Challenges to Humanity

Into the Language Wars of Sex and Gender with Jacques Derrida

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One of the most dangerous traps in theology is the echo chamber. Sometimes you need to hear an outside perspective to get you out of the theological rut. I felt like I was in my own theological rut as I was reading through the current discussions about transgenderism and sexual identity, so I decided to try to break out of the rut by looking back to see what the great thinkers of the past could tell me about this issue. Ironically, I stumbled upon Jacques Derrida, a French deconstructionist who attacked Western philosophy and wrote extensively on language. As surprising as it may seem, Derrida offers helpful insights about transgender language and terminology. Derrida helps us to solve part of the puzzle about using transgender terminology by pointing out that the use of transgender terminology impacts the way we understand reality.

Language and Interpretation

Derrida’s central (and also most cryptic) claim is “there is nothing outside the text.”[1] In his typical style, Derrida makes it hard for the reader to understand his meaning. James K. A. Smith helps us to understand what Derrida is getting at and interprets Derrida as saying, “Interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world.”[2] In other words, when we look at reality what we see is our interpretation of it.[3]

Derrida makes this claim in a book called Of Grammatology where he is writing about language. Derrida wants to say that not only is our perception of reality shaped by interpretation but also that our language shapes our reality. Language helps us to process the world by providing pre-made interpretive packets if you will. For example, I’m looking at my desk which is strewn about with books, pens, a charger strip, and a lamp. The fact that I have words for all of these objects helps me to understand everything my eyes are seeing individually as books, pens, a charger strip, a lamp and not just a conglomerate of objects that form a random heap on my desk.

Armed with this understanding of language, Derrida makes the observation that we need to bring our observations about language to the discussion of ethics. So, when we take our observation that language helps us to understand reality to the ethical issue of transgenderism, then the debate over transgender terminology is more than terms and pronouns; it’s about understanding reality.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always indoctrinate me.

Transgender Language and Intelligibility

Carl Trueman makes this interesting observation about how transgender language has evolved over time by reminding us that the words “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” would have meant nothing to someone in the past.[4] They would have had as much meaning as the “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”[5] However, now that we understand the concept of person (communicated in the term woman) as something distinct from the body, our language is flexible enough to communicate those concepts. To be more specific, eliminating any sort of connection between “sex” and “gender” or labeling them as complete fictions opens the door for us to communicate intelligibly about changing our gender regardless of what our biology says about our sex.

Now, if I can’t coherently articulate my ideas in the given language, I can’t reasonably hold to those ideas. If I can’t even utter the statement, “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” without communicating meaning, then the debate is over before it even begins. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always indoctrinate me.


Christian leaders need to recognize that the debate about transgender terminology is no neutral ground. We need to exercise wisdom and discernment before entering into the discussion about transgender terminology so that we can be aware of the effects that the language can have on us and others. When we are thinking about whether we should use transgender terminology, we have to realize that more is at stake than simply being kind or polite. Conceding ground in the area of language helps to reinforce the worldview of transgenderism in the public square.

On a more personal level, since we believe that transgender movement violates the Scriptural witness, then using transgender terminology will simply reinforce the confusion that people can feel. If the statement “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” is understood to be an intelligible and reasonable statement, then people will be more likely to map their experiences onto that statement.

Navigating the interpersonal issues and scholarly debates on the issue of using transgender terminology can be quite confusing. But Derrida lends a helping hand by helping us see the connection between language and our perception of reality.[6]

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[1] Cited in James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, 31.

[2] Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, 38.

[3] This conversation has spilled into the apologetics debate in the concept of “brute facts.” Many apologists agree that we see our interpretation of reality because they reject the idea of brute facts, which is the idea that there are facts that don’t need to be interpreted by a worldview. This is what Paul Feinberg says, “I think that it is important to realize that there are no brute facts. Facts come to us through theories about the world, and those theories interpret our perceptions of the world. We have preunderstandings of a variety of sorts…It is impossible for anyone to view the world from a neutral standpoint” (Feinberg, “A Cumulative Case Apologist’s Response” in Five Views on Apologetics, 130).

[4] Trueman, Strange New World, 31.

[5] This is a classic example of a grammatically correct but logical incoherent sentence which was given by Noam Chomsky in his book Syntactic Structures.

[6] Special thanks to Jordan Steffaniak for his helpful insight and feedback on this article.

  • Challenges to Humanity
  • current events
  • public square
  • Transgenderism
Jacob Haley

Dancer Fellow

Jacob serves in the Center for Faith and Culture as the Dancer Fellow while pursuing an Advanced M.Div at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. If Jacob isn’t tucked away in the library, you can find him running, rock climbing, or playing chess.

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