Many conservative Christian writers seem absolutely baffled and outraged about modern discussion about gender. I frequently see authors making statements like, “such and such a person claims to be a boy despite, in fact, being biologically female!” Here in Alberta, there has recently been at least one group expressing concern that new sex ed curriculum is teaching kids anti-Christian ideas. If that is true, I think we can all understand that concern.
But I suspect this outrage stems from some misunderstanding about what gender is. For example, the conservative Christian organization Focus on The Family fails to properly define the term “gender” at all. Despite talking at length about their opinions on gender issues, they define gender as:
“a term borrowed from linguistics by the psychology profession, starting in the 1950’s and ’60s. Until then, the noun “sex” was used to specify male or female.”
Well, sex does specify male or female to this day, as a matter of fact. So that’s a pretty awful and confusing definition, which can only cloud discussion. What does gender mean? Without a clear definition of what psychologists and sociologists mean by the word “gender,” it’s easy to see why a female claiming manliness could seem absurd. Fortunately, good definitions can clear up a lot of confusion and concern. So here’s an introduction to gender for the concerned Christian.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes “Gender” defined as follows:
Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.
So Gender is how we think men or women should feel or behave. It’s about what you DO. This is the stuff like women wearing dresses and men wearing pants. Some cultures involve men leading, being tough, chopping firewood or whatever. Other cultures have a lot more emphasis on women being leaders and men taking care of family members. Even within Christianity, there are different perspectives on what manliness and womanliness should look like. The above definition of gender just says it’s a thing that different people have different ideas about, but doesn’t say anything about who is right.
This is a great, objective, and scientifically accurate definition of the word “gender.” And as Neil Degrasse Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One Christian group may disagree with another on what different genders should do according to God, but it would be a bit dishonest to pretend the word “gender” doesn’t mean what the APA explains.
While we’re talking scientific definitions, here are two more related useful definitions from the APA:
“Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female or intersex. There are a number of indicators of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, gonads, internal reproductive organs and external genitalia.”
“Gender identity refers to one’s sense of oneself as male, female or something else. When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify along the transgender spectrum.”
So sex is whatever assemblage of reproductive parts you happen to have, gender is what we expect people with that collection of parts to be like, and gender identity is what gender a person actually experiences. The scientific fact of the matter is that gender identity and biological sex don’t always line up. In fact, they seldom line up in some sort of “ideal” sense where a person’s gender identity is the total extreme of their gender. Most men are not the extreme manly-man, who enjoys bear wrestling after he finishes leading an expedition to discover more beard-oil. In any culture, people tend to have some mix of traits associated with different genders.
This is nothing more than an objective scientific view at the facts of the matter. So far, nothing about this offers any serious conflict with any Christian ideas. If facts do conflict with your ideas, the truth-committed individual should do the scientific thing and throw those ideas out. But I suspect that this does not actually conflict with most Christians. The real conflict comes up when we leave the realm of scientific investigation describing nature and start thinking religiously about ideals and values.
It seems to be mostly Christians on the conservative end of the spectrum who are really concerned about how society is dealing with gender issues. There is real concern that it is morally right for males to be manly and females to be womanly, and that secular scholarship on the issue is somehow undermining this. I hope that the above definitions of sex, gender, and gender identity can at least ease the fear that modern scholars on this issue are being anything but scientific. It is not some anti-Christian agenda that says some people’s gender identity do not align with their sex. It’s just the fact of the matter. There is no reason that fact cannot be acknowledged and still hold to moral ideas of gender identity aligning with sex. The objective scientific view does not agree with this moral commentary, but it doesn’t condemn it either.
However, there is still the concern about whether or not this situation is morally good. As I’ve said above, there is diversity of opinion within Christendom on that question, and arguing who is more right is outside the scope of this post. I will say that there are interesting and compelling arguments made by Christians on multiple sides of the issue. And I don’t think we need to fear or avoid each other for disagreeing, but should try to benefit each other through honest respectful discussion. Only ignorance needs to fear knowledge.
Hopefully a clear understanding of gender can relieve some of the Christian concern about it. Here’s to less confusion, less fear, and more productive discussion.