There are so many moving parts with the recent issues around the transgender issue in schools it is hard to know where to start, but one thing is certain, it’s the most complex matter that faith-based schools have had to face.
And the way the narrative is going at the moment, this could be the issue that sinks Christian schools that hold to an orthodox understanding of sexuality. For at the moment it looks like sinking the Religious Discrimination Bill, which was there to offer some measure of protection. The timing of Citipointe Christian College’s statement last week could not have been more dreadful.
So why is it all so complex and intractable?
Well, foundationally it’s because the transgender issue is the front line trench of the culture war. It just is. For Christian schools to hold the line – whether they do it badly as Citipointe did, or whether they try to nuance it as many other schools wish to do -, the progressive culture warriors are looking in every nook and cranny to flush out resistance.
What do I mean by that? Simply this: Unless total affirmation and celebration of transgender children is given by Christian schools, then the ideologues will not be satisfied. It will not be good enough to declare that we affirm every child for who they are, made in the image of God and hence infused with value, dignity and worth on that basis. No, it will only be good enough when we affirm and celebrate who trans students believe themselves to be.
And that is where the tensions and conflicts arise. Fuelled by a media that is too lazy to ask the hard questions, and simply throws out the “transphobe” term (I’m looking at your/our/their – pick your pronoun – ABC), there will be no opportunity for schools to be given oxygen to explain themselves.
Clearly the Citipointe issue did not help, but from the conversations I have been having, all that the college’s actions did was fast track a conflict that many other schools were trying to prepare themselves for. There is no getting away from this one. It’s coming for us. HAS come for us.
Let’s be clear. Activists opposed to the Christian understanding of what it means to be human are more than happy to fuel the discontent with Christian – and other faith-based – schools in this matter, and will be only too happy to sign up young students who identify as trans to their cause. From what I know – and I know a good deal in this area – most Christian schools are exceptionally sensitive and helpful with families of students who identify as trans. Yet activism threatens to derail that process.
There is no carte blanche approach in schools at the moment, and there is much consternation even among staff as to whether it is disobedient to the gospel vision of humanity to use pronouns to describe someone that you do not believe correspond with reality. And that’s where the ideology is so destructive and so implacable.
Some teachers believe that love of the student demands that we use their preferred pronouns in order to create a safe environment for them. Other teachers believe that love of the student demands that we don’t use their preferred pronouns because they believe that speaking a lie for the sake of convenience both harms the gospel witness, and makes them complicit in a massive cultural lie that is bound to – already is – having serious psychological, social and physical consequences for those who when young were encouraged to take life-altering drugs and consider irreversible body tranformations.
Why is it okay, for instance, for a trans student to be true to who they really know themselves to be, but for a Christian teacher or parent to have to deny who they really know themselves to be? Rock and a hard place right there. The simple answer of course is that the Sexular Age views our sexuality and gender identity concerns as the bedrock of who we are, while viewing religious viewpoints as something we can chop or change out.
Meanwhile for schools grappling with this there are all sorts of complexities around use of bathroom facilities, uniform choices, sports etc. And then there will be girls – and they are primarily going to be girls – who feel uncomfortable allowing a trans boy to use their bathroom or change-room while they too are using them.
Let’s just expect the ideologues – and I count the ABC among that cohort – to completely sideline the voices of young women who dissent. And given the level of threats and violence online towards women who dissent, it’s clear that many women know that their experience of womanhood is being erased for the sake of trans ideology. I for one want to hear some serious female theological discourse on this matter.
Currently we’re leaving it to the brave, but secular, likes of JK Rowling who is harassed, threatened with death etc, by, funnily enough, men. And women are all too silent on this issue. Often, sadly, from fear. After all, they’ve seen things move from being a man’s world to being a trans world. Somehow womanhood always seems to get the raw deal. But the likes of the ABC will never see that, or even if it did, it will, shamefully, never say that.
Of course I want to separate out real issues of gender dysphoria from social contagion, or from ideological campaign. Many trans people just want to get on with their own lives, and are not particularly interested in the culture wars, if at all. But the hardline trans agenda isn’t, ironically, all that concerned about diverse experiences in these matters. They’re seeing an opportunity to plant a rainbow flag and they’re taking it.
Meanwhile Christian schools are trying to navigate the space carefully, tiptoeing past the sleeping dog without trying to wake it. I know of NO Christian school that has even attempted to expel a student who identifies as trans, yet that seems to be the only conversation because of this one incident. There’s a real snarl in that beast, and there’s every chance it will soon be let off its chain.
In the end I think all of the careful navigation will be to no avail. The movement – ideologically – is implacable. Nothing less than full affirmation and celebration is expected. Given that the ALP will likely be the next Federal Government, and Mark Dreyfus the next Attorney General, I predict that Christian schools will be told to tow into line upon threat of sanction. And by tow the line I mean affirm and celebrate. Oh, and on another point, the poverty of the Prime Minister’s intellectual, moral and theological leadership on this matter has been appalling.
Is there a way forward that gives Christian schools the freedom to hold the orthodox line, teach the orthodox sexual ethic, yet still welcome students? That will be tricky. Once again if “welcome” means affirm and celebrate the trans position rather than the God-made person, then no.
Christian schools need to come up with a coherent strategy. will – if they haven’t already – start to formulate and articulate what being human means and where identity lies. They will paint a positive picture of what gender is supposed to be about. They will offer a biblical narrative about why God created humans the way he did and what the purpose of complementary gender is.
Thy will also have to articulate why things are not the way that God intended them. And that’s going to be the tricky bit because it won’t affirm and celebrate gender dysphoria, even while at the same time it will affirm the made-in-God’s-image personhood of the student.
And if that’s not good enough for the government of the day, then schools are going to face a monumental task to remain Christian. Or a monumental task to remain open, if they choose to remain Christian. For the trans issue is not merely about children with gender dysphoria. Oh if only it were so simple!
The trans issue is part of a complex web of meaning making that has at its heart, the deep desire to supplant the long held theological view in the West – whether affirmed by everyone or not – of what it means to be human.
As Carl Trueman points out in his exceptional book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,
… the sexual revolution, and its various manifestations in modern society, cannot be treated in isolation, but must rather be interpreted as the specific and perhaps most obvious social manifestation of a much deeper and wider revolution in the understanding of what it means to be a self. While sex may be presented today as little more than a recreational activity, sexuality is presented as that which lies at the very heart of what it means to be an authentic person.
When we put it like that we realise that Christian schools who hold the line on this are not merely up against a hostile and spirited ideological campaign by minority activists, but a fundamental redrawing of what it means to be human, a redrawing that, while it goes unrecognised philosophically by the average punter, is nevertheless experienced existentially by almost everybody in the West.
Does Christian education that has at an orthodox view of humanity and sexuality have a future in Australia? Maybe, but maybe not tax-payer funded, and maybe in a more nimble and under-the-radar way. Already we’re seeing a plethora of smaller, robust, orthodox and creative examples. Change in the sector is coming whether we like it or not. Perhaps the positive slant is “pruned, it grows”, as Benedict XVI said of the church in recent years. We shall see.
But it’s not just been Christian schools. As mediating institutions they are merely the latest in a long line of those who are being forced to pay the price to achieve the widespread cultural authenticity that this Sexular Age so eagerly believes is just around the corner. And so too, sadly, are many of the young lives that the hard ideological edge of this movement claims to care so much about.