Architects of Christian Right Transphobia Convene in Louisville Today

About Cole Parke

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Co-authored by Tope Fadiran

Celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have become increasingly visible and vocal representatives of transgender people in the mainstream media, with reports going so far as to label this a “transgender tipping point.” But is transphobia, as the media’s labeling implies, actually coming to an end?

In this post-marriage equality moment, the Christian Right is increasingly turning its attention toward the anti-LGBTQ battles it feels more confident about winning, specifically focusing on transgender communities. To bolster their arguments and better equip themselves for this new chapter in the ongoing attack against trans and gender-nonconforming people, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC)—a network of thousands of conservative Christian counselors—is hosting what’s being proclaimed as the “first-ever” evangelical conference on the subject of “transgenderism” in Louisville, Kentucky on Oct. 5th.

Screengrab of CSS's promotional video for the conference in Louisville.

Screengrab of ACBC’s promotional video for the conference in Louisville. Full video at: https://vimeo.com/117870540

“Transgender Confusion and Transformational Christianity” is a pre-conference to ACBC’s annual gathering, which will focus this year on the subject of homosexuality. Dr. Heath Lambert, executive director of ACBC and one of the event’s featured speakers, insists (despite mountains of scientific evidence refuting this harmful idea) that “people who struggle with homosexuality can change.” In addition to promoting so-called “reparative” therapy, Lambert and his colleagues are now focusing on the development of specifically anti-trans theologies and therapeutic practices.

Speaking on behalf of ACBC, he argues, “[A] person cannot possess a gender other than the one they were biologically assigned,” going on to assert that transgender people are “in rebellion against who God made them to be.” We can anticipate that this will be the central theme at next week’s pre-conference—that transgender people don’t exist, and that those who claim a trans identity must be “fixed.”

Among the other anti-LGBTQ academics and theologians joining Lambert is Dr. Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood—a co-sponsor for the event. CBMW is a conservative evangelical organization established in 1987 to “defend against the accommodation of secular feminism” in the church and promote gender “complementarianism,” which teaches that “distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order.”

In plain speak, CBMW’s mission is to counter the influence of gender justice activism and to push back against women’s, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights by making the case for complementarianism through biblical interpretation, “scholarship,” and arguments from “common sense.”

CBMW’s mission is to counter the influence of gender justice activism and to push back against women’s, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights.

The work of this self-described “flagship organization for the complementarian movement” provides talking points and theological rationales against gender equality that reach a large swath of American evangelicals. Thanks to the network of conservative evangelical organizations to which CBMW belongs, its messaging reaches (estimated) millions of U.S. evangelicals through its publications, website, and writings of its influential members. CBMW’s copious teachings on gender difference and “gender confusion” play a significant role in the development and propagation of evangelical messaging against transgender rights and equality.

Further amplifying ACBC and CBMW’s work is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In June 2014, SBC—the largest Protestant body in the U.S., with approximately 16 million members—approved a resolution “On Transgender Identity,” which reinforces patriarchal and misogynistic notions of “complementarity,” and declares that “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.” Additionally, the resolution describes transgender and intersex people as “psychological” and “biological” manifestations of “human fallenness” respectively, and expresses opposition to any form of physical gender transition, as well as any governmental or cultural validations of transgender identities.

The resolution was co-authored by Pastor Denny Burk, who is scheduled to speak at ACBC’s pre-conference. Burk is a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; he presented at SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.”

As reported by Zack Ford at ThinkProgress, in his lecture titled “A Gospel-Centered Assessment of Gender Identity, Transgender, and Polygamy,” Burk dismissed all of the research that shows that gender identity is a biological phenomenon, and that there are serious mental health consequences for denying a person’s gender identity. According to Burk, “The task of parenting—the task of discipling—requires understanding those [gender] norms and to inculcate those norms into our children and to those who want to follow Christ, even those who have deep conflicts about these things.”

Burk has also encouraged Christians to stop using the phrase “gay Christian” because “Christians never speak of ‘lying Christians,’ ‘adulterer Christians,’ ‘fornicating Christians,’ ‘murderer Christians,’ or ‘thieving Christians.’”

Screengrab of ACBC’s promotional video for the conference in Louisville. Full video at: https://vimeo.com/117870540

Screengrab of ACBC’s promotional video for the conference in Louisville features the harmful “bathroom scare” trope. Full video at: https://vimeo.com/117870540

Another featured speaker is Dr. Jim Hamilton, a professor of biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has suggested that the appropriate pastoral response to a transgender person is to call them to repentance and tell them that they are “removing themselves from the realm that is safe and the realm in which we can gladly interact with one another.”

“In other words,” he explains, “this is not me choosing to go away from you, and this is not me rejecting you; this is you taking yourself away from our relationship and you ending the normalcy that has existed between us.”

These are some of the architects responsible for manufacturing and perpetuating a cultural climate that justifies physical, psychological, and spiritual violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people. Fortunately, their destructive rhetoric isn’t going unchallenged.

In Louisville, there will be two grassroots youth-led actions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during the conference supported by the Fairness Campaign—a local LGBTQ social justice advocacy group—and Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice. In particular, the groups will be lifting up the issue of violence against Black transgender women. This is the critical sort of resistance that is needed in the face of increasing attacks against trans and gender-nonconforming people. Presenting trans-affirming perspectives in the face of ideologies that ultimately function to promote anti-trans violence and persecution, and holding accountable the American culture warriors who propagate them here and abroad, is a vital part of our journey toward collective liberation.

KYN logoThis is why PRA has partnered with Soulforce to create Know Your Neighbors (KYN)—a project committed to confronting and containing the Christian Right’s anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice agenda. By strategically engaging in coordinated efforts to contain the toxic global spread of U.S. culture wars at their places of origin (where their impact is also being felt), KYN aims to “promote the values of dignity, respect, and justice for all people; interrupt the spread of religiously-based attacks on LGBTQI people and reproductive justice; and support the work of both local and international LGBTQI communities, women, and their allies.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the culture warriors in your own community, and how to creatively and strategically respond, please be in touch: kynship@gmail.com.


Tope Fadiran is PRA’s racial and gender justice fellow. She is the founder and editor of Are Women Human?, a space for queer feminist and critical race analysis of religion and media. As a freelance writer she has contributed to The Guardian, Salon, Religion Dispatches, R.H. Reality Check, Ebony.com, and other outlets. Read more by Tope.

L. Cole Parke is PRA's LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for the past ten years. Raised in a military family and a conservative Christian world, Cole studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and traveled throughout the country advocating for LGBTQ justice at conservative religious schools and institutions as a part of the 2008 and 2012 Soulforce Equality Rides.