“IS IT a boy or a girl?” is often the first question that we ask about a new baby. That intense interest in the sex of the child is almost universal. And, right away, our imaginations start to run along familiar lines about identity and other expectations, based on our experience and our own choices. But is even our first question always appropriate?
Like most people born in the 1950s, I grew up with a clear and simple model that seemed to make sense: men and women looked different and had different parts to play. Over my life, however, I have gradually become more used to a broader and more flexible view of gender and of attraction.
None the less, until recently I had not questioned one basic tenet: that, biologically, all people were either men or women. I thought that genetics and physical anatomy were unambiguous, even if “inward” characteristics were more complex.
Reading some striking stories about people who do not fit our normative view has now led me to realise that even external physical features do not allow a simple division into “men” and “women”.
EDEN ATWOOD is an American jazz singer. She was born and brought up as a girl, but as a teenager something seemed wrong: her periods didn’t start (she is open about this). She is one of a rare group (less than 0.01 per cent of births) who have complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS): women whose XY genes would normally indicate the male sex. God created her female and male, we might say. Similarly, Hanne Gaby Odiele is a Belgian model with AIS. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit different,” she told The Observer in 2017 — she is a woman, but with internal testes and no uterus.
In the Dominican Republic, there are children recognised as girls at birth but who develop and are then recognised as boys at puberty: the “guevedoces”. In one village, about one per cent of males are affected, but the condition is rare elsewhere (technical name 5α-Reductase deficiency). God created these children, too.
Clinical science classifies those without unambiguous male or female physical characteristics as “intersex”, or as having “differences of sex development” (DSD). Some variations are externally visible, others not so. In the past, “corrective” surgery was common, but this is now challenged within the medical profession.
Genesis divides all births into male and female, but Matthew 19.12 says that “some are born as eunuchs,” which could refer to babies classified as males but without fully developed genitalia. I gather that some other religions have long recognised more categories of behaviour and appearance.
Despite this, a rigid male-female division is still widely defended. A book published by the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your Body: Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship, states that a same-sex relationship cannot be a marriage, and that “a biological male cannot be female and vice versa” (News, 1 February). But how does a woman with internal testes fit with that statement?
The recent Open Letter to the House of Bishops on their Guidance for Transgender Welcome (News, 25 January) talks of “physical differentiation between male and female . . . an almost universal biological reality (excepting a very small number who are biologically intersex)”; yet it does not regard intersex as a challenge to the essential binary categories.
Much of our understanding of reality and experience is based on models: generalisations and categories that we use (often unconsciously) to simplify what is around us. It is most confusing when a model seems to apply to almost all cases; we often, then, try to fit the experience to the model, or to ignore or deny the exceptions.
I believe now that the classification of people into male and female is one such example, and a new model is needed.
WITH the knowledge we now have, it is hard to divide people simply into male and female, with all the attached expectations. External physical characteristics have traditionally been used to divide humanity into two groups, but those groups have fuzzy edges. When inward characteristics are added to the mix, the groups overlap much more.
My own understanding has progressed, through people I have met and articles I have read, from a naïve binary view to an acceptance of variable roles and behaviour, and now to a real overturning of even the basic biology, as genetics and anatomy do not always agree. Did God create women with male chromosomes; or men with a woman’s characteristics?
If “man” and “woman” are not always clearly defined, and when other aspects of gender are also so complex, I do not see how we, as Christians, can be completely rigid in applying biblical statements on gender roles and expectations. If someone does not fit our old understanding, how can we insist on all the traditional consequences of that?
Consequently, I do not see how we can wholly define their relationships using tradition alone. Our response must always be to what God has lovingly created, and not be limited by the simplistic models that we have adopted in the past.
Dr John Appleby is a lay representative of Newcastle diocese in the General Synod, and a member of the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council.
Sara Gillingham tells her intersex story