The biblical verse “Male and female he created them” is usually taken to mean that humans are created either male of female, and so to justify all that is contained and implied by the binary understanding of sex and gender. However, the simple binary division of biological sex is shown by the modern understanding of intersex conditions to be simplistic. (See for example) Susannah Cornwall’s presentation for this conference).
In another workshop, Rev Sharon Ferguson showed that the standard interpretation of the words may be not the only one. The binary division is even less universally applicable to gender, than it is to biological sex.
Opening the workshop, which took the form of a genuine interactive workshop rather than a formal presentation, Rev Ferguson put the questions “Are sex and gender equivalent terms?” and “How are they different?” After obtaining agreement from participants that they are not equivalent, that “sex” refers to biological factors and “gender” to how we present ourselves, in dress and in behaviour, we went on to a participatory exercise. We were divided into two groups, and each asked to write down the attributes that people usually associated with females, or with males (one set for each group).
These were the attributes identified by each group (listed in no particular order):
Sugar / spice / all thing nice; soft; sensitive; gossipy; shopping for shoes; nurturing; unstable; irrational; hormonal; can’t fix things; non-map readers; weak; decorative; multitasking; detail people; domesticated; crafts; cooks/chefs.
Treasurer; charmer; assertive; protector; handsome; sexual predator; provider; cars; one of the boys; sport; butch; camp; science + maths + woodwork; red-blooded; action man; logical; boisterous; arrogant; strong; boy racer; logical; assertive
We were then asked to list, privately, the attributes that we would apply to ourselves – and to check them against the lists usually ascribed to males, and to females. Before reading further, why not try it for yourself: What gender are you?
The results were revealing: none of the participants had checked more than a handful of the attributes listed as “typical” of males or females, and none (as far as I could tell) had checked only the attributes of either gender. Some, on the contrary, had marked fewer traits supposedly associated with their biological sex than with their opposite sex. From this, we could conclude that all the participants were to some extent both masculine and feminine, and that the traits of “masculinity” and “femininity” are independent of biological sex.
To drive the point home, Ferguson drew for us a simple bell curve, showing conceptually that according to research, only a small minority of people exhibit gender traits that match exactly their biological sex. The diagram below is adapted by myself from the sketch on the board, with colour and text added for (what I hope is) greater clarity:
Only a small proportion of (biological) females present their gender as exclusively “feminine”: most share some characteristics that are usually thought of as “masculine”. Similarly, only a small proportion of (biological) males present their gender as exclusively masculine: most share some characteristics that are usually thought of as “feminine”
Implications for the Church: language and worship
Having prepared the ground with the empirical evidence for the difference between sex and gender, we continued with some stimulating discussion about the importance of taking care with pronouns and language, in pastoral contexts, in worship, and in our language about God. For example, Ferguson noted that in a personal context, s/he was entirely happy to identify as “female” in the context of strictly biological sex, but as “genderqueer” otherwise. The suggestion was that as some people may take great offence if described or referred to by an inappropriate pronoun, if there is any doubt at all, it’s best to ask the person you are dealing with, about their preferred gender pronoun. Where this is not possible, it may be advisable to use the gender – neutral pronouns “they / their”. (These are usually used as plural forms, but can sometimes apply to singular cases).
Moving on, there was discussion about the gender language applied to God. Common usage generally adopts masculine pronouns, but this can too easily leave women, intersex and genderqueer people feeling excluded. To a remark from the floor that Jesus referred to “Abba”, “Father”, there was a reminder that this is not an exact translation from the Hebrew Similarly, there are unfortunately male – biased connotations to many other words commonly used, such as “Lord”. Even some standard phrases widely used in worship (and elsewhere) in an attempt to be inclusive, simply reinforce the gender binary.
Terms like “brothers and sisters”, “ladies and gentlemen”, “boys and girls” mean nothing to those who do not see themselves as either brother or sister, masculine or feminine, male or female, boy or girl.
Related articles, from Embodied Ministry Conference:
- Embodied Ministry Conference: Speakers and Abstracts
- Conference Proceedings and Outcomes
- Conference Booklet
- Worship Resources
- “We Are Vulnerable” – but “the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near” (Homily for Communion service)
- Intersex and Formation ( presentation by Dr Susannah Cornwall)
- Picture Gallery
Related articles, elsewhere:
- Gender, Sex and Intersex: A Primer (queeringthechurch.com)
- “T and Conversation”: Beyond Binary Pronouns (queeringthechurch.com)
- Gender and Sexual Diversity (dissidentvoice.org)
- 57 genders (and none for me)? Reflections on the new facebook gender categories (rewritingtherules.wordpress.com)
- What is your true gender mix? (Quizdoo,dom)