gender identity

Perhaps you, like me, have struggled to wrap your mind around the explosion (or so it seems) of people with gender identity questions.

As we continue working through some basic terminology (last week we discussed sexual identity), my prayer is that understanding these terms not only grows our knowledge, but our love as well. In a previous post about language as a whole, I talked about how using appropriate terminology can show that you value people. Likewise, when we don’t exert the effort to understand, we  communicate a lack of value.

Though I have to confess that after posting the last blog post about sexual identity, I received the feedback that I often use the terms “same sex attracted” and “same gender attracted” interchangeably. A friend asked, “Do you see the terms as the same? Or as conveying the same thing?” She pointed out, accurately, that although many people use the terms interchangeably, within the LGBT+ community, they are used with different meanings  that are especially pertinent in this discussion.

Sex is used to refer to anatomy—specifically male or female anatomy. Gender can refer to anatomy, but often in this discussion it refers to a state of mind regarding one’s anatomy and how society views that. That difference certainly muddies the waters and causes some thought!

I remember remarking to a friend a couple years ago that I had a hard time distinguishing the different issues involved in sexual identity and gender identity. She replied, “Really? They are so different!” And though now it is pretty clear in my mind, I still vividly remember struggling through definitions and descriptions that confused me.

So I hope in this post to begin to define some terms and help us start on a path of understanding the concept of gender identity and the term “transgender.” (We will save the idea of gender dysphoria for next week.) And I hope to help those who are reading to develop even greater compassion for those wrestling with these feelings.

Mark Yarhouse, in his book Understanding Gender Dysphoria, does a great job of breaking down terms and making the topic approachable. I will quote liberally from him and would encourage anyone wanting more than this basic primer to read his work.

I am a fairly simple thinker. So it helps me to have terms defined simply. So I will attempt that here as well!

Gender: The psychological, social, and cultural aspects of being male or female.

Gender Identity: How you experience yourself (or think of yourself) as male or female, including how masculine or feminine a person feels.

Transgender: An umbrella term for the many ways that people might experience and/or present and express their gender identities differently from people whose gender identity is congruent with their birth gender.

Let’s pause a minute and think through the difference between sexual identity and gender identity. Sexual identity is how a person defines themselves according to their sexual attractions. A person may determine their sexual orientation by evaluating their sexual attractions for strength, durability, and persistence. For example, a person may realize in their early teens that they have an attraction to the same sex. But they may not attach any identity to it for years as they walk through questions like, “Will this last?”, “Am I only attracted to my same sex?” and “How much does this impact me daily?”.

You can read a longer description here.

But gender identity is a completely different topic. How I experience myself as male or female depends a lot on what I am told by my family, what I learn around me in broader contexts, and stereotypes that I inhale everywhere.

Think for a moment about how you would define femininity or masculinity. Can you come up with a definition that you would say comes primarily from Scripture? Hard, isn’t it? Society has ingrained ideas about gender that are hard to disentangle.

I grew up in a very gender nonconforming household. My stepdad was totally blind and my mom worked full time all of my life. My stepdad cooked, dusted, and saw us off to school. My mom worked hard and experienced a lot of stress providing for our family. Becoming a believer muddied my waters as I tried to sort through what it meant for me to be feminine. Having kids challenged me to allow freedom and generous space for my son and daughter to not be pressed into society's mold, while also recognizing that there seemed to truly be inborn differences between my son and my daughter related to their maleness and femaleness. But overall, my sense of my gender aligns well with my birth sex—female. In this discussion, the term to describe my gender identity is “cisgender.” The gender that I experience myself as (in my mind) is the same as my birth sex (female). My mind and my body align.

But what about when a person is born with certain anatomy but their mind sees themselves differently? How do we walk alongside someone wrestling with their gender? It’s hard when often we can’t neatly see or explain our own ideas in this area.

So, stop for a second and explain to yourself the difference between sex and gender. Is your mind  wrapping around these two terms and ideas? Often, as I’ve tried to tease these ideas out with other believers there is an oversimplification by saying, “God created two sexes—end of story.” And while I’ve said over and over that I prefer to explain things simply, this is a really hard topic to draw a hard line in without nuance. As the Church, largely because we’ve been ignorant in this area, we have shamed and rejected people in our midst who experience great incongruence between their birth sex and their felt sense of gender. We have neglected doing the hard work of listening, listening, and listening, and the hard work of searching the Scriptures to see what God has to say about masculinity and femininity versus what is a product of our American culture.

If I believe that language really matters and that the correct use of language and terminology conveys love and care, then I’m going to spend the time to learn, read, and listen. I’m going to challenge myself with the difficult questions such as: Why did God create two sexes? How does the existence of two sexes reflect His image in a way that one sex could not? What are the differences in cultural expressions of masculinity versus what God calls masculinity? (Same question for femininity.) How do I feel about calling someone by the name they have asked me to—even when that name does not line up with their birth sex?

Hard stuff, but worth wrestling through. It makes your head hurt for sure!

Next week, we will continue this discussion with the term gender dysphoria. This will help us discuss some pastoral responses to people for the purpose of loving well.

Susan Titus