Discussions about gender dysphoria and transsexualism have permeated secular and Christian communities for several years now. Discussions continue as to what transgenderism is, whether transgenderism is a result of sin or mental illness, and even if Christians should use a person’s preferred pronouns.
Christian ministries are fairly good at helping parents whose children believe they are transgender. Rarely, however, do either secular or Christian communities speak to the spouse of someone who identifies as transgender. But it is a real issue. What is a Christian supposed to do if his or her spouse reveals he or she is transgender? The answer is as difficult as the situation.
First, a definition of terms:
Transgender: being a person who feels his or her biological gender does not match their gender identity.
Gender-fluid: being a person who feels his or her gender identity changes.
Nonbinary/genderqueer: being a person who feels that his or her gender identity does not align with the male/female standard.
Gender dysphoria: the state of anxiety and depression caused by the feeling that one’s gender identity does not match one’s birth gender.
Currently in the U.S., one’s transgender status is protected by law. That means someone who identifies as transgender, whether or not they have had reassignment surgery, is not required to tell a future spouse. Like those with same-sex attraction, some people with gender dysphoria marry the opposite sex believing it will fix them or at least provide a cover to hide their struggles. Others reveal their feelings to their future spouses but promise to remain their biological gender and seek counseling—only to renege on the promise later. And gender-reassignment surgery, post-marriage, is not legal grounds to have the marriage annulled.
At some point, a transgender person may decide to live as the gender they identify as, rather than their birth gender, but desire to stay in the marriage. This can be devastating to the spouse who married in good faith and assumed that they were in a traditional marriage with a godly partner. They may feel abandoned, betrayed, and lied to. They may even feel that their own gender and sexuality are being attacked. This is an incredibly lonely and difficult time. One half of the couple is exulting in the freedom of “being who they are,” while the other feels as if their spouse has died and they’re not allowed to mourn. Instead, someone new has moved in, a near-stranger, wanting the same or similar relationship.
We want to be clear that this article is not about warning signs of potentially unwise marriages; kind-hearted people go into marriages they know will have serious challenges every day, and finger-pointing after the fact is not helpful. When the transgender person wants to remain in the marriage, either celibately or monogamously, their spouse must determine what God wants them to do. There are at least four major issues to consider:
The Cultural Response to Transgenderism
There are thought to be three lenses through which the culture views the condition of transgenderism:
1. Integrity. This is the view that God has created man and woman, and anyone who presents as the opposite gender is in deliberate sin (Deuteronomy 22:5).
2. Disability. This view sees transgenderism and the resultant gender dysphoria as mental illnesses, caused by the fall and the continued deterioration of God’s creation. The person is no more in sin for having the condition than someone with depression or a personality disorder, although, if they act on their feelings by cross-dressing, presenting as the opposite gender, or having reassignment surgery, that is a choice to sin.
3. Diversity. This is the acceptance and even celebration of transgenderism. Someone with this “lens” would encourage the transgender person to express their felt gender as they see fit and take their place in the transgender community.
A biblical viewpoint would incorporate elements from integrity and disability, while recognizing the need for community that diversity claims to provide. It may very well be that transgenderism has a chemical, hormonal, or otherwise biological influence. Of course, it may also have a psychological source, such as a woman who was abused as a girl and subconsciously believes she’ll be safer as a man. At the same time, the Bible is clear that God made humans as male or female, and He expects us to live as the gender He has determined for us.
The “Abandonment” Clause
Another issue to consider is Scripture’s “abandonment” clause for divorce. First Corinthians 7:15 states, “But if the unbeliever leaves [the marriage], let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” Today, Christians interpret the term abandon in several different ways:
1. The refusal to have sex with one’s spouse;
2. Addiction, including to pornography, drugs, or alcohol;
3. A serious mental illness;
4. Emotional detachment;
5. The refusal to provide financial necessities;
6. Continued, unrepentant sin;
7. Actual, physical abandonment, in which the spouse leaves the home.
Such liberal widening of the definition of abandonment serves those who wish God to validate their choice to leave an unhappy marriage. If literal adultery, abandonment, or abuse is not involved, however, the biblical standard doesn’t apply. The question is, does it apply to someone who chooses to present as a different gender, with or without surgery and hormones?
Can someone who has come out as transgender and has chosen to live that lifestyle be considered a different person? Some in the transgender community believe so and are offended when someone uses their birth name when they have made it known they want to be addressed by a new name—to use the person’s former name of “Thomas” instead of their chosen name of “Betty” is “deadnaming” and considered provocative by many transgenders. Again, Christians hold different interpretations:
1. The person has indeed changed since they were married. They are now the opposite gender, and the marriage is now a same-sex marriage, which the Bible does not recognize.
2. Gender is a matter of biology, not perception or human alteration. The marriage is still between one man and one woman, even if one spouse refuses to accept their status.
The Believing Spouse’s Heart
The mental and emotional state of the believing spouse is a significant consideration. They may still love their partner deeply; they may feel they have been growing apart for years. They may be surrounded by a loving, supportive family and church; they may feel alone, too ashamed or afraid to tell anyone. They may be willing to see their spouse as a friend with a mental illness whom they can support and, hopefully, encourage into a reconciliation with God and who God made them to be; they may be so heartbroken they can’t bear to look at the person they once loved—or still do love.
Hopefully, the believing spouse will find a godly support system. The support group can help them understand that they are not responsible for another’s choices, and they can still trust in God’s love and affirmation.
There are three basic responses the believing spouse of a transgender person must choose from:
1. Remain in the home and maintain the relationship, presenting as a married couple, with the intent to encourage the transgender spouse back to God and healing.
2. Separate, legally or informally. Contact can vary from retaining a close friendship with the hope of reconciliation to a complete break in communication.
3. File for divorce.
These situations are complicated; personalities, support structures, the presence of children, and spiritual maturity levels all come into play. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The believing spouse will need to pray fervently for wisdom and strength from God and follow His will (James 1:5). Beyond that, we humbly offer these suggestions:
1. If the transgender person restricts their expression of transgenderism to private situations at home, the believing spouse should consider staying and seek counseling. Likewise, if the transgender person withholds sex or emotional warmth, the believer should seek help, but there’s not a biblical reason to separate yet.
2. If the transgender spouse decides to dress and publicly present in a way counter to their biological gender, and the believing spouse decides to stay in hopes of encouraging their partner toward reconciliation, that is a valid choice. If the believing spouse does not have the emotional margin, the spiritual maturity, or the support system to stay, or if the partner refuses to repent and seek reconciliation with God, separation would be in order.
3. If the spouse has gender reassignment surgery, the believing spouse should separate. If the transgender person refuses to change their lifestyle or repent and seek reconciliation with God, we suggest the believing spouse is free to initiate a divorce. Believers should bear in mind that, no matter the cause, divorce should be a last step. Divorce should never be initiated for the purpose of finding another partner. Any believer who divorces should assume they will either remain single or reconcile with their spouse.
4. If the transgender person commits adultery or physically leaves the family, the situation falls under the adultery and abandonment clauses.
5. If the transgender person files for divorce, the believer is released from the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:15).
We acknowledge that godly believers will have different opinions as to the biblical response. We pray that all believers will love and support everyone affected by transgenderism in a way that shows Christ’s love.