Biology and Gender

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, and I came across one particular article last week that for the life of me I can’t remember where I found it online but which raised the point that contemporary definitions of gender and sex might be a little too rigid. The main argument that I see conservatives making regarding the possibility of people being transgender is that, biologically speaking, you’re either male or female and while you may feel like your gender doesn’t line up with that you can’t change that fundamental reality. As the article pointed out, there are two problems with this position. The first is that the very characteristics we use to determine who is male and who is female, such as the presence or absence of facial hair, show considerable variation even between two individuals who are presumably of the same gender. For example, I rocked a goatee in high school at age 17, and I can still remember talking to one guy I worked with one summer who was shocked that I wasn’t 23 like he was because I had this awesome facial hair and all he’d ever managed to grow was stubble.

The second point raised in the article is that all of these various characteristics, from facial hair to breasts to the presence of one particular type of plumbing, can all now be changed. Hormone therapy and surgery can change everything but your genes. Yes, genetics determines what you start out with, but if every characteristic that indicates gender can be changed, can we really use biology as the ultimate indicator of one’s gender? I don’t think we can, and for me that raises further questions. What then do we use as an indicator of gender? And given that conclusion, is it wrong for someone to say I’m transgender, I’m a woman in a man’s body?

As Christians, even if biology is out as a fixed point in determining gender we would still say that the Bible is pretty specific. You’re either male or female, as God created you, and that’s that. To see if the biblical picture really is that fixed, I had a look at some of the evidence. In Genesis 1 and 2 we get the story of Creation, and what I found here is enough even by itself to make we question our commitment to our position on gender. In Gen. 1:27 we’re told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This verse would seem to end the argument, right? 

Take a closer look at the wording of this passage, though. The structure of the sentence connects “male and female” with the “image of God.” In other words, we’re created in the image of God as male and female. Now there is a lot of debate out there as to just what the “image” of God actually entails, but that’s not what I want you to see here. What I want you to see is that if we are created in the image of God, then there should be a connection between our sex/gender (however you want to word it) and God. Depending on how you define “image” you can define that connection in different ways, but notice this. God at this point in the story does not have a physical body. Jesus and the Incarnation is all the way off in the New Testament. Whatever the connection may be, it therefore can’t be solely physical. Whatever makes us male or female can’t be solely our plumbing, so to speak, because at this very point, when we’re told we’re created male or female in God’s image, God doesn’t have plumbing that we know of. What makes us who we are in terms of gender or sex (again using those words interchangeably) must therefore be something deeper than simply our physical bodies. 

I am not for a moment suggesting we throw out every passage of Scripture that speaks to us as male and female. I am suggesting that our understanding of what it is that makes us male or female or transgender or agender or whatever else needs to change. If we can’t use physical characteristics as a fixed determination of gender, and if Scripture isn’t as black and white as it would at first appear, then what we are left with to determine the gender of a particular body is the person living inside that body. If they decide on something we don’t agree with, who are we to argue with that?

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