're going in terms of this revision on gender and transgender."
The LGBTQ cause has been a success, Burk observed, telling listeners that the LGBTQ movement is winning the culture war. As a result, society is increasingly condemning those who "believe what the scriptures teach" and reject LGBTQ rights. At the 11:02 mark, Burk complained that anti-gay and anti-trans voices are increasingly being criticized as "throwbacks".
"The public is increasingly seeing this issue as a civil rights issue, the next step in society's march toward greater freedom and equality. That's what it is. That's a moral issue in the way it's being presented. And so, to oppose that progress is increasingly seen as backwards and irrational. Because 'gay is good', the public space can no longer tolerate those who would say it's not good, which makes it a problem if you believe what the scriptures teach and you bring that message into the public space. Those who say 'gay is not good' are throwbacks and they stand in the way of human rights and social progress."
Similarly, he warns listeners at the 15:28 mark that those who continue "holding to what the Bible says" regarding binary gender categories will meet with opposition.
"It is not merely that we will be treated as old-fashioned for holding the line on Biblical gender norms. We're going to be facing the same kind of challenges for holding to those norms that we're facing now for holding to what the Bible says about marriage. In other words, there's going to be the same kind of opposition from the outside to being faithful inside the church."
Burk imagined gender affirmation surgery in pathological terms, speaking of it in the same breath as body integrity identity disorder, a condition in which one wishes to amputate part of their body. (Burk discusses this in greater depth at his blog.)  He dismissed transgender identities by insisting that God created humans with static, binary sex and gender roles at the 17:04 mark.
"At the heart of the transgender revolution is this. It's the notion that psychological identity trumps bodily identity ... meaning that your gender identity has no necessary connection to your bodily identity. This view says that your personal sense of identity determines you gender and your sexual identity, potentially, not the body that God gave you. This is a reversal of Christian teaching from time immemorial that in the beginning, God made them male and female, which is an affirmation in Genesis 1 that says that there's a basic biological distinction that God has embedded into the race. We're male and female."
Burk argued that Christian communities need to confront transgender issues with "truth-telling" and "gender discipling". At the 24:31 mark, he claimed that believers must "tell the truth" by insisting that natal sex and gender identity must coincide, regardless of how one feels.
"We have got to tell the truth about what the Bible teaches about gender, and among other things, the Bible is clear that there's a normative connection between biological sex and gender identity. Now when I say normative connection, I do not mean that everybody feels things as they should. I'm saying that sometimes when there is dissonance between those two realities, the Bible is telling us the norm we should be feeling."
Burk frowned upon parental approval of minors' gender transitioning and gender fluidity. For example, he lamented the "moral confusion" exemplified by a camp for gender-nonconforming boys he learned about in the media. He insisted that most children grow out of their transgender feelings, asking, "Why would you change a body of a child in the midst of that reality?" he asked.

A better approach to gender, Burk insists, is the paradigm of evangelical Christian complementarianism. At the 29:59 mark, Burk praised rigid, binary gender roles as godly, dismissing other approaches to gender as a "choose-you-own-adventure story".
"This is exactly where the Christian vision of humanity has so much to offer people ... The Bible puts solid ground beneath our feet so that we don't have to guess at what it means to be male and female, so that parents don't have to sow even more confusion into their child's bewilderment. The spirit of the age tell us that raising a little boy to be a little boy can be cruel and abusive if that boy wishes to be a girl. They're telling us that gender is a choose-you-own-adventure story, and the parents' job is just to get out of the way and let it happen. The Christian vision is different from this and so very freeing and affirming of what we were really meant to be before God."
Burk insists that God created humans as only male and female, with gender roles as an innate distinction rooted in nature. At the 30:58 mark, he urged parents to instill binary gender roles into their children.
"God did not make us into undifferentiated automatons. On the contrary, he made us male and female, and that fundamental, biological distinction defines us. Gender norms, therefore, have their roots in God's good creation, and they're revealed in nature, and they're revealed in scripture. The task of parenting, the task of discipling, requires understanding those norms and to inculcate those norms into our children, into those who want to follow Christ."
In Burk's call for "gender discipling", I recognized a contradiction in complementarian thinking that I've seen before. If rigid, binary gender roles are innate, why do they need to be taught? If such roles are programmed into all humans, why do so many people fail to fully conform to those roles, or reject them altogether? If gender is static, why have notions of gender varied widely across time and cultures? Could it be that gender is a social construct, not a fixed, God-given reality?

Burk complained that society has become so "awash" in feminism and sexual revolution ideas that most people have forgotten what God commands regarding gender roles. For example, he explains at the 34:17 mark that he's raising his son to be a leader and provider, in contrast to how he's raising his daughters.
"There's a way of raising my son that differs with the way I'm raising my little girls, and it's not about getting him to like sports and trucks and hunting. Frankly, I don't care about that. What I do care about that he learn to be a leader and a protector and a provider."
Shouldn't we encourage all children to be leaders? I thought. Shouldn't we teach everyone to provide for their loved ones and protect others? It saddened me that Burk's daughters were not being encouraged in the same manner as his son. The link between rigid gender roles and patriarchy was clearly on display.

Throughout the talk, I was puzzled as to why Burk lumped transgender issues together with polygamy in his title. At the 35:46 mark, he explained that transgender advances erode norms surrounding sexuality and gender, which will lead to polygamy (!).
"We hold them together in this talk simply because there's a way that you can talk of them both as on a slippery slope. We hold them together simply because polygamy is an entailment of the worldview of the program of the sexual revolutionaries, whether they realize it or not. For this new understanding of gender and sexuality ... it's giving us not just a new definition of marriage; it's giving us a new definition of what it means to be a human being, and that new definition comes with an entirely new set of norms ... Once you remove the heterosexual norm, none of the other norms are stable anymore. The monogamous norm, that's not stable anymore. The permanence norm, that's already gone because of no-fault divorce."
What Burk fails to realize is that LGBTQ advances reflect justice, not some catastrophic destabilization of norms, and that polygamy does not logically follow from LGBTQ equality. Conveniently, he ignored the fact that polygamy was sanctioned in many parts of the Bible that he and his brethren hold so dear. To boot, polygamy is compatible with the rigid gender roles Burk advocates, as evidenced by patriarchal societies that practice polygamy. Burk's claims played to the fears of the audience, but did not say anything accurate or useful about LGBTQ issues or polygamy.
*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I sighed throughout the talk. Burk spent nearly an hour talking about transgender persons, but it was clear that he did not respect them or understand their lived experiences. Transgender identity simply did not fit into his notions of binary sex and gender, but the growing presence of transgender people in society meant that he could not ignore them. Rather than adjust his belief system to accommodate the existence of transgender persons, he dismissed them as unhealthy.

Dismissing transgender people has devastating consequences. The belief that transgender identity is not legitimate, that transgender persons stand outside the norm, feeds into transphobia. If we are to end transphobic discrimination and hate crimes, we must eliminate the transphobia that feeds it.

To boot, Burk's insistence that God "made us male and female" completely ignores intersex people. Complementarian thinking simply cannot countenance the existence of people whose biological sex does not fit neatly into male or female.

Burk's talk, in essence, was a stubborn attempt to cling to binary notions of sex and gender. However, as much as Burk insists that binary gender roles are normative for the human race, history suggests otherwise. Many cultures across time have recognized third and fourth genders such as the hijra of India, the katoey of Thailand, the burrnesha of Albania, and the various "two-spirit" categories among Native American tribes, to name but a few. Humanity's understanding of gender has always been expanding and evolving, and the growing visibility of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the 21st century is an example of that evolution, not a harbinger of decadence.

Gender is a spectrum, and gender diversity has always existed, regardless of complementarian attempts to shove people into gender boxes. Furthermore, by shoehorning people into arbitrary roles, complementarians ignore individuality. We are all unique, and one's uniqueness is often too big to fit into a narrow gender role. This is anathema to complementarians, as their form of patriarchy requires rigid dividing lines between males and females in order to maintain a gendered hierarchy.

In short, Burk's talk revealed his discomfort with evolving notions of sex and gender. The Religious Right, baffled at society's evolving notions of sex and gender, can no longer ignore the existence of LGBTQ people. Alarmed that their binary, hierarchical vision is no longer the norm for many people, they double down on messages about alleged "biological realities". They frighten audiences with warnings about impending polygamy and degraded morals, rather than learn about the people they fear. The Gospel, Homosexuality, & the Future of Marriage Conference seems to be a product of that fear, rather than an attempt to bring Christians to a deeper understanding of gender diversity and sexuality.


  1. I find myself less and less tolerant of these and other charlatans who portray themselves and their adherents as both the protectors of "God's" mandates on marriage and gender identity, but also as the victims of other people's private choices that have absolutely no impact on them.

    What kind of sad pathetic person must one be to sit around and ruminate about other people's identities and choices?

    1. Agi Tater -- A sad person who is heavily invested in patriarchy and the power it gives them. The world is changing around them, and they cope by clinging to outmoded beliefs even more stubbornly.


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