Responding to National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution”

by Avery Foley
Also available in Español

The first issue of National Geographic for 2017 subscribers has recently grabbed headlines. The cover features Avery Jackson, a nine-year-old transgender girl, dressed in pink, staring proudly into the camera. The caption reads “Special Issue Gender Revolution,” followed by Avery’s quote, “The best thing about being a girl is, now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”

National Geographic Gender Issue

National Geographic described the two different covers for this issue: “Our subscriber and newsstand editions differ occasionally as our editors try to find the photo and cover language most likely to engage our audience in different settings.”

The Editor in Chief writes, “Today . . . beliefs about gender are shifting rapidly and radically. That’s why we’re devoting this month’s issue to an exploration of gender—in science, in social systems, and in civilizations throughout history.” In an online article about the issue, they write,

Our coverage doesn’t come with a political or partisan agenda. We created the gender issue—as we do every issue—with the intent to research, understand, and explain.

It’s quite obvious to anyone who reads the magazine that it has an agenda. A biblical view of gender or sexuality is never even hinted at, and the prevailing view of acceptance of all behaviors is threaded throughout. However, the magazine does draw attention to several important global issues. I’ll summarize the main points of the major articles throughout the issue and then turn to God’s Word to see how believers should understand and respond to these matters.

“Helping Families Talk About Gender”

One of the first articles features advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ parenting website on discussing gender with your children. They advise parents to “ensure your young child’s environment reflects diversity in gender roles and opportunities for everyone.” They encourage parents to support their child’s interests and talents, regardless of whether or not they match our society’s perceived gender roles.

They go on to urge parents that gender identity “can’t be changed by any interventions,” although they note that some children “who are gender nonconforming in early childhood grow up to become transgender adults . . . and others don’t,” and that parents need to make their homes havens of safety, unconditional love, and acceptance “for who they are.”

They then talk about sexual orientation, recommending that parents talk openly to their adolescents about sexuality and “not shy away from discussing their beliefs and their reasons for them.”

They close by explaining that a parent’s most important role “is to offer understanding, respect, and support to your child” in an affirming, nonjudgmental way while remembering gender identity and sexual orientation can’t be changed. They then caution parents to lookout for signs of bullying, anxiety, or depression and to stand up for their child in the face of harassment.

This article is complemented by “Rethinking Gender,” which attempts to apply science to help us navigate the “shifting landscape” of gender. It looks at various gender “disorders” as well as the latest findings from neuroscience, including studies that suggest individuals who identify as transgender might have “brains that most closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth.” The story also includes personal stories from transgender individuals around the world.

Gender Around the World

The focus of the magazine is the unique struggles and issues of both genders, and what it means to be male or female around the world. In “I am Nine Years Old,” kids, including transgender kids, from various cultures explain how gender affects them. For some, gender is not a barrier to accomplishing what they want. For others, they are fenced in by what their society views men and women, girls and boys, must do or be. This includes young girls who know they’ll be forced into abusive marriages, boys resigned to inevitably harassing women, and girls who acknowledge that they won’t get an education simply because they aren’t boys.

“Making a Man” looks at initiation rites into manhood from around the world. The author dwells at length on his own son who

is approaching manhood in an American culture that is lurching toward a gender-neutral society . . . [he] cannot rely on the traditional roles of men and women for an idea of what it means to be a man. . . . Scientists and scholars can’t offer him, or any of us, much clarity.

Poor body image, eating disorders, and other problems plaguing young American girls is the focus of “American Girl.” The solution provided is to fight back with positive messages and group support. “The Dangerous Lives of Girls,” a shocking account of what many young women in Sierra Leone endure, includes stories of female genital mutilation, teenage marriages and pregnancy, and lack of education.

The issue ends with an op-ed that suggests,

Once we recognize that gender identity and expression exist along a spectrum, why should we cling to the rigid characterization of men and women? The ultimate goal, surely, is to let all people define themselves as human beings, to break out of assigned categories and challenge received wisdom.

Can the Bible Give Us the Guidance We Need?

Confusion regarding gender, sexuality, masculinity, and femininity is rampant in our Western culture. But our God is “not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), and He has “given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). He has not left us wondering about something as basic as our identity as male and female.

When we follow our culture, confusion results. As this issue of National Geographic clearly shows, gender roles and even the concept of gender itself are radically different across cultures and generations. Here in the West, what is accepted now, for better or worse, was hardly fathomable to previous generations. But God’s Word provides us with answers that don’t change with the culture.

Created Male and Female

Scripture is plain that we, as male and female, were created with distinctions:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).

Our culture is trying to erase, ignore, or downplay the differences between male and female. They would have us believe men and women are basically the same, an opinion not supported by science. But the Bible is clear: God created two genders, male and female. Under the Old Testament Law it was even considered an abomination for a man to wear women’s clothing or a woman to wear man’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5)—there was to be a visible distinction.

Throughout Scripture men and women are treated as equal (Galatians 3:28). We were both made in God’s image, and neither is more-than or less-than the other. The mistreatment, degradation, and oppression of women, past and present, has no place in a Christian worldview. Indeed, the New Testament was radical in its time for its treatment of women. For example, Jesus stopped to talk to a Samaritan woman, something Jewish men did not do as evidenced by His disciples’ surprise (John 4:27). He allowed Mary to sit at His feet and learn even though this violated rabbinical law (Luke 10:38–42). Women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, and He commanded them to tell the disciples about it (Matthew 28:9–10), even though the testimony of a woman was not considered valid at that time.

Equal, Not Identical

But equality doesn’t necessarily mean we’re identical. Both men and women are equally made in God’s image, but we reflect this image differently.

For marriage, the Bible gives specific guidelines for each gender. The wife is to be her husband’s “helper” (Genesis 2:20) and submit to him (Ephesians 5:22). Older women are to be “reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things.” Younger women are to “to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands” (Titus 2:3–5). Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:28) and be the head of the home (1 Corinthians 11:3).

The virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31 sets a pattern for both single and married women to follow and be encouraged by. This passage, the words of King Lemuel given to him by his mother, describes the characteristics of a godly woman—hard working, industrious, trustworthy, generous, wise, and kind. And Paul says that young men are “to be sober-minded, in all things showing [themselves] to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned (Titus 2:6–8).

How are we supposed to honor God’s unique commands to each gender if gender is fluid and moves on a spectrum? If we can decide the level of male-ness or female-ness we feel, we ignore the God-given distinction between the sexes and walk in disobedience to the commands God has given us as males and females.

Single men and women are equal yet distinct in their roles as well, each specifically created male or female but able to focus entirely on his or her walk with God (1 Corinthians 7:7–8, 32–35). We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and God has created each of us with the gender He intends to use for His glory.

Beware of Cultural Stereotypes

Contrary to what National Geographic’s writers think, we should indeed “cling to the rigid characterization of men and women” because we do not have the authority to redefine what God has created. Now, this doesn’t mean we need to cling to cultural characterizations of men and women that don’t appear in Scripture. Throughout history societies have forced norms onto men and women and treated them as unchangeable doctrines when, in reality, they are manmade constructs. Before we say that boys can’t knit or girls can’t play sports, we need to turn to the Bible to see if our characterizations of male and female are found in the Bible or are just based on man’s opinions.

Will some people have a real and perhaps unending (in this life) struggle with their gender?

Will some people have a real and perhaps unending (in this life) struggle with their gender? Yes, because sin has corrupted everything. Romans 7:15, 22–24 gives a glimpse of the difficulty of living in this world until Christ returns to redeem us from “this body of death.”

But the answer to this very real struggle is not to ignore God’s Word and live any way we choose. This leads to death (Proverbs 14:12), not life and freedom. The answer is to submit to Christ and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, put to death the old man with its desires and put on righteousness (Romans 6:13). As believers, we are not at the mercy of our feelings or desires (verse 12). We have been freed from slavery to sin (verse 14) and have been raised to walk in newness of life (verse 4). That is the power of the gospel that every man, woman, boy, and girl needs to hear.

How Should Christian Parents Talk about Gender?

National Geographic offered parents advice on how to respond to children who are questioning their gender. Their counsel was to affirm the feelings and desires of their children. As Christian parents, we are called to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) and “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). This means we cannot accept the conventional wisdom when it comes to addressing such issues as gender-questioning children. So how should believers respond? With God’s truth!

Everything National Geographic said wasn’t wrong. Indeed, there are several helpful things that, with some additions and modifications, can be gleaned from their parenting article.

  • Encourage your children in their gifts and talents, even if they don’t match society’s perceived gender roles, as long as those desires are in line with God’s Word. Some girls love computers, and some boys enjoy baking. Encourage children to serve the Lord through their unique talents.
  • Make your home a haven of safety, unconditional love, acceptance, but also truth. Our job as parents isn’t just to love our children but to guide them in truth so they can grow up to be godly adults. This involves lovingly correcting them when their thinking, especially regarding something they don’t fully understand (such as gender), differs from God’s Word (Proverbs 22:15a; 1 Corinthians 13:11). Teach them what Scripture says about gender, masculinity, and femininity. They don’t need to stumble through life trying to figure out what it means to be a man or a woman. Part of our job as parents is to guide them into biblical and godly manhood and womanhood.
  • Talk openly (and age-appropriately) to your adolescents about sexuality and don’t “shy away from discussing [your] beliefs and [your] reasons for them.” Like it or not, our young people are being exposed to sexuality at younger and younger ages. Don’t let their first lessons on sexuality be given by a godless, anything-goes culture! Be intentional about opening up God’s Word, in an age-appropriate way, and teaching them what God says about sexuality. The Bible doesn’t shy away from it, and parents shouldn’t either!

A Firm Foundation in God’s Word

In all the confusion regarding gender and sexuality in our culture, we can speak with authority because we have God’s Word. As culture changes and generations go by, we haven’t been left to wonder how we should live as men and women. When we start our thinking with Scripture as our foundation, we have answers. Praise God for the gift of His Word!


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