It has been astonishing how quickly the transgender issue has leapt from obscurity to centre-stage in public conversation. And now Barack Obama has given Presidential profile to it by advising schools to let transgender children choose which category of toilet they wish to use.
If it begs questions for politicians and teachers, it also raises difficult conversations for the religious communities. A literal reading of the Bible, for instance, would seem to make it opposed to gender changes at either the level of surface appearances or the deeper commitment of surgery:
We are told that women should not wear men's clothing and vice-versa, and that such acts are 'an abomination' (Deuteronomy 22.5). It is also forbidden to tamper with one's sexual organs (Leviticus 22.24)
However, there is also long-standing recognition that sexual identity is not binary: as far back as the fifth century, the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Bible refers to individuals who have a confused sexual status: 'a woman who is not a woman' and a man who suckled a new-bon child. There was no question of facilitating sex changes, but there was awareness that some people occupied areas different from the 'normal' ones.
For some religious leaders, the Bible's admonitions remain in place and make any talk of gender change unacceptable, if not heretical. For others, though, there is a piercing question: We often alter God's handiwork in other areas and thereby transgress the forces of nature or go against God's will, so why not here too? We ensure pre-term babies are placed in incubators, we give artificial limbs to those born without them, we transplant hearts when the one God gave wears out.
There is also another factor to be considered: the pastoral issue. As anyone who has ever been trapped in a lift will know, it is very uncomfortable and often frightening. But the experience is usually over within an hour. For those who feel trapped in the wrong body, it can be a life-long agony and they deserve our help.
Obviously, we have to guard against those seeking gender change as a fashion statement or in the mistaken hope it will solve other problems that are not related to gender. But with these caveats in mind, it is surely right to allow those who are transgender to realise their true identity.
Conversely, blocking their attempts out of loyalty to rules that applied to social understandings 3,000 year ago is both unkind and irreligious. The only justification would be because it might harm others, but that is based on an irrational fear that if such acts were allowed for a few people, then it would unleash a torrent of sexual mayhem that would undermine society at large.
Those who are content with their sexuality should, at the very least, be aware of the distress suffered by those with a body they wish to disown. It is even better to help them find the right one.