Genesis, gender and justification

August 24th, 2016

Eventually, nearly every child asks the adults in their lives, “What’s the difference between boys and girls?”

Children see that there is a difference in our language and in the way we dress. They see gender roles and gender expression. They perceive that we treat people differently, that we use different language for different people, and they ask, “Why?”

Do you find it interesting that children have to ask why? That they aren’t born knowing why? At some point, we all have to have gender explained to us.

Most parents answer their children with a biology lesson. “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas,” as though that explains dress and hairstyles, football and ice dancing, My Little Pony and Transformers, pay inequality and patriarchy. It explains nothing. It’s what we call “biological essentialism,” although we could also call it a “red herring.” “Biological essentialism” means distilling complex ideas into simple biological answers about someone’s being. Using a “red herring” means distracting someone instead of answering them. The answer about genitals is an example of both of these.

We answer children this way because it’s simple, and we assume children can understand it — although we do not. This is the answer that avoids answering, the explanation that avoids explaining: “This is just the way things are.”

This does not, of course, mean that gender does not exist, or that biological differences don’t matter — just that it is not always as simple as the typical adult answer to children, which tends to focus on plumbing or biology.

Our explanations do not improve much as we get older. We simply use more academic language. We talk in terms of chromosomes and brain chemistry, testosterone and estrogen, nature and nurture. All fascinating and important, surely. But they don’t actually answer the question, “What’s the difference?”

For the religious, we have sacred texts. Genesis 1:27 says: “God created humanity in God’s own image; in the divine image God created them; male and female God created them.” Some people read this descriptively: every human being, regardless of gender, is created in the image of God. Others read this verse prescriptively: God decreed that every human being should be one or the other.

See the difference? The prescriptive view believes that God made the natural world a certain way and that God takes offense at variations from it: “If we were meant to fly, God would have given us wings.” The descriptive view believes that we understand God through the natural world, so both women and men — and any humans born who do not fit either category — reveal something of the image of God.

I read the Genesis text from an inclusive perspective: It is not just men who are made in the image of God. Keep in mind, the people writing this text were Hebrews who had a memory of slavery in Egypt, where all the gods looked like the rich and powerful who oppressed them. The Hebrew theology makes a radically inclusive claim: All people are made in God’s image, regardless of their power, their gender or their social status. God is no more limited by gender or human categories than God is limited by time. No one image of humanity can describe God, because God’s image is stamped on all of us.

Then there’s the story of Adam and Eve, which can also be read descriptively or prescriptively. One human being is split into two, and that describes why they are always trying to become one again. It describes why human males don’t have a baculum while other animals do, why females don’t have estrus while other animals do, why humans have pain in childbirth while other animals don’t, why humans wear clothes, farm land, and have such angst about living day to day while other animals just seem to go with the flow.

Again, some people read this descriptively, as a 3,000-year old anthropology. The author of the Adam and Eve story is describing how human societies moved from hunter gatherer tribes, to nomadic tribes, to settled cities. The author seeks to explain the unique relationships we maintain in marriage, and the division of labor in the author’s society: Men labor in the fields because women labor at raising children (3:16-19).

Others read the story prescriptively, that God ordained our social order and takes offense when we violate it: Women should not labor in the fields, and men should not labor at child rearing. Some claim that because God cursed women with pain in childbirth, they should not have access to epidurals.

I do not share that ethical perspective, though I understand the theology behind it.

Five-year-olds accept pat answers about gender because they trust their parents to know more than they do. The fact is we do not know much more than five-year-olds. We act as if our intuitions about gender differences, gender expression and sexual attraction are rooted in science, common sense and religious faith, but they are not. They are rooted in our lived experience.

The truth is we are all queer — queerly, strangely assigned gender and attracted to others for reasons we can’t quite articulate. Why don’t we straight folks consider it strange to be attracted to people of the opposite gender? Is it not baffling, this chemical attraction that often seems to defy logic? Is it not fascinating that the authors of Genesis found it necessary to explain it? Why do we cisgender folks (those who identify with our assigned gender) not find our own gender identity surprising?

Jesus observed, in the language of his day, that “some people are born eunuchs.” We have much better language for describing some of these natural differences today: Intersex individuals are one such example (see this video for an explanation). I do not know how Jesus would have described the Guevedoces, who are born anatomically female and often raised female, but grow male genitals when they hit puberty. These are examples of human beings who are incontrovertibly “queer.” How would our United Methodist Book of Discipline handle it if one of them felt called into ministry?

There is nothing “natural” about being straight or cisgender. It requires explanation. Although people often attempt to justify our social attitudes about gender and sexuality by making arguments about natural law or sperm and eggs, saying that “this is the way reproduction happens,” biblical authors made no such arguments. They did not go for biological essentialism. They sought to explain attraction and experience with story, because those things are weird. They explained it because it needed explaining. It is not as obvious as we think.

So it is unfair and unjust to require trans people, or gay and lesbian people, to explain themselves to the rest of us. When we interrogate them about when they learned or decided they were gay, transgender, or queer, or what makes them believe they can simply decide they should be referred to by different pronouns, we are asking them to justify their existence or their attractions or their identity to those of us who are straight or comfortable with our assigned gender. It is unfair of us to treat them like five-year-olds who must simply accept that our description of plumbing, or natural law, or religious texts set everything in order. Their “Why?” cannot be answered with, “Because I said so,” and they are under no obligation to answer our “Why?” unless we are also five years old.

So much of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric depends on demanding that non-straight, non-cisgender people justify or explain their difference. If we all truly understood that we are strangely, fearfully, wonderfully made in the image of God, I believe we would be far less anxious about the difference of others.

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