But with at least one in ten signaling support, is there hope this politically influential voting bloc can change course?
According to the new Pew analysis, published earlier this week, a striking 61 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that “our society has gone too far in accepting transgender people.”And 84 percent said that someone’s gender cannot be different from the one they were assigned at birth. (The Pew analysis divided up American Protestants into three categories: white evangelical, white mainline,
These percentages are large—even for religious Americans. It’s true that atheist and agnostic respondents were most likely to hold views supportive of transgender people, with 71 percent acknowledging that someone’s birth-assigned gender can be incorrect and 65 percent saying that society hasn’t “gone far enough” in accepting the community.
But a wide range of Christian respondents to the Pew survey also held more progressive views than evangelicals: 27 percent of Catholics, for example, said that society needs to go further in accepting transgender people, with 46 percent saying that someone’s gender can be different from their birth assignment—and this from members of a religion whose leader once compared the existence of transgender people to nuclear weaponry.
(Shen Heckel, a transgender man and a Catholic catechist in California told The Daily Beast, “Whereas I know that the Vatican and the head of the church [are] not all fully supporting or affirming, the churches that I’ve attended have been very embracing.”)
Ultimately, though, the lopsided Pew results are unsurprising given what we know about the shape of American evangelicalism.
“Evangelicals, in the U.S. anyway, just are conservative, on nearly every social, moral, and policy issue,” wrote Dr. David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and author of the 2014 book Changing Our Mind, which controversially argued for the Christian acceptance of LGBT people, in an email to The Daily Beast.
“If an issue in any way relates to gender and sexuality,” Dr. Gushee added, “this is even more likely to be true, because evangelicals believe such matters to be an issue of divine will and biblical revelation.”
(The National Association of Evangelicals, which according to its website “represents more than 45,000 local churches,” declined to comment on the Pew numbers.)
Not only are American evangelicals largely conservative on transgender issues, they currently wield enormous influence within the White House on those same subjects.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, citing a White House official President Trump’s attempt to ban transgender troops from the military was meant in part to play well “with his base” on the Religious Right—and to satisfy advisers who had been calling for the troop ban for months. Ditto the Trump administration’s earlier rescinding of guidance protecting transgender students’ right to use appropriate restrooms, which had long been a cause célèbre for evangelical advisers who suddenly found a sympathetic ear in the White House after years of advances for transgender rights under President Obama.
After same-sex marriage has been legalized nationwide, transgender people were put in the cultural crosshairs—and have remained there ever since. So now would be—to put it lightly—a particularly challenging time to be both transgender and evangelical.
It’s telling, for instance, that Cole Davis—a 26-year-old transgender man living in Deep Run, North Carolina—is currently the only Google result for the phrase “evangelical transgender man.” (“Evangelical transgender woman” turns up zero results.)
Davis was the subject of the 2015 documentary Deep Run, executive produced by Susan Sarandon, which documented the young man’s coming out journey against the backdrop of his experiences at local evangelical churches. At the end of the documentary, Davis is seen still looking for a faith community where he feels comfortable.
Since filming the documentary, Davis tells The Daily Beast, his attitudes have changed.
“I kind of withdrew myself from the religious scene because here in the Bible Belt—in Deep Run and the surrounding areas—it’s hard, because they’ll smile in your face but the moment you turn your back, they throw your name in the dirt,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t do well with people like that.”
Davis added that he “became a more spiritual person” after becoming disillusioned with the superficial level of tolerance he briefly enjoyed at church.
During his involvement with the evangelical community in Deep Run, Davis says that he was often the first transgender person any of his peers had ever knowingly met.
That experience lines up with the Pew Research Centera analysis, which found that white evangelicals in the U.S. were the least likely out of any Christian group to say that “they personally know someone who is transgender.”
Only 25 percent of white evangelicals said they knew a transgender person compared to 35 percent of Catholics and 41 percent of black Protestants. (An even more sizable 50 percent of atheist or agnostic adults were able to say the same.)
Davis doesn’t take much comfort in the fact that 15 percent of white evangelicals told Pew that someone’s gender can be different from the one they were assigned at birth, telling The Daily Beast “that’s not really a big number” and that, in his experiences, such acceptance is “usually found in cities” more so than “rural communities like his.” But he has still managed to build a “wonderful support system” in a largely Christian town, including two friends called “Matt” and “Baby K.”
“To me, if I have just, say, five people who are supportive that outweighs all the negativity that I endured coming out as trans at such a young age and coming out of the Bible Belt,” he told The Daily Beast.
There is evidence to suggest that younger evangelicals are more progressive on LGBT issues than their parents. Pew data from 2014 shows that 45 percent of millennial evangelical Protestants—defined as those born between 1981 and 1996–supported same-sex marriage, compared to just 23 percent of those born before 1981.
Over half of the younger cohort said that “homosexuality should be accepted by society” compared to less than a third of the older cohort who agreed with that statement.
“Evangelicals also tend to live and move in family, friend, and church networks in which they are more likely to find their attitudes reinforced,” Dr. Gushee added in his email to The Daily Beast. “However, evangelical attitudes on other sex-and-gender issues have often liberalized, gradually and over time. This happened on divorce and on women entering the workforce. It might well happen on transgender rights, over time.”
Davis experienced an echo chamber of mutually-reinforcing anti-transgender attitudes firsthand when North Carolina hastily passed a “bathroom bill” that did a lot more than require transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to their birth certificates; it impacted minimum wage laws as well.
“If they slap anything LGBT on a bill, especially here in the South, people are gonna fall behind it and not even read the entire bill,” Davis said. “Like, ‘Oh, it’s anti-gay? Let’s go for it. Let’s vote yes.’”
The “bathroom bill”—more formally known as HB 2–was passed during an emergency session in the spring of 2016 and signed by the governor that same night, leading to a year of economic reprisals against the state from businesses, performers, and sports associations before legislators finally buckled and adjusted the law.
That kind of intense anti-LGBT animus won’t disappear overnight. When it comes to same-sex marriage, for example, white mainline Protestants went from 38 percent support in 2001 to 68 percent support in 2017, according to Pew data.
White evangelical Protestants started lower—13 percent—and climbed slower to a current support level of 35 percent. There’s no reason to suspect approval of transgender people to move much faster than that.
But that won’t stop transgender people from continuing to seek out homes in faith communities—even in the Bible Belt. Tony Lee, a transgender friend of Davis’ who came out a year ago, told The Daily Beast that he and his partner, who previously attended the same church as Davis, are “looking into going back to church.”
“We may have found a church,” he said in an interview. “We have spoken to one of the pastors and he made us feel like we would be accepted.”
Lee added that the Pew Research Center data “disturbs” him, hypothesizing that “the reason people feel like this either comes from fear, hate, or lack of education.”
But Davis, for his part, isn’t going to keep his hopes up. Asked if he thinks American evangelicals will ever accept transgender people, he said, “Of course, I always hope for something like that,” but added, “I’m not holding it to a high standard because I know how society is and I know how people view transgender [people.”
“If I could [talk] to the leaders,” Davis said, “I would just say give us a chance. Get to know us. Don’t look at the label. Look at the soul of the person.”