He or She? How Should I Refer to Transgender Friends?

This is the title of a podcast by Pastor John Piper – He or She? How Should I Refer to Transgender Friends?

What do we do when a transgender friend wants us to call them a new name, and we know that the new name does not fit their actual sex?  This can be very complicated for a Christian who on the one hand believes sex/gender to be given by God and not chosen, but on the one hand the same Christian wants to show others the same compassion and mercy that we also have received from God.

Piper handles this issue fairly well I think.  He talks about how names are culturally arbitrary on the one hand, so in some ways it’s not that big of a deal.  Piper admits certain cases that he would indeed go by calling a transsexual person by their preferred opposite sex name.  But he goes farther I think than most Christians, in that he says he will not “lie” by calling a transsexual person using their preferred pronouns, even at a workplace, even if it cost him his job.  In summary he makes a small deal about names, given their arbitrary nature, but he will not lie to transsexuals or other people by identifying transsexuals as something they are not.

John Piper does a good job discussing the very real and painful reality of those born with sex anomalies, such as hermaphrodites, and how it is a very different issue from transsexual phenomena today.

The name and pronoun issue is a thorny issue which I’ve talked about before.  I’m trying to think of other analogies that don’t involve transsexualism that may be helpful.  Perhaps as Christians there are other issues in which we are or are not making concessions.

When a coworker says he is married, but I know he means something different from my Christian view of marriage, do I still refer to him as being married?  Yes.  I don’t think this would be inconsistent with Piper’s view.  Marriage is a thing I recognize across all cultures as part of God’s common grace, part of the structure of even non-Christian society, but I also recognize that there is more to a Christian marriage than only that cultural structure.

If a coworker claimed he was white, when really he has dark skin, I would not concede to call him “white.”  (But actually I can’t think of any reason why I’d ever need to make a comment about his race or color of skin).  It is not nearly as complicated as an issue like sex, in which even in a simple email we have to use pronouns like he or she.

If a coworker claimed that she was fat, and she wanted me to admit she was fat (even if she was anorexically skinny), I would not admit it, but instead try to help her see how thin she is and the need for counseling.

If an Indian coworker was worshipping an idol at his desk, I would respect his freedom to do so.  But I would not refer to the figurine as the real God of the universe.  Even if he tried to tell me that his god is the true God who I also worship, I would openly disagree with him.  I might be willing to go so far as to say, “your god that you worship.”

If a coworker changed his name, I would be willing to call him a new name of his choice.  If he chose a female name and got sex reassignment surgery and started trying to live as a female, it would be more difficult for me to use his preferred name, because I would feel like by doing so I would be communicating that I agree he is now a female.  But I don’t know what I would do until I got to that situation.  Perhaps I would use the preferred name but still not use the pronouns of his choice.  Or perhaps I would use the pronouns he wanted as a concession to avoid needless offense, while he and everyone else knew what I really thought about his sex.  It’s hard to know what to do.

As I’ve written before, I lean towards Piper’s position, of not lying, of always speaking truth, but speaking it in a gentle and loving and compassionate way.  But when you get down to the reality of different situations, you first can try to avoid needless offense while also avoiding lying at the same time.

I’m stumped in coming up with more analogies.  Anyone have any good analogies that would argue against this position?  It seems to me that the only exception I can think of that our culture has made on these issues of denying reality, is this one issue about sex.  On every other issue when a person is completely denying reality and wanting us to go along with it, I think our culture is still not willing to do so on those other issues.


8 comments on “He or She? How Should I Refer to Transgender Friends?

  1. Caleb Ben Judah says:

    Hi Thorin I can think of an issue which is quite common here in Australia which u partly referred to with skin colour. An aboriginal person who has both European and Aboriginal ancestry can have white skin within 2 generations yet still identify as aboriginal. Even with one black and one white parent the child can have quite light skin colour. I have a friend whose grandparents were full blood yet she is as white as me, you can only tell from the difference in her hair. Even brought up in a European manner she identifies with her Aboriginal half, this identity issue has been a struggle for many. Though its not quite as much an issue as how do I refer to he/ she its still there. All govt forms have boxes to fill out – are you of Aboriginal/ Torres Strait islander descent. I think they take it 1/16 is, though not sure on the figure. I know others like this- are they white or black? Their skin can be white, they identify as Aboriginal… Here its taken on how they identify which isn’t as serious issue, I don’t think, as you are not lieing in the same way as you are about gender…and many of us have quite a unique mix of ancestry!!!

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________


  2. thorin25 says:

    Yeah that is a helpful example perhaps to think through. Race, unlike gender except in rare hermaphroditic cases, is not so clear cut. Technically race doesn’t exist. Everyone is a little bit different from everyone else. It’s easy to draw lines between men and women, about what makes a man and what makes a woman, but with race, it’s much more difficult. But you can still go back to reality. If someone says he has aboriginal parents, but his parents were actually from France or something, than you can tell him he is wrong, and don’t have to go along with his fabrication.

    People try to claim that gender is the same as race, that it isn’t clear cut. But their argument falls apart. In only extremely rare cases is someone both with so many abnormalities that a doctor can’t figure out what sex they truly are. The exception proves the rule that it is easy to see the differences between men and women, so much so in fact that most transsexuals are easy to spot just by their physical looks, without even looking at what is under the clothes. Race is much more fluid, especially given all the interracial marriages. And it is much less important (in my opinion anyway). My color of skin is not going to determine my identity so much as my cultural heritage, and culture where I live. My color of skin or type of hair is not going to determine my identity so much as whether I am a man or woman, father or mother, etc.


  3. Destry says:

    I do feel as well that this is a thorny issue, and I have to say it would be quite harsh to call a transexual a pronoun he or she doesn’t identify with. That’s just me though since I still have a soft spot for the LGBT community and I probably always will. However, if I was to ever to dress like a woman again I would want people to refer to me as a man.


  4. thorin25 says:

    Destry, thanks for your comment. It’s good to share and discuss even when you might disagree with me on an issue.

    I wonder why you view it as harsh? I know what many others would say, but I want to hear your perspective. For me, I know that it can be offensive, but I also think it’s loving to bring people back to reality. Yet, there are times where we should just let other people go their own way in sin, and not constantly call attention to it. Yet on the pronoun issue, I think for me it would be more about me myself not taking part in someone’s elses lie, more than about me trying to speak in a way especially for them, whether trying not to offend them, or trying to how them the truth. It’s tough though


  5. Destry says:

    Don’t get me wrong Thorin. I do understand what you are saying but still why should gender dyphoria be considered a lie rather than a mental disorder? The only supposed treatment is SRS or hormone therapy. There is one other condition called autogynephilia (arousal from one’s self as a woman). That’s the fetish I had and still struggle with. However, over time my interest in SRS started to fade and I just wanted to look like a woman, and during gender therapy I was turned down for hormones.


  6. thorin25 says:

    The transgender disorder is real, not a lie. But to call someone a woman who is really a man is to encourage and feed the disorder rather than helping someone out of it. Don’t you think? I disagree with the psychologists that the only treatment is SRS or hormone therapy. After all many guys in our prayer group, and many people who have written testimonies from organizations and online, show us that there is a different path of treatment. They are healthy today and no longer wish to be women.

    So for you, did the autogynephilia manifest in crossdressing, or only in fantasy in your head?


  7. Destry says:

    Both I would say. Fantasies still play out in my head and I don’t try to suppress them. I am glad you feel the disorder is not a lie. For me, though, proclaiming myself as a woman and presenting myself as a woman on a social site I am on came to starting to feel like a lie overtime. So I think people have to realize that they’re living a lie in order to find healing. For almost year I just accepted being a crossdresser but God kept calling me so I guess that was the wrong path too.


  8. thorin25 says:

    Yes let me speak more clearly. I believe people really and truly have a problem, a disorder, in reality. But in reality they are not truly a woman, regardless of how they might feel, so when a man tries to live as a woman, he is lying to himself and to others, even if he might have good intentions and is not trying to cause harm.

    I think healing can only be found, when the crossdresser or transgendered person acknowledges how they feel (not suppressing it), but also accepts those feelings as disordered feelings, and then works on accepting themselves for who they really are (their real sex), and learning to be content with that.



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