In anticipation of human-sexuality debates at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, and in the wake of laws providing for increased exclusivity against LGBTQ people (despite other laws advocating inclusivity), I offer the following reflection….
In recent days, conservatives have come up with new language to attempt to reverse newfound freedoms for LGBTQ people. One new term is “birth gender”–a phrase now used by conservatives to attempt to define sexual identity. We are, they tell us, required to use “birth gender” to establish a person’s true sexuality–thus implying that any deviation from our initial anatomy is wrong.
This new language has made it into legal documents, most notably “religious freedom” legislation, appeals by some Christian schools to be exempt from Title IX, and other pronouncements which relegate LGBTQ persons to some kind of lesser status in society and the Christian community.
The problem with this new attempt is that it ignores and treats as of no consequence one of the foundational factors which even conservatives have previously included in their views of human sexuality –namely, the activity and effect of hormones. To look at a newborn infant and say, “God made a boy” or “God made a girl” assumes that gender identity is based on one thing, when even traditional views of sexual identity have included multiple factors. An infant’s anatomy may suffice to put a label on a birth certificate, but it is not sufficient for establishing our gender identity.
Even biologically speaking, we know that there are further phases of identity development. We call one of them puberty–the time when our initial physical makeup is given further development and maturation, and when we say that boys and girls are beginning to “like” each other. The time when this next phase kicks in varies from person to person. But everyone goes through it sooner or later. It is fundamental to human development in more ways than sexuality.
But sticking with biology, we know that 90-95% of this hormonal activity produces a heterosexual orientation. We also know that in 5-10% of people, hormones appear to produce effects that we broadly characterize as homosexual. And just as the person had no say in their presenting physical makeup at birth, they also have no say in the effect of hormones upon them during puberty.
The fact is, God creates our gender identity in stages over time, with biological factors coming into play along the way. On the biological level alone, the conservative attempt to make “birth gender” definitive of sexual identity collapses because of its own incompleteness, an incompleteness which narrows and simplifies even what the Bible teaches, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
To connect anatomy with morality is a fundamental error, an error which keeps the much larger notion of Covenant from having its rightful place in a theology of human sexuality. Anatomy has never been the sole factor for gender identity or sexual morality, but rather the Covenant, which calls for and expects sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency–behaviors which everyone can live. By excluding Covenant, no adequate theology of human sexuality is possible, and by limiting a definition of gender identity to physical appearance at birth skews the picture at the outset.
We have every reason to expect that conservatives will continue to use the new “birth gender” definition, but we are under no obligation to accept the definition when it so clearly fails to take even the biological aspects of gender identity development into account.
As important as the biological dimension is in establishing a proper theology of human sexuality, the matter is even more critical, because left to stand, a “birth gender” definition provides a place for conservatives to stand in attempting to justify their underlying discriminatory and damaging behaviors toward LGBTQ persons in both the society and the church. It is this derogatory spirit, expressed in whatever venue, which must ultimately be challenged and called out for the un-Christlike mindset it represents. It is not a mindset upon which either a society or a church can construct a foundation that will represent life together in the Kingdom of God.
[Note: for more on this, read Michael Regele, ‘Science, Scripture, and Same-Sex Love’–a good book in its own right, but filled with even more substantive references)