Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Caitlyn Jenner’s name and pronouns (September 30, 2015)
On April 24, 2015, ABC News broadcast a historic interview with Olympic champion and reality TV star, Caitlyn Jenner. Over two hours with Diane Sawyer, Jenner fills in details from her lifetime, revealing her decades of struggle to suppress her gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, and female identity.
Outside of reactionary right-wing websites, there has been little reaction to what the interview revealed about Jenner’s faith-journey.
During the first hour of the broadcast version, Jenner revealed that she had been taking hormones for 5 years in the 1980s, with her chest having reached a size 36B. But Jenner stopped her transition out of concern for how it might impact her children and because of her Christian faith (around 33:45 in the online version).
Diane Sawyer voices over Jenner’s concerns about the public spectacle of someone so famous coming out, the impact on her children, and references to Deuteronomy with cuts in from conversation with Dr. Norman Spack, a consultant to the production of the interview, and a pediatric endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital:
Sawyer: [She] is religious and says [she] worried about misunderstanding. [She] knows what’s in the Bible.
Spack: There are sections of the Old Testament that say you shouldn’t do this.
Sawyer: Deuteronomy which says, “Women should not dress as men. Quote neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment. For all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.”
Sawyer: Deuteronomy says explicitly.
Spack: Which of course means it was going on. You never say don’t do something unless it’s going on, right?
The interview segment then goes on to reveal how after stopping hormone treatment, Jenner continued to give motivational speeches, secretly cross dressed, and eventually married Kris Kardashian.
Sawyer, Spack, and Jenner do a graceful job of presenting the conflict faced by many Christian people of transgender experience, but they also do us a disservice by allowing that common and superficial reading of the Hebrew text to stand without question.
For a more in-depth treatment of Deuteronomy 22:5, you are invited to explore Keshet’s TransTexts section on Cross-Dressing and Drag. Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla have compiled commentary from traditional Jewish texts, such as the Talmud, Midrash, and other rabbinic commentary.
In Jewish commentary and tradition, this verse is not taken out of context to control and intimidate. Instead, it is taken as part of the larger conversation about what it means to be in right relationship.
All of the mitzvot that are nestled around our verse point to a world of compassion, where we are careful not to damage relations between beings…
In the Talmud this verse prohibits transgressing someone else’s space. According to Rashi this verse prohibits sexual betrayal, while for Rambam this verse prohibits idolatry.
All of these readings understand the prohibition to be not about cross-dressing per se, but about damaging relationships between us, our neighbors, loved ones or God.
Without even exploring a specifically Christian perspective on the place of Deuteronomy in the tradition, it is easy to see how several decades of hiding one’s true self could easily be understood as the kind of deception to which this text speaks. Jenner’s three disrupted marriages speak to the impact of keeping such secrets.
In the second half of the two-hour interview, Jenner’s disclosure of party affiliation (that she is a Republican) is one that makes headlines. What has made less news is the way that disclosure leads quickly into a conversation about faith (1:05:45 in the online version of the full interview), leading with comments from Jenny Boylan, a professor, author, and co-chair of GLAAD’s Board of Directors:
Boylan: When I came out to my 85 year old mother—conservative Christian, Republican—I began to cry. She sat down next to me down, she put her arms around me, and then she quoted First Corinthians and said, “Faith, hope love abideth these three. But the greatest of these is love.”
Sawyer: Jenner says [she] knows some Christians may not agree with [her], but this is what [her] Christian faith tells [her] tonight.
Jenner: I would sit in church. I would always wonder. “In God’s eyes, how does he see me?” I had this feeling—kind of a revelation. Maybe this is my cause in life. This is why God put me on this earth—is to deal with this issue. And that was a very powerful moment. It certainly gave me an awful lot of courage.
Jenner’s shift from a legalistic reading of Hebrew scripture towards a vibrant response to the presence of God is a journey that many transgender Christians have taken. This is a testimony to the power of liberation that can be found when we open all of ourselves to God.
Rev. Megan Rohrer is one of the few voices that I have seen to pick up on this faith journey, situated just behind the leading headlines.
#BruceJenners story is a faith story from fear to freedom. If we remember nothing else, may it be that God knows us inside and out and is capable of loving us even when we struggle to live our insides on the outside. God is bigger than all our secrets. Be brave. Authentic living lets others love you deeper.
While Jenner’s faith journey remains largely behind the scenes, it is clear enough from the little we have heard that spirituality plays a role in motivating Jenner’s courage and commitment to let her story make a difference.
While Jenner’s wealth and notoriety make her story unique, her struggle to find peace in the midst of judgemental religious messages is one that is quite common.