Leaving The Door Open - Interview With Chris Harkein

June 27, 2023

Leaving The Door Open - Interview With Chris Harkein

What is it like to feel like your body is the wrong sex? CASE spoke to Chris Harkein† about suffering gender dysphoria, being part of a Christian community, and the love of God.

What are the circumstances that led you to question and change your gender presentation?

From at least three years old I suffered deeply from gender dysphoria without being able to identify what it was or how to speak about it. Gender dysphoria can encompass a sense of identity (gender), gender role (social expectations and role for that gender), and mismatch of body with gender identity (primary and secondary sexual features). Different people suffer from different proportions and severity of these.

All three aspects of gender dysphoria plagued me: I lined up with the boys at school, was deeply ashamed when forced to wear a girl’s clothes, was distressed by having a girl’s name, had typically male interests, loved rough and tumble, and so on. With puberty I desperately hoped that my body would start developing a male form. When it didn’t, I experienced nausea and revulsion at its form: it was traumatic to look at or touch any part of myself that seemed female, and even its smell nauseated me. Increasing self-harm helped distract me from the pain of gender dysphoria.

Continually being told that I was a girl left me with a deep sense of shame and distrust of my own senses and judgement; that what I felt and understood were wrong, that I was defective, evil, and could not trust my own senses and understanding. I thought that the real me had to be hidden, and lived in fear of being discovered.

Many years of struggle with the issue passed before realising that I would soon be dead if I didn’t do something about it.

Deciding what to do involved much prayer, Bible study, and doing a degree in theology. I realised that sex and gender are not exempt from the brokenness of creation and relieving the suffering is not sinful. At the mild end, some people simply need to be reassured that having slightly more masculine interests is fine, while at the other end of the spectrum, some, like myself, need more extensive change.

What changes were involved for you?

My gender identity has always differed from the sexual identity assigned to me at birth. It has never changed despite years of desperate, painful, and self-destructive effort to change it. I now acknowledge what it is rather than hide it: changing my name, embracing the gender role of my gender identity, testosterone supplementation (my testosterone was naturally very high for a female but low for a male) and other body changes.

What have been the benefits of changing your gender presentation?

The persistent and severe depression, a high level of anxiety, shame, self-harm, and a constant struggle to not commit suicide dropped away almost immediately after deciding to transition. It was then possible to build genuine relationships based on who I am rather than trying to hide myself continually. My constant fear of being exposed evaporated.

How has being a Christian affected your decision and its consequences?

Being a Christian meant that I spent many years trying to fulfil a gender role put forward by Christians and the church that I was unable to understand let alone fulfil. While knowing God helped me avoid suicide, pressures from Christians and the church have enormously increased the anxiety and suffering that I have suffered.

I married in my assigned gender because of great pressure (at the time) to do so, which has involved others in the trauma resulting from gender dysphoria and the resulting change. Most of the distrust and hostility has come from people who do not understand the condition and have not truly engaged on the theology and ethics surrounding it. There is a need for Christians to take the time to understand the condition by listening and genuinely engaging with people like me who suffer from it and medical professionals and researchers who work in this area. There is a need for humility and prioritising the love of Christ.

Are there ways people around you— including your Christian community— have helped to make your situation more manageable?

Various Christian friends have helped enormously by listening, accepting me and continuing to love me as a fellow Christian unconditionally as I investigated the condition and what that means for me as a person and as a Christian. They helped also by their acknowledgement that it is firstly between me and my Lord; secondly that nothing I did was done without much study of Scripture, prayer and conversation with wise and godly friends; and that nothing I decided would stop them from loving me and praying for me.

Are there ways people around you— including your Christian community —have made your situation more difficult?

Ignorance, a ‘lack of time’ and low priority to investigate the condition and theology, unwillingness to listen and engage in conversation about the condition and its effects—all contribute towards me feeling isolated and worth less as a human being and a member of the household of God.

I feel that I have never since been a fully accepted member of the church. My faith in God independent of the church has helped me survive that. I have always had the support of some individual Christians who have accepted that their knowledge may be incomplete and have graciously shown me the love of God throughout.

A trusted Christian friend warned that making my gender identity change public would most likely eliminate or severely restrict ministry opportunities within the church, and that has proved the case. But new opportunities have opened. I have encouraged transgender Christians who have been on the edge of giving up their faith because of the suspicion and sometimes hostility of Christians and churches towards them, reassuring them that this does not represent the love that God has for them.

What do you wish people understood better about gender complexity, based on your experience?

People don’t choose to be like this. It hurts. It hurts many of us so much that we don’t want to live. Horrifying numbers of transgender people self-harm, consider suicide, and actually attempt it (see for example: https://pursuit.unimelb. edu.au/articles/why-have-nearly-half-of-transgender-australians-attempted-suicide).

There are different types and degrees of suffering associated with gender. It’s not ‘just a feeling’ that the sufferer, a psychologist or minister can change any more than the pain from a broken bone is ‘just a feeling’. It affects different people differently and the only way to find out how is to listen humbly.

Transgender people need the love of God as much as anyone and Jesus calls people to come to him as they are.

He is the one who is able to change us and there are many people for whom physical disability and suffering are not removed when they become Christians. Christians can make it worse for sufferers of gender dysphoria or they can love and support them as people loved by God, leaving the door open for him to do what he chooses in their lives.

† Name has been changed.

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