In January 2012, UK couple Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper made headlines when they finally revealed the biological gender of their 5-year-old child. Sasha Laxton, who was beginning to enter school, was announced to be a boy. At birth, the young Sasha was referred to as “the infant,” and at 3 years of age was on the cover of the family Christmas card wearing a pink tutu. For Sasha’s parents, he was given the freedom to decide who and what he wanted to be, unrestrained by cultural biases.
Sasha’s family is just one among a growing trend in gender-neutral parenting. There are online communities, personal blogs, and even books describing how parents can let their children have the liberty to discover their true selves. In 2013, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing transgender public school students to choose which bathroom they would use and sports teams they would play on. In 2014, ABC News featured a family whose young daughter insisted that she was a boy. The parents adapted to their daughter’s belief, cutting her hair, changing her clothes, and thereafter referring to her as “he.” According to one gender therapist, the parents gave their child a gift by adapting so early. And of course most recently who can avoid the ubiquitous coverage of Olympian and reality TV star Bruce Jenner's coming out as a woman named Caitlyn?
Each of these stories reinforces the growing cultural belief that gender is changeable, self-determined, and not essentially related to one’s biological sex. They claim that a child’s anatomic gender may not necessarily be the gender she identifies with or indicate her sexual orientation. Basically, someone’s biology at birth is just one of many factors determining which gender (if any) that person truly is.
How did this category of gender identity become so culturally defined?
That’s where this gets interesting. According to sources like GenderSpectrum.org, gender is a social construct, meaning that it was created, determined, and developed by society. Gender, they say, is:
"taught to us, from the moment we are born. Gender expectations and messages bombard us constantly. Upbringing, culture, peers, community, media, and religion, are some of the many influences that shape our understanding of this core aspect of identity. Gendered interaction between parent and child begin as soon as the sex of the baby is known. In short, gender is a socially constructed concept.”
According to this definition, gender changes with time just as society does. If gender is something determined by society, then it only makes sense that it will adapt to its environment. If society is the standard or principle around which we organize gender identity, then a person’s anatomy is simply one factor among many in determining one’s gender. If we have the ability to determine our gender identity, then to insist on specific gender expressions based on biology is actually holding us back from discovering our true selves. As long as humanity is the hinge around which our view of gender identity revolves, it will change with the times.
As concepts like gender bending, gender-neutrality, transgenderedness, and even asexuality become more mainstream, how do we respond? Here are three, cumulative points to consider:
Biology Cannot Be Separated from Gender Identity
The gender-neutral/transgender community claims that one’s biology is distinct and separable from one’s true gender. But, while gender is not an exclusively biological aspect of humanity, it is in harmony with one’s biology. As Russell Moore says, “Ultimately, the transgender question is about more than just sex. It’s about what it means to be human.” Addressing whether a converted transsexual ought to return to living as a male, Moore points out that one’s gender cannot be changed by a surgical procedure. A man who undergoes a sex change does not actually alter his male identity.
Gender encompasses whole personhood. And since gender is a matter of personhood (biologically, psychologically, relationally, etc.), then it does not follow that we can separate one’s anatomy from their gender identity. A person’s biological structure is that person’s gender. Therefore, the two cannot be separated.
Gender Expression is Not the Same Thing as Gender Itself
One of the things that gender-neutral parents often cite is that they want their children to have the freedom to like things that are stereotypically associated with the opposite gender. Boys can like pink and yellow and girls can like blue and green. Boys can play with dolls and girls can like trucks. All of these things are gender expressions, which change with culture and time. Gender expressions usually are social constructs. Just compare hair lengths for men in a 1st century Eastern culture with a 20th century Western one. That’s not to say that these expressions are of little importance. In reference to masculinity, John Piper describes in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that the mature man recognizes and is sensitive to cultural expressions of what is considered masculine, and adapts his behavior to fit what is culturally masculine (43).
But while these cultural expressions may articulate one’s gender identity, they do not determine it. In other words, if a little girl loves sports, cars, and playing in the mud, that does not mean that she is actually a male with the anatomy of a female. In the case of the girl whose family adapted to her belief that she was a boy, there is no guarantee that she will not, one day, believe she is a girl. Expression communicates identity, but it does not determine identity.
Gender Identity is a God-Centered — Not Man-Centered — Reality
The core of the transgender debate is about authority. Who has the right to name a human being? If God created human beings in the image of God (Gen 1:27), then gender is given primarily to express something about God, rather than ourselves.
The ultimate purpose of gender is to image the character and nature of God. And it bears significance on our personhood, both individually, and relationally (Gen 1:27-29, 2:18-25, Eph 5:22-33). Karl Barth said it this way:
“That God created man as male and female, and therefore as His image and the likeness of the covenant of grace, of the relationship between Himself and His people, between Christ and His community, is something which can never lead to a neutral It, nor found a purely external incidental and transient sexuality, but rather an inward, essential and lasting order as He and She, called for all time and also for eternity.” (Church Dogmatics, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961, pp. 207-208)
If God is the ultimate reality around which we understand our gender, then only He has ultimate authority to define our view of gender. To claim that one’s true gender is different from one’s anatomy at birth not only assumes the authority to name ourselves, but also claims that God has given us a gender that is out of alignment with our whole being (Ps. 139:14).
The Church and Her Transgender Neighbors
Our gender-bending culture would like to believe that its transgender trends are a sign of barrier-breaking progress. But, in reality, it signifies a God-denying suppression of truth (Rom 1:21-32). The tragedy of the transgendered woman is that she is stamping out the self-ingrained signposts that lead back to Him. The increasing presence of transgender individuals demonstrates humanity’s underlying desire to understand themselves, to achieve a sense of wholeness. But the wholeness they are searching for can only begin with reconciliation to their Creator, through the Redeemer who came to restore their whole person to God, body, soul, spirit…and gender (Rom 8:23, 1 Thess 5:23).
Now more than ever, our world needs a courageous, Christ-proclaiming Church to unashamedly articulate the truth of male and female as made in the image of God. And, through that truth, to call back every male and female to the One whom they were created to image.