A Primer on Gender Identity and Sex

There are a number of places that this discussion on gender and the church can go, but we must have the same starting point when it comes to what we define as gender. This, of all things, is probably the most controversial claim I’ll make, especially as typical societal practice sees gender as a black and white issue.  

Gender is not defined by anatomical parts assigned at birth.


Let that sink in.


You, as a man or a woman, are not defined by your genitals. Gender is not binary – there are not just men and women, but people who identify all across a spectrum, ranging all the way from “macho” men, to “girly” women and everything in between. "Sex" is anatomical; "Gender" is how you identify.


This is a hard concept for the world to wrap its head around, much less the church, but we are not lacking for examples. Everyone knows tomboy-ish women and everyone knows a man who likes to cook and would rather be a stay at home dad.


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One of the main themes in responses to my Letter to Pastor Mark over on JNNPR was that there is really nothing that defines “masculine” or “feminine" that is not culturally bound. I did a little digging to see if this was true. Searching “masculine” on dictionary.com turns up some curious results:


1st entry (Random House dictionary): pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men: masculine attire; having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.


2nd entry (Collins English): possessing qualities or characteristics considered typical of or appropriate to a man; manly; unwomanly; grammar  a. denoting a gender of nouns, occurring in many inflected languages, that includes all kinds of referents as well as some male animate referents


3rd entry (online etymology dictionary): late 14c., "belonging to the male sex," from O.Fr. masculin  "of the male sex," from L. masculinus  "male, of masculine gender," from masculus , dim. of mas  (gen. maris ) "male person, male," of unknown origin. Grammatical sense first recorded c.1380. Meaning "having the appropriate qualities of the male sex, manly, virile, powerful" is first attested 1629.


Okay, well, that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. I mean, “unwomanly” doesn’t really give me a picture of what “manly” is, except in that it is not woman. And “strength” and “boldness” are so vague as to be unhelpful – I’m bold. Does that make me masculine?


Does “feminine” fair much better?


1st entry (Random House): pertaining to a woman or girl: feminine beauty; feminine dress; having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness; effeminate; womanish: a man with a feminine walk


2nd entry (World English dictionary): suitable to or characteristic of a woman: a feminine fashion; possessing qualities or characteristics considered typical of or appropriate to a woman; effeminate; womanish; grammar  a. denoting or belonging to a gender of nouns, occurring in many inflected languages, that includes all kinds of referents as well as some female animate referents  b. ( as noun ): German Zeit  ``time'' and Ehe  ``marriage'' are feminines


3rd entry (online etymology): late 14c., "of the female sex," from O.Fr. feminin , from L. femininus  "feminine" (in the grammatical sense at first), from femina  "woman, female," lit. "she who suckles," from base of felare  "to suck, suckle" (see fecund). Sense of "woman-like, proper to or characteristic of women" is recorded from mid-15c


Hm, okay, that’s not particularly helpful either. The dictionary uses words like “typical,” and “traditionally ascribed,” and of course, as you can’t take a prescriptive about behavior from a descriptive definition, we have to wonder where the “should” in gender roles comes from.


Frankly, for those who insist on gender roles, the burden of proof is on you to explain to me what it means to be masculine and feminine in a manner that is separate from culturally defined roles. In other words: SCIENCE ME, BUDDY. Give me proof that gender is enacted the same way in every culture - that is, if you are claiming that gender roles are "prescribed and given by God," then the roles should appear all over the place, right?


For every gender role that people claim is ingrained or “God-created,” I can point to numerous counter-examples, many of which exist in my own life.


Male brains are more hardwired for logic and reason and women for emotion. Okay, then why does John Boehner cry all the time?


Females are naturally more sensitive and maternal. Then why do I have absolutely no desire to be a mother? Am I broken?


Men are macho and want to work with their hands. Why are so many of our great writers and philosophers male, then? That's a distinctly non-hardy "work with your hands" business.


There is no getting around the cultural and social construction of gender. We think of certain things as feminine and other things as masculine because we are culturally trained to do so – we are taught to deny the experience right in front of our face in favor of the overarching meta narrative that demands people be labeled and put in boxes.


I cannot repeat it enough: There is nothing inherent within male or female biology that makes one sex more inclined to action movies and the other more inclined to chick flicks. There is NOTHING inherent in having a penis that makes you better at math or inherent in having a vagina that makes me better at literature. There is nothing besides power structures taken from an ancient patriarchal society that makes it more authoritative for a man to preach Christ crucified than a woman. Recall, even then, the first people to bring the news of the resurrected Christ to the world were, in fact, women. And one must remember, if you define gender solely by physical characteristics, then you have to deal with the implication that a woman without a uterus is no longer a woman, or that a man without a penis is no longer a man. What then?


Are there tendencies within certain groups? Maybe, but the amount of exceptions to every rule indicate that there is more tendency for variance within women and within men than there actually is between the groups - in other words, we have types of women and we have types of men, but we don't have anything besides biology that defines as "typical" in either sex.


The quicker you grasp this, the easier the conversation about gender in the church will be. Your biological identity has very little to do with your gender identity. There are, yes, plenty of people who feel perfectly comfortable with the identity assigned to them at birth – I am fine with identifying as a woman, which matches the fact that I have a vagina – but there are many whose identities are not as clear-cut, whether it be because they feel like they weren’t meant to be a woman, or were born with ambiguous sexual organs, or simply don't feel like they fit into either gender (and these are not, most of the time, people with "broken" or "abusive" pasts, but perfectly average, every day, ordinary people).


And as there is no clear definition of what a man or a woman even is when it comes to gender identity (they are really, only defined via negativa), "man" or "woman" is really whatever you want to make it to be. The goal, then, is to develop your own identity without making it a prescription for everyone else. It's really a freeing concept when you think about it.


That said, are we ready to launch into why, precisely, gender roles endorsed from the pulpit are wrong? Let's go!