The Freedom of the Gender Binary
There was a time in my childhood when I thought I was a girl. Though externally I looked like a boy, and everyone thought I was a boy, I believed that internally I was a girl. I remember being afraid that one day I would get pregnant (obviously before I understood how these things work!) and that then my big secret would be found out. I resolved that I wouldn’t ever be able to get married, and so I would just stay living with my parents forever.
Over time these feelings abated, as they do for the vast majority of children who experience discomfort over their gender identity,1 but the feeling that I wasn’t quite a real man remained with me. I carried a sense of not really fitting in and not really making the cut. I always felt more comfortable around girls and would feel actively uncomfortable in all-male environments. Stag dos were my worst nightmare; I would usually find a way to get out of them or to only attend part of them. Even men-only Church meetings were an uncomfortable place to be. I actively wanted to like things deemed more traditionally feminine and was uncomfortable if I liked something traditionally deemed masculine, and I tried to make myself ‘one of the girls’ by distancing myself from men, saying things like, ‘Well he would do that, he’s a guy’, or ‘Guys just don’t get that type of thing’. This was all more subtle than the belief that I was actually a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and for many years I was unaware of it, but it was all part of an ongoing discomfort with my identity as a man.
Over the last year, I’ve been working through these issues, gradually becoming more comfortable with who God has made me to be, and one day I had a moment of revelation. I suddenly realised that if my identity as a man comes from who God has made me to be and what he says about me, it doesn’t come from how I am. I saw that God’s creation of us in his image as either male or female (Gen. 1:27) means that my male identity is received, not achieved. The image of God is an identity given to us, which is static and stable. Every human being bears the image of God in a way which can never be changed (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9), and in the same way, every human being is given the identity of male or female in a way that can never be changed. It is an identity spoken over us, written into our physical bodies, and is not something created by us through performance. This isn’t to say that men and women should live their lives in exactly the same way (I’ll explore that in a later blog), but it means that this God-given identity gives us the freedom to be how we are, without changing or challenging who we are.2
So, this means that my love for musicals, Downton Abbey and afternoon tea don’t bring my identity as a man into question. In fact, they can’t. It means that the fact I’m quite sensitive, I hate violence and aggression, and can’t stand beer doesn’t change my identity. God has made me as a man, and so I am a man. End of story. And at this point I realised that this truth - the fact that God has dictated who I am - gives me the freedom to be how I am. I can embrace and express my likes and dislikes and my personality, without fear that they might render me less of a man. God’s gift to me, my male identity, gives me the freedom to be me.
And this is a radically different view to that held by the world around us. Western culture tells us that the male-female gender binary is oppressive and harmful and that people like me should just accept that we’re somewhere on a spectrum between male and female or even that we are women with male bodies. Culture’s answer brings complexity and confusion. But the God-ordained gender binary is liberating and life-giving. It tells me that regardless of how I am and regardless of what I feel, regardless of what other people think or me or how I do or don’t measure up to their expectations, I am a man. I don’t have to try and reach the status of manhood; I don’t have to try and fit in, and I don’t have to perform an act to convince people of my masculinity. God has said, through my body, that I am a man, and so I am. God’s answer brings peace and freedom; it’s the freedom of the gender binary.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a number of articles exploring how the freedom of the gender binary can be seen in action in the New Testament, how we should live it out, and how it might help us as we seek to bring God’s love and his truth to those who experience gender dysphoria and to those who are intersex.
- 1 A written brief prepared by three prominent academics and medical professionals and presented to the US Supreme court for a case in 2017 stated, ‘All competent authorities agree that between 80 and 95 percent of children who say that they are transgender naturally come to accept their sex and to enjoy emotional health by late adolescence. The American College of Pediatricians, for example, recently concluded that approximately 98 percent of gender-confused boys, and 99 percent of gender-confused girls, naturally resolve’ (pp.12-13). See also Ryan Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter Books, 2018), pp.123-26.
- 2 I am acutely aware that the experience of intersex people and those who experience gender dysphoria or identify as transgender complicates this perspective, and that, more importantly, such blanket statements could be painful for intersex and transgender people to read. In order to handle these topics well, I will consider both in later posts in this series, considering how intersex and transgender sit alongside the freedom of the gender binary and how Christians should seek to best love intersex and transgender people.