Gender Isn’t A Biological Term
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:26-27
Reading around this morning, I found a piece from an Australian blogger on the rise of awareness of intersex people. Barry Gittins writes about Tony Briffa, a leading activist for the intersex community in Australia, and mayor of a Melbourne suburb. Of her own identity, Tony says:
‘Nature made me part male and part female, and I’m comfortable with that. I am biologically both; my experiences and my biology does not limit or define me. I’m considered by some to have a major defect, but I am a happy, fulfilled person.’
Tony now lives openly with her spouse (they married in New Zealand) as an intersex person. ‘I am sometimes listed as an indeterminate,’ she laughs, ‘but I know who I am. Intersex people want the same as other people — they want loving relationships, and to be able to adopt and have families.’
There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of intersex births, but the website run by the Intersex Society of North American claims that 1 in 100 persons live with non-standard genitalia. Specific diagnoses vary, of course, but 1% of the population live with bodies that are neither “standard” male or female. To put this in perspective, 1 in 691 people are born with Down Syndrome. That’s 1/1000th of 1%, several magnitudes fewer than those whose gender is indeterminate at birth.
Now, doctors and parents, often meaning well, too often push unnecessary surgeries and hormonal therapies of these children, sometimes at a young age. Therapists often insist on instilling gender identity through the use of particular pronouns, dress, socialization, etc. Being born with indeterminate gender – being born intersex – isn’t a birth defect. It isn’t something to mourn, an illness to treat, an error to correct. It is part of the variety of human life. Is it shocking to those, like me, who may not have met someone openly intersex? Obviously. Does that make it bad, or an illness? Of course not.
While we in the United Methodist Church wrangle over LGBTQ people and their place in the life of the church, I think we also need to consider a small yet still vulnerable population. While many Trans people are those whose gender identity is a conscious choice at some point in life, others might well be intersex persons either undergoing gender assignment, or having gone through it. If the reality of a population of Intersex persons teaches us anything, it is that “gender” is no more a biological category than is race. It is not determined by which genitals we carry around, what hormones express themselves in adolescence, or other biological markers. Gender, like sexuality, occurs on a scale, and we in the churches should become more aware of this, become more sensitive to this reality that others live with every day. Like the bullying of gay and lesbian children and teens and adults (in 38 states it’s still legal to fire someone just because that person is gay or lesbian), Intersex experience their own harassment, made worse by families that too often prefer to keep gender indeterminacy secret, a shameful part of their world not to be shared with anyone else. As more Trans and Intersex persons live their lives publicly and openly, we in the churches need to be conscious in our decisions as how we accept them. They are children of God, blessed with unique gifts and grace given by God. We can learn much from them, and we should be open to learning that our categories are neither solid nor eternal.
We need to stop operating from fear, ignorance, and prejudice and open ourselves to the wonders of God’s creation in all its variety, including Intersex. With one percent of the US population born with indeterminate gender, they might well be our neighbors and friends, the folks sitting behind us in the pews. One or two might even be a pastoral leader.
The Bible tells us that God made humanity male and female. And that’s great. “Male” and “female”, however, are neither theological nor biological categories, but a continuum of life that is part and parcel of God’s prodigal love for creation. We should open ourselves to this reality, and learn how to love and minister in new, more open, more accepting, more Christ-like ways.