Is a person’s “gender identity” predetermined? Or is it shaped by culture and experience? Those are the questions dealt with in the field of gender studies, which has risen in prominence in academic institutions as scholars seek to study sexual behavior and gender norms in human beings.
Gender studies, which typically includes queer theory and feminism under its umbrella, deals primarily with issues surrounding gender, masculinity, and femininity. Specifically, advocates of gender studies argue that gender is “performed” by people based on social norms. Gender studies, because of its assumptions, poses a challenge to those who hold to biblical definitions of masculinity and femininity. (These biblical norms are known as “heteronormativity” in gender studies.)
People who look at the world through the lens of gender studies claim that society has forced men and women into “social constructs” of gender; in other words, gender theorists believe that the social categories which distinguish men and women from each other have no basis in reality. Gender studies promotes an anarchic view of gender and sexuality where there is no objective standard for gender and everything from clothing to sexuality should be subject to each individual’s experience.
Dr. Louis Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist University, offered an insightful remark about secular culture’s treatment of masculinity and femininity in general:
One major part of that agenda that the feminists have been successful in enforcing upon society is the replacement of the word “sex” with the word “gender” in most academic journals and in all those interminable forms that our bureaucratic society calls on us to fill out. The word “sex” is rejected because it suggests an essential link between the bodies and souls of men and women; the jargon word “gender” does not bring with it the same connotation. In fact, the word “gender” used this way suggests that masculinity and femininity are not essential traits but social constructs.1
We can see the ways in which these flawed views of gender are affecting western society with the rise of families who have chosen to raise “genderless” children, with laws being passed in the U.S. and abroad catering to so-called transgendered persons, and particularly in public schools that have instituted new rules to accommodate students who “identify” as a gender other than their biological one. While gender studies has not affected the church to the extent that many other postmodern ideas have, it would be naïve to assume that the Christian community will remain insulated from such a pervasive and flawed philosophy. As public schools and places of employment adopt policies that reflect a boundary-less and foundationless view of what it means to be male or female, Christians can expect to encounter tough situations with their friends, family members, and even their own children.
Biblical Masculinity and Femininity
Before discussing what gender studies teaches, it is important to understand what the Bible has to say about men and women. In Genesis 1:27 we read that God created man with distinct differences in the sexes:
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
God created man male and female—Adam and Eve—and He made males and females different physically and distinct in their roles. Genesis 2:18 makes Eve’s role clear: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Eve was from the bone and flesh of Adam, meaning she is equal in her standing before God and yet distinct from man (Galatians 3:28).2 She does not share equal authority with her husband within the marriage; in the Bible’s wording, she is his helper.3
The idea that our gender is God given is consistent with Genesis 1:27; God has made us male and female.4 Psalm 139:13–14 explains that our biological development is marked by the hand of God:
For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
In light of passages such as this, believers should desire to embrace their roles as biblical men and women, rather than trying to change themselves into the opposite of what God intended.
Scripture has norms and expectations for men and women as well, particularly focused on modesty. While Scripture does not clearly outline a dress code for us, we are given guidelines. For example, 1 Peter 3:1–5 tells women to dress modestly and to place their primary focus on their spiritual development (see also 1 Timothy 2:9). Ephesians 4:17–19 tells the people of God not to be like unbelievers, who engage in lewdness. Romans 12:1 makes clear that we are to present our bodies as holy and acceptable before God—which we can hardly do if we refuse to live modestly or within the male or female boundaries God formed in us.
With regard to cultural expectations, Scripture seems to indicate that we should dress not only modestly but also in ways appropriate to our gender in whatever culture we live. A prime example is in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul addresses the issue of head coverings in the church:
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered (1 Corinthians 11:4–6).5
What is significant here is that men were barred from wearing head coverings—and if a man did, there would certainly be a question as to why he was adorned with something intended for a woman. What does that tell us? Paul is advising women to—within the bounds of modesty—adhere to cultural expectations of femininity. On the same front, Paul indicates that if a man wears a head covering, which was meant for a woman, it is dishonoring. Here, too, Paul seems to be indicating that men, within the bounds of modesty, should adhere to cultural expectations of masculinity.
Women as “Other” and the Loss of Gender Distinctions
The assumption that initially drove feminism was that society has privileged masculinity, both in history and in language. Indeed, the feminist movement sought to define what it really meant to be a “woman,” but their definitions rejected biblical ideals and ended up pitting men against women in many cases.
For instance, Luce Irigaray, a French feminist and philosopher, proposed the idea that “there is only one sex, the masculine, that elaborates itself in and through the production of the ‘Other,’” (i.e., the female sex).6
Monique Wittig (1935–2003), a French author and feminist theorist, claimed that there is only one gender, the feminine, and that the masculine is not a gender because society has made it the “general.”7 In other words, masculinity is a universal standard, while femininity is simply an attribute and therefore treated as less than.
Later postmodern theorists recognized that what was happening in feminism was simply a reversal of the perceived problem of male privilege in society; female privilege was becoming the end goal of feminism. But rather than turning to the ultimate source of wisdom on what it means to be male and female (the Bible), these theorists proposed a new idea: the notion that gender is shaped entirely by experience and external forces.
Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley, is a scholar in the areas of post-structuralism (i.e., the idea that there is no fixed or intrinsic meanings in words and that binaries are social constructs), feminist theory, queer theory, and gender studies. She earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University and is the author of a number of books in the area of gender studies. Her book Gender Trouble has become known in the secular world as one of the definitive works on the issue of gender and sexuality.
As Markos noted above, the goal of the gender theorist is to dissociate intrinsic meaning from biological sex; that is, gender theorists believe that the fact that a person is born anatomically male or female is not what makes that person male or female. Rather, his maleness or masculinity is shaped by cultural forces and norms—and often the choice as to his gender is made for him by his parents while he is an infant. In Gender Trouble, Butler makes a case for this separation:
Although the unproblematic unity of “women” is often invoked to construct a solidarity of identity, a split is introduced in the feminist subject by the distinction between sex and gender. Originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation, the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex. . . . When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice.8
Butler’s proposition that gender is a “free-floating artifice” poses incredible challenges for society. Not only does this directly contradict what Scripture tells us about gender (God created us “male and female”), but the ideal for our culture down the road can only be one thing—androgyny (i.e., neither masculine nor feminine in behavior or appearance), which fits well with the “ocean” of sexualities advocated by queer theory.
In the meantime, theorists like Butler are attempting to justify their views by operating on the exceptions to the norm where gender is concerned. Without discussion of the biological implications and other differences, Butler uses Michel Foucault’s study of hermaphroditism as an example of why gender should be considered a fluid concept:
According to Foucault, Herculine [a hermaphrodite] is not categorizable within the gender binary as it stands; the disconcerting convergence of heterosexuality and homosexuality in his/her person are only occasioned, but never caused, by his/her anatomical discontinuity. . . . If the notion of an abiding substance is a fictive construction produced through the compulsory ordering of attributes into coherent gender sequences, then it seems that gender as substance, the viability of man and woman as nouns, is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes that fail to conform to sequential or causal models of intelligibility.9
In other words, according to Butler, hermaphroditism should lead us to question the gender binary (male/female) and reject it, knowing that there are some who do not fit squarely into one side or the other. While western culture has not yet fully embraced Butler’s ideas, the transgender movement is growing in prominence in the secular world, as is the idea that parents can raise children without any clear gender, allowing them to choose for themselves.
Gender Bending in the Secular World
In 1978, American author Lois Gould published a fictional children’s book called X: A Fabulous Child’s Story.10 In the book, Gould questions gender norms through telling the story of a couple that participates in a government experiment to raise a genderless child. The baby, named X, would be raised without any knowledge of the differences between boys and girls:
Ms. and Mr. Jones had to promise they would take equal turns caring for X, and feeding it, and singing it lullabies. . . . The day the Joneses brought their baby home, lots of friends and relatives came over to see it. None of them knew about the secret Xperiment [sic], though. So the first thing they asked was what kind of a baby X was. When the Joneses smiled and said, “It’s an X,” nobody knew what to say. They couldn’t say “Look at her cute dimples!” And they couldn’t say, “Look at his husky little biceps!”11
As X progresses through its childhood and enters school, the Parents’ Association at the school raises concerns about X. They understandably suggest that X has an identity problem, based on X’s lack of knowledge of social expectations for boys and girls. After examining X, the psychiatrist, tears in his eyes, offers what would be considered by a gender theorist to be the ideal response:
“Don’t you see?” he said, “I’m crying because it’s wonderful! X has absolutely no identity problem! X isn’t one bit mixed up!”12
Upon the book’s publication, the idea of raising a child devoid of any knowledge of gender norms and even of its own sex would likely have been considered ludicrous by much of society. Just over 30 years later, however, people are actually attempting to practice this sort of child rearing.
Toronto couple Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, while not the first to attempt this, garnered much attention for their decision to raise their baby, Storm, genderless.13 Storm’s parents chose to keep baby’s sex a secret from everyone but a few select family members and friends. Their rationale? “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. . . . It’s obnoxious.”14
Where did Witterick and Stocker pick up the idea of gender-neutral parenting? A news report explains, “The family gleaned the idea for this form of child-rearing from the 1978 children's book ‘X: A Fabulous Child's Story,’ by Lois Gould. The author uses symbolism and allegory to explore gender ‘creativity.’”15
What Witterick and Stocker fail to realize is that God’s intention is that parents will make wise choices for their children and “train them up in the way they should go” (Proverbs 22:6). Christian fathers are commanded to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), and this includes cultivating biblical masculinity and femininity in their children. Our Western culture is beginning to slip away from the biblical foundations for what it means to be male and female, which raises concern that the church will not be far behind.
While many postmodernists would see Witterick and Stocker’s choice to raise their child without supposed gender stereotypes as noble, other experts have questioned the wisdom of their decision:
“To raise a child not as a boy or a girl is creating, in some sense, a freak,” said Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. . . . “To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” he said. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”16
Indeed, a sense of personal identity is vital to anyone’s healthy development, but the gender theorist believes that identity is developed through the winds of experience—not through biological distinctions or any sort of ingrained knowledge of oneself. Thankfully, some in the medical community still recognize how untenable the assertions of gender studies are.
In a way, Witterick and Stocker in their attempt not to make any choices for Storm have made a choice for him/her: They have chosen gender confusion in a world that largely still sees a distinction between males and females. What Witterick and Stocker may see as the best of intentions—allowing Storm to “choose” a gender identity—will prove to be nothing but an unhelpful and damaging choice for their child.
The next example of where gender-neutral parenting leads comes from an extensive article in The New York Times titled “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”17 The author, Ruth Padawer, writes about the difficulties parents face when raising so-called “gender-variant” children (i.e., children who do not conform to the typical gender norms of their sex).
What’s disturbing about the article is not just its content, but also the photography that accompanies it. The opening text for the slideshow of photos explains the photographs:
The accompanying photos, part of a body of work by Lindsay Morris, were taken at an annual weekend gathering for gender-variant children and their families. The camp is organized by parents, and it moves to a different location each year. Most of the boys who attend dress and act “male” in their daily lives, and the gathering offers a safe haven where they can express their interpretations of femininity with like-minded boys, their parents and siblings.18
Readers see a photo of a young boy facing a mirror, wearing a strapless green dress. The caption reads, “a boy prepares for a fashion show at a camp for gender-variant children and their families.” The other pictures offer more of the same, with young boys wearing girls’ dresses, all demonstrating their “gender nonconformity.”
Padawer details a number of cases where boys as young as five to teenagers have had some significant level of gender nonconformity, and what difficulties they and their parents faced. In spite of society’s clear rejection of the practice of gender-neutral parenting (which, for example, includes allowing 9-year-old boys to wear dresses to school), parents are still encouraged to “celebrate” gender nonconformity in their children. And the consequence of such “celebration” is confusion. Some of the boys feel like they should be girls, others desired to do or wear things considered feminine, and others did not want to be identified as either boys or girls—popularly called “genderqueer,” an in-between sex.
Padawer mentions that one option for parents of gender-variant children is puberty-blocking hormones: She writes that “more doctors were giving puberty-blocking hormones to pubescent children considering a transition to the other sex. The hormones not only buy time but also spare the young teenagers the angst of developing secondary sex characteristics that feel wrong to them.”19 Because of the effects of sin on the world, confusion about one’s gender identity can be a legitimate problem for some people. But when considering sex reassignment surgery, the primary issue being the rejection of one’s God-given gender, an additional question must be asked: Are adolescents truly capable of making such a decision about their own sex?
Some governments and school systems have determined that adolescents indeed are capable of making such a decision. A final example of the push for widespread acceptance of transgender and genderqueer behavior is the recent mandate in the Massachusetts’ public school system (in an effort to become compliant with a 2011 antidiscrimination law that protects transgender people) that allowance be made for students who “identify” as a gender other than their biological one. The Boston Globe reported:
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued directives Friday for handling transgender students, including allowing them to use the bathrooms or play on the sports teams that correspond to the gender with which they identify. . . . In all cases, “the student may access the restroom, locker room, and changing facility that corresponds to the student’s gender identity.”20
Concerns immediately rise about the comfort and safety of students who are required to share private spaces such as a bathroom or locker room with students of the opposite sex. But the department anticipated that and argued, “discomfort is not a reason to deny access to the transgender student.”21 And what happens if a student expresses discomfort? Another report explains, “It should not be tolerated and can be grounds for student discipline.”22
The mandate in the Massachusetts public schools is likely to lead to a host of problems. One can certainly imagine a high school boy, with a wink to his friends, “identifying” as a female to gain access to the girls’ restroom and locker room. This is not an unrealistic possibility, for as the new guidelines explain, “The responsibility for determining a student’s gender identity rests with the student.”23
In an ironic twist, what gender theorists such as Butler claim happens to homosexuals and other sexual deviants—they are “ostracized” and “punished” by society—is now happening to Massachusetts students who refuse to welcome transgender classmates into their restrooms and locker rooms. Ultimately, gender studies has become a mechanism for gaining the upper hand in a situation where a minority of people want subversive behaviors to be deemed acceptable and even welcomed by society.
What should the believer’s response be to those who are either struggling with or have embraced a life of gender confusion? As with any other situation, our immediate mission is to exemplify Christ and share the gospel with the unbeliever, regardless of his sin patterns. After that, the believer should share God’s plan for men and women, explaining what it means to be biblically masculine and feminine.
Furthermore, Christian parents have a responsibility to bring their children up in a biblically based home, where both parents fulfill biblically appropriate gender roles. Without a godly example to follow and a biblical foundation, it is that much easier for our children to fall for the sorts of gender confusion the world has introduced.
C. S. Lewis, predicting the loss of shared values and the eventual rule of society by a small, “enlightened” minority, once wrote, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”24
Scripture offers numerous examples and descriptions of godly men and women. Proverbs 31 lays out what the virtuous wife looks like—she has “strength and honor,” “she opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness.” Her demonstration of biblical femininity honors both God and her husband. The Apostle Paul gives the ideal for men who aspire to leadership in the church in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, where the godly man is to be a “lover of what is good,” “just, holy, self-controlled,” and so on. And in Ephesians 5, Paul explains that the godly husband, while being the “head of the wife,” is to love her to the point of laying down his own life for her. And yet, as Lewis points out, society has made a mockery of these values.
In the postmodern bid to create “gender equality” by defying biblically rooted social norms for gender, it is creating men and women whose identities are defined by confusion and hopelessness. Our Western culture has taught men that they should not be characterized by values such as honor and chivalry, and it has taught women not to delight in such qualities. Even the church is facing resistance to calls for biblical masculinity and femininity, due in large part to the evangelical feminist movement’s push for equal authority in the home and in the church.
The church has a role to play here, but if it follows the culture and encourages men and women to determine their own gender identities, thus giving up the norms set forth in Scripture, how can it speak to these issues in the secular world?
At the beginning of this series, one of the foundational passages of Scripture came from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where he warns the church about the philosophies of the world:
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Whether the issue is sexuality, marriage, or gender roles and norms, Christians must stand up in the face of the “basic principles of the world”—in which many postmodern ideas are rooted—and declare that the Word of God, the One who created all things, is their final authority in every area.