The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons Who Are Intersexed or Transgendered

Article excerpt

We usually take for granted a harmony between our gender identity and our biological sex. However, persons who are intersexed or transgendered often experience this relationship as ambiguous or completely contradictory. They wonder whether they are female or male, neither or both. Their struggle raises important questions for all of us about the nature of gender. To what extent is our gender identity innate? Embodied? Is ambiguity in gender identity a relatively rare deviation from a dichotomous norm, or a reflection of a broader multiplicity of genders? The existence and experience of persons who are intersexed or transgendered challenge Christians to reflect seriously on our theologies of gender, and their implications for our understanding of what it means to be male and female. They also call us to consider how we might, in Christian community, seek to minister with persons who are intersexed or transgendered.

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Barbara was born and raised a girl, content and happy. However, by age 14, she began to realize that something was wrong. She was not menstruating and her breasts were not growing. To her amazement, her voice began to deepen, her clitoris enlarged greatly, testes descended into her labia, and she started experiencing sexual interest in girls. Gradually, Barbara realized that she was turning into a boy (Diamond, 1992).

When Halle was two years old, she refused to wear dresses and felt uncomfortable playing with girls. At three, she asked her parents if God could turn her into a boy. By the time she was six, she was depressed and suicidal. Her frantic parents took her to a psychiatrist, who eventually told them that Halle was transgendered. Halle is convinced that she is really a boy, living in a girl's body (Van Heukelem, 2004).

Most of us take for granted a harmony between our biological sex and our psychological experience of being female or male, our gender identity. We just are women and men, and the relative effortlessness of this identity can lead us to reify a simple, dichotomous view of gender. People are meant to be either female or male, both physically and psychologically. However, for many persons who are intersexed like Barbara, or transgendered like Halle/Hal, things are not so simple. They struggle with their gender identity, wondering whether they are female or male, neither or both. Their struggle raises important questions for all of us about the nature of gender. To what extent is our gender identity innate? Embodied? Is ambiguity in gender identity simply a relatively rare deviation from a dichotomous norm, or a reflection of a broader multiplicity of genders?

Because Genesis 1:26-31 says our creation as image-bearers of God took the form of male and female, most Christians believe that sex is fundamentally dichotomous. Many believe further that gender identity should also be dichotomous; there is an essential female and male mind and spirit that complement and complete one another. The existence and experience of persons who are intersexed or transgendered demands that Christians seriously consider whether this taken-for-granted understanding is, in fact, what the Bible is telling us about gender. The answers we give to those questions affect what characteristics and behaviors we expect from one another, what gender roles we ideally hold one another accountable to, and how we treat those whose experience of gender is different from our own.

In this article, we will describe the nature of intersexuality and transgenderism, with a particular focus on the implications of these conditions for gender identity. We will integrate these scientific perspectives with Christian theological perspectives on gender, and explore how this integration might affect our view of humankind as gendered and our ministry to persons who are intersexed and transgendered.

WHAT IS IT TO BE A PERSON WHO IS INTERSEXED OR TRANSGENDERED?

Intersexuality

Already during fertilization, biological processes begin which influence sex and gender (MacLaughlin & Donahoe, 2004). …