A missionary crosses boundaries to preach the good news of Jesus. This often means learning another language as well as the history and culture of the target people group. The fact is that all Christians are missionaries, since Jesus commissions his disciples to take the gospel to everyone (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:6-8). According to J. Alan Branch, this missionary attitude also applies also to Christians engaging transgender people. In Affirming God’s Image, Branch writes, “just as missionaries need to learn the language of the culture to which they are ministering, it is important for Christians to understand the language of the transgender culture” (p. 21).
There is a distinct vocabulary of which Christians should be informed if they wish to bridge the gap and engage transgender individuals respectfully with the love of Christ. This post briefly draws from Branch’s transgender vocabulary overview in Affirming God’s Image.
Sex and Gender
It is important to begin here although these words may seem highly familiar and needing of no explanation. It is essential to recognize that “the main presupposition of modern transgender discussion” is that sex and gender are not equated. Rather, these are “separate, identifiable concepts.” Sex refers to biology and anatomy such as “genitalia, bone structure, DNA, hormones, and internal reproductive anatomy.” Gender, however, refers to “the subjective psychological, social, and cultural aspects of being male or female.” Some reflect these differences by using male and female to refer to sex but masculinity and femininity to refer to gender. Understanding this distinction is the first step for understanding the transgender discussion.
The American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as “the clinical diagnosis for the experience of distress among people who have a marked incongruence between the gender they were assigned at birth and their experienced or expressed gender” if these feelings persist for six months’ time. It should be clarified that this term only applies to those experiencing gender distress. Thus, not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria.
Transgender and Sexual Orientation
Transgender is a “overarching term that describes and unites a broad category of people for whom their current gender identity is different from what is commonly expected of their birth sex.” Thus, for transgender people, their sex and their experience of gender do not align. Transgenderism should be distinguished from sexual orientation. Transgender refers to one’s own sexual identity, while sexual orientation refers to the gender of the person to whom one is attracted.
While sometimes used as a synonym for transgender, a transsexual is one who “transitions via medical interventions to the opposite gender.” This is a subset of transgender, so “all transsexual people are transgender, but not all transgender people are transsexual.” If a person born male transitions to female, they are called a “trans-female” or “male-to-female” (MtF). If a person born female transitions to male, they are called “trans-male” or “female-to-male” (FtM).
A transvestite cross-dresses (wearing clothing typical of the opposite gender), but usually has “no desire to pursue sexual reassignment surgery.” This is often simply a fetish and does not necessarily mean the person identifies as transgender.
The term cisgender refers to those whose gender identity aligns with their birth sex. For many, this would simply be considered a “natural” state, but cisgender is used to avoid making a moral judgment about transgender people and their experiences as being abnormal.
Children who are born with a variety of rare conditions in which their genitals are ambiguous to some extent—sometimes making their sex ambiguous—are spoken of having a “disorder of sexual development” (DSD). The term intersex is also used of people with this condition.
While queer was formerly used as a slur, it has more recently been embraced. Queer does not refer strictly to one’s gender identity or sexual orientation but that “the person identifies somewhere in the LGBTQ community.”
Genderist / Transphobic
These are derogatory terms used of those who oppose the transgender community. One who believes there are only two genders and that people should not deviate from the gender that corresponds to their assigned sex are sometimes labelled as genderist. A similar term is transphobia. Transgender activists use this term to refer to those they believe are motivated from an “irrational fear of transgender people based on prejudices and bigotry.”
Being Missionaries to our Transgender Neighbors
While the variety and abundance of this terminology may feel overwhelming, it is important to remember that these are highly common in transgender discussions. While these words may appear overly particular or trivial, for many they are highly important and deeply personal.
Jesus himself was the ultimate missionary: bridging the gap of heaven and earth in his incarnation and crossing boundaries with radical love. As disciples of Jesus, we are missionaries our transgender neighbors, so understanding this terminology is a profoundly helpful step towards respecting and loving them with the love of Christ, the great missionary who came so that all may receive forgiveness and experience new life in communion with him and his family.