Lately, there has been a lot of public trouble over the issue of gender. The protection of the rights of transgender people is being discussed at length, and it seems that bathrooms are a forum where some essential battles are going to be fought. But before these battles can be fought, foundational questions must be asked. What is biological sex? What is gender? Are these ideas meaningful or important? What exactly has a transgender person decided to do by declaring that they are transgender? To answer these questions, we will begin by defining some terms. Then we will analyze the liberal and conservative insights. Next, we will unite the two into what I believe is the correct view. Finally, we will look at a few questions that spring out of my view.
A person’s sex is a biological and anatomical statement. Sex is determined by such factors as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and the like. There are three and only three categories, and everybody agrees with this1. There are male and female, where the majority of people lie. There are also intersex, people who have a combination of male and female factors.
This is where it begins to get a tad more complicated. As defined by the APA, gender is “the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.” This conception has always seemed to me to be mostly about a psychological profile. It is a little bit a set of behaviors as the APA says, such as wearing pants rather than a dress, but mostly it seems like it is characterized as a certain disposition towards life. A tendency to hold certain values, think a certain way, or be good at certain skills. Note that the APA defines gender in terms of what culture decides. There are always only two genders, Man and Woman.
Gender identity is the gender that a person is. The idea is fairly straight forward, but how a person is identified as a man or woman is hotly debated. Is it innate, or can someone choose? Is it determined by sex or something else? Like biological sex, there is a third category for gender identity: genderqueer. A person who is genderqueer is neither man nor woman. Note that the terms for biological sex are male and female and the terms for gender identity are man and woman. I use the capitalized Man and Woman to refer to the gender concepts. Although referring to a human being as “a male” or “a female” generally feels odd, I am going to do so in this article to maintain clarity.
A cisgender person is a person whose sex and gender identity line up in the traditional way. A transgender person is the opposite. So, a male man is cisgender, while a male woman is transgender. A trans man is a female man, and a trans woman is a male woman.
So what, then, do people mean when they shout that there is no difference between men and women? They seem to believe that what they are saying is of vital importance, because they are shouting it rather loudly. Are they saying that the culturally constructed categories of gender have no difference between them? No, that is ludicrous, there are clear distinctions. Are they saying that biological sex is an inherently flawed concept, and the terms male and female are useless in anatomy? Of course not, that is crazy. It turns out that they are not using precise language. As far as I can tell, they are extending the APA’s definition, saying that gender norms have no basis in reality, and they are only culturally created. Everyone is their own person, and there is no primal distinction between male and female. Sex does not determine gender identity. Thus, some females’ gender identity will be Man, and some males’ identity will be Woman. Some women will be trapped in the body of a male, and some men will be trapped in the body of a female.
Think of it this way. Cultural creations perhaps work for a large number of cases. Most men can feel like men, most women can feel like women, if those terms are defined well. But at the core of things, the human psyche is just too beautifully varied and complex to fit into neat packages like Man and Woman. Tender and affectionate men can have deep stirrings of emotion that shatter them and cause them to live to build up the peace and joy of those around them. Even-keeled and analytical women can have broad visions for the world that inspire them and cause them to become powerful and live with authority. These two facts no one denies, but they sort of go against the grain of the culturally created gender roles. The two psychological profiles of Man and Woman can reach most people, but there is just too much variation in the human mind, and the profiles will inevitably fail. Some people will fall through the cracks. So of course transgender people exist! It would be surprising and suspicious if they didn’t! As far as I can tell, that is the liberal argument.
But what is the conservative argument? Essentially, they dismiss the idea of people deciding that they cannot fit into their cisgender category. They point out that gender norms really are not oppressive these days. Okay, men cannot wear dresses. Women cannot be a part of bachelor parties. So what? Take a short glance at the history of the Chinese; that is real oppression. Get over yourself, and just try to fit in. In a sense they are probably right.
However, what if a female has an unshakable sense that she fits far more into the psychological profile designated as Man? Does not each person have a desire to live who they were meant to be? The conservative man could ask himself whether it would be oppression to force him to live in all ways like a woman. Would that feel like oppression? Not exactly, but he would not like it. He would want to be precisely who he believes he is: a man. He would want to be a part of Man. The same with a trans man. They desire to live who they are. They desire the opportunity to be normal, accepted. Don’t we all? Gender norms aren’t really oppressive, but assuming the liberal mindset is entirely correct and it is not a contradiction to call someone a female man, why would that female man decide to pretend (s)he is a woman? So I do not consider the lack of oppression to be a viable argument for antagonism towards the transgender category.
The stronger argument is a rejection of the liberal definition of gender identity. They say that gender identity flows not from psychology, but directly out of biological sex. The definition of a woman is not “a person who identifies with Woman,” it is just, “a person who is female.” If you have a Y chromosome, you are male and thus you are a man. If you do not have a Y, you are female and thus you are a woman. This definition of gender identity does not allow for ambiguity, not even with a sex change operation. That operation merely changes sexual organs, it does not change DNA.
To support this definition, they point to the difference in reproductive function of the male and female. The female carries a child in her womb for nine months, while the male only impregnates, unhindered in his daily life. Thus, females are nurturing, while males are the bread winners. Females desire community, while males desire independence. Similar such interpretations can be brought forth, related to the male and female bodies and functions in society. Evidence of differences between the male and female brain can even be cited to support these interpretations. In this way, these intuitions become knowledge of Man and Woman and link biological sex to gender identity.
This solves some difficulties, but I’ve got a question. Why does anatomy determine someone’s gender identity? How precisely do we move from genetics to psychology and then behavior? Okay, I’ve got a Y chromosome, and I can beget children. So what. Who cares? That may determine a lot of my biology, but my body is not me. To believe to the contrary is to believe the materialist view. But I thought that conservatives were supposed to be the religious ones! Sorry that I am so quaint as to hold to the Cartesian body-soul distinction. Of course, body influences soul and soul influences body to the point that they are nearly impossible to distinguish. To believe otherwise is to ignore neuroscience. But surely the contemplations of the existentialists and religious leaders throughout human history cannot be entirely without merit. Surely we have a fundamental nature that is a metaphysical being, a reality that is more fundamental than the physical manifestation we can empirically observe. Surely I have a true identity that is unchanging. What else would be meant by the word “I?” This word has always implied a core identity, a soul. So how can my anatomy affect this soul?
To make my question complete, do conservatives not talk about gender identity as if it is eternal, part of who we are? Is that not the point of defining a person’s gender identity as whether or not they have a Y chromosome? I mean, at first glance that is pretty arbitrary. But note that this makes gender identity immutable and unambiguous. The reason conservatives feel compelled to define gender identity in such a way is because they sense that it is a defining part of the soul, a fact that comes before even personality and psychology.
Then maybe gender is what determines biology. A person’s womanhood is what causes her to lack a Y chromosome. Okay, but how can this be? Why, precisely, are we so certain that our soul manifests itself well in our bodies? I happen to believe that the world is profoundly broken, why can this not be just another aspect of that brokenness? A soul that is gendered contrary to its body is not beyond imagining.
Should we then accept the liberal position and embrace the female man as a brother? Not so fast. I affirm that genders are socially constructed, and I affirm that gender identity flows directly from biological sex. There is no contradiction here! The former is a statement on genders, the latter on gender identities. I accept both. What I mean is that of course, society agrees upon an idea of what it means to be male, and calls this idea Man. Man is built from males, so all males are men. They are men because Man is based on them. This idea of gender is informed by a whole host of things, such as history, religion, experience, biology, and imagination. Every male of the culture, and indeed every female, helps construct this vision of Man. It is a grand storytelling of what it means to be male. In the same way, Woman is what it means to be female. It is a grand storytelling, and the most beautiful aspect is when the two stories come together. How many countless romances have been told of the Man and the Woman, dancing around each other, chasing, enticing, hoping, discovering, fulfilling in pure and selfless love, and going out into the world as an unbreakable team? In this age, we believe in this dance so much that we hold it up as the ultimate meaning of life2.
But of course, this grand storytelling is just that, a storytelling. Real men and women are both unutterably complex, and I am confident that nearly no one fits perfectly into their own gender identity. I, for example, am deeply emotional, and can sometimes be brought to tears by witnessing a simple act of kindness to the forlorn. I am also highly concerned for the happy feelings of those around me. Some would say that this is not what it means to be Man. Some would say that it is feminine. What then should I do? Change who I am and become more like what my culture says is Man? Or maybe abandon Man and identify as a woman? No, I understand that though I am not the archetype of Man, I am a man nonetheless. I am male, and so in living I participate in Man. Man must include me, because I am male. If it does not, then the problem is not that I am actually Woman, the problem is that I do not yet understand what Man is. What a comfort this is!
Or Woman. Every female is a woman because Woman is exactly the collection of all women. The gender is constructed by culture to capture what it means to be a woman, to be female. Woman is the grand story of all women, and oh! what a peaceful and turbulent and tragic and triumphant and kind and harsh and distant and intimate story it is!
So males, why worry that you are not a man because of your overwhelming anxiety or your general lack of competence with cars? I stand here as a different being than you and I look to you, and I see a man who is cherished. You bring something valuable to the table of Man, and maybe we could all learn from you. I thank you for your kingship. Females, why worry that you are not a woman because you love video games and Taco Bell, or you get really angry and are not very good at being empathetic like the other ladies seem to be? I stand here as a different being and I look to you, and I see a woman who is cherished. You bring something valuable to the table of Woman, and maybe we could all learn from you. I thank you for your queenship.
The liberals are right. The concept of Man is socially constructed. It is constructed by you and me. The concept of Woman is socially constructed. It is constructed by you and me. The conservatives are right. You are a man because you are male. You are a woman because you are female. In fact, the conservatives are right because the liberals are right! Since genders are the stories of the sexes, gender identity is determined by sex.
So all of us, truly all of us, let’s participate in constructing a beautiful Man and Woman. And to do this correctly, it must be done according to Scripture, through the saving work and example of Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit, by the ordination of the Father.
Now four questions remain. First, and most difficult, is Man and Woman a meaningful way of thinking about the world? If I affirm that gender is socially constructed, why do I care about it at all? Maybe there is just male and female, and the true difference between the two sexes exists only in reproductive function. Stop interpreting, it gets nowhere. Have you ever considered that people are just people and this grand story-building about genders is all made up in my head? I have indeed considered this, and there is probably something to it. However, I still think genders are worth thinking about.
The first potential mistake is to think that cultural creations are always merely cultural creations. I learned about physics because my society decided that I ought to know about it. They created these “models” for processes that aren’t exactly true but are close enough to be useful. In a sense, they are social constructs. They were created by society. But they are also based in reality. If genders are observations of the sexes, they do not stop being implemented by culture, but they also do not stop being true. As I have stated, I certainly disagree with some ideas about the genders, like constant franticness in women and constant stupidity in men. I just think those observations are false, while some others are mostly true.
Okay, some cultural creations are not merely cultural creations. Why do I think that gender is one of those that is legitimate? I persist in holding to the utility of genders because there is a long, long tradition of doing so. I cite three traditions, beginning with art. We have been telling and retelling the story of Man and Woman as being different beings since the beginning of time, through every art form. Second, public consensus agrees. Genders and gender roles have existed everywhere, at all times3. To assert that they are all baseless ideas is to claim that you have special knowledge that every civilization up until now has missed. It is possible, but it is quite an extraordinary claim. Finally, most religions seem to treat Man and Woman as meaningful and important perceptions of life4. So this category of knowledge about the concepts of Man and Woman and the tradition of interpreting the sexes in this way is quite established. Perhaps it is arbitrary, but to me that is very unlikely.
The second question is the fact of the intersex. Some people do not fit neatly into either sex when they are born. What are we to do then? Do they contribute to Man or Woman? Well, perhaps this can be solved by the presence of the Y chromosome. That is non-arbitrary.
But still, that answer doesn’t seem to satisfy. I believe this is a difficult problem. There should definitely be leniency and patience here. Maybe the intersex can choose which gender to be. If they are mostly male, let him be a man. Mostly female, let her be a woman. The problem is that a loose rule may leave existential angst over the intersex’s decision; they may always ask themselves, “Did I make the right decision?”
Or perhaps they could just occupy neither Man nor Woman. That might cause some psychological discord and it might be hard to actually live without a gender identity, I don’t know. And even if it works on a personal basis, it will definitely get complicated with legal considerations. Perhaps this is a case where the genderqueer category is reasonable.
To my Christian mind, the answer of primary importance is the Fall. This may sound radical to some, but their state is simply a tragedy, and is a sign of the brokenness of the world, caused by the original sin of Adam and Eve. The intersex are a testament to the groaning of the world, and so are to be treated with compassion and deep wisdom. They themselves ought to understand who they are, and understand that their state is indeed sad, but know that they are not alone in their brokenness. I am not broken in the same way as them, but I am in far worse ways, such as arrogance and a foolish tongue. We are all sinners affected by our own sin and the sin of those before us, but the Good News is that Christ, who is God, died and was resurrected, and will come again to make perfect even our bodies. So intersex people pose some initial difficulties, but in the end it does not seem like a major complication. I am sure intersex individuals exist who have written and solved some of the more detailed issues in better ways than I could ever hope to do.
Thirdly, we must consider what implications this discussion has to the trans community. I am essentially declaring that it is impossible to be transgendered, as that is a misunderstanding of what gender is. What then has the trans man done in deciding to become a man? Well first, let us take some blame. Perhaps our perception of Woman is off. Perhaps it is naïve. In fact, I am sure it is, and I am sorry for that. You do not feel accepted because you do not fit with how we expect you to be. For that I am heartbroken. Know that I do care for you and am interested in knowing who you really are.
However. I must affirm that the trans man is, in fact, a woman. If I am going to hold to what I am saying, then declaring yourself to be transgender is simply and only denying who you truly are. Interestingly, this is the opposite of the transgender person’s intention. I suspect that the mistake lies not in rising above gender norms, but in accepting them too strongly. Do not be afraid that you are not a typical man or woman, because Man and Woman must include you.
To go even further, I know that I must grievously offend the sensibilities of some. I do not do this lightly, and I am sad to cause distress. I truly am. But I do believe in considering all sides of an issue, and I believe that occasionally, the truth unpleasantly surprises us. Therefore, I continue with my thoughts.
It is an observed fact that the suicide rate among the transgender is desperately high. To any decent human being, this is cause for the deepest lament. I lament for them, and earnestly desire to help. I am told that the reason for their hell is that they are not accepted by the people around them, or by culture at large. Therefore, the way to help is by accepting them as transgender. I am not so sure, however. According to Steven Crowder’s interview with Walt Heyer (an interview I highly, highly recommend), the only group of people in all of recorded history who has ever had as high a suicide rate as the transgender category are Jews living in Germany during the Holocaust. The only other group are a people who are being systematically and universally rounded up and dispassionately exterminated en masse. If the cause for transgender suicide is oppression, it would seem that their oppression should be comparable to the oppression of the Nazis. This is not so.
What then, is the cause? This is where my words become offensive. Again according to Walt Heyer, 90% of suicides result in people who suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Thus, my guess is that the majority of transgender people suffer from a mental illness. Some prominent psychologists agree with me. I am not educated enough to know for certain whether the mental illness causes the transgender identity, or whether the transgender identity causes the mental illness. Either way, the probability of mental illness is a fact that must be taken into consideration, if we truly desire to love one another wisely.
And finally, I must confess that to my knowledge, I do not call any transgender person a friend. This is not because I avoid them; we have just not yet crossed paths. Can it be, then, that I am merely spouting ignorance and this whole article is a disgrace? I admit that it is possible. I have been shown to be a fool many times. If so, I beg your forgiveness and God’s. But, with Luther, I will speak what I perceive.
- Since posting this, I’ve been brought to the attention of Fausto-Sterling‘s book Sexing the Body, which discusses five sexes, including three types of intersex. However, my professor who brought this to my attention went on to say that Fausto-Sterling backed off of this view later, because there are not just three types of intersex, but an immense multitude. But this does not really threaten my claim that there are vaguely three categories: male, female, and intersex. This just elaborates what is meant by “intersex.” ↩
- Well to be truthful, we believe in all of it except that last part, which is the best part. How many movies are made about falling in love, and how many are made about a strong marriage? ↩
- I did not check this, but I assume it is true. If not, let me know. ↩
- Also did not research this well. Examples from Christianity, though, include Song of Solomon and Genesis 1:27. ↩