Karen Swallow Prior
July 2, 2014
A Slate post arguing that children should choose their own gender fails to follow its logical conclusion: asexuality.
I remember an NPR piece a few months ago that featured a meeting of some teens who ran a club at their high school. The meeting started with the teens introducing themselves, including not only their names but also how they identified themselves gender-wise: e.g., my name is Tim, I identify as male, and prefer the pronouns he/him/his.
This was all in an effort to make everyone feel comfortable and included, with no confusion about whether someone who identifies as male, for example, might be offended if also referred to as he rather than she (as some of the students did). It's an interesting way to start a meeting, in that it is not in my experience, but perhaps this is where we are going as a post-modern (and possibly absurdist?) society.
While this is certainly outside of the frame of reference for many of us, I don't think it needs to be absurd as you make out and, in fact, the opposite can be found to be just as absurd.
I (and many others) lament a lack of a gender-inclusive pronoun in the English language. I think it is deeply important that we respect the self-identification of those with whom we come into contact and recognize that there is a broad range of many gender expressions. It's a shift away from "brothers and sisters" language and towards "people of God" language (an observation I owe to Jes Kast-Keat). Where does our theology of humanity begin - with the idea that two biological sexes are the norm and all derivations are a result of sin or with the idea that God created a range of gender expression? At the very least, I don't think we have to exclude it entirely. What do we do with children born with three X chromosomes or an X and two Y chromosomes? Can we definitively say based on a poetic expression of the creation of humanity in Genesis 1 that genetic anomalies are outside of what God declared to be good?
In some ways, I think that the opposite of this is equally absurd. We find ourselves in a weird position where we may admit that the various gender stereotypes with which we are familiar are culturally constructed (e.g., girls wear dresses, boys wear blue, etc.) and yet, despite being able to say very little (if anything) that is definitively tied to a genital sexual expression, we insist nonetheless that we need a binary gender system.
Of course, when this meets practica, most of us will fall into a fairly culturally common pattern. I love buying dresses for my daughter. I refer to her with feminine English pronouns (like I just did there). Yet I don't find it absurd that some parents would do differently.
Kory, thanks for such a thoughtful response. It was hard to write such a short piece. I wanted to go into more detail the unfortunate conflation that keeps going on with the terms "sex" and "gender." They are related but not the same. I'm still thinking this through, but it seems to me (albeit with some obvious medical exceptions to the rule) our sex is the kind of absolute, ground zero, basis of our being much like our species is. But gender is (or should be) the free and fluid, culturally constructed (for better and worse) expression of that form of being--ever tricky and hard to navigate individually and collectively in our fallen state--but part of being human in the same way that our being made in God's image is ever fixed and certain--but living that out is the challenge.
Not sure if that makes sense?
I could have worked on writing this post for years!
This is where we are headed, Tim. And I do know for sure that as the church, we are not ready.
Thanks, Karen. We had a similar conversation in our systematic theology class and my professor took a similar line as you - sex is absolute and binary, gender is culturally constructed and fluid. The problem is, the line isn't that sharp in actuality. The statement in the hospital "It's a boy/girl" begins the construction of a gender identity to accompany that (seemingly strictly) biological declaration.
I guess my concern is this - is the church a place where intersex persons are welcomed and embraced? Even as we admit the "obvious medical exceptions," our theology (albeit inadvertently) often excludes them from being seen as full image bearers of God. So I guess that's the question I still have (and have had ever since that day in systematic theology): What if we began our theology of humanity from the idea that sex is not binary?
What would someone like me with a high view of scripture do then with "male and female he created them"? I think I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear yours.
Not sure why my comments are showing up as new threads rather than replies.
A fascinating discussion. I'm leaving a comment because I want to follow this discussion.
A couple of options.
1) A high view of Scripture has long since accepted that our understanding of God's creation differs from that of the Psalmists. Despite clear statements that the sun goes around the earth we recognize that the Psalmists speak in a poetic form about a deeper truth - that God is THE creator. Likewise, I would posit that Genesis 1 speaks in poetic language about a deeper truth - that ALL humans (not just men, contra most societies at the time) are image bearers of God. I don't think this is a low view of Scripture.
2) I hesitate to offer this because I only know enough Hebrew to be dangerous. One of the most common Hebrew poetic devices is merismus - using opposites to express the range (so praising God in morning and evening does not necessitate only two worship services but worshipping God all day). Is it possible we see here a merismus to represent all of humanity?
3) Retaining a strong sense of sexual binary still does not address the challenge of how we maintain that while also recognizing the social construction of gender.
While I know you did not mean to impugn my own view of Scripture I should add that I do consider my own view to be high (in the sense that I have declared in a covenant with my denomination that I believe the Bible to be God's only infallible Word). I think a high view of Scripture can find more than one way of understanding sex and gender.
Thanks Ellen. Just an FYI to you and others, if you're logged in to TC, you can click on the "Subscribe to comment notification for this article" link at the bottom of the page and you'll be notified of future comments. But your approach works too!
Oh, and as far as replies not being "nested," but appearing chronologically in the thread (as Karen noted): that's happening because we had to disable the nested reply feature in order to allow the comment notification system to work. I wish we could have both, but that's where things stand right now.
The other (and, I believe, more common) response would be that such genetic anomalies are a result of sin and fall outside of God's design for humanity. Yet, I remember a discussion about physical disabilities in church and the significant offense that one church leader (who was blind) took at the idea that blindness is a result of the fall. There is significant theological discussion as to whether or not we should consider such physical disabilities as outside of God's intentions for creation. Similarly, I would hesitate to add such genetic sexual expressions to the "outside of God's order" category
I find the main idea of the Slate articleâ€”that a child's gender ought not be identified at all until s/he figures it outâ€”pretty absurd. Christianity, as an incarnational faith, takes our bodies seriously. That, in part, means that we need to take seriously what we know of our children via their bodies, and that starts, for better or worse, with what genitalia they are born with. That said, I also believe that bodies, minds, and spirits are tightly intertwined, and accept that some people know, often from a very young age, that their genitalia and their innate gender don't line up (and likewise, some people know, a bit later, that their sexual desires don't line up with heterosexual norms). I deeply believe and hope that the church will learn to embrace transgender and gay people with an understanding of these innate identities. To practice a genital determinism, in which one's sexual equipment is the beginning and end of the identity story, without considering psychology and emotion and all of that is, I think, giving the body too much sway, or rather, failing to see how our minds and spirits are very much part of who we are as enfleshed people.
However, the way the Slate article transforms a basic act (identifying a newborn as a boy or girl based on genitalia) into some kind of affront to a child's identity is odd. In such a case, the parents are grafting an external agenda onto a child, rather than creating an accepting space for a child to discover who s/he is. It's a little bit like parents only giving their little girl trucks and trains, rather than paying attention to what toys she likes and getting her trucks and trains because that's what she wants. In an effort to be open to nontraditional expressions of identity, we can just create confusion and a nontraditional mandate just as powerful as the traditional ones.
Andrew Solomon's book "Far from the Tree" has a chapter on transgender people, and there is one family he profiles where it's pretty clear that the child's parents (who themselves identify in a number of gender nonconforming ways) are teaching their child that he can choose a gender...even though the child seems to have no conflict whatsoever with his gender as a male. It's a disturbing story to read, as I think Solomon (who is gay and understands that some people have an innate gender identity separate from their physical gender) intended it to be. I think he put the story in there to show the difference between an innate identity that becomes clear from a very early age and an identity that comes from a desire to experiment or pressure from parents/peers or some external force.
I am particularly interested in issues around gender identity because I have a son who has always far preferred things (toys, clothes, colors, etc., usually associated with girls). I will accept if my son determines that he is gay or even transgender because that would be an embracing of who he was/is. But I would never tell him, "Know what? From now on we're not going to call you a boy because who knows?" That would seem to be allowing something external (my desire to be accepting of him or countercultural or progressive) to mess with what and how things are. Right now, he's an 8-year-old boy who likes playing with Barbies, and I think my job is to let him be that and nothing more complicated than that.
Finally, the fundamental problem isn't that we firmly assign gender at birth, it's all of the cultural baggage that we also firmly assign along with gender. Declaring "It's a boy!" isn't a shocking affront to a child's identity. Deciding that being a boy means loving cars and tools and football and being rough and tough and never experimenting with nail polish or playing with dollsâ€”and telling little boys who want to do those things that they are unacceptable, and telling those little boys' parents that they are creating "sissies"â€”is the real affront. If we understood and accepted that one's genitals do not determine what colors or toys or activities one likes, I think people would be far less inclined to find traditional gender pronouns and labels problematic.
Karen, thanks for this piece. I appreciate your willingness to write in this format on a topic that seems to require a thousand hedges and caveats. Thanks for getting things rolling here.
The irony is that, in some ways, our culture wants nature, only nature, and nothing but nature. We are obsessed with a non-cultural or pre-cultural 'nature.' We underscore (and often deconstruct) the social construction of gender, but leave it to the individual to determine their gender, as though Facebook's 56 options or the child's determination of their gender at age X is some sort of "pure nature," unaffected by culture. It's the modern myth of "authenticity" run amok.
It seems to me that the author of the Slate piece is just working out modern notions of identity and applying them to sex/gender identity. Once we've said that the "real me" is the autonomous self, disconnected from parents, land, tradition, place, etc., it seems logical to extend this logic to the body as well. But of course, our vacuous selves have to be constructed in some way, which is why we spend time at the mall, on social media, etc. Thus the modern, self-created, 'natural' self turns out to be a Frankenstein of late modern capitalism.
I think a necessary ingredient for furthering discussion is a theology of culture that understands both the gift and givenness of nature while also articulating a view of culture that neither deifies a particular cultural construct nor demonizes the very fact of cultural constructs. Once we realize that culture is natural for humans, then we have to start to think through criteria for better and worse cultural constructs, as opposed to just writing things off by saying "well, that's just a cultural construct." Of course! It's only natural for humans to create cultural constructs--but is it a good or bad construct? That's the question.
I won't say too much. I do think, though, that centering Christianity around the Incarnation allows for the possibility and legitimacy of transgender and intersex and non-binary identities. If God can become human, live and perform weird and amazing miracles, die, and rise to life again all bets are off. Any metaphysical structure of how the world ought to be are dead at the Cross. God dies and beats death. For me, then, I see that as a freeing method of viewing reality and this issue. Who are we to say what someone's I.D. is? What dictates that? If God can die why can't these people exist legitimately? I'm not sure if this makes sense but it's my current thought line.
On a more practical note, I think letting five years declare a gender is absurd. However, dysphoria exists and if it continues on through puberty and a person needs to declare themselves to be another gender I'd rather that then see them suffer needlessly and possibly die.
Proverbs states that a parent should raise a child in the way he should go. This is different than the way the parents want the child to go. To not have boundaries on gifts like gender or to have too many boundaries to where there is no room for personality expression are both destructive.
First, regarding a high view of scripture, I was not implying a binary in which "like me" was paired with "unlike you." :) Not at all.
Your responses make a great deal of sense. I like what you say about night and day in the Psalms (although I read Psalms more as poetry and Genesis more as history).
So let's try this. Let's start from your ground zero to see if I can better envision your vision. What do the male and female body parts MEAN AT ALL in the theology you are fleshing out here?
Ellen, thanks for weighing in. I know you and your work, so your view of embodiment and the tricky and very personal issues surrounding gender are a huge contribution to this discussion. Thank you.
Your comment reminds me that in heaven there will be no male or female! In this context that is a compelling thought, isn't it? Yet, even so, we are here in this incarnate, earthly world. Does this incarnational experience have no role to play in our being? I think Plato would have had things to say about this. What about you? Are you advocating a kind of Idealism or something else?
This has been a really fruitful conversation, all! I'm really thankful for it and for Think Christian for creating such a space.
(Feels odd calling you that xD)
In heaven there will be no male or female which is compelling for sure I just am unsure how to tie it in to the here and now.
Well, yes, it does. Let's play with my experience for a second. I am an incarnate assigned male human who experiences no attachment or association to the word or whatever goes with being male. How does this play into it for me?
I think I'm advocating for the fact that, post-Incarnation, there needs to be a wide variety of possibility. So, I like the idea of possibility. Does this make sense?
I need to echo Karen's comment. I am so grateful for TC and the ability to have a really engaging conversation with folks only known from the internet and yet have respectful, God-honoring dialogue. Kudos.
I suppose I would say that even with a more historical view of Genesis, I would still say that the poetics of, if not all of Genesis 1, at least of Genesis 1:27 would still lead me toward this. Additionally, I think that poetry and history are not necessarily at odds with one another. Whatever degree of historicity one applies to Genesis 1, there is still a beautiful poetry to the description. That is to say, even if one believes that God created only two humans by special creation, this does not necessarily need to preclude the poetic understandings of 1:27.
In response to your question, Karen, this is honestly what I struggle to be able to name. What function does biological sex play in a theology of humanity? I would love to hear more from someone like Jes, who has engaged this question longer and more thoughtfully than I have. I imagine it would be shaped in part by an eschatological understanding of humanity (as mentioned above by others). I guess my question would be this: why do we need unique roles based on one's chromosomal/genital make-up? While our practical, lived experience grounded in cultural expectations may mean that certain affinity groups (including gender-based) are helpful for one's spiritual journey, does this need to be grounded in Scriptural/theological truths about that affinity group?
For comparison's sake, consider twentysomethings. This is an affinity group that, until recently, was not present in churches. The presence of twentysomething ministries is not grounded in a theology of aging but in the cultural experience of shifting trends of human development, adulthood, etc. Could we not view our gendered differences similarly?
So much to keep track of here and I'm trying to respond to all the excellent discussion! Like Jes, I like bullet point, too, so I'm going to use them here:
1. In a comment I made above I mentioned there would be no male or female in heaven. What I meant to type (I don't see an edit function) is there is no marriage in heaven. I don't know if our glorified bodies will be male or female, but I would imagine so given bodily resurrection.
2. Branson, I find your comments and questions extremely helpful.
3. Jes, I did explain above and will repeat here that by saying I have a high view of scripture, I wasn't intending to suggest others don't. (Not setting up a binary there!) If you have anything to add to what Kory says above about what it DOES mean to have male or female anatomy, please, I'd love to understand better.
4. Kory, I agree that history and poetry are not mutually exclusive (nor a binary! :)) Your analogy of the twenty somethings is helpful. Clearly such a "condition" is a cultural construct. I'm not convinced that our sex is quite like that. But I'm certainly being challenged here--in a good way.
I continue to think on the cultural meaning: why this? Why now?how is it that this issue now catches (tickles?) our ears? Trans is a small segment -- by the most positive, perhaps .6% and overwhelmingly male. So why do we give it this cultural weight? Is it something like sexual frisson for a straight population? Or is it a Twee thing? Part of our sentimental culture?
Oddly, even as the Culture seems to want to use Trans as a tool to undercut traditional sexual moralities, nonetheless it is the strong sexual identity -- male and female -- that gives Trans it's meaning. Strong biblical identities tell us where we are and where we might go. Otherwise the transformation only leaves us a creatures of appetite, and there's no saving help in that.
Bill, these are very insightful questions. I actually made a point similar to your about M/F binary giving trans its identity and meaning ... but that was in an earlier draft. I have to agree that this point needs to be part of the discussion. So much of who we are is in who we aren't.
I think that this is a very interesting subject to ponder. I think we have a tendency to try to remove our "self" from our bodies. But that can't be done.
Our soul is, after all, defined as the union of spirit and body.
I enjoy contemplating this dilemma, and most other dilemmas relating to the separation of self and body, through the lens of Augustine's philosophy of "Your body is your wife."
While our spirit is distinct from our body, the two are inseparable "until death do us part." Our bodies are half of the equation that make up our "self." To try and cut off that part and still call it our "soul/self/identity" is like calling a single man a marriage.
Describing identity without a body is like describing marriage without a woman. It just doesn't work.
Thanks Karen for writing the piece and Kory for tweeting it so I found it. What a wonderful discussion.
Is identity received or achieved?
I've been doing a lot of teaching lately about glory and Isaiah 5:1-7, the song of the vineyard. This song becomes the basis of so much Biblical imagery. Wine requires the gardener and the vintner. The creator wants glory to be magnified and celebrated so we are not just invited in as passive audience but sub-creators of glory (Tolkien's term).
Gender is glory laden.
Like most of the glory we sub-create it is disturbed and mixed with our rebellion. Yhwh was looking for gender glory but we've turned it into bloodshed and cries of distress.
We're trying to figure out where those lines lie. The difficulty of our confused age is that living the life of God, (your well-being at my expense) incarnate in Jesus leads to blood on the cross so you can't simply say "if it's working for me right now it's what God wants."
The question of power always stalks this debate. Is it a coincidence that an individualistic culture deeply mistrusts communal power? Asserting of unique gender identity contrary to both what appears to be "nature's gift" and communal assumption is likewise an act of power. Most testify to feeling its expression as empowerment. Ought we not to be similarly cautious with this assertion? When power corrupts it usually first and mostly corrupts the wielder.
We seek our sub-creation of gender to be glory laden and not filled with the anguish and violence that besets us. I think this discussion seeks glory too.
Paul, I think your bringing the important element of power to this discussion is extremely insightful. Thank you for the wisdom and grace you offer to the discussion.
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