How Kierkegaard, Jesus, and a Transgender Person are Making Me Rethink Labels

Philosophy has always been something that I enjoyed learning about, and with out a doubt my favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard. I don’t want to spend too much time on him because he is not the focus of this article. The only reason I bring up Kierkegaard at all is because he is the author of a famous quote that I am just now beginning to understand:

“If you label me you negate me.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

I love Kierkegaard, but I always thought that this was a terrible quote. Labels are important after all. If we never labeled anything how could we organize ourselves. Compartmentalizing the vastness of stuff out there is important if we ever plan to get anything accomplished. The problem I am just now realizing though is that this is not always true with people.

As a culture we love labels. We love labeling each other and labeling ourselves. If you don’t believe me just look at how many Christian denominations there are out there. While I like to think that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we still  have hundreds of different factions all over the place. Even Baptists (the faction I call home) have dozens of mini-branches under the umbrella term of Baptist. I’m not even getting into political beliefs, class, race, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or societal/cultural concepts.

I could easily list twenty or so terms that “define me” as a person, but if I’m honest none of them are really all that encompassing of me. In a lot of cases I’m only partially synonymous with my label. In other cases I fit my label as it is defined, but not as it is perceived by others or as society as a whole. Labels can be too big, too small, incomplete, inadequate, and often changing with time. It’s almost impossible to define you by just spouting off labels. Even if I did give you the perfect terms to describe my heritage, religion, politics, class, gender, orientation, and philosophy would you actually know me?

My brain goes to that beautiful scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) really gets to put Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in his place for the first time:

“You’re an orphan right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally, I don’t give a **** about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t read in some ***** book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

– Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting”

So we get the point by now, labels are incomplete at best and hurtful at the worst, but why am I bringing any of this up? Well the other day I was faced with something I really never expected to be faced with. I was given the opportunity to minister to a person who felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body. This was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to interact with a person dealing with a non-hetero normative gender identity.

I am a licensed minister working at a Southern Baptist church and this young person (I’m still trying to figure out whether “He” or “She” is the more appropriate term) was suddenly placed under my spiritual guidance. I’m now forced to make a judgement call on how to approach something I know almost nothing about.

I mean I knew that people like this existed. I know about sex changing operations and I had read about clinical psychological studies on gender identity, but I had never actually had to deal with this on a personal level. Similar to Will Hunting, I had read the books but that didn’t mean I knew anything at all about this person. This is where it the idea of a transgender person became real to me for the first time. Suddenly transgender people weren’t a work of fiction, or some strange tribe living in strange places like New York or California. This was a real person with feelings, needs, hopes, dreams, and desires that I was encountering.

Luckily all the stress from this unexpected situation faded away quickly when I realized just how silly I was being about this whole thing. This person I was dealing with was not an embodiment of the entire transgender culture, any more than I am an embodiment of white heterosexual manhood. This was just another human being, and this person wants the same thing all of my other youth want; love, acceptance, compassion, friendship, spiritual guidance, and support for when times get rough. Yeah, I might eventually have to have to talk about this gender identity thing, but we can do that when and if that person decides the time is right. My job is the love this person and point them to Jesus, end of story.

Reflecting back on this realization it really dawned on me just how dehumanizing labels can be (even if they are accurate). It is so easy to make all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes based around whatever label we assign people, and every time we do that it robs them of their humanness and individuality. A person is not defined exclusively based on any one factor and yet we put so much work into labeling people as if that was the key to understanding them.

Jesus dealt with crowds and groups, but he also always saved times for individuals. Do you think the Samaritan woman was only that, a Samaritan and a woman, in Christ’s eyes.  Do you think he saw Zacchaeus as simply a tax collector like the rest of his community did? Were lepers just lepers in the Lord’s eyes? Was Nicodemus just a Pharisee? Peter just a poor fisherman?

The answer over and over is no. Jesus saw people for people. He knew their heart and he didn’t concern himself with trying to fit people into neat little categories. Over and over we see Jesus dealing with people from all sorts of classes and categories as individuals. He didn’t ignore who they were, but he also wasn’t so caught up labels that he missed the person underneath.

I’ll tell you right now that I would have never even considered asking a cross dressing transgender person to come to church. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that, but if I knew a person who had those labels attached to them I think I’d pass over offering them an invite. I’d just assume that they would hate it and that they probably already have a negative view of the church, but honestly who am I to make that call. Luckily for me, while I was trying to make a cool youth group for “church kids” one of my youth had the Christ like love to give that confused and scared person an invite to come and hangout with Jesus this week. I think that that alone makes that brave fourteen year old girl a much evangelist and representative of Christ than me. Thank God for people like her.

So I guess I’ll wrap this post up with a commitment and a challenge. I am going to commit to avoiding playing the label game as much as possible. I’m going to commit to looking at individuals and loving people regardless or whatever titles and baggage they have. I challenge you to do the same.

“… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23